In spring 1998, more than six thousand students in the District of Columbia and more than three thousand students in Dayton, Ohio, applied for privately funded school vouchers to attend the private school of their choice. The demand was so heavy that a lottery was used to allocate the vouchers. As a result, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to study voucher effectiveness by means of a randomized field trial.
The news is particularly good for black students. Six to seven months after entering their new private school, low-income African American students scored higher in math and reading than those remaining in public schools.
In Dayton, black students entering private school in grades 2 to 8 scored, on average, 7 national percentile points higher in math, and 5 points higher in reading, on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills than did black students in public schools. However, no gains from vouchers were observed for white students. In Washington, D. C., black students entering private schools in grades 2 to 5 outperformed, on average, black public school students by 6 points in math. (The black-white test score gap, on average, is around 25 percentile points.) The results from Dayton and D. C. suggest that the gap can be reduced by a fifth or more in one year, giving hope that the difference can be eliminated altogether after eleven years of schooling.
The results are not an unadulterated success story. Students in D. C. who switched to the private schools in grades 6 to 8 did not do as well the first year as their younger brothers and sisters. The older students scored 2 national percentile points higher in math but 8 points lower than their public school peers in reading.
These older students also reported a variety of adjustment problems. Whereas younger students attending private schools are more likely than their public school peers to agree with the statement "students are proud to attend my school," the opposite is true for students in grades 6 to 8. A similar pattern is observed when students are asked what grade they would give their school, whether they like their school "a lot," and whether students "get along well with teachers." Suspension rates for younger students are similar in private and public schools but considerably higher in private schools for students in grades 6 to 8.
The overall results emphasize the importance of early intervention. Vouchers can work. Parents of students at all grade levels report fewer discipline problems, more parental-school communications, and more homework. Indeed, on the consumer satisfaction scale, vouchers are an overwhelming success.
But vouchers are not a magic wand that can be waved over any student, at any point in his or her school career, to produce an overnight solution. Education is a slow, painstaking process. "As the twig is bent, so the tree will grow," goes the familiar adage. It's time for the voucher debate to realize this. It is also time for those who represent blacks to take a close look at who benefits the most from school choice.