Vouchers are a perennial hot topic. My personal view is that the heat-to-light ratio is unfortunately high. Conservatives believe that choice is a magic wand; liberals believe that anything that might divert money from public schools is an evil conspiracy. Matt Chingos and Paul Peterson cast a bright light beam on the subject with a nice piece of new research on what the availability of vouchers in elementary school did for college attendance down the road.
Back in 1997, philanthropists in New York City set up a voucher program aimed at low-income elementary school students. The vouchers were enough to pay for most of the costs of several years attending any of hundreds of New York private schools. Because the demand for vouchers far exceed the supply, recipients were chosen by lottery. Chingos and Peterson tracked both winners’ and losers’ college attendance as young adults. From a scientific point of view, one of the neatest things about the study is that the authors were able to track 99 percent of the original participants. That makes for a most unusually clean sample.
Basic results of using a voucher:
- Overall, bupkis. (We’re talking NYC here. Translation: nothing at all.)
- For African American students, college attendance rose from 36 percent to 45 percent. That is a noticeable gain. (Ex ante, the socio-economic characteristics of the African American students aren’t terribly different from those of other participants.)
Now here’s the odd part. Not everyone who won a voucher used it. For the African American students who used a voucher, college attendance rose by 8.7 percentage points. But for African American students who won a voucher but didn’t use it, college attendance rose by nearly the same amount, 7.1 percentage points.
Having a choice about which elementary school to attend increases later college attendance? But it doesn’t matter whether you use the choice or not???