Monday, August 27, 2012

School choice debate resurfaces

The school vouchers movement gets a boost from this study (pdf here) of the privately funded New York School Choice Scholarship Program. The Foundation offered scholarship, worth $1400 per year (1998 dollars), to approximately 1000 low income families with children of elementary school age for a period of three years to attend private, religious, or secular schools of their choice in New York.

The study tracked the different outcomes, including college going behavior, of 2666 students over more than a decade. Though it saw no significant effects on college enrollment, it found that using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African Americans by 24 percent. They write,
We find evidence of large, significant impacts on African Americans, and fairly small but statistically insignificant impacts on Hispanic students. A voucher offer is shown to have increased the overall (part-time and full-time) enrollment rate of African Americans by 7.1 percentage points, an increase of 20 percent. If the offered scholarship was actually used to attend private school, the impact on African American college enrollment is estimated to be 8.7 percentage points, a 24 percent increase. The positive impact of a voucher offer on Hispanic students is a statistically insignificant impact of 1.7 percentage points... The impact of an offer of a voucher was to increase full-time college enrollment rate by 6.4 percentage points, a 25 percent increment... If the scholarship was used to attend a private school, the impact was about 8 percentage points, an increment of about 31 percent. No statistically significant impacts were observed for Hispanic students.
Now I have blogged here and here in some detail about the challenges associated with school vouchers. Contrary to its logical (and economic) simplicity and attractiveness, there is limited empirical evidence on the efficacy of vouchers in improving educational outcomes (read learning levels). The results from the pioneer in school vouchers, Chile, has been disappointing. In the US too, the gains have been limited, mostly confined to small gains with African Americans (something affirmed by the present study). These gains could be easily attributed to the widely acknowledged greater discipline and teacher-student interaction in the median private school over the median public school.

I presume that the obvious objectives of school choice would be to improve non-learning related outcomes (increase enrollment and retention rates), improve student learning levels, and also make the public school systems more competitive. Consider the first objective. In fact, the more worse the public school system, the higher would be the gains in all the non-learning outcomes. The New York study does not dwell much on the learning level improvements and prefers to confine itself to improvements in non-learning outcomes like enrollment and college attendance. On learning levels itself, there is very limited evidence that school choice is effective. On the effects of competition, while I am not aware of any empirical studies, I have blogged about the possible forces that would be generated from a school voucher program, which is most likely to climax in further enfeeblement of public school systems.

In any case, it may be inaccurate to evaluate the impact of school vouchers in isolation from the relative differences between private and public schools. In developing countries, most students given a choice are likely to choose private schools. Assuming the average private school in most developing countries to be superior to the public school, atleast in discipline and teacher interaction, certain outcomes are inevitable - attendance and therefore some marginal improvements in learning levels, higher retention and college enrollment. Do we attribute this to school choice or the mere fact that the private school is superior?

However, if the choice is between competing private schools, there may be some merit in a school voucher program, especially in cities. But here too geographical and other considerations may often end up preventing parents from exercising the desired choice, even more so among children from underprivileged backgrounds. Then the issue becomes one of the parent being fortunate enough to have a good private school in the neighborhood and therefore being able to send his/her child to that school.

In other words, the randomized trial to evaluate school vouchers is effectively one that evaluates the relative effectiveness of private and public schools. This is a larger and entirely different issue. And herein lies the heart of the matter. How do we improve public school systems? In particular, are there positive externalities from the presence of private schools, both natural and policy driven, that can be leveraged to improve public schools?

The best that can be said about school voucher program is that when run concurrently with efforts to improve public schools systems, it can have all round beneficial effects. It can become one more instrument to improve the competitiveness of public schools. In its absence though, it will merely promote the agenda of backdoor privatization of school education.

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