School Vouchers and Student Achievement: First-Year Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program

New Findings, School Assignment, School Reform, December 2015

We eval­u­ate the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), a promi­nent school voucher plan. The LSP pro­vides pub­lic funds for dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents at low-performing Louisiana pub­lic schools to attend pri­vate schools of their choice. LSP vouch­ers are allo­cated by ran­dom lot­tery at schools with more eli­gi­ble appli­cants than avail­able seats. We esti­mate causal effects of voucher receipt by com­par­ing out­comes for lot­tery win­ners and losers in the first year after the pro­gram expanded statewide. This com­par­i­son reveals that 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 score by 50 per­cent. Voucher effects for read­ing, sci­ence and social stud­ies are also neg­a­tive and large. The neg­a­tive impacts of vouch­ers are con­sis­tent across income groups, geo­graphic areas, and pri­vate school char­ac­ter­is­tics, and are larger for younger chil­dren. These effects are not explained by the qual­ity of fall­back pub­lic schools for LSP appli­cants: stu­dents lot­teried out of the pro­gram attend pub­lic schools with scores below the Louisiana aver­age. Survey data show that LSP-eligible pri­vate schools expe­ri­ence rapid enroll­ment declines prior to enter­ing the pro­gram, indi­cat­ing that the LSP may attract pri­vate schools strug­gling to main­tain enroll­ment. These results sug­gest cau­tion in the design of voucher sys­tems aimed at expand­ing school choice for dis­ad­van­taged students.