In January 2004, Congress passed the District of Columbia School
Choice Incentive Act of 2003, the first federally funded school
voucher program in the United States. Now known as the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship Program, this initiative provides
scholarships of up to $7,500 to more than 1,900 low-income students
in the District. A recent U.S. Department of Education (DOE)
evaluation of the program should provide policymakers with some
encouragement, as the report demonstrates that the Opportunity
Scholarship Program is having a positive impact on students and
The DOE evaluation reviews the first two years of the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship Program, examining approximately 19 months
of instruction. The results indicate that students who received
vouchers realized higher academic achievement than students who
were not awarded a voucher, though the differences between both
groups of students were not statistically significant.
Despite this lack of statistical differentiation, students who
participated in the Opportunity Scholarship Program achieved higher
reading scores than students who did not. The study also indicated
that certain subgroups of students experienced significant positive
gains in reading achievement. These results are encouraging
because they offer compelling evidence of two years of positive
achievement gains for D.C. voucher program participants.
Relying on a random assignment experiment, the DOE study
compared the results of students who were awarded vouchers as part
of a lottery process to those of students who applied for but did
not receive a voucher. Several other voucher program studies using
random assignment have been conducted to determine the effects that
school vouchers have on math and reading achievement. These studies
include evaluations of public and privately funded voucher programs
in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, and New York. In
each study, students who participated in a voucher program
experienced significant gains in math and reading achievement
compared to their peers in the public school system.
Of particular importance to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
program is the fact that, in several cases, significant gains in
academic achievement were not observed until after the third or
fourth year of program participation.
Parental Satisfaction and Feelings of School
Parents have many motivations for participating in a school
choice program. One common assumption is that parents choose a
different school primarily for improved academics. However, there
is some evidence that moving their children into a safer school
was, at least initially, one of the primary motivations for parents
participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. Such
motivation was especially evident for parents involved in the
program from its inception. Given that school violence is a persistent
problem in the D.C. public school system, parents
are-logically-most concerned with the physical well-being of their
children at school.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has had a significant
impact on parental satisfaction and feelings of safety. According
to the DOE evaluation, parents participating in the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship program were significantly less likely to
report that their child's school was dangerous when compared to
parents who were not offered a scholarship. Furthermore, voucher
parents were also significantly more likely to report that they
were satisfied with their child's school.
Parents who are satisfied with their child's school and who are
not worried about their child's safety would presumably focus on
other education-related matters, including academic quality. That's
exactly what the School Choice Demonstration Project found: In
focus groups, parents expressed that, as they grew more confident
in the security of their children, they were more apt to focus on
"academic considerations, such as class size, curriculum and the
overall rigor of the school's program."
What Congress Should Do
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has provided hundreds
of families with an alternative to public schools that, more often
than not, fail to meet the safety and educational needs of
students. Yet, despite its successes, vouchers are under attack,
with District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton
spearheading legislative efforts to eliminate the program.
Failing to reauthorize the Opportunity Scholarship Program would
leave families and students involved in the program without the
ability to choose a school that is safer and more effective. A new
Web site, Voices of School Choice (http://www.voicesofschoolchoice.org),
provides firsthand accounts of how the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
Program has changed the lives of involved parents and students for
Congress should expand school choice options for District
families, thereby giving more students the opportunity to attend a
secure and successful school of their parents' choice. At a
minimum, Members of Congress should reauthorize and fund the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship program to allow the 1,900 children who are
already flourishing in the voucher program to retain school choice.
Beyond helping these disadvantaged families, continuing the program
will provide additional evidence documenting the extent to which
students can benefit from school choice.
Shanea J. Watkins,
Ph.D., is Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies in the Center for
Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.
Statistical significance is a measure by which researchers can
determine whether or not some phenomenon happened by only chance,
instead of being attributed to the conditions being studied. In the
case of vouchers, researchers want to know if the voucher is
causing the achievement effect, or if some other random factor may
be influencing the outcome. Most frequently, researchers set this
at 95% significance. The results of a study that meets this
significance requirement would be interpreted as only happening by
chance 5 out of every 100 times observed.
authors warn that these results should be interpreted cautiously as
further reliability testing shows that these results might only be
observed by chance.
first year evaluation found similar effects for math achievement as
are reported for reading achievement in this year's evaluation. See
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences,
Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts
After One Year, June 2007, at /static/reportimages/5934629565E68B2BB241236EA9991A85.pdf
(June 19, 2008).
P. Greene, Paul E. Peterson, and Jiangtao Du, "School Choice in
Milwaukee: A Randomized Experiment," in Paul E. Peterson and Bryan
C. Hassel, eds., Learning from School Choice (Washington,
D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), and Cecilia Elena Rouse,
"Private School Vouchers and Student Achievement," Quarterly
Journal of Economics, Vol. 113, No. 2 (May 1998).
William G. Howell and Paul E. Peterson, The Education Gap:
Vouchers and Urban Schools, revised ed. (Washington, D.C.:
Brookings Institution Press, 2006).
John Barnard, Constantine E. Frangakis, Jennifer L. Hill, and
Donald B. Rubin, "Principal Stratification Approach to Broken
Randomized Experiments: A Case Study of School Choice Vouchers in
New York City," Journal of the American Statistical
Association, Vol. 98, No. 462 (June 2003); Howell and
Peterson, The Education Gap; Alan B. Krueger and Pei Zhu,
"Another Look at the New York City School Voucher Experiment,"
Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and
International Affairs Policy Brief, April 2003, at /static/reportimages/C8EADCD44E5F1E788BAFC9DE14AA51F1.pdf
(August 31, 2006); and Paul E. Peterson and William G. Howell,
"Latest Results from the New York City Voucher Experiment," paper
prepared for presentation before the Association of Public Policy
and Management, Washington, D.C., November 2003, at /static/reportimages/836BE730D17EA1A5698A766A7E0BB96D.pdf
(August 31, 2006).
Thomas Stewart, Patrick J. Wolf, Stephen Q. Cornman, and Kenann
McKenzie-Thompson, "Satisfied, Optimistic, Yet Concerned: Parent
Voices on the Third Year of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program"
Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, School Choice
Demonstration Project Report 0702, December 2007, at
(June 19, 2008).
Stewart et al., "Satisfied, Optimistic, Yet Concerned," p.