Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?

Peer-reviewed Publication

Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag A. Pathak, and Christopher R. Walters

January 2018

A central argument for school choice is that parents can choose schools wisely. This principle may underlie why lottery-based school evaluations have almost always reported positive or zero achievement effects. This paper reports on a striking counterexample to these results. We use randomized lotteries to evaluate the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a voucher plan that provides public funds for disadvantaged students to attend private schools. LSP participation lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and also reduces achievement in reading, science, and social studies. These effects may be due in part to selection of low-quality private schools into the program.