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The Charlotte Observer.

Low-income students make academic gains
September 22, 2000

Study of four cities links scholarships to private schools with higher performance on standardized tests.


Special To The Observer

Do students do better academically when their parents are empowered financially to choose their schools, including private schools?

The answer from recently released evaluations of private scholarship programs in four cities (Charlotte, New York, Washington and Dayton) show that school choice significantly increases student achievement, particularly for African-American students.

The evaluations in Charlotte, which I conducted, and the other three cities, conducted by a Harvard University team, took advantage of the fact that these private scholarships were awarded by lottery to the overflowing number of low-income applicants.

This allowed us to have a research design like a medical experiment, comparing the winners of the lottery, who were able to attend a private school with a scholarship, to the lottery losers, who remained in the public schools but were otherwise similar to the scholarship recipients.

We found that in Charlotte, after only one year, students who received a scholarship to attend a private school scored 6 to 7 percentile points higher on standardized tests than did their counterparts who remained in the public schools. The Harvard team found a similar gain in New York, Washington and Dayton after two years.

In all four cities the gains appear to have occurred almost entirely among African-American students, confirming the impression that those students may be particularly poorly served in public schools.

The consistency of the results across all four cities is impressive, as is the size of the gain. A 6 to 7 percentile point gain represents more than one-quarter of the gap nationwide between African-American and white students on standardized tests. Being able to close that persistent test score gap by more than one-quarter in one or two years is an important accomplishment. This gain is also larger than the benefit observed from reducing class sizes by seven students, according to the Tennessee STAR study. It also costs a lot less to provide school choice than to reduce class size by almost one-third.

What explains these fairly large test score gains from school choice? We know that it is not differences in the backgrounds of students and their families. The lottery helped ensure that we are comparing apples to apples. We also know that it is not better- resourced private schools with better facilities. In Charlotte, the average private school that accepted scholarship students charged around $3,100, about one-half the amount spent per pupil in the public schools.

Parents also reported that the facilities at the private schools were not as nice as at the public schools, even though they were significantly more satisfied with the private school education.

We also know that it is not the ability of private schools to screen for advantaged students or expel undesirable ones. In our sample, virtually no private schools screened for students and no students were expelled or counseled out of their private school. Lastly, we know that it is not smaller class sizes in the private schools. While the private schools did tend to have smaller classes, there was no correlation in our sample between student test scores and class size.

The advantage of the private schools may be choice itself. Perhaps by offering parents greater options, the scholarships simply allowed parents to find the right schools for their kids. Significantly greater safety and discipline in the private schools may have also been important factors in the test score gain. Roughly a quarter of public school students reported that they felt unsafe at school, compared to one-tenth of the private school students. These figures are particularly shocking when one considers that these students were no older than eighth grade.

Whatever the reasons for the gains, a series of well-designed studies of school choice programs make clear that choice has significant academic benefits, particularly for African-American students. Given the frustration with previous efforts to increase African-American student achievement, it is time that we consider new approaches for addressing persistent problems.

Telling African-American families that they should continue to wait for the public schools to address their needs has long ago grown stale. These new studies suggest that we shouldn't give African-American students a line; we should given them a choice.

©2000 The Charlotte Observer

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