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Published in Print: October 26, 2005, as D.C. Voucher Program Gets Mixed Reviews From Families

D.C. Voucher Program Gets Mixed Reviews From Families

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Despite problems that marred the program’s initial year of operation, the families of the first wave of students to take part in the District of Columbia voucher program are generally satisfied with their children’s experiences, according to a study released last week.

Compiled by a trio of scholars from Georgetown University in Washington, the new study provides early feedback on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the nation’s first private-school-voucher program financed with federal money.

Begun in 2004 with $14 million in funding, this year the program is providing annual scholarships of up to $7,500 to send 1,700 students in grades K-12 from poor families to religious and secular private schools.

The report says most participating families appear satisfied with the schools they chose and credit them with improving their children’s academic achievement.

But the study also cites concerns that include confusion over costs, a perceived need for tutoring to help students adjust to new academic demands, and reports that some teachers have made youngsters feel singled out because of their scholarship status.

“There’s still some work to be done in bringing about as smooth an assimilation of students as supporters would like to see,” said Patrick J. Wolf