The Impact of Public School Choice: Evidence from Los Angeles’s Zones of Choice Program

Peer-reviewed Publication

Christopher Campos and Caitlin Kearns

May 2024

Does a public school district that expands school choice provide better outcomes for students than a neighborhood-based assignment system? Do public school choice systems prodce market-level effects? This paper answers these questions by studying the Zones of Choice program, a novel school choice initiative that created small high school markets in some neighborhoods but left traditional attendance-zone boundaries in place throughout the rest of the district. The policy design allows us to uniquely study market-level impacts of choice on student achievement and college enrollment using a differences-in-differences design. The authors find that student outcomes in ZOC markets increased markedly, narrowing achievement and college enrollment gaps between ZOC neighborhoods and the rest of the district. These gains are largely explained by general improvements in school effectiveness rather than by changes in student match quality. To explore the role of competition in driving these gains, we construct a competition index that leverages differences in school popularity and the spatial differentiation of students and schools at the program’s onset. The authors find that the effects of ZOC are larger for schools exposed to more competition, supporting the notion that competition is a key channel through which ZOC exerts its impacts. Demand estimates derived from rank-ordered preference lists suggest families place substantial weight on schools’ academic quality, and this weight provides schools with competition-induced incentives to improve their effectiveness. The findings demonstrate that public school choice programs have the potential to improve school quality, reduce neighborhood-based disparities in educational opportunity, and thus produce sustained improvements in student outcomes.