Can the current public education system reform to serve all students, even children it now "leaves behind?"

No

Competition leaves no child behind.

"Anything that siphons money or students from public schools must be opposed because it hurts the students left behind." That may be the most persuasive-sounding argument advanced by school-choice critics.

So far, though, real life is teaching a different lesson.

In fact, communities that have embraced choice options-vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools, etc.-have found that competition doesn't hurt public schools. Indeed, it actually helps them.

Take Florida. Since 1998, its elementary and secondary schools have been graded on the basis of an achievement test known as the FCAT. If a school receives an F for two straight years, the state offers vouchers to enable students at those schools to attend private schools or lets them leave for other public schools. Only two schools in the entire state have received two straight Fs and seen their students offered vouchers.

FCAT scores are used to evaluate school effectiveness in teaching reading, writing and math. And in all three areas, schools that made Fs one year-and thus were in danger of having vouchers offered to their students-showed more improvement the next year than schools that made any other grade. The differences, in fact, were remarkable.

On the reading test, schools that received an A, B or C grade improved from two to five points between 1999 and 2000. But schools that received an F improved nearly 18 points. The math and writing tests showed similar results.

It can be argued that scores for the F schools rose so much because they had the most room for improvement. Researchers investigated this by comparing the lowest-scoring D schools with the highest-scoring F schools. Low-D schools and high-F schools have much in common and likely would face similar challenges to improving, but the F schools face the considerable additional pressure of having their students "lured away" with state-sponsored vouchers.

And the pressure worked. The high-F schools improved by considerably more than the low-D schools on all three parts of the test.

In short, competition-or, more directly, the threat of students taking their vouchers to neighboring private schools-truly can turn around low-performing schools.

In Milwaukee, several officials-from the mayor to the school superintendent-say a voucher program that serves 10,000 students of low- or middle-income families has helped its 100,000-student school system to improve. A top researcher on the economics of education, Caroline Hoxby of Harvard University, recently released a study that backs them up.

At public elementary schools in Milwaukee where many students are eligible for vouchers, performance improved faster than at public schools where relatively few students could get vouchers, Hoxby found. In fact, the more voucher-eligible students schools had, the more they improved. Both groups of Milwaukee schools did better than a control group of schools outside Milwaukee, where no students were eligible for vouchers.

Critics charge that Hoxby's study didn't prove the voucher program caused schools to improve, only that they improved after the voucher program began. They point out that lower-performing schools have more room to improve. Hoxby agreed but asked why had they not begun to improve before the voucher program began.

The threat of competition, she said, tends to help those "who want to do the right thing" at the expense of "those who have other agendas."

The Milwaukee program has benefited from strong community support. Not only have the mayor and school superintendent embraced it, the editors of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and other opinion leaders have come on board as well. As a result, public schools there have warmed to the challenge of retaining their students. The school district runs TV ads, and individual schools have tried everything from open houses to chili dinners to attract students. Officials like to say they operate in a free-market education economy.

Thanks in part to school choice, "we're all feeling the pinch to make sure that people understand what our programs offer and, certainly, that we're competitive," Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Spence Korte told the newspaper.

Success stories abound. Charter schools in Arizona and elsewhere have goaded the public schools around them into offering a better education. In Cleveland, where 4,000 low-income kids attend private schools on vouchers, their former public schools also have shown improvement.

It's time detractors realize that competition is not the enemy. Ask the folks in Florida or Milwaukee. Competition helps.

Thomas Dawson is a former education research fellow at The Heritage Foundation ( www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy institute. He currently works for the U.S. Department of Education. This article was originally distributed by Scripps-Howard News Wire.