Some of the poorest performing public schools in America can be found in the nation's capital. Despite per-pupil expenditures of more than $11,000, 94 percent of 4th grade students in Washington, D.C., are not proficient in math, and 90 percent lack proficiency in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).1 The results are similar for 8th graders. Many children will never catch up; as few as 59 percent of the District's students graduate from high school.2
Given the failure of other reforms to improve the city's poor academic achievement and the growing recognition that additional funding alone will not improve the system, Congress has an historic opportunity to support D.C. students by authorizing and funding scholarships to give them access to quality schools.
One proposal to do this was approved by the House Committee on Government Reform on July 10: the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act. Introduced by the committee's chairman, Representative Tom Davis (R-VA), the bill would enable low-income parents in the District of Columbia to enroll their children in private schools through a scholarship program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Under the bill, the maximum scholarship is $7,500, and the total authorized for the program is $15 million. The U.S. Secretary of Education must conduct an annual evaluation of the program to present to Congress.
On July 15, the House Appropriations Committee approved $10 million in the annual D.C. appropriations bill, subject to authorization, to fund the scholarships. Senate appropriators will consider a $40 million proposal to provide scholarships and grant additional funds to D.C. charter and traditional public schools. Opponents have threatened to filibuster the measure if it reaches the Senate floor.3
This pilot program will offer students access to higher-performing independent schools, provide an incentive for improving the public school system, and present an opportunity for further study of the effects of choice on students' academic progress and parental satisfaction.
Since President George W. Bush announced a scholarship plan for the District of Columbia and other communities in his fiscal year (FY) 2004 budget, several prominent D.C. leaders have voiced their support for scholarships, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
"We've got a model we've been using for 140 years. I think it's time to try something else," Mayor Williams explained, in an interview with The Washington Post. Kevin P. Chavous (D), member of the D.C. Council and chairman of its Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, backs scholarships as part of a proposal to increase support for charter schools and traditional schools. According to Chavous, "No school bureaucracy will reform itself internally. It only comes through pressure. And the most effective form of pressure is choice."4
The demand for choice is evident in the city's higher-than-average charter school attendance and participation in private scholarship programs. There are hundreds of private schools in the D.C. metro area, most with tuitions that are less than the per-pupil expenditure in public schools.
Research strongly suggests that publicly funded scholarships would improve the academic achievement of D.C. students. Researchers at Harvard and Georgetown University found improved academic achievement and higher parental satisfaction for African-American students who used privately funded scholarships through the Washington Scholarship Fund.5
A February 2000 study of 810 students who received the Washington Scholarship Fund scholarships found that, after one year, African-American students in grades 2 to 5 who transferred to private schools outperformed their public school counterparts by 7 percentage points on math tests and 3 points on reading tests. The study also found that, while nearly half of the parents of private school students gave their children's schools an "A," only 15 percent of the parents of public school students did likewise.6
An August 2000 study of students in grades 2 to 8 reported that African-American students in the District of Columbia, New York City, and Dayton, Ohio, had outscored their public school classmates since transferring to private schools with the help of privately funded vouchers. The report compared public and private school students who had similar family backgrounds. D.C. students who had transferred showed the greatest advances, moving 9 percentile points ahead of their public school peers in combined reading and math test scores. 7
According to NAEP test results, parochial school students consistently achieve at a higher rate than their peers in public schools.8 Research by Heritage Foundation analyst Kirk Johnson, Ph.D., using NAEP data, confirms this trend for African-American students in the District and shows that, on average, a black 8th grader in a Catholic school outperforms 72 percent of his or her public school peers.9
Other research on existing programs shows that school choice improves the public school system. In a recent study, Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby found that increased school choice raises school productivity and student achievement within the public school system. Hoxby's report found that competition from charter schools in Michigan and Arizona, and from Milwaukee's voucher program, has compelled public schools to raise their productivity, as measured by students' achievement gains.10
