Does Attendance in Private Schools Predict Student Outcomes at Age 15? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study

By Robert C. Pianta and Arya Ansari for Sage Journals

By tracking longitudinally a sample of American children (n = 1,097), this study examined the extent to which enrollment in private schools between kindergarten and ninth grade was related to students’ academic, social, psychological, and attainment outcomes at age 15. Results from this investigation revealed that in unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the sociodemographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools benefited more from private school enrollment.

Among the focal points of efforts to reform the public education system in the United States and provide improved schooling experiences for vulnerable children, enrollment in private schools, largely through voucher or tax-credit financing, has been among the most frequently referenced as well as contentious (e.g., Dynarski, 2016; Lubienski & Lubienski, 2013; Urquiola, 2016). Policies and financing schemes that encourage enrollment in private schooling have been justified on the basis of increasing choice for low-income parents that cannot relocate to more affluent and better school districts, as a means of increasing pressure on public schools to compete in a market for parents’ selection, and as a remedy for the achievement gap, presumably because of the superior capacity of private schools to educate (poor) students. Many of these same arguments are made in support of expanded charter schools, which bear similarities with private school programs (greater flexibility in hiring or curricula) but tend to be subject to greater oversight, with most charters considered public schools in some form (Carpenter, Keith, & Catt, 2016; Levchenko & Haidoura, 2016; Mills & Wolf, 2017).

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