Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?

Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag A. Pathak, Christopher R. Walters

NBER Working Paper No. 21839
Issued in December 2015, Revised in December 2016
NBER Program(s):Economics of Education, Labor Studies, Public Economics

A central argument for school choice is that families value the freedom to exercise choice and can make wise decisions. This principle may underlie why lottery-based school evaluations, which exploit over-subscription due to excess demand, have almost always reported positive or zero achievement effects. This paper reports on a striking empirical counterexample to these results. We evaluate the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), a school voucher plan providing public funds for disadvantaged students to attend private schools of their choice. We exploit random assignment of LSP vouchers at oversubscribed private schools to estimate the program’s effects on test scores. LSP participation substantially reduces academic achievement: attendance at an LSP-eligible private school lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and increases the likelihood of a failing math score by 50 percent. Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large. Participating private schools charge below-average tuition, and the program’s negative math effects are concentrated among participating schools with lower tuition. Negative voucher effects may be due in part to selection of low-quality private schools into the program.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21839

Published: Atila Abdulkadiroğlu & Parag A. Pathak & Christopher R. Walters, 2018. "Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, vol 10(1), pages 175-206.

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