Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?

New Findings, School Reform, January 2017

A cen­tral argu­ment for school choice is that par­ents can choose schools wisely. This prin­ci­ple may under­lie why lottery-based school eval­u­a­tions have almost always reported pos­i­tive or zero achieve­ment effects. This paper reports on a strik­ing coun­terex­am­ple to these results. We use ran­dom­ized lot­ter­ies to eval­u­ate the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a voucher plan that pro­vides pub­lic funds for dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents to attend pri­vate schools. LSP par­tic­i­pa­tion low­ers math scores by 0.4 stan­dard devi­a­tions and also reduces achieve­ment in read­ing, sci­ence, and social stud­ies. These effects may be due in part to selec­tion of low-quality pri­vate schools into the program.