Study: School Choice Works Everywhere

Published January 1, 2009

A groundbreaking new international study provides strong evidence greater competition from the private education sector increases the academic performance of public school students.

Martin West, Ph.D. of Brown University and Ludger Woessmann, Ph.D. of the University of Munich reported the finding in their article, “School Choice International,” in the Hoover Institution’s Education Next Winter 2009 edition.

“It’s the first effort to establish whether the relationship between private school competition and academic performance is causal,” said West.

Unique Approach

The study’s authors looked at education systems in 29 of the 30 countries that administered the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2003. The 2003 PISA measured the achievement of 15-year-old students in math, science, and reading.

Uniquely, the study included historical measurements of religious education options. West and Woessmann found a strong relationship between a country’s share of Catholic schools in 1900, when the Church urged its adherents to avoid newly developing state-run schools, and the current size of a country’s private education sector.

‘Sizable Effect’

This strong relationship isolates the effect of private school competition from other possible explanations for improved academic performance, including the amount of resources parents can invest in private education. For every 10 percent increase in the size of a nation’s private education sector, the analysis identified an increase of four-tenths of a year of high-school learning.

“It’s a sizable effect,” West said.

The effect was strongest in math, followed by science and reading literacy. West noted such a finding is common in education research, because reading achievement tends to be affected more than math achievement by factors outside the school setting.

In addition to academic performance, the authors found a 10 percent increase in the size of a nation’s private education sector is associated with a 5.6 percent reduction in the amount of money spent per student over the course of their educational career. That means increasing private education lowers overall education costs.

Long-Term Effects

West and Woessmann’s findings are set apart from much contemporary school choice research by the duration of the effect on academic outputs.

“I do think it’s the only study that’s ever looked at the impact of competition between public and private schools on a country’s overall educational achievement over a very long period of time,” said Paul Peterson, Ph.D., a Harvard University professor and executive editor of Education Next. “We want to know if school choice works over time. Of all the studies of school choice out there, most of them are short-term.”

West believes the study meshes well with the findings of other studies conducted on existing school choice programs in the United States.

“We have a handful suggesting favorable response to the competition, and a handful that find no significant response, something that may reflect the limited scope of these programs,” West said. “We don’t have any evidence that new forms of competition have undermined public school performance, so I think our study is consistent with this body of research.”

Instructing Policymakers

Peterson said the study can be instructive for policymakers wrestling with the possibility of introducing a voucher or tax-credit scholarship program to their state or city.

“I think it gives one greater confidence that moving in the direction of greater school choice will have positive impacts in the long run,” Peterson said. “Countries that have given more choice in the long run have benefited thereby.”

West agreed the findings should reassure legislative supporters of school choice they’re on the right track.

“There is nothing to fear with the experience of other countries to think that private school sectors will undermine the performance of public school systems,” West said. “In fact, quite the opposite.”

West also noted the positive effects of competition on academic performance are real and significant, but he cautioned the estimate may be overstated because of the limited number of countries examined.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

“School Choice International,” by Martin West, Ph.D. and Ludger Woessmann, Ph.D., Education Next (Winter 2009):