June 3, 1997 | Executive Memorandum on Education
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:
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.
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.