View in your browser.


This summer, three important school choice studies were published.  All three conclude that choice raises student achievement for children in participating families.  In this week’s CommenTerry, I review each of these superb reports.

Bulletin Board

  • President Thomas Jefferson and President John Adams will address the public in the majestic auditorium of the North Carolina Museum of History on Monday, September 17, 2012 at 7:00 pm.  Two of the nation’s finest historical interpreters, both associated with Colonial Williamsburg, will bring the presidents to life. Bill Barker is the nation’s premier Jefferson interpreter and has performed at the White House and the Palace of Versailles. Steven Holloway is a veteran actor who interprets Adams with power and verve. A reception will follow the debate.
  • The Civitas Institute and the Friedman Foundation invite you to a luncheon to report results of a statewide education poll and policy implications for North Carolina. Come join Paul Di Perna, Research director for the Freedom Foundation, education policy experts, and state lawmakers as they share views on how to improve educational opportunity in North Carolina.  The event will begin at 11:30 am on Tuesday, September 18 at the Raleigh Crabtree Marriott Hotel in Raleigh NC.  Cost is $10.00.
  • Join Byron York, Brad Crone, Marc Rotterman, and John Hood on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at noon for an inside look into the 2012 Election.  The event will be held at the Double Tree Brownstone Hotel in Raleigh.  Cost is $30 per person.
  • The North Carolina History Project would like educators and homeschool parents to submit lesson plans suitable for middle and high school courses in North Carolina history.  Please provide links to N.C. History Project encyclopedia articles and other primary and secondary source material, if possible.  Go to the N.C. History Project website for further information.
  • JLF’s research newsletter archive doesn’t care if your biscuits are fresh or "made from scratch."


In "Independent Schools and Long-Run Educational Outcomes: Evidence from Sweden’s Large Scale Voucher Reform" (Institute for the Study of Labor, June 2012), researchers Anders Bohlmark and Mikael Lindahl examined the performance of students who used vouchers to attend one of the nearly 400 independent schools in Sweden.

Here is what Bohlmark and Lindahl found:

  • School choice raised student performance regardless of student demographics. "We find that an increase in the share of independent-school students has caused an increase in average educational performance. This increase is evident for both short- and long-run measures and the estimates remain very similar if we control for changes in a number of demographic, family background and municipality-level characteristics."
  • The findings were not biased by pre-voucher trends in student performance. "We also find that these positive effects are not driven by differential pre-reform trends in educational outcomes and that they are very robust to a number of other issues that might bias the estimates (such as grade inflation and the increased choice opportunities between public schools)."
  • Competition was key. "Interestingly, it appears that the positive effects are primarily due to external effects (e.g., spill-over or competition effects) and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students."
  • Student achievement increased, educational expenditures did not.  "We are also able to show that a higher share of independent-school students in the municipality has not generated increased school expenditures. Hence, our positive educational performance effects are interpretable as positive effects on school productivity."
  • Be patient.  It took time for school choice reforms to begin working.  "However, for most measures, we do not detect positive and statistically significant educational performance effects until approximately a decade after the reform. This time lapse is notable, but not surprising since it has taken time for independent schools to become more than a marginal phenomenon in Sweden."

Sweden’s government-funded voucher program began in 1992.  The Swedish voucher system allows any religious, non-profit, cooperative, or for-profit corporation to operate a school, but it must obtain approval from the Swedish National Agency for Education (NAE) to do so.  All families are eligible.  The school may not select students or charge tuition and fees in excess of the voucher amount.  Despite these baseline regulations, independent schools have a great deal of autonomy.  Independent school market share is around 11 percent.

An August 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study written by economists Justine Hastings, Christopher Neilson, and Seth Zimmerman concluded that students who won a school choice lottery had significantly higher test scores and fewer suspensions and absences than those who did not.

In "The Effect of School Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Academic Outcomes," Hastings, Neilson, and Zimmerman did not identify the "low-income urban school district" that was the subject of the study.  But similar studies of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) found that school choice raised student achievement and improved social outcomes.  Like the CMS study, Hastings et al used data from a school choice lottery because it replicated an experimental research design, that is, it randomly assigned students to experimental (lottery winner) and control (lottery loser) groups.  This quantitative research design is considered to be the "gold standard" in social science research.

Interestingly, Hastings and her colleagues found that students who chose charter schools had much higher test score gains than those who chose district magnet schools. They explain,

Since charters are allowed to highly specialize and may attract students of parents looking for specialized schools to meet what they believe are their children’s idiosyncratic needs, lottery estimates of local average treatment effects may be very different than what an average student might expect to gain if randomly assigned to that school. Magnet schools may not be so highly targeted or specialized, and particularly in the context of a broad magnet choice program where a large fraction of public schools are magnet choice schools. (p. 17)

In other words, charter schools meet the idiosyncratic needs of children better than magnet schools.

Finally, "The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York City" is an August 2012 Brookings Institution/Harvard University study written by Matthew Chingos and Paul Peterson.  Chingos and Peterson concluded that vouchers "increased the overall college enrollment rate among African-Americans by 24 percent."

The authors examined data from the New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation (SCSF) program, a voucher program initiated in 1997.  Approximately 1,000 low-income families received three-year scholarships of $1,400 to attend the non-public school of their choice.  The SCSF program selected children by lottery.  As mentioned above, lotteries replicate an experimental research design, the "gold standard" in social science research.

African-American children made other notable gains.  According to Chingos and Peterson, "In the absence of a voucher offer, the percentage of African-American students who attended a selective four-year college was 3 percent. That increased by 3.9 percentage points if the student received the offer of a voucher, a better than 100 percent increment in the percentage enrolled in a selective college — a very large increment from a very low baseline."  Unfortunately, there was no evidence that Hispanic students received comparable benefits from the voucher program.

Random Thought

Obviously, the wacky antics of King Ralph didn’t teach the British anything.

Facts and Stats

According to the Alliance for School Choice, more than 210,000 children participated in school choice programs in 2011.


I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements, as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina. I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter. Anonymity will be honored. For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at [email protected].

Education Acronym of the Week

SCSF — New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation

Quote of the Week

"Ours is not the first study to find positive benefits from vouchers for African Americans. What’s new is solid evidence that those benefits persist over the long haul."

– Harvard University professor Paul Peterson commenting on his new study (with Matthew Chingos), "The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York City

Click here for the Education Update archive.