Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2000 (2000)
Education reform is a perennial topic of debate for both policymakers and social scientists. While most education research and related reform proposals deal with strategies for evaluating and improving current systems of financing and delivering public education, some research and a growing number of public and private initiatives focus on privately provided education and its value as an alternative to public schooling.
In recent years, Cleveland and Milwaukee have adopted voucher plans that target economically disadvantaged children, and Florida recently adopted a voucher plan that targets children attending public schools that do not meet certain performance criteria. Further, private efforts to fund scholarships, especially for economically disadvantaged students in cities, have increased dramatically in recent years. Currently, at least sixty-five programs provide privately funded scholarships for students attending private schools. In 1999, more than 57,000 students received such scholarships. Of these students, at least 45,000 received scholarships provided by a relatively new nationwide program called the Children's Scholarship Fund. This program targets low-income students in cities. The program began by providing scholarships to students in the District of Columbia, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Jersey City, and is now expanding to include other cities. These scholarships may be used at either private or parochial schools.
Of the remaining programs, one of the largest is New York City's Student-Sponsor Partnership Program. This program provides scholarships for economically disadvantaged students who attend inner-city Catholic schools. A 1990 case study by the Rand Corporation found favorable results for these students at three Catholic high schools. In these schools, roughly 85 percent of scholarship students and 85 percent of tuition-paying students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and the average scores were quite similar for the two groups. In contrast, the gap between the scores of the scholarship students and the average scores of students from regular and magnet public schools in similar neighborhoods was large. Although a much smaller fraction of public-school students took the test, the scores for regular public and magnet school students were, on average, lower by about 160 and 90 points respectively.
More recently, studies by William Evans and Robert Schwab and by Derek Neal report that students attending Catholic secondary schools are more likely to graduate than similar students in public schools. Neal's study highlights attainment gains for urban students in Catholic schools, and he reports particularly large gains for urban minorities. Both of these studies, however, use data from cohorts of students who are now at least thirty-five years old. Few studies of the relative effectiveness of Catholic, public, and other private secondary schools employ data from more recent cohorts of high-school graduates.
This paper uses data from the high-school class of 1992 to estimate the effects of Catholic secondary schooling on math achievement, high-school completion rates, and college-attendance decisions. It focuses on the effects of Catholic schooling for several reasons. These schools are the largest and most homogeneous group of schools within the private sector. In addition, the question of whether or not Catholic schools may participate in publicly funded voucher programs is at the center of important current legal and political battles. Although existing legislative debates and court cases in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere focus on the issue of whether or not any religious school may receive voucher money, the vast majority of students currently attending religious schools are attending Catholic schools. Further, the current wave of voucher initiatives is in large part an attempt to provide more educational choices for economically disadvantaged students in cities. Historically, Catholic schooling has been primarily an urban phenomenon, and in our empirical work we pay particular attention to potential gains from this schooling for urban students.
Results from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) data for 1988-94 are in large measure consistent with results presented in previous studies that employed the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), 1979, and the High School and Beyond (HSB) Survey of the sophomore class of 1980. The data imply that urban students generally, and urban minorities in particular, enjoy attainment gains...