NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 18, 2008

Proponents of vouchers and other measures that expand access to private schooling often claim that competition from privately operated schools will spur student achievement in public schools.  Critics, however, note that the educational benefits of competition are unproven and that student achievement in the public sector could decline as students become segregated along lines of ability, ethnicity or class.  Researchers Martin West, executive editor of Education Next, and Ludger Woessmann, head of the Department of Human Capital and Innovation of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, attempt to solve this conundrum by examining competition in education across various countries. 

To conduct their analysis, West and Woessman analyzed Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data sets containing pupil-level test scores for 220,000 students in 29 OECD countries.  They were also able to obtain student background characteristics and administrator reports on the characteristics of each student's school, including school resources and whether the school was public or private.

The findings speak quite clearly:

  • Competition from private schools improves student achievement, and appears to do so for public school as well as private school students.
  • It produces these benefits while decreasing the total resources devoted to education, as measured by cumulative educational spending per pupil.
  • Under competitive pressures from private schools, the productivity of the school system measured as the ratio between output and input increases by even more than is suggested by looking at educational outcomes alone.
  • Ironically, although Catholics historically placed less emphasis on education than did adherents of many other religions, their resistance to state-run schooling in many countries helped create institutional configurations that continue to spur student achievement.
  • Moreover, changes in historical shares of Catholics in the population that are associated with a 10 percentage point increase in the private school share today lead to a $3,209 reduction in cumulative spending per student, or 5.6 percent of the average OECD spending level of $56,947.

Source: Martin R. West and Ludger Woessmann, "School Choice International," Education Next (Hoover Institution), Winter 2009.


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