What the Latest Data Say About Chile’s School Voucher System

In case you didn’t know, Chile has what we call a universal school voucher system. That is, it funds public education by allowing public funds to follow students to whatever public or private schools they choose, and it has operated this way since 1981. As school choice programs gain steam across the United States, it’s important we check in on these real-life examples of school choice systems. 

Experts suspect Chile’s school voucher system has had some impact on students’ academic performance and socioeconomic segregation in schools. Pro-school choice advocates have called it “the Chile miracle.” Anti-school choice advocates, the opposite.

But which is it?

In The Chile Experiment—the first study of its kind—author Mariano Narodowski examined the most recent data available to compare Chile, the only Latin American country with a universal school voucher system, with seven other Latin American countries with similar socioeconomic structures and common educational histories, but that have traditional, residence-based public school systems: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.

Here’s what the data say.

Student Achievement in Chile Compared to Other Latin American Countries

To analyze the change in educational achievement, this study compares countries based on the data collected during the six waves of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2000 to 2015, the most recent as of the release of this study.

The latest data show Chile scores higher than any other Latin American country in math, reading and science.

Chile has experienced considerably higher academic achievement than other Latin American countries. Chile’s academic gains from 2000 to 2015 ranked second only to Peru, whose starting point was drastically below any other Latin American country that participates in PISA.

This part of the study considered data collected during PISA for that same date range to analyze segregation trends, but the author used several different indexes to measure and compare socioeconomic segregation levels in schools.

The latest data show all Latin American countries’ school systems are relatively segregated socioeconomically, but Chile’s school voucher system appears to prevent segregation from worsening.

Different analyses show education systems in other Latin American countries may reach much higher levels of segregation than Chile’s voucher system. For example, from 2000–2015, segregation levels in Peru increased by 17.8 percent. Meanwhile, Chile’s free school choice system has not significantly increased the degree of socioeconomic segregation in schools.

Segregation measures across this and other studies of segregation in Chile, though, are sensitive to measurement definitions and neighborhood characteristics, among other factors. Past research efforts examining segregation levels since Chile’s voucher implementation have been limited, but cross-country comparisons add important context and frames of reference. It should be noted that this study, as well as other researchers’ previous research on Chile’s school voucher system, report segregation findings that cannot rule out the possibility that observed patterns are the result of other factors beyond the structure of their education systems.

The Conclusive Evidence on Chile’s School Voucher System

So based on the data, can we call the Chile experiment a “miracle” or a “failure?” As with most public policies, we would say the answer falls between those two extremes.

Chile’s school voucher system has not exactly worked a miracle in recent years, but it has certainly been a huge step in the right direction for student achievement. Furthermore, it appears segregation levels in Chile have not been exacerbated by its voucher system. In fact, the system might have even held worsening neighborhood segregation trends at bay in its schools.

It’s important to note also that the first iteration of Chile’s school choice system isn’t what exists today. The program is constantly evolving and improving in efforts to better serve families. For instance, when lower-income families whose vouchers didn’t cover some private schools’ tuition or transportation to their schools, lawmakers changed policy to provide more support to those students.

Like it or not, it is undeniable that Chile’s public education is better in many ways than it was before 2000. The evidence suggests Chile’s school voucher system is more of a “success in progress.”