How Congress Can Help Poor Children Learn in D.C. Schools

Report Education

How Congress Can Help Poor Children Learn in D.C. Schools

June 3, 1997 4 min read Download Report
Nina Shokraii
Counselor to the President

The nation's capital is home to some of the worst-performing schools in the United States. From decrepit public school buildings and the prevalence of violence and drugs on school grounds to poor academic performance and a huge but ineffective bureaucracy, many of the District of Columbia's schools exemplify what can happen when poor management and lack of competition join hands. The result: a bleak future for the city's youth.

Fortunately, Congress is getting serious about helping D.C.'s poor children. Representative Richard Armey (R-TX) and Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Dan Coats (R-IN) are proposing a solution: the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1997. This bill would give scholarships of up to $3,200 to approximately 1,800 poor children in grades K-12 in the District. Recipients would be able to use these scholarships to attend the public, private, or religious schools of their choice. This step, small but significant, holds out hope for thousands of children trapped in a cycle of poverty and failure.

Problems in D.C.
On February 20, 1997, The Washington Post reported on the extent of the failure of the D.C. schools:

  • In 1994, 72 percent of D.C.'s fourth graders tested below "basic proficiency" on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test given to students in different grades every two years.
  • Since 1991, reading skills in D.C. have shown a net decline as measured by the standardized Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills given to students in 3rd, 6th, and 9th through 11th grades.
  • Only 55 percent of all high school students in D.C. who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1996 attended public schools.
  • At least 40 percent of D.C.'s students drop out or leave the school system before graduating.


A Range of Solutions
Considering the unique responsibility of the federal government for D.C. schools, Congress can help remedy some of the shortcomings of the D.C. school system. For the worst schools, it can offer scholarships to poor children to attend the public, private, or parochial schools best suited to their individual needs as defined by their parents (rather than by government officials). This is essentially the remedy embodied in the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1997. It is helpful for three reasons:

  • School choice, particularly parochial education, has been shown to work especially well for inner-city children. Inner-city private, parochial, and charter schools invariably offer a safe and stable learning environment. School choice programs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Cleveland, Ohio, and the numerous private scholarship programs offered throughout the United States have demonstrated that the educational skills of poor children improve in these environments. Recent studies of the Milwaukee choice experiment, which provides vouchers for public or private non-religious schools of choice, were conducted by Paul Peterson at Harvard University and Jay Greene at the University of Houston, followed by Cecilia Rouse from Princeton University. The Peterson/Greene study showed that, after just three years, the gap in test scores between whites and minorities narrowed by 33 percent to 50 percent. The Rouse study found that the Milwaukee choice program significantly increased the mathematical achievement of participating students.

Access to parochial schools appears particularly important for poor students. Inner-city children in Catholic schools, including children who are not Catholic, generally perform well because of the presence of ingredients that make schools function well: discipline, parental involvement, a caring and hard-working staff, lack of bureaucracy, and high academic standards. The seminal work demonstrating the strong effect of Catholic schooling, particularly on poor black children, is that of the late University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman. Coleman showed that Catholic school sophomores scored 10 percent higher in science and 17 to 21 percent higher in mathematics, reading, and vocabulary than public school students. His study also showed that a child is more likely to attend school with a child of a different race in a private school than in a public one, and that dropout rates are significantly lower in the private sector. A growing academic body of research continues to confirm Coleman's findings. For example:

William N. Evans and Robert M. Schwab of the University of Maryland School of Economics reported in the November 1995 Quarterly Journal of Economics that, for inner-city children, attending a Catholic high school raises the probability of finishing high school and entering college by 17 percentage points.

In the December 1995 Journal of Human Resources, William Sander of the DePaul University Department of Economics reported that non-Catholics benefit the most from attending a Catholic grade school--in fact, more than Catholics themselves. Likewise, in the April 1995 issue of Economic Inquiry, Sander and Anthony C. Krautmann, an Associate Professor at DePaul's Department of Economics, showed that Catholic schools had a significant negative effect on the odds that children would drop out of school.

Derek Neal, an Associate Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, reported in a November 1995 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research that the probability that inner-city students would graduate from high school increased from 62 percent to at least 88 percent when those students were placed in a Catholic secondary school. The latest study by David Figlio, a University of Oregon economist, finds similar results, particularly among low-income minorities who live in large central cities.

  • More dollars go into the classrooms. Parental choice is economically efficient. Under the D.C. Student Opportunity Act of 1997, federal dollars would go directly to a nonprofit corporation, which then would channel the dollars immediately to parents in the form of a scholarship to send their children to schools of their choice. This is the most direct way to bypass federal and local bureaucracy and get more dollars into the classrooms.
  • The bill leaves public school funding intact. The D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act would not remove any money from the public school system. It would leave public schools not only with extra classroom space, but also with additional per-pupil funding. Currently, the average per-pupil cost at D.C.'s 350 private and parochial schools is less than half the per-pupil cost at public schools (approximately $9,500). This is especially true of parochial schools. St. Peter's on Capitol Hill charges $2,880; Holy Comforter on East Capitol Street charges $2,000; and St. Francis Xavier on Pennsylvania Avenue charges only $1,800.

Parental choice helps children
The D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act is the only bipartisan reform mechanism that would offer immediate and measurable academic results for the District's children. Tinkering with the status quo will not help the District's poorest children. Through school choice, however, Congress can offer these children a brighter future.


Nina Shokraii

Counselor to the President