NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 6, 2008

International Catholic resistance to government-mandated schooling in the 19th century has resulted in higher student performance today -- for Catholic and non-Catholics alike, according to Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute for Economic Research (CESifo).

The Catholic hierarchy has historically encouraged the development of parochial schools to ensure the moral and religious training of Catholic children, and countries with larger shares of Catholics in 1900 (but without a Catholic state religion) tend to have larger shares of privately operated schools today.  CESifo used this pattern to estimate the causal effect of contemporary private competition on student achievement.

According to researchers:

  • The larger historical Catholic shares that translate into a 10 percentage point larger private school today increase average student achievement on math tests by at least 9 percent.
  • Science and reading achievement increased by at least 5 percent; this is despite the fact that contemporary Catholic shares are negatively related to student achievement.
  • Larger Catholic population shares reduce educational expenditure per student by about 5 percent of the average Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) spending; by decreasing inputs at the same time as increasing outputs, private competition appears to provide a significant boost to the productivity of the school system.

Moreover, the results reveal that historical "coincidences" -- namely that Catholic resistance to state education in the 19th century induced larger shares of privately operated schools even today, when such resistance no longer exists in most countries -- can have quite unexpected and very long-term consequences.

Even though Catholics have historically placed less emphasis on education, their opposition to state education in many contexts engendered private school competition that ultimately spurred student achievement, says CESifo.

Source: Martin R. West and Ludger Woessmann, "'Every Catholic Child in a Catholic School': Historical Resistance to State Schooling, Contemporary Private Competition, and Student Achievement Across Countries," Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute for Economic Research, Working Paper, No. 2332, June 2008.

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