Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The mixed story with school choice and vouchers

Free-marketers hail school choice through vouchers as the most effective strategy to foster competition and improve school standards. However, the evidence on school vouchers has been, at best, mixed. I have blogged earlier, using the logic of Schelling's chessboard experiment, to argue that school choice is likely to lead to 'emergent outcomes' that may be far less benign than expected. 

The Economist draws attention to a study of a very large school voucher program initiated in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina whose findings its describes as "underwhelming". In 2014, the Louisiana School Program (LSP) assigned more than 6000 students from low-income families from 12000 applicants to 126 private schools through a lottery system. The study by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters compared learning outcomes for lottery winners and losers in the first year after the program's statewide expansion and find,
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.
Admittedly the results ought to be read with caution and need to be observed over the coming years. But it cannot be denied that the reality with vouchers is at least far more nuanced. Incidentally, the Economist report also points out that post-Katrina, New Orleans' public schools improved dramatically on the back of enlightened leadership.

That scarce trait is more likely than fancy innovations to improve school education in countries like India. Further, in its absence, even innovations are likely to flounder during implementation. Delegating powers to district and local governments, despite all its concerns, is one way to facilitate the emergence of such bright spots. 

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