A modest school voucher led to outsize results

We now have more evidence that school vouchers may have a big impact on students who struggle the most. A study released jointly yesterday by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance showed that black students who won a school-voucher lottery in New York a generation ago were more likely to attend college than students who didn’t win.

We now have more evidence that school vouchers may have a big impact on students who struggle the most.

The results come from the first random-assignment experiment of voucher effects on college attendance, which should thaw the icy reception that greets many school choice studies (the randomized trial is the gold standard of research). Fifteen years ago, Harvard’s Paul Peterson began tracking the performance of two groups of elementary-school age children—one group that participated in a privately funded voucher program in New York, and one group that wanted to participate but didn’t win the lottery for admission.

Now that enough time has passed, Peterson and Brookings colleague Matthew Chingos have been able to see how college attendance differed between the groups. They found that a modestly funded program—the vouchers were worth $1,400 annually—led to outsized results for black students.

The black students who won the lottery and used the voucher were 24 percent more likely to attend college than students who didn’t win the lottery. Moreover, the percentage of black students who attended a selective college more than doubled for students who received a voucher.

Peterson and Chingos didn’t see the same results for Hispanic students (too few white and Asian students participated) but the positive effects for poor black students are remarkable given that the intervention cost about $4,200 per pupil over a three-year period. The researchers compared their study with a class-size reduction effort in Tennessee that had a similar impact on college attendance but cost about $12,000 per pupil.

Could other interventions have helped these students between the fifth grade and college? Of course. But most of the students who received a voucher shared one thing that’s been known in previous studies to make a difference particularly for impoverished and poor-performing black children: They attended a Catholic school.

In fact, the voucher program got its start after the Archbishop of New York challenged then-New York schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to “send the city’s most troubled public school students to Catholic schools.” Political resistance sunk any hope that such an effort would be publicly funded, so a group of private philanthropists took up the challenge instead. When the voucher became available, 20,000 students competed for about 1,300 spots in the program.

Peterson, for one, speculates that the program may have had a bigger effect on black students than on Hispanics because black students came into the program particularly at risk of not going to college. While Hispanic families that participated in the program may have chosen a Catholic school for religious reasons, black families, who were largely Protestant, chose Catholic schools because they thought they’d get a better education.

The sad news today is that there are fewer Catholic schools. Even though more states have passed laws permitting vouchers and tax credit scholarships, the politics of private school choice has kept their expansion—and their impact—relatively modest. In the end, that means that Catholic school tuition remains out of reach for most disadvantaged families.

The results of this study may not be enough to sway political opinion far, but it may be enough to show that a modest program can have a big impact.

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