DeAngelis & Burke: What If Vouchers Came With More Freedom for Public School Leaders? Our Research Shows They Still Wouldn’t Go Along
In 2005, NBC launched a television show called Deal or No Deal, where contestants had the opportunity to win a substantial amount of money, up to $1 million. The premise of the show involved choosing one briefcase out of 22, each containing different values ranging from 1 cent to $1 million. Throughout the game, the contestant would discover the monetary amount of the other briefcases, providing them with more information about their own potential winnings.
During the game, a banker would intervene, offering to buy the contestant’s briefcase for a certain sum of money. If the contestant refused the offer, in hopes of having a higher amount in their chosen briefcase, the host Howie Mandel would enthusiastically declare "No Deal!"
Similarly, public school employees often oppose private school voucher programs, demonstrating their reluctance to take risks, concerns about equity, and their desire to limit competition. Whatever the reasons behind this opposition, public school employees perceive the expected costs of school vouchers to outweigh the expected benefits.
However, is it possible that private school choice programs would have a greater chance of success if they were implemented alongside additional benefits for public school leaders? Could both advocates and opponents of school choice be able to negotiate such a deal?
Our recently conducted study suggests that such a deal would be unlikely.
In theory, granting public school leaders more autonomy, in conjunction with the implementation of private school choice programs, could potentially make them more inclined to support the change. Deregulating public schools would enable them to effectively compete with nearby private schools. As the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District recently stated, "If charter schools excel due to their flexibility, let’s incorporate that flexibility into traditional school classrooms."
To examine the effects of public school deregulation on public school leaders’ support for private school voucher programs in California, we conducted a survey experiment. We randomly assigned four types of deregulation to leaders from 7,127 traditional public schools in California in early 2019. We then asked them if they would support a hypothetical voucher program in the state.
The survey posed the question, "Would you support a new private school voucher program in California (available to all students in the state) next year?" The control group received a note stating that state requirements for their public schools would remain unchanged. The experimental groups received notes indicating that their schools would no longer need to adhere to one of the following regulations: administering standardized tests, reporting test results, hiring certified teachers, and providing transportation for all students.
We received responses from 755 public school leaders in California. Our findings, consistent with a 2018 EducationNext poll, revealed that public school leaders were mostly unsupportive of the hypothetical private school voucher program. In fact, 59 percent of respondents in the control group stated that they would "definitely not support" the program. Twenty-two percent believed there was "very little chance" they would support it, and less than 2 percent expressed that they would "definitely support" the program.
Figure 1: Distribution of Public School Leaders’ Support for Private School Vouchers in California
Source: Corey A. DeAngelis & Lindsey M. Burke
Overall, we did not find any statistically significant effects of deregulation on public school leaders’ support for the hypothetical voucher program. This finding suggests that either the perceived costs of increased competition from private school vouchers outweigh the perceived benefits of added autonomy for public school leaders in California, or the "benefit" of additional autonomy comes with additional costs, such as adapting to a new regulatory environment and handling additional responsibilities.
Surprisingly, however, we did find that the impact of deregulation on public school leaders’ support for the hypothetical program varied depending on school size.
Specifically, we discovered that eliminating the requirement for large public schools to administer state standardized tests increased the likelihood of public school leaders being "definitely not supportive" of the voucher program by approximately 21 percentage points (36 percent). Similarly, not mandating large public schools to hire state-certified teachers increased the likelihood of public school leaders being "definitely not supportive" of the voucher program by around 17 percentage points (29 percent).
These significant results can be explained by the fact that larger public schools may face greater costs when transitioning to new competitive environments compared to smaller schools. Additionally, larger schools may benefit disproportionately from the existing regulatory environment if it stifles competition.
Further research on the subject is necessary. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that deregulating public schools in California will not lead to an increased support for private school vouchers among their leaders, although there may be some potential in such a policy. In fact, certain forms of deregulation might be seen by some public school leaders as additional expenses rather than benefits. However, these results do not imply that school choice advocates and critics cannot come to agreements. Both groups should strive to find ways to collaborate and improve education for all children, regardless of the type of school they attend.
In the popular television show Deal or No Deal, contestants who refused the offer from the banker often found themselves in a worse situation than if they had accepted the deal. Policymakers should consider the possibility that they are placing school districts in a disadvantaged position by limiting choice and maintaining strict regulations. However, public school leaders are currently standing firm in rejecting these measures.
Corey A. DeAngelis holds the position of school choice director at the Reason Foundation and is also an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Lindsey M. Burke serves as the director of the Center for Education Policy and is a Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
Related: Sign up for Newsletter to have stories like these delivered directly to your inbox.