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Education Reporter

International Comparison Shows Gains from School Choice
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A new study compares education systems in 29 countries and finds a connection between diverse education options and average student achievement. The study, by Harvard researcher Martin West and University of Munich researcher Ludger Woessmann, is "the first effort to establish whether the relationship between private school competition and academic performance is causal," according to Dr. West.

West and Woessmann traced the historical roots of the private education sector in the 29 countries. The more Catholic schools each nation had in 1900, when the Catholic Church called on its members to favor parochial schools over state-run schools, the more private schools that nation had in 2003.

Every 10% increase in the size of a nation's private education sector in 2003 correlated with an increase of almost half a year of high school learning, as demonstrated by 15-year-olds on the 2003 PISA assessment, the best-known international test. A 10% larger private education sector was also associated with lower educational spending: a 5.6% reduction in the amount of money spent on education per student over the course of his or her educational career.

These effects remained when West and Woessmann factored private school students out and examined only the scores of public school students in each nation. "The results suggest that public school students profit nearly as much from increased private school competition as do a nation's students as a whole," they concluded. "It therefore appears that much of the increased performance of education systems with higher levels of private school competition accrues to students who attend public schools."

Friends and foes of school choice have long debated the effect of a strong private education sector on the education that students still attending traditional public schools receive. Opponents of school choice say that families who accept vouchers or tax credits are abandoning the public school system, and robbing remaining public school students of tax dollars and involved parents who would otherwise prevent the schools from getting even worse. School choice proponents, on the other hand, claim that increased competition from private schools, through choice programs that break the government school monopoly, will eventually force public schools to reform and improve in order to compete for their share of the market.

Dr. West says that this study supports the claims of free market and school choice proponents. "There is nothing to fear with the experience of other countries to think that private school sectors will undermine the performance of public school systems. In fact, quite the opposite."

West and Woessmann reported their results in an article, "School Choice International," in the winter 2009 edition of the Hoover Institution's Education Next journal. (www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/31105709) (School Reform News, Jan. 2009)

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