David Figlio, A Voice on Vouchers
If 2011 was The Wall Street Journal’s “Year of School Choice,” with 13 states passing some form of school choice-related legislation, 2012 is shaping up to be just as busy. Recent state bills on school vouchers have been signed into law in Louisiana, struck down in Arizona, expanded in Wisconsin, and are being put up for a vote in Illinois. And in the thick of it has been IPR education economist David Figlio, a leading expert on school vouchers and their effects.
Figlio has studied one of the nation’s largest and most expansive school voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. His resulting studies have been cited in school choice and voucher debates from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to Virginia and Washington, D.C.—and even as far afoot as Sweden and Australia.
“It’s been more than 20 years since the first U.S. school voucher program was launched in Milwaukee,” Figlio said. “Yet it has only been in the past few years that we have started to glean solid, quantifiable evidence from more scientifically rigorous studies of voucher programs in other places.”
Figlio got his start when Florida put him in charge of independently evaluating its landmark school voucher program launched in 2002 under then-Governor Jeb Bush. The state began offering vouchers worth nearly 90 percent of tuition and fees for a typical religious elementary school, or two-thirds of a religious high school, to children in families eligible to receive subsidized school lunches (185 percent of the federal poverty threshold, or currently about $41,000 for a family of four). While the program is among the country’s largest, it is still small: Only around 30,000 students (representing 3 percent of eligible students in the state) are able to participate in the program.
Figlio told a Louisiana reporter recently that had he been asked in 2000 about how the data might play out, he would have anticipated seeing resources drained away from public schools. But research results are only now beginning to temper some deep-set fears about the negative effects of school vouchers for low-income students.
He published a study in 2010 with Cassandra Hart and Molly Metzger that documented which students left public schools for private schools under Florida's voucher program. Contrary to many fears, they found that vouchers attracted the lowest-performing students, rather than the highest fliers in a school. Hart was then an IPR graduate research assistant who is now a faculty member at the University of California, Davis, and Metzger is a fellow IPR graduate research assistant who is joining the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis this summer.
In a forthcoming study also joint with Hart, Figlio found that increased access to private schools through the use of vouchers put more competitive pressure on public schools, leading to improvements in public student test scores.
This positive competition has reassured Figlio that there wasn’t any evidence that “public schools were hurting,” he told the reporter.
Yet before rushing to judgment, Figlio noted that the overall results do not mean that vouchers are a “silver bullet” to achieve better education outcomes, particularly for low-income students.
“The public school test score improvements are modest, not revolutionary,” he said. “Much research remains to be done, particularly in looking at voucher effects in much bigger programs.”
His advice to other states that might be looking at voucher programs? “Start small—and measure thoroughly.”
David Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, an IPR fellow, and the Institute's associate director. He also directs the Florida Research Team at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER, a national partnership of researchers and organizations that seeks to "inform education policy development through analyses of data on individual students and teachers over time."
Rouse, C., J. Hannaway, D. Goldhaber, and D. Figlio. Forthcoming. Feeling the Florida heat? How low-performing schools respond to voucher and accountability pressure. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.
Figlio, D., and C. Hart. 2010. Competitive effects of means-tested school vouchers. IPR working paper (WP-10-03) and National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.
Figlio, D., C. Hart, and M. Metzger. 2010. Who uses a means-tested scholarship, and what do they choose? Economics of Education Review 29(2): 301-17.
Figlio, D., and C. Rouse. 2006. Do accountability and voucher threats improve low-performing schools? Journal of Public Economics 90(1-2): 239-55.