School Choice vs. School Choice

Policy Backgrounders | Education

No. 155
Friday, April 27, 2001
by John C. Goodman and Matt Moore


Choice Outside the Housing Market: Effects on Student Performance

Table I - The Effects of School Choice on Student Achievement

Evidence from around the country supports the contention that allowing parents to choose a child's school improves the child's test scores. This appears especially true for African-American children.

"Allowing parents to choose a child's school improves the child's test scores."

One difficulty in evaluating student achievement in school choice programs has been deciding how best to measure the results. Researchers have long recognized that comparing choice students with students who remain in public schools imposes "selection bias." Parents who enroll their children in private schools are not a random sample of public school parents, and their children are unlikely to be a random sample of all students. For example, choice parents may be more motivated and more involved with their children's education. They may choose an alternative school because they perceive that their children's talents are not being exploited. Or they may be concerned that their children are falling behind in a traditional public school.

A research design that solves the selection bias problem is a lottery.26 Among the students who apply and who qualify for a choice program, actual acceptance is determined by chance. Researchers can then compare the future progress of the acceptees (who enroll in choice schools) with the rejectees (who remain in public schools), assuming other factors are the same.

The Parental Choice Program in Milwaukee, for example, distributes school vouchers to qualifying students by lottery. A study conducted by Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance found that students who stayed in the program for three or four years registered reading scores 3 to 5 percentile points higher than the public school control group, and math scores 5 to 11 percentile points higher.27 [See Table I.] According to professor Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University, if this trend continued over 12 years of schooling, it would eliminate a large part of the gap in reading performance and the entire gap in math performance between white and minority students.28

Cecilia Rouse, Princeton economist and member of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Clinton administration, also studied the Milwaukee Choice program. She found that scholarship recipients experienced a 1.5 to 2.3 percentile point gain over their peers in math for each year spent in a private school, but she found no substantive increase in reading scores.29 Although Rouse's study found smaller benefits than those found by the Harvard group, she concluded that the program has a generally positive effect on student achievement.

"If student test scores in Milwaukee improve at the same rate over 12 years of schooling, it would eliminate a large part of the gap between white and minority student performance in reading and the entire gap in math."

The most critical study of the Milwaukee experiment was conducted by John Witte, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Witte compared the academic performance of choice students to a sample of Milwaukee public school students and concluded that there was no substantial difference between the two groups, especially those from low-income families. Other researchers have criticized Witte's approach because he did not take advantage of the random assignment created by Milwaukee's lottery. However, even Witte is mildly favorable toward school vouchers. He says, "Choice can be a useful tool to aid families and educators in inner-city and poor communities where education has been a struggle for several generations."30

The privately funded voucher programs in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Dayton, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; and San Antonio, Texas, allow a closer examination of the effects of school choice programs on test scores. Vouchers are distributed in these programs by lottery also, but the privately funded programs also have collected demographics for all the applicants, allowing for a more complete analysis.

Figure II - Impact of Switching to a Private School on Test Score Performance In New York

"Research by Paul Peterson shows that choice improves student performance, especially for African-America children."

Harvard's Paul Peterson examined the choice programs in New York, Washington and Dayton. In the first year, African-Americans who switched from a public to a private school experienced an overall test score gain of 3.3 percentile points and at the end of two years had gained 6.3 percentile points over the control group.31 However, after two years, students from other ethnic backgrounds seem to learn as much but no more in private schools than the control group.32 [See Figure II.]

A study of New York's program by Jay Greene found that choice students in the second grade through the fifth grade excelled over their public school peers by 2 percentile points in both math and reading.33 In addition, students in fourth grade through fifth grade gained 4 points in reading and 6 points in math in just one year in the program.34

In another Harvard study, Patrick Wolf, William Howell and Paul Peterson compared scholarship winners and losers. Under the Washington Scholarship Fund in Washington, D.C., they found African-Americans who received scholarships in the second to fifth grades outperformed the control group by 3 percentile points in reading and 7 percentile points in math. Those who attended private schools in grades 6 through 8, however, outscored their peers by only 2 percentile points in math and actually trailed by 8 points in reading.35 No significant differences were observed for other racial groups.

A second study of the Washington Scholarship Fund was conducted by Jay Greene. He found that African-American students in grades 2 through 5 gained 6.8 percentile points in reading; however, students in grades 6 through 8 lost 8.2 points in math.36 In Dayton, Greene found that African-American students gained 6.8 percentile points in math, but their gain in reading fell short of statistical significance, probably because of the modest sample size.37

Evidence from Greene's examination of the Children's Scholarship Fund Program, a privately funded scholarship program targeted toward low-income families in Charlotte, N.C., also showed that providing families with scholarships has significant benefits. Scholarship recipients' scores on standardized math tests improved by 5.9 to 6.2 percentile points, depending on the type of analysis performed.38 Scholarship recipients' improvement on standardized reading tests was 5.4 to 7.7 points.39

Cleveland's publicly funded school choice program - which started as a lottery but expanded in an effort to offer all low-income families a scholarship - has also been studied in depth. Jay Greene, William Howell and Paul Peterson found that after two years in a private school, students registered an 8 percentage point gain in reading and a 16 percentile point benefit in math.40

In another study of the Cleveland program, Dr. Kim Metcalf of Indiana University's Indiana Center for Evaluation found that after one year, student test scores showed no difference. After two years, choice students' test scores increased 6 percentile points in language and 4 percentile points in science over their public school counterparts, although there was no change in math, English or social studies.41

International Evidence. Additional evidence of the success of school choice programs is provided in a study conducted by Joshua Angrist et al. of the Plan de Ampliación de Cobertura de la Educación Secundária (PACES), a Colombian school choice program that ran from 1992 to 1997. Scholarships were awarded by lottery, and by 1997 more than 125,000 vouchers had been awarded.

"A study in Colombia found that school choice there had much the same favorable effects."

The length of the study enabled researchers to examine the longitudinal effects of school choice on participants. The authors found that scholarship winners experienced "higher educational attainment, lower grade repetition, a higher probability of taking college entrance exams, higher test scores and a lower probability of teen marriage or employment" than applicants who were turned away.42 In addition, college matriculation exam and achievement test results suggest that PACES vouchers had long-term benefits for recipients.


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