Research & Commentary: States with More Choice in Education Have Higher NAEP Achievement Levels and Gains

Published May 7, 2021

A March 2021 report from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas finds that states with higher levels of education choice, or “education freedom,” are associated with higher achievement levels and higher achievement gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, colloquially known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

In Education Freedom and Student Achievement: Is More School Choice Associated with Higher State-Level Performance on the NAEP?, states are ranked according to an “Education Freedom Index” that has four components: the availability of private school choice programs in the state, the availability of charter schools in the state, the availability of public school choice (such as open enrollment) in the state, and the ease with which families in the state can choose to homeschool. Arizona ranked first on this index, while Hawaii ranked last.

After doing a “series of statistical regressions in which the combined Math and Reading NAEP scores of each state serve as the dependent variable in each model,” the researchers find a “strong and statistically significant association is clear between education freedom and both academic scores and academic gains.” Further, “education freedom remains positively and significantly associated with NAEP gains even controlling for the effect of teacher quality on those gains,” while “the positive association between education freedom and state NAEP scores tends to be more than three times as large as the average effect of an elementary school intervention on student test score gains and about twice as large as the average effect of a middle school intervention on student achievement gains.”

Copious other empirical research on school choice programs such as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and ESAs find they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.

Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

It is probably for these reasons, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that education choice is more popular with parents than ever before. Polling done by EdChoice released in December 2020 found 81 percent support for ESAs, for example, among the general public and 86 percent among current school parents, the highest level of support the program has received in the organization’s eight years of polling on the issue. This represents a 4-percentage point increase over 2019. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s seventh-annual National School Choice Poll, released in January 2021, which saw 78 percent support for ESA programs. 

“The Education Freedom Index was more strongly and consistently associated with student achievement outcomes than were any of its individual parts,” the study concludes. “That pattern is not surprising. School choice has its best chance to influence NAEP scores and gains across an entire state by delivering competitive pressure to district-run public schools. When that competitive pressure is especially intense, because it comes from multiple sources of public and private school choice, the constructive response from affected public schools is likely to be most clear and consistent across the state. This reality suggests that education choice supporters should seek policy mixes that broadly promote district, charter, private and homeschool options for families. When educational freedom rings loudly and broadly, students, families, and communities benefit.”

The goal of public education in the United States today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now. Legislators should recognize that and allow families as many options as possible to get their children the education they need and deserve.

The following documents provide more information about education choice programs.

Education Freedom and Student Achievement: Is More School Choice Associated with Higher State-Level Performance on the NAEP?
This study from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas finds that states with higher levels of education choice, or “education freedom,” are associated with higher achievement levels and higher achievement gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.

The 123s of School Choice (2021 Edition)
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

The Fiscal Effects of Private K–12 Education Choice Programs in the United States
From an analysis of 40 private educational choice programs in 19 states plus D.C., this EdChoice working paper summarizes the facts and evidence on the fiscal effects of educational choice programs across the United States. The programs in the analysis include three education savings accounts programs (ESAs), 19 school voucher programs, and 18 tax-credit scholarship programs.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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