News: CJ Exclusives

Study: Low-Income Students Benefit From School Choice

Poor school-choice lottery winners more likely to graduate and attend college

Low-income students in Charlotte who won a school-choice lottery are more likely to graduate from high school, attend a four-year college, and earn a bachelor’s degree than their peers who didn’t benefit from school choice, according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Such students also are twice as likely to earn a degree from elite institutions such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or Duke University, researchers found.

“The results suggest that school choice can improve students’ longer-term life chances when they gain access to schools that are better on observed dimensions of quality,” wrote authors David J. Deming, Justine S. Hastings, Thomas J. Kane, and Douglas O. Staige in “School Choice, School Quality and Postsecondary Attainment.”

The analysis focused on 20,021 students enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ school-choice lottery program in the fall of 2002. CMS operates on a neighborhood-schools model, meaning that most students attend schools closest to their homes. But families who want to send their children elsewhere — such as to a magnet school — may enter a lottery to do so.

The study found that the greatest benefits of the school-choice program held for low-income households.

“The main findings of this paper are that lottery winners from low quality neighborhood school zones are 8.7 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, 6.6 percentage points more likely to attend a four year college, and 5.7 percentage points more likely to earn a four-year college degree,” the study says.

In contrast, researchers couldn’t establish the same link for higher-income lottery winners from higher-quality neighborhood schools.

“The authors speculated that specialized programs offered at the choice school may have had a role in increasing achievement among disadvantaged students,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation (publisher of Carolina Journal). “It’s possible that, for reasons independent of socioeconomic status, their higher income peers found these programs to be less academically engaging.”

The school-choice lottery directly benefited minorities as well. “Switching disadvantaged youth from one of the lowest quality high schools in a large urban district to an average-quality high school closed about 75 percent of the black-white gap in high school graduation and about 23 percent of the gap in bachelor’s degree completion,” the study says.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.