In a recent speech, President Obama explained how his
Administration would prioritize federal funding for education
programs: "[Education] Secretary [Arne ] Duncan will use only one
test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax
dollars: It's not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but
whether it works."
On this basis, the Administration should now support continuing
and expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program (DCOSP).
The Results Are In
Created in 2004 by Congress, the DCOSP provides disadvantaged
students living in the nation's capital tuition scholarships to
attend private school. The federal legislation creating the program
required a rigorous evaluation to determine the program's impact on
participating children's education. This included a
randomized-experiment trial comparing the outcomes of a treatment
group (students who were offered scholarships through a lottery)
and a control group (students who applied but were not offered
vouchers through the lottery).
On April 3, the Department of Education's Institute of Education
Sciences released the results of the third-year evaluation of the
program. Importantly, the evaluation found a
statistically significant positive effect for the treatment group
in reading. Specifically, students who had been offered vouchers
were performing at statistically higher levels in reading,
approximately three months of additional learning. The report also
found that families who had been offered a voucher were more
satisfied with their children's school and safety. The following is
an overview of the report's main findings.
Impact on Academic Achievement Overall. Students offered
scholarships were performing approximately 3.1 months ahead in
reading of students not offered vouchers. The authors note that
this gain represents a statistically significant positive effect.
The authors also measured the effect of the use of a scholarship,
since 14 percent of the students who were offered vouchers (and,
therefore, were counted in the treatment group for the evaluation)
never used them.
The use of a scholarship led to the equivalent of 3.7 months in
additional learning. While the treatment group's math test scores
were slightly higher than the control group, neither students who
were offered vouchers nor those who used vouchers made
statistically significant progress.
Impact on Family Satisfaction Overall. The evaluation
found that the parents of students who were offered scholarships
were more satisfied with their children's school. For example,
parents of students who were offered scholarships were more likely
to grade their schools with an "A" or "B" than were those in the
control group and were also more likely to report that their
children's schools were safe and orderly.
The evaluation found that the offer or use of a scholarship did
not have a significant effect on students' views of their schools.
The positive impact on scholarship parents' views about their
children's educational experience is supported by previous
qualitative reports published by the Department of Education.
Impact on Student Subgroups. The evaluation also found
that being offered or using a scholarship led to higher reading
test scores for five out of 10 subgroups, including girls, students
who entered the program at higher achievement levels, and students
who began in grades K-8. The offer or use of a scholarship did not
lead to a positive effect for students who had left public schools
classified as "in need of improvement" under federal law.
One subgroup that made notable improvement was the first group
of applicants to the program, or 21 percent of the treatment group.
Students in this subgroup who were offered or used scholarships
made gains in reading achievement that were the equivalent of 14.1
and 18.9 months, respectively, of additional learning-a gain that
is approximately 1.5 to two school years of learning. These are the
students who have been in the program the longest and have had the
greatest opportunity to benefit from their parents' choice.
The authors of the study caution that the "statistical
significance of this finding was not robust to adjustments for
multiple comparisons." Granting the department's reasons for
cautions, policymakers considering the program's likely impact in
future years should note that the greatest academic progress has
been made by students who have been in the program the longest.
Evidence Supports Continuation and
Expansion of Program
Since the DCOSP was created, supporters and opponents alike have
pointed to this evaluation as a critical factor in determining
whether the program should be continued. It has long been clear
that, if success is judged by the level of satisfaction of parents
of participating children, the program has been successful. Now
that the third-year evaluation has found that the offer and use of
a scholarship has had a statistically significant effect on
students' reading achievement, questions about this program's
effectiveness are resolved.
It is worth noting that the scholarship program's positive
impact is being achieved at a significantly lower cost to
government than what otherwise would have been spent on these
students' educations in the D.C. public school system. Opportunity
Scholarships offered through the program are worth $7,500. Since
the participating private schools cannot charge scholarship
students more than the amount of their scholarships, it is likely
that scholarships awarded to many students were less than $7,500.
The third-year evaluation reports that the weighted mean tuition of
participating private schools was $6,620. But even if private
schools charged the full $7,500, that amount is still less than
half of the $15,315 that D.C. taxpayers spent per pupil in the
2004-05 school year.
Despite Positive Evidence, Program's
Despite the growing evidence of the DCOSP's success, its future
beyond 2009-10 remains uncertain. This spring, Congress included
legislative language in the Omnibus Appropriations Act requiring
that the DCOSP be reauthorized by Congress and authorized by the
D.C. City Council before receiving new federal appropriations. The
Senate rejected an amendment offered by Senator John Ensign (R-NV)
that would have removed the language that effectively sunsets the
voucher program. Members of Congress are now expected to introduce
legislation to reauthorize the DCOSP.
Growing evidence that the DCOSP is improving participating
students' academic achievement and increasing parental satisfaction
should give Congress, the Administration, and the D.C. City Council
reason to support continuing this program. Moreover, the emerging
positive evidence suggests that instead of debating whether to end
this successful program, federal policymakers and D.C. city leaders
should be exploring ways to allow more District children to have an
opportunity to attend a school of their parents' choice.
Dan Lips is Senior Policy
Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at
The Heritage Foundation.