Research & Commentary: What the Empirical Research Says on Education Choice

Published May 31, 2016

The fourth edition of A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, by Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice’s (FFEC) was released in May 2016. The 100 empirical studies examined within the report are centered around five key topic areas: The “academic outcomes of choice participants,” the “academic outcomes of public schools,” the fiscal “impact on taxpayers and public schools,” school choice programs’ impact on the “racial segregation [of] schools,” and their impact on the “civic values and practices” of participants.

Eighteen of these studies use random assignment to measure outcomes and are referred to as “gold standard.” According to the report, “Students who apply for a voucher enter randomized lotteries to determine who will receive the voucher and who will remain in a public school; this allows researchers to track very similar ‘treatment’ and ‘control’ groups, just like in medical trials.”

Of the 18 gold standard studies, 14 show education choice improves student outcomes. Only two studies – conducted on Louisiana’s much-discussed voucher program – show negative outcomes, which the author says is largely due to private schools being “scared away” by “an expectation of hostile future action from regulators.”

Thirty-three of the studies examined in the report weighed the effect education choice has had on outcomes for children still in public schools, and they found, overwhelmingly, improved outcomes for public school students. Only one of the studies reported negative outcomes for public school students as a result of school choice programs.

Twenty-five of the 28 studies measuring the fiscal impact of school choice policies found the studied programs save taxpayer money; the other three found the studies to be revenue neutral. Not a single empirical study found school choice programs have had a “negative fiscal impact.”

Nine of the 10 studies looking into school choice programs’ effect on racial segregation found school choice helps to integrate schools by moving students out of schools that tend to be more highly segregated. Not one empirical study examined by FFEC found school choice programs increased segregation.

Eight of 11 studies found school choice programs “improve civic values and practices, such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge.” Once again, none of the empirical studies examined showed school choice programs have had a negative impact on civic values.

“The results are not difficult to explain,” the author write. “School choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources. It breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities. And it strengthens democracy by accommodating diversity, de-politicizing the curriculum, and allowing schools the freedom to sustain the strong institutional cultures that are necessary to cultivate democratic virtues, such as honesty, diligence, achievement, responsibility, service to others, civic participation, and respect for the rights of others.”

The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence, as the FFEC study shows, makes it clear educational choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires – and does so at a lower cost – while simultaneously benefitting public school students. Educational choice programs can give all families a greater opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. The goal should be to allow every parent to choose, require every school to compete, and give every child an opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents offer more information about voucher programs and school choice.

Ten Principles of School Choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support passage of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice 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.

Pursuing Innovation: How Can Education Choice Transform K–12 Education in the U.S.?

This report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice summarizes the state of competition in U.S. K–12 education. It pays particular attention to the prevalence and market penetration of charter schools, private school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships. The effect of competition from charters, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships on the performance of traditional district schools and education funding is examined using a survey of recent high-quality research on that topic. These summaries and analyses suggest enhancing educational competition using school choice programs would likely improve the productivity of district schools, subject to the effective design of school choice policies.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
This report by Benjamin Scafidi is the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and the District of Columbia. Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave a school to enroll elsewhere. Scafidi finds the remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average nationally, are variable costs that change directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. Scafidi says in the long run, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal disasters for government schools.

The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment
Vouchers boost college enrollment rates for black students by 24 percent and double student attendance at selective colleges, conclude researchers Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos. Their study, the first of its kind, tracked voucher students from kindergarten to college using the gold standard of research—random assignment—to compare students who won a voucher lottery with students in similar circumstances who didn’t.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
Examining the evidence on school choice across the globe, this paper from the Cato Institute finds the efficiency—student achievement per dollar spent on education—of private education provision was higher than for public education provision in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the one in Washington, DC, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

How School Choice Can Create Jobs
Examining five South Carolina counties, Sven R. Larson found school choice programs were associated with gains of up to 25 percent in youth self-employment. Larson writes, “School Choice raises academic achievement and reduces the problems and costs associated with high school dropouts. But it also has a decisively positive impact on youth entrepreneurship and could provide a critical boost for the economies of poor, rural counties.”

School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006 
Examining the fiscal effects of school choice programs, Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation Senior Fellow Susan Aud found $444 million in savings in the years 1990–2006, $422 million of which was from local school corporations. The direct passage of savings to school districts has a profoundly positive net benefit on districts, but not enough to enable them to compete with the high performance of private schools or charter schools.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. Other important legal questions fall into four categories: the scope of students’ right to an education and parents’ right to choose their children’s schools; state-constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious-liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. This report from the American Enterprise Institute notes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but the report says they also create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale existing programs and expand program options.

The Integration Anomaly: Comparing the Effects of K–12 Education Delivery Models on Segregation in Schools
Kennesaw State University economics professor Benjamin Scafidi, also a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation and director of Kennesaw State’s Education Economics Center, examines the relationships among traditional public schools, school choice programs, and racial diversity. Although in many cases neighborhoods are becoming more racially integrated, traditional public schools are actually becoming less so. Scafidi concludes existing evidence indicates school choice is a diversifier, leading to greater racial integration in schools.

School Choice Across the Globe
Despite the heated rhetoric, critics of school choice may be surprised to learn voucher programs are quite common in the economically developed world. Twenty-five of the richest countries in the world have vouchers or tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools of their choosing. Most significantly, many of these countries have more robust school choice programs than those present in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty reports in a Policy Brief. Exploring school choice in Chile, the Netherlands, and Sweden, the study found market-oriented programs, such as those that provide universal voucher eligibility regardless of income, have existed in other countries for many years.


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 at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at

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