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Educational opportunity is a family-wide benefit

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How does expanded educational opportunity impact families in terms of expectations, habits, and aspirations? This central question too often gets lost in purely data-driven debates about private school choice programs. Given the early evidence, perhaps it is time to change that.

Longstanding public policy debates often begin to take on a strange feeling of deja vu. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of nonpublic educational choice, where both sides have built veritable fortresses atop their chosen positions. They sling test score and other academic data across the parapets at one another, with one side citing studies finding negative results in private school choice programs and the other highlighting a large body of positive research. The more human side of the conversation too often gets lost in the data melee.

{mosads}Don’t get me wrong. Measurable academic achievement matters. Students deserve to leave school with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive world, and nonpublic school choice programs are an important lever for reaching that goal. Yet, as others have pointed out, test scores can only ever tell part of the story.


Even the longer-term outcomes of school choice programs — high school graduation rates, college attendance rates, attainment, etc. — offer an incomplete picture because they focus solely on scholarship recipients themselves. That’s not to say these things are not critical. After all, the average high school dropout will cost taxpayers nearly $300,000 over a lifetime, even before one factors in the hundreds of thousands of dollars they will forfeit in wages over the course of a working career.

But there’s more to it, isn’t there? Educational opportunity does not exclusively impact students in an academic context. It changes expectations and outlooks on life. It affects entire families and ripples across generations.

I remember one particularly striking story about a low-income student in Denver. The student attended a well-respected private high school with the help of financial aid. As part of its innovative work-study program, the school placed her at a prestigious law firm located in one of downtown Denver’s gleaming skyscrapers.

After returning from work one day, the student said something powerful to school staff. She said she always thought she would work in a skyscraper downtown. She just thought she would be the lady cleaning it, like her mother.

This story speaks to the power of intergenerational expectations. It also makes sense in the context of the existing literature on parental impacts on children. Most studies identify parental education as “the single strongest correlate of children’s success in school, the number of years they attend school, and their success later in life.” Although research does not always agree on the exact mechanisms involved, a substantial body of literature indicates that parental expectations play a significant role in children’s success.

One particularly fascinating study relies on the semi-random adoption process to examine parental effects on Korean children adopted by American parents. It finds that children adopted by smaller families with higher education levels “are twice as likely to graduate from a college ranked by U.S. News & World Report, have an additional .75 years of education, and are 16 percent more likely to complete four years of college.”   

Because parental expectations tend to rise with higher levels of educational attainment, it stands to reason that programs driving higher levels of attainment will have substantial impacts even on the children of scholarship recipients many years from now. We have not even begun to quantify those effects in the context of school choice.

But what about intergenerational impacts in the other direction? ACE Scholarships, a multistate K-12 scholarship-granting organization, conducted an initial evaluation of our thousands of low-income scholarship recipients. The evaluation indicated that the average parent of an ACE scholar advances from having no postsecondary credentials when their child enters the program to earning at least one such credential. This trend is particularly significant when you consider that many ACE scholars are the first in their families to attend college. Some will be the first to graduate high school.

The examination of prior-generation ripple effects is in its infancy at this stage, and more data is required to establish causal relationships. But one hypothesis is that watching their children succeed academically motivates parents to further their own education. Another is that changing peer groups and expectations alters behaviors and habits, which in turn drive positive change for families. There is some early evidence of this: ACE families tend to eat dinner together more often, talk about school at home more often, and engage in external educational trips and activities at a higher rate than others from their socioeconomic background.

It is one thing to talk about ending the cycle of poverty in the context of student-focused academic data. It’s quite another to truly investigate the family-wide impacts of expanded educational opportunity. My hope is that in the continuing pursuit of the former, we don’t forget to study and talk about the latter.

Ross Izard (@RossIzard) is director of policy for ACE Scholarships (@ACEscholarships), which provides scholarships to more than 5,000 low-income students across seven states, and a senior fellow in education policy at the Independence Institute(@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Denver.

Tags Education Education economics Education policy Ross Izard School choice

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