Josh Cowen of Michigan State University is among the most experienced voucher researchers in the nation. He is a member of the inner circle of voucher researchers and has been for nearly two decades. He began the work believing that vouchers were promising. As the research accumulated over the years and converged, he realized that vouchers harm the students they are meant to help. I have invited Josh to contribute to this blog whenever he wishes.

He writes here about the claim that the offer of vouchers causes public schools to do better, known as “competitive effects.” Nonsense, he writes.

Over the last few months, as I’ve written here in this blog and elsewhere about how recent data and research show incredibly harmful school voucher impacts for kids, one question that some readers have asked me to address has been the issue of so-called “competitive effects” of vouchers and school choice.

The idea comes from economics, and basically holds that competition between two or more providers of a good or service lowers costs and ultimately provides greater value to consumers. In the economics of education world, the idea that school choice policy forces competition onto public schools to improve the “product” of education is summarized as “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Before I give you the details, here’s the take-home point: academic research does show that the threat of school choice pressures do prompt upticks in public school test score achievements. That’s particularly true for schools that stand to lose financially from voucher enrollment.

Those tend to be the vulnerable schools with respect to both longstanding historical marginalization, and economic health.

So here’s what you should ask yourself: is that really the way we want to spend public dollars to improve academic outcomes?

Here’s what I mean.

Participant vs. Competitive Effects

First, some definitions. If you’re not in the weeds of school choice research or advocacy, it’s important to clarify the difference between participant and competitive effects because researchers and advocates point to both.

Participant effects are the impact of school vouchers on kids who use them to attend private school. Competitive effects are the impact of school vouchers on kids who stay behind in public classrooms.

It’s inarguable that school vouchers have devasting participant effects. Over the last decade, as voucher programs have gotten larger, we’ve seen impacts as high as twice the academic damage that the pandemic caused to test scores.

But as I wrote above, it’s also true that research shows modest, positive competitive impacts. That is to say: vouchers appear to genuinely pressure public schools to drive up test scores. But voucher advocates who point to that outcome rarely talk about academic drops for kids who use vouchers themselves. When they do, they use industry-funded positive research from groups like the Heritage Foundation or the Goldwater Institute to mask what independent analysts have found.

And as I’ve written both for this page and elsewhere, kids who leave public schools for vouchers tend to do so only temporarily. Their parents are what you might call “voucher curious.” They try a private school out, tend to have average academic declines that are as large as anything we’ve seen in the history of education policy research, and then go back to public schools. Thankfully their outcomes do improve after returning to public education. Studying those kids in Milwaukee, my co-authors and I called that return to academic progress “life after vouchers.”But because these are some of the most at-risk kids in our classrooms, these disruptions can cause long-term if not permanent damage.

So I never want to dismiss the children who temporarily move to voucher schools. They’re not lost to us and they need our help too. Which means it’s important not to talk about competitive effects on public schools without always remembering the horrible outcomes for kids who do leave for vouchers.

It’s “Settled:” Direct Investment in Public Education Works

But what if, despite all of that collateral damage vouchers cause, you’re still wondering about competitive impacts? Just as few voucher activists will cite harmful participant effects when advertising competition, most competition studies do not include analysis of which policy alternatives might be better.

Here’s the obvious alternative: simply spending more money on public schools in the first place.

When I was in graduate school in the early 00’s, the prevailing truism on public school spending was that additional increases in funding had limited value. This thinking was driven almost entirely by the remarkable influence of one man, the economist Eric Hanushek, who compared it to simply “throwing money” at a problem—a phrased used more recently by Betsy DeVos, among others.

Just like the research on voucher participant effects has been entirely upended by more recent evidence, that old work on school spending has been retired by more technically sophisticated statistical approaches and more finely grained data. When it comes to education, money matters—how much, and how it’s spent.

Northwestern economist and National Academy of Education member Kirabo Jackson, one of today’s leading authorities on the subject of school spending, describes the debate as “essentially settled:” direct investment in public education has had consistently large impacts on outcomes ranging from test scores, to graduation rates, to adult earnings later in life. Just a few months ago here in Michigan where I write, University of Michigan scholars released a study showing school finance improvements through our state’s equalization reforms even reduced local crime rates.

Remember that every time you see a conservative scholar point to competition as a policy lever to impact public schools. There may be some small short-term benefit on test scores, but it’s not a substitute for direct and sustained investments directly in schools, teachers and kids.

Just Because We Can, Doesn’t Mean We Should

So yes, research does tend to show that if states threaten public schools with the loss of revenue by implementing private school vouchers, public school test scores may improve somewhat.

Does that mean public schools are better off with vouchers? No. It simply means that so long as standardized tests are the coin of the realm for accountability and revenue, reasonable school leaders will have no choice but to react accordingly. It’s almost tautological: public schools need funding, and threatening to reduce their funding with vouchers is going to have some response—whether desirable or not. In states that have bans on reproductive rights for example in a post Roe v. Wade world, I’m sure we’re going to see the number of abortions drop drastically.

Does that mean eliminating Roe was good public health?

As a researcher who’s become a strong advocate for public schools by following the data and following simply the right thing to do, I put little stock in conservative arguments centered around competitive school voucher impacts simply because the same outcome—test scores—shows massive academic declines for kids who actually go to voucher schools. To me it’s the same argument as saying something like “sure this vaccine kills sick people to whom we administer it, but it doesn’t harm a perfectly healthy patient.”

That’s not public health. And it’s not public education either.

Finally a simple comment on identity and policy. I identify as a white male who is married to a woman. The vast majority of school voucher research comes from white men like me. Vouchers originated with a while male economist. I decline to accept the idea implied by school competition that there is something moral about setting low-income children and communities of color—as public schools threatened with voucher-induced funding loss often are serving—against each other to improve outcomes.

Research might show it can work, but just because we can does not mean we should.

Let’s just take the other research-supported route and spend more money on public education, period. One way or another, I don’t think a person needs to be a public school advocate to realize that threatening schools is hardly an optimal role for public policy. Not when there’s a more supportive way available simply by investing in schools as if our children’s lives and futures matter.

My thought: it’s possible to think of many policies that would lead to improved competitive effects, but would be horrible policies. As Josh says, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Suppose your school or district threatened to horse whip children who misbehave; that would lead to better behavior, but only by inflicting inhumane punishments. Similarly, you could cut truancy by administering harsh punishments on those who are truant. There are all sorts of ways to induce competitive effects.

In the case of vouchers, it involves encouraging students to leave their public school to attend a voucher school where they will get an inferior schooling and likely return to their underfunded public school.