This year, approximately 1,900 children are receiving scholarships through the program.
According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit organization that administers the program, participating families have an average annual income of about $23,000. This is well below the cap of 185 percent of the poverty line, or $38,200 for a family of four. In all, more than 7,200 students have applied for scholarships since 2004—roughly four applicants for each available scholarship.
President George W. Bush's fiscal year 2009 budget includes a $38 million increase in federal funding for the District. Included in this increase is a plan to boost funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program from $13 million to $18 million in 2009. On April 30, 2008, Mayor Adrian Fenty testified before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Mayor Fenty testified in favor of President Bush's proposed $38 million funding increase, including the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Evaluating the Opportunity Scholarship Program's Impact
Since 2004, private and government studies have evaluated the impact of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In 2007, the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute published a report presenting the findings of focus groups and interviews with participating families. The report found that parents participating in the program "tended to report increased involvement with their child's education and overall satisfaction with the program." Participating parents were also found to be active and engaged consumers of education, visiting an average of three schools before selecting one.
Last June, the U.S. Department of Education released a report on the program's impact on academic achievement. This evaluation compared the test scores of students who received vouchers through a lottery with the test scores of students who applied for vouchers but did not receive them in the lotteryand therefore remained in public school. The report analyzed changes in academic achievement after seven months in the program and concluded that "the program generated no statistically significant impacts, positive or negative, on student reading or math achievement for the entire impact sample in year 1."
This finding was not a surprise given the short time period analyzed. However, similar evaluations of academic achievement in school voucher programs suggest that participating students generally improve over time. There have been eight other randomized experiment evaluations of school voucher programs. All but one of these studies found that students using scholarships to attend private schools performed significantly better academically, and every study found some positive academic effect. A new evaluation of the program's impact on academic achievement will be released in 2008.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report evaluating the implementation of the program. Senators Edward Kennedy (D–MA) and Richard Durbin (D–IL) and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton—all strong opponents of the program—had requested the study. The GAO offered some criticisms of how the program had been implemented. It found that some participating private schools had not met certain regulatory requirements for operating in the District. The report offered specific recommendations to improve the program's implementation, operation, and oversight.
Efforts to Reform the D.C. Public School System
In 2007, newly elected D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced a plan to take over the D.C. public school system. In April, the D.C. City Council approved the mayoral takeover. In June, Mayor Fenty appointed Michelle Rhee to become chancellor of the D.C. public schools. Rhee had previously led the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that works to recruit, train, and place effective teachers in public schools.
Chancellor Rhee's appointment has been viewed as a catalyst for change and reform in the D.C. public school system, and since her appointment, she has sought to gain greater authority to implement reforms. In December, she received preliminary approval from the D.C. Council to have greater authority to fire underperforming employees.
Chancellor Rhee's appointment is an encouraging sign that long-overdue reforms may finally become a reality in D.C. public schools. As Chancellor Rhee works to improve the public school system, Congress and District policymakers can expand school choice options for parents to enable more families to choose a safe and effective school for their children and promote competition for all schools, encouraging them to strive for success.
What Congress and Local Policymakers Should Do
Members of Congress and the District of Columbia government have an opportunity to expand school choice options for District families by implementing the following reforms.
1. Strengthen and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, approximately 7,200 children have applied to receive scholarships since 2004. This strong demand suggests that the program is ripe for expansion. Members of Congress and local District leaders should support the continuation and expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to allow many more students to participate. In addition, Congress and local policymakers should embrace common-sense changes to strengthen the program.
First, Congress should reform the legislation to allow schools that charge lower tuition rates to charge participating students the "cost of educating" a student. Under the current program, private schools offer low tuition prices and suffer an increased financial burden when they enroll scholarship students. This is because schools must also raise funds to pay for the difference between the tuition amount and the cost of educating the student. In 2007, a number of District Catholic schools reported impending closure. This dynamic is likely a factor.
Second, the program should be expanded to allow students to attend private schools outside of the District. There is a shortage of private high schools participating in the program within the District. Allowing students to attend private schools outside of the District would expand the available choices.
Third, Congress and local policymakers should support the implementation of oversight procedures to ensure that resources are used to benefit students.
2. Offer scholarships for students with special needs.
The District's system of education for children who are eligible for special education warrants attention. Under federal law, children who are eligible for special education services are entitled to a free education. According to SchoolDataDirect.com, 17.4 percent of District students have disabilities, compared to 13.6 percent nationally. The Appleseed Center found that the District's special education system had the highest rate of due process complaints and hearings in the nation.
The Washington Times reported in 2007 that the D.C. special education system had far higher costs than the national average. One reason for these high costs is the far greater percentage of special education students in private placements: 24 percent in the District versus 3 percent nationally. The private tuition costs consumed 40 percent of the District's budget share, compared to 12 percent nationally. According to The Washington Post, the District spent $114 million in 2005 on tuition for special education students. The Washington Examiner reports that funds spent on private placements lacked strong oversight.
One way to reform the District's special education system would be to give private school scholarships to children with special needs. In Florida, every special-needs child in the state has the opportunity to attend a school of his parents' choice through the McKay Scholarship Program.
