Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?
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.
Previously circulated as "School Vouchers and Student Achievement: First-Year Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program." We gratefully acknowledge funding from the National Science Foundation. Data from the Louisiana Department of Education were made available to us through the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, where Abdulkadiroglu and Pathak are members of the scientific advisory board. Thanks also go to Josh Angrist, David Card, Raji Chakrabarti, Melissa Clark, Pat Kline, Jesse Rothstein, and seminar participants at the MIT Labor Economics Lunch, UC Berkeley, the 2016 All California Labor Economics Conference, the Fall 2016 APPAM Conference, UC San Diego, and the Stanford Opportunity Lab for suggestions and comments. Nicole Gandre, Jon Schellenberg and Zhongji Wu provided excellent research assistance. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Parag A. Pathak
Pathak is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice.
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. citation courtesy of