Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?

44 Pages Posted: 4 Jan 2016

See all articles by Atila Abdulkadiroglu

Atila Abdulkadiroglu

Duke University - Department of Economics

Parag A. Pathak

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics

Christopher Walters

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Economics

Date Written: December 2015

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

Abdulkadiroglu, Atila and Pathak, Parag A. and Walters, Christopher, Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement? (December 2015). NBER Working Paper No. w21839. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2710511

Atila Abdulkadiroglu (Contact Author)

Duke University - Department of Economics ( email )

213 Social Sciences Building
Box 90097
Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States

Parag A. Pathak

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics ( email )

50 Memorial Drive
E52-391
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States

Christopher Walters

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Economics ( email )

549 Evans Hall #3880
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
United States

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