According to Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson in EducationNext, the prototype for the school voucher programs was created in New York City in the mid-90s when Cardinal John J. O’Connor and Mayor Rudy Giuliani couldn’t secure public funding to allow NYC children enrolled in the worst-performing public schools to enroll in Catholic schools instead. To bring the program to life, a group of philanthropists created the New York School Choice Scholarship Foundation and distributed grants of up to $1,400 per student to 1,000 low-income students who were about to enter public school or were already enrolled in 2nd through 5th grades.
Since the program was oversubscribed almost immediately, the founders established a lottery system to determine who would get the scholarships. The winning families were guaranteed scholarships for the first five years in school for each one of their children.
And thus was born not only one of the first voucher programs in the country, but an unparalleled research opportunity for anyone interested in looking at long-term impact of vouchers. EdNext explains that the opportunity was not one that SCSF was interested in passing up, so it asked an independent research team to look at the difference in outcomes between families that entered the voucher lottery and won and those who did and lost.
Families who won the voucher lottery were told that scholarship renewal was dependent on participation in annual testing at a designated site other than the child’s school. Families who lost the lottery were compensated for participating in subsequent testing sessions, and their children were given additional chances to win the lottery. Those who won a subsequent lottery were dropped from the evaluation control group. Those families who won the lottery but who did not make use of the scholarship were also compensated for participating in subsequent testing sessions. The original evaluation identified, after three years, large positive effects of the voucher opportunity on the test scores of African Americans but not on the test scores of students from other ethnic groups.
Brookings had published the previous phase of the study which looked at academic outcomes when it came to achievement and graduation. Now Chingos and Peterson expanded their scope to see if participation in SCSF’s program had any impact on college enrollment rates.
The paper takes great care to outline the methodology used to study the college enrollment impact and concludes that for the entire population studied, the increase in college enrollment in the three years after high school graduation was only .7% – not considered statistically significant. However, as Chingos and Peterson explain, this small increase masks much more substantial impact when the results were broken down along demographic groups – especially for African-American students.
The SCSF-NSC linked data indicate that a voucher offer increased the college-enrollment rate of African Americans by 7 percentage points, an increase of 20 percent. If an African American student used the scholarship to attend private school for any amount of time, the estimated impact on college enrollment was 9 percentage points, a 24 percent increase over the college enrollment rate among comparable African American students assigned to the control group (see Figure 1). This corresponds to 3 percentage points for every year the voucher was used.