In October 2002, Manhattan Institute scholars released a study of the impact of school choice on the academic achievement of public school students in Milwaukee and San Antonio. After controlling for demographic characteristics such as race and income level, and for differences in expenditures, the authors found increased academic achievement in public schools that had been exposed to competition from private school scholarship programs and charter schools.11
A 2001 Manhattan Institute analysis of the Florida A+ program found that vouchers provided a strong incentive for schools to improve. In Florida, schools receive grades ranging from "A" to "F," based on the proportion of students who pass the state's proficiency tests. Students who attend schools that receive a failing grade twice within a four-year period can receive a voucher to attend another public or private school of choice. The study found that schools receiving an "F" improved when they were faced with the prospect of vouchers.12
Congress has passed legislation for D.C. scholarships in past years. On November 2, 1995, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a scholarship proposal for students in the District of Columbia as an amendment to the FY 1996 D.C. appropriations bill (H.R. 2546). The amendment, proposed by then-Representative Steve Gunderson (R-WI), would have provided funding for charter schools, would have given $3,000 vouchers to students whose family income fell below the poverty level, and would have provided $1,500 vouchers to students whose family incomes did not exceed 180 percent of the poverty level. The vouchers would have been redeemable at a public, private, or religious school in the District or surrounding counties in Virginia and Maryland.13
Consideration of a D.C. school choice plan was revived when a bipartisan group that included Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Judd Gregg (R-NH) introduced the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1997. Representative Richard Armey (R-TX) introduced similar legislation in the House. The legislation would have provided scholarships of up to $3,200 for the District's poorest students in kindergarten through 12th grade to attend a public, private, or religious school of choice in the metropolitan area. The Senate approved the bill by voice vote on November 9, 1997, and the House passed it by a vote of 214 to 206 on April 30, 1998. However, President Bill Clinton vetoed the measure in May 1998.
Three days after the President's veto, The Washington Post published the results of a May 1998 poll of District residents that found significant support for using federal dollars to send children to private or religious schools: 65 percent of the District's African-Americans surveyed who had incomes under $50,000 favored the option. Overall, 56 percent of District residents supported school choice. 14
Congress can help poor families in the District of Columbia gain access to schools of excellence by approving scholarships for D.C. The need for this reform is clear: Just 6 percent of D.C. 4th graders are proficient in math, and only 10 percent are proficient in reading.
Research on privately funded vouchers in the District and on private and publicly funded programs nationwide has shown school choice to be beneficial to students and to the public system. Eleven states currently have publicly funded vouchers or tax credit programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld vouchers as constitutional, thereby opening the door to new programs. Congress should wait no longer to bring this critical reform to the ailing school system in its own backyard.
Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.
1. See National Center for Education Statistics, "The Nation's Report Card State Profiles: District of Columbia," at www.nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/.
5. Patrick J. Wolf, Paul E. Peterson, and Martin R. West, "Results of a School Voucher Experiment: The Case of Washington, D.C., After Two Years," prepared for annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, California, August 30-September 2, 2001.
6. Paul Peterson, William Howell, and Patrick Wolf, "School Choice in Washington, D.C.: An Evaluation After One Year," February 2000; prepared for Conference on Vouchers, Charters, and Public Education, sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University, March 2000.
7. Paul Peterson, "Test-Score Effects of School Vouchers in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, and Washington, D.C.: Evidence from Randomized Field Trials," Harvard University and Brookings Institution, August 2000.
8. See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, at www.nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/sitemap.asp.
9. Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., "Comparing Math Scores of Black Students in D.C.'s Public and Catholic Schools," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 99-08, October 7, 1999, at www.heritage.org/Research/Education/CDA99-08.cfm.
10. Caroline Hoxby, "School Choice and School Productivity (Or, Could School Choice Be a Tide That Lifts All Boats?)," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 8873, April 2002, at www.nber.org/digest/aug02/w8873.html.