According to the Florida Department of Education, 18,919 students were participating in this program as of January 2008. During the 2006–2007 school year, the average scholarship amount was $7,206, and 811 private schools participated. A survey of parents of children participating in the McKay Scholarship Program for children with special needs in 2003 found that 93 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with their children's schools, compared with only 33 percent who were satisfied with the public schools that their children had previously attended.
In recent years, Arizona, Georgia, and Utah have implemented similar programs to offer school choice scholarships to children who are eligible for special education.
Since so many of the District's special education students are already attending private schools, offering scholarships may be a way both to reduce costs and to reduce the administrative burden of placement hearings. This would also give parents the option of using their child's share of funding to access an effective school without working through the often difficult placement process. If scholarship amounts were capped, the District would likely be able to reduce costs of private placements over time while improving parents' satisfaction with the process.
3. Offer scholarships to foster children and homeless children.
As of July 2006, 2,546 children were in foster care in the District of Columbia. Approximately 1,800 of them were of school age. In January 2006, 31 percent of the 9,369 homeless people in D.C. were children.
Research shows that foster children and homeless children are among the most at-risk groups in our society. Former foster children are more likely to become homeless, incarcerated, or dependent on state services. One important factor in a foster child's development is education, but the available evidence suggests that many foster children do not receive a quality education. Compared to their peers, foster children have lower scores on standardized tests and higher absenteeism, tardiness, truancy, and dropout rates.
One common problem for foster children and homeless children is instability, since frequent home transfers often lead to school transfers. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, 40 percent of the children in the District's foster care system had experienced four or more placements, and 17 percent had experienced three placements, during the previous 12 months.
Some of these students could benefit from the opportunity to use a tuition scholarship to attend a public or private school of choice or to receive after-school or summer school instruction. In 2006, Arizona became the first state to offer tuition scholarships to foster children.
A voluntary scholarship could help a foster child remain in the same school even if he or she experiences a home transfer. For other foster children, a scholarship could offer an opportunity to transfer to a better learning environment. The District of Columbia could follow Arizona in offering a new educational opportunity to some of the community's most at-risk children.
4. Offer District taxpayers tuition and/or scholarship tax credits.
Members of Congress and District policymakers could also expand school choice options for D.C. families by enacting education tax credits—either to encourage taxpayers to make charitable contributions to fund scholarships for disadvantaged children or to allow taxpayers to receive tax relief for private school tuition.
Seven states—Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—currently have tax credits or deductions for educational expenses. Arizona offers tax credits for individual and corporate taxpayers to make donations to nonprofits that fund scholarships. Through these programs, as many as 30,000 children are receiving private school scholarships this year. In Iowa, taxpayers claimed approximately $15 million in tax credits for education expenses for their own children, including private school tuition.
Members of Congress and District policymakers could offer similar tax credits or deductions for donations made to groups that fund private school scholarships for disadvantaged children and for taxpayers to pay education expenses for their own children.
5. Offer District taxpayers tax incentives for contributions to education savings accounts.
Another way to expand education opportunity in the District would be to provide a tax credit or deduction to help families save for their children's K–12 and higher education costs. The District of Columbia currently offers taxpayers a $3,000 tax deduction for contributions made to a child's 529 college savings plan. But policymakers should recognize that many students—especially children from disadvantaged families—are less likely to participate in higher education. The estimated 41 percent of students who do not graduate from D.C. public schools do not benefit from expanded college savings options.
The District could offer a tax deduction or credit for contributions to a child's Coverdell Education Savings Account, which allows families to save for their children's K–12 and higher education costs. Under federal law, interest earned in the Coverdell ESA is not subject to taxes if funds are spent on allowed uses, which include K–12 and higher education expenses including private school tuition. This tax benefit could be structured to allow individuals or businesses to receive a tax deduction for charitable contributions to a disadvantaged child's account, since low-income families would not benefit from a personal income tax deduction.
6. Offer tutoring and summer school scholarships.
Finally, summer school or after-school tutoring scholarships should be made available to District students. Under such a program, the District would offer students scholarships that could be used to enroll in after-school tutoring programs or academic summer school programs. Students should be given a wide range of choices for tutoring and academic summer school options, from programs offered by public, charter, and private schools to other independent tutoring companies or summer school providers.
A well-designed scholarship program for summer school or after-school tutoring could be a cost-effective way to provide supplementary or remedial instruction. Such a program could be funded by eliminating wasteful expenditures in the existing public school system. The $25 million that was spent on the computerized personnel database that was later discarded, for example, could have been used to provide 25,000 scholarships for tutoring or summer school worth $1,000 a piece.
District leaders and Congress, which has oversight authority over Washington, D.C., should embrace policies that expand school choice options for families. The 110th Congress is set to consider whether to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Members of Congress should reauthorize that program and expand it to allow more children to participate and enhance their options.
Local authorities and Congress should also embrace more policies to expand school choice in the nation's capital. Rather than being a national example of a poorly performing school system, the District of Columbia should become a model of a school system that offers parents the power to give their children a quality education.
Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst in Education and Evan Feinberg is a former Research Assistant in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation. Former Heritage Foundation interns Miles Lavin, Abigail Johnson, Brian Bosak, and Andrew Britt provided research assistance for this paper.