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Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?

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

Abstract

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.

Suggested Citation

  • Atila Abdulkadiroglu & Parag A. Pathak & Christopher R. Walters, 2015. "Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?," NBER Working Papers 21839, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:21839
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    Cited by:

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    3. Sean P. Corcoran & Jennifer L. Jennings & Sarah R. Cohodes & Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, 2018. "Leveling the Playing Field for High School Choice: Results from a Field Experiment of Informational Interventions," NBER Working Papers 24471, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Corey A. DeAngelis & Patrick J. Wolf, 2019. "Will Democracy Endure Private School Choice? The Effect of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on Adult Voting Behavior," Journal of Private Enterprise, The Association of Private Enterprise Education, vol. 34(Summer 20), pages 1-21.
    5. Anell, Anders & Dietrichson, Jens & Ellegård, Lina Maria & Kjellsson, Gustav, 2021. "Information, switching costs, and consumer choice: Evidence from two randomised field experiments in Swedish primary health care," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 196(C).
    6. Mika Kortelainen & Kalle Manninen, 2019. "Effectiveness of Private and Public High Schools: Evidence from Finland," CESifo Economic Studies, CESifo, vol. 65(4), pages 424-445.
    7. Xiaokuai Shao, 2021. "Matching under school and home bundling," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 28(3), pages 567-611, June.
    8. Machin, Stephen & McNally, Sandra & Terrier, Camille & Ventura, Guglielmo, 2020. "Closing the Gap between Vocational and General Education? Evidence from University Technical Colleges in England," IZA Discussion Papers 13837, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    9. Andrew Bibler & Stephen B. Billings, 2020. "Win or Lose: Residential Sorting After a School Choice Lottery," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 102(3), pages 457-472, July.
    10. Karin Edmark & Lovisa Persson, 2020. "The Impact of Attending an Independent Upper Secondary School: Evidence from Sweden Using School Ranking Data," CESifo Working Paper Series 8680, CESifo.
    11. W. Bentley MacLeod & Miguel Urquiola, 2018. "Is Education Consumption or Investment? Implications for the Effect of School Competition," NBER Working Papers 25117, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. Lazzarini,Sergio G., 2022. "The Right Privatization," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9781316519714, October.
    13. Maurício Benegas & Márcio Veras Corrêa, 2020. "Educational supply policies: distortions and labor market performance," Journal of Economics, Springer, vol. 129(3), pages 203-239, April.
    14. Krafft, Caroline & Elbadawy, Asmaa & Sieverding, Maia, 2019. "Constrained school choice in Egypt," International Journal of Educational Development, Elsevier, vol. 71(C).
    15. Edmark, Karin & Hussain, Iftikhar & Haelermans, Carla, 2020. "The Impact of Voucher Schools: Evidence From Swedish Upper Secondary Schools," Working Paper Series 3/2020, Stockholm University, Swedish Institute for Social Research.
    16. Ebrahim Azimi & Jane Friesen & Simon Woodcock, 2022. "Private schools and student achievement," Discussion Papers dp22-03, Department of Economics, Simon Fraser University.
    17. Kenichi Nagasawa, 2018. "Treatment Effect Estimation with Noisy Conditioning Variables," Papers 1811.00667, arXiv.org, revised Sep 2022.
    18. Robert Ainsworth & Rajeev Dehejia & Cristian Pop-Eleches & Miguel Urquiola, 2020. "Information, Preferences, and Household Demand for School Value Added," NBER Working Papers 28267, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    19. Fabre, Anaïs & Straub, Stéphane, 2019. "The Impact of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in Infrastructure, Health and Education: A Review," TSE Working Papers 19-986, Toulouse School of Economics (TSE), revised Sep 2021.
    20. Edmark, Karin & Persson, Lovisa, 2021. "The impact of attending an independent upper secondary school: Evidence from Sweden using school ranking data," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 84(C).
    21. Alonso Bucarey & Dante Contreras & Pablo Muñoz, 2018. "Labor Market Returns to Student Loans," Working Papers wp464, University of Chile, Department of Economics.
    22. Cáceres-Delpiano, Julio & Giolito, Eugenio, 2018. "Minimum Age Requirements and the Impact of School Choice," IZA Discussion Papers 11420, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    23. Juliana Londoño-Vélez & Catherine Rodríguez & Fabio Sánchez, 2020. "Upstream and Downstream Impacts of College Merit-Based Financial Aid for Low-Income Students: Ser Pilo Paga in Colombia," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 12(2), pages 193-227, May.

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    • I20 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - General

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