School Choice Chickens and Eggs

by Daniel Foster

This week is “National School Choice Week”, and the Foundry rounds up a few recent studies that show (significantly) higher graduation rates and (marginally) higher academic achievement among kids who participate in school choice programs:

School Choice Students Graduate at Higher Rates

For example, students who participate in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP)—a private school voucher program for low-income K-12 students—graduate at significantly higher rates than their peers, according to the results of a “gold standard” (randomized, control group) study. More than 90 percent of DCOSP students graduate high school, compared to just 70 percent of their peers.

Similarly, research reveals that students who participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)—the nation’s longest running school choice program—for all four of their high school years had a 94 percent graduation rate, compared to a 75 percent graduation rate for their peers who attended four years of public high school.

School Choice Means Academic Gains

Research also shows that students who participate in school choice programs do better in school. In a review of all the “gold standard” evaluations of school choice programs in the United States, researchers found that nine of the 10 studies revealed positive, albeit generally modest, academic improvement for school choice students.

The knock you’ll sometimes get from anti-voucher people on this kind of data is that it might just show that the types of families likelier to take advantage of school choice are the types of families likelier to produce high-achieving high school graduates anyway, and that their exit may well be producing some kind of public-school brain drain. They’ll often go on to make the argument that the money spent on vouchers would be better invested trying to make marginal differences in the achievement and graduation rates of exactly those students who don’t enjoy the sort of tuned-in familial support structures likely to take advantage of choice.

There is reason to doubt this account (indeed, the DCOSP study explicitly controls for the possibility that voucher program participants are intrinsically abler than non-participants).  But one thing I think is under-appreciated about results like those above is that they are morally robust against such criticisms. In other words, they are still good news no matter which way the causation runs. If it’s the case that getting kids out of failing public schools via vouchers really does make them likelier to achieve more, that’s fantastic. And if it’s the case that voucher programs merely put those otherwise oriented toward achievement in a better position to do so, that’s a good thing too.

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