Corey A. DeAngelis

Over the last year or so, many tales of woe have spread that
seized on a few, preliminary studies that appeared to show negative
effects for students in school choice programs. Just three
days before the release of those studies, newspaper columnist Kay
McSpadden myopically used the  studies to conclude
that ”the evidence is clear, vouchers don’t

But two new studies looking at standardized test scores—as
well as additional studies by me and my colleagues at the
School Choice Demonstration Project —were just released
last month. It turns out the failure of choice was greatly

Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) report indicates that the voucher program had
large negative impacts on student math test scores for the first
two years of the program. Nonetheless, these same students caught
up to their peers in traditional public schools by the end of year
three. In addition, researchers at the School Choice Demonstration
Project found that this program also improved racial integration while
increasing student achievement in traditional public schools
through competitive pressures.

Although the “failure” of
private school choice is continuously echoed by education reporters
across the nation, the scientific evidence largely suggests

The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program (CSP) study revealed a similar, but perhaps more
encouraging trend. Students using the program performed on par in
mathematics and even made gains in English language arts by the
fourth year.

This upward trend is not unusual. The recent review of 19 experimental
voucher studies around the world conducted by researchers at the
University of Arkansas shows that private school choice programs
need a few years to start improving test scores. This is likely
because children need to adjust to their new educational settings
and private institutions must respond to the environmental shift in
the market for schooling.

The positive test score trend can be interpreted in two
different ways. One is that private schools in voucher programs
adjust and improve after a few years of participation. The other
possibility is that incentive structure for private schools shifts
from a focus on character education towards a focus on test scores,
since most states use test scores as their preferred educational
accountability measure.

So what does the scientific evidence have to say?

There have been 17 experiments, including the one in
Louisiana, on the effects of private school choice on student
achievement in the United States. Out of these studies, only two
have shown negative impacts on student test scores, four have found
no effects and eleven have found positive effects overall or for
subgroups of students.

The scientific evidence on essential long-term outcomes is more
hopeful for private school choice programs. University of
Arkansas’s Dr. Patrick J. Wolf led an experiment on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
Program (OSP) which found that winning a random lottery to use a
private school voucher increased students’ likelihood of graduation
by 21 percentage points. The University of Wisconsin —
Madison’s Dr. Joshua Cowen led a quasi-experimental study on the Milwaukee
Parental Choice Program, finding an increase in the likelihood of
graduation by four percent.

Another experiment examined charitable giving and found that
Ohio voucher students are more likely to donate. And the only quasi-experimental study
examining impacts on criminal activity, conducted by me and Patrick
J. Wolf, found that Milwaukee voucher students are around half as
likely to become criminals as adults than their traditional
public school peers.

Although the “failure” of private school choice is continuously
echoed by education reporters across the nation, the scientific
evidence largely suggests otherwise.

Corey A.
is a Policy Analyst at the Center for Educational
Freedom at the Cato Institute and a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow
in Education Policy at the Department of Education Reform at the
University of Arkansas.

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