Anecdotes from Distant Countries Don’t Help the Argument against School Choice in the U.S.

Apparently, if you want to learn about school choice success in the United States, your first move should be to look to countries that are thousands of miles away. Sarah Butrymowicz from The Hechinger Report did just that. She traveled to Sweden, New Zealand, and France, talked to people about their education systems, decided that they were not perfect, and concluded that “real-life examples from around the world provide little evidence that allowing families more freedom of choice improves achievement.”

The worst part is that the conclusion – that school choice does not improve achievement – is not at all scientific.

For example, Butrymowicz pointed out that Sweden enacted a universal voucher program in 1992 and that their international test scores haven fallen since then. First, Sweden’s test scores most recently rose in math, reading, and science between 2012 and 2015. But more importantly, the simple pre-post observation does not in any way establish a causal relationship. Such a claim doesn’t even attempt to consider any control variables. For instance, immigration in Sweden also increased substantially from 1992 to 2012, which may have had a lot to do with their declining test scores. In fact, a study by Dr. Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren found that about 30 percent of the decline in Sweden’s overall PISA scores is explained by immigration patterns alone. Based on strong existing empirical evidence from Sweden, it is more likely that their PISA scores would have fallen even more without the academic benefits accrued from school choice.

We have a 2015 peer-reviewed study on what actually happened as a result of Sweden’s implementation of universal school choice. Böhlmark and Lindahl used strong econometric methods and found that school choice in Sweden improved “average short- and long-run outcomes.” Another rigorous study in a top academic journal, the Journal of Public Economics, found that Sweden’s voucher program improved academic outcomes due to competition.

Butrymowicz deserves credit for pointing out three studies that show positive effects of the Sweden program. But she points out that one of these studies finds “no positive long-term effects for students.” While that may be true, she failed to acknowledge that the same study found positive effects on student achievement.

I simply do not understand how one can cite several studies finding positive effects of school vouchers in Sweden, and then come up with an article titled “Betsy Devos’ school choice ideas are a reality in Sweden, where student performance has suffered.” But that’s not all. The article goes on to pull quotes from Samuel Abrams regarding how something “went wrong in Sweden.” According to the evidence presented in the article – and elsewhere – the title and presentation are highly misleading at best.

In her article on New Zealand, Butrymowicz presents the country as a “school choice utopia.” I know she didn’t pull that quote from me, because basic economic theory compels me to prefer private school choice to the system of government school choice in New Zealand. 

Nonetheless, the article goes to say that “one unintended consequence of more school choice is more segregation” in the United States and in New Zealand. Butrymowicz cited zero studies from New Zealand to support this claim. She should have considered the fact that 7 out of the 8 rigorous studies existing on the subject in the U.S. find that private school voucher programs improve racial integration. None of the U.S. studies find that private school choice leads to segregation.

Similarly, the article on France is titled “this country spends billions on private schools – and has a terrible learning gap between poor and wealthy,” as if somehow the two are connected. The article then goes on to point out that “France hasn’t erased all of the barriers that prevent lower-income families from accessing the best schools,” implying that perfection is the standard for success. Of course, it is arguably more plausible that achievement gaps would be even larger if the government did not allow poor people to attend the expensive private schools that rich people can already afford.

The France article also claims that even though children in private schools outperform those in public schools, “public schools would actually outperform private schools” if they served the same students. What that claim comes from—an OECD report—is not causal. Absent rigorous econometric methodology, the OECD simply cannot determine whether private schooling in France – or any other country – has any effects on PISA scores. On the other hand, my 2018 study found that increases in the private share of schooling within countries actually leads to moderate increases in PISA math and reading scores, even after controlling for changes in factors such as GDP, government spending, population, and school enrollment.

The author also claims that the school choice research “shows mixed outcomes for the roughly 448,000 American students who attend private schools through taxpayer-funded programs.” This claim is simply false. And it needs to be put to bed.

Seventeen experimental studies of the effects of private school choice programs on student achievement exist in the U.S. today. The majority of the 17 studies find statistically significant positive effects on student test scores, and effects tend to be most beneficial for disadvantaged students. And it is important to note that the only two studies finding negative impacts are first-year evaluations.

But the academic benefits aren’t only limited to the students that exercise choice. Twenty-five of the 26 existing studies find that private school choice also improves achievement for the students remaining in traditional public schools due to competitive pressures.

Of course, these studies merely examine effects on standardized test scores, which may not be all that important for at least two reasons: (1) parents often care more about things like safety and culture than standardized test scores, and (2) a growing body of literature suggests that test scores may not be good proxies for long term outcomes like graduation, crime, and income.

So why don’t we look at the non-test score outcomes?

Six of the seven rigorous studies linking private school choice to student educational attainment reveal positive effects overall or for subgroups. For example, the experimental evaluation of the DC voucher program found that private school choice increased the likelihood of high school graduation by 21-percentage points. None of the seven studies found negative effects. The majority of the eleven rigorous studies linking private school choice to civic outcomes also find positive effects. Again, none of the studies find negative effects.

Anyone see a pattern here? The most rigorous U.S. evidence is not mixed.

If we want to figure out if school choice works in the U.S., we ought to rely on the preponderance of the best evidence existing in the U.S. But if we really want to learn from school choice in other countries, we ought to look at the scientific evidence rather than anecdotes. We ought to examine the data rigorously rather than from a 10,000-foot view. The strongest evidence available tells us we need more private school choice in the United States, not less.