Does providing low-income families vouchers or scholarships with which they can select a private school improve student achievement? The evidence from the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) program in Charlotte suggests that providing low-income families with scholarships has significant benefits for those families. This finding is consistent with the results from similar evaluations of scholarship programs in New York, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio as well as the results of evaluations of publicly funded school choice programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland.
The main findings from this evaluation of the Charlotte CSF Program are:
- Receiving a scholarship to attend private school improves scores on standardized math tests by between 5.9 and 6.2 national percentile ranking points, depending on the type of analysis performed.
- Receiving a scholarship to attend a private school improves scores on standardized reading tests by between 5.4 and 7.7 national percentile ranking points, depending on the type of analysis performed.
- Parents were asked to assign their child’s school a letter grade, A through F. Nearly twice as many choice parents gave their child’s school an A (53%), compared to the public school parents (26%). Choice parents were also nearly twice as likely to report being “very satisfied” with virtually all aspects of their children’s school: location, safety, teaching quality, course content, class size, facilities, student respect for teachers, information on student progress, religious observance, parental support for school, discipline, clarity of school goals, teamwork among staff, teaching moral values, academic quality, and teacher respect for students.
- Roughly two in five students would give their choice school an A compared to 32% of public school students. When students were asked how they feel about going to school each day, 24% of the public school students said that they did not want to go compared to 9% of choice students. And 24% of non-scholarship students agreed that they did not feel safe at school compared to 9% of choice students.
- Parental reports confirm student perceptions about safety at school. More than a third of public school parents reported problems with fighting in school (36%) compared to 16% of choice parents. One-quarter of public school parents reported problems with racial conflict compared to 12% of choice parents. 22% of public school parents reported problems with guns or weapons at their children’s elementary schools compared to 11% of choice parents. And 25% of public school parents reported problems with destruction of property at school compared to 12% of choice parents.
- Because the private schools examined operate with far less money per pupil than do the public schools, it is not surprising to discover that the private schools have more sparse facilities and fewer services to offer. For example, only 70% of choice parents described their school as having a library compared to 90% of the public school parents. Only 63% of choice parents said that their school had a gym compared to 91% of public school parents. Only 71% of choice parents said that their school had a cafeteria compared to 89% of public school parents. Parents also reported fewer school services at the private schools. Only 18% of choice parents said that their school had a program for students learning to speak English compared to 50% of public school parents. Only 49% of choice parents said that their school had a program for learning disabilities compared to 71% of public school parents. Only 51% of choice parents reported programs for gifted students at their schools compared to 72% of public school parents. Choice parents were also less likely to report that their school had a counselor, nurse, music program, art program, or prepared lunches.
The Charlotte CSF Program successfully targeted disadvantaged families. In general, choice schools were accepting students with scholarships who were considerably more disadvantaged than typical students in Charlotte. Three-quarters of the choice students were African-American, while a little more than one-third of all students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district are African-American. As of 1990 the average family income in Charlotte was nearly $34,000, almost $10,000 more than the average family income of choice students 10 years later. Almost one-third (32%) of choice families report that they receive some kind of public assistance, such as food stamps or welfare, while the 1990 census reports that only 5% of households in Charlotte were on public assistance. And even after one year of the scholarship, choice students were still scoring well below the national average on standardized tests (although they were scoring significantly better than they would have had they not received the scholarship). There is no evidence to support the claim that the private schools were “creaming” the best students or “dumping” those students whom they found undesirable.
The private schools accepting scholarship students were smaller and had smaller class sizes, on average, than the public schools. But small class size does not “explain” the higher student achievement observed in private schools. Adding class size to the multivariate model predicting student test scores shows that class size has no effect on student achievement in our sample.