NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What Research Says About School Choice

February 27, 2012

Last year there was an unprecedented wave of new school choice programs launched across the country.  Following 20 years of heated debate, new programs reflect a growing sophistication regarding the design and implementation of school choice policies.  In a report for Education Week, scholars and analysts who support school choice examine the track record so far of these programs.  They find it is promising and provides support for continuing expansion of school choice policies.

  • Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both.
  • Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time.
  • Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact.
  • Some high-quality studies show that charters have positive effects on academic outcomes; in other contexts, the findings are more mixed.
  • In general, charters seem most likely to have positive effects on student achievement at the elementary level, in math, if the school is part of a well-established charter network, if the student has been enrolled for a while, if the student is disadvantaged, and if the school is in an urban area.

In addition to effects on participating students, another major topic of research has been the impact of school choice on academic outcomes in the public school system.

  • Among voucher programs, studies consistently find that vouchers are associated with improved test scores in the affected public schools.
  • The size of the effect in these studies varies from modest to large.
  • No study has found a negative impact.
  • Fewer studies have examined the competitive effects of charter schools on achievement in traditional public schools, and the studies that do exist vary greatly in quality.

A third area of study has been the fiscal impact of school choice.  Even under conservative assumptions about such questions as state and local budget sensitivity to enrollment changes, the net impact of school choice on public finances is usually positive and has never been found to be negative.

Frederick M. Hess et al., "What Research Says About School Choice," Education Week, February 21, 2012.

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