Libertarians Were Not Wrong About School Choice

The effects of school choice on test scores are positive but not astronomical. However, that does not mean that “libertarians were really wrong about school vouchers,” as journalist Megan McArdle claimed at the Bloomberg View. On the contrary, the overall evidence is largely in favor of school choice.

And it is not even close.

School Choice Leads to Better Personal Choices

Young males lucky enough to attend a choice school are less than half as likely to commit crimes. The long-term effects of school choice programs in the U.S. reveal large gains to individual children and the societies in which they reside. The only gold-standard study linking private school choice to high school graduation finds that the children using the D.C. voucher program are 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their public school peers. That effect is huge. And it has significant implications for children’s life trajectories. Graduating from high school leads to higher income levels and a lower likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.

Since families value the safety and character development of their children, private schools have a strong incentive to produce good citizens. In fact, three rigorous studies all find that young males lucky enough to attend a choice school are less than half as likely to commit crimes as adults than their traditional public school peers. One of these studies also finds that female students winning a lottery to attend a choice school in Harlem are 59 percent less likely have a teen pregnancy than their traditional public school counterparts.

Of course, however, being a good citizen doesn’t just mean avoiding risky activities.

School Choice Increases Tolerance and Integration

The abundance of the evidence also shows that private school choice increases civic skills such as student tolerance and civic engagement. For instance, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Arkansas found that children that won a random lottery to use the D.C. voucher program were about 90 percent more likely to permit individuals from groups they oppose to give a speech in their community.

Families do not care all that much about test scores. They care about school culture and the safety of their children. But what about white flight? What about the possibility of segregation?

This simply is not the case. When children are given the opportunity to exit racially segregated neighborhood schools, society actually becomes more integrated.

Despite the propaganda spewed from those at the Center for American Progress, seven of the eight rigorous studies on this topic find that private school choice leads to more integrated societies. For example, researchers at the University of Arkansas found that 82 percent of student transfers resulting from the Louisiana voucher program increased racial integration in students’ former public schools and 45 percent of transfers increased racial integration in receiving private schools.

Lackluster test score impacts did not surprise many libertarians – myself included. Why not?

Families do not care all that much about test scores. They care about school culture and the safety of their children. And that seems perfectly rational. Besides, a growing body of evidence indicates that test scores are not good predictors of the long-term educational outcomes that society actually cares about.

School choice is drastically changing children’s lives. Perhaps libertarians were actually wrong about the size of school choice effects. After all, who could have possibly known that the effects of school choice on long-term outcomes would be so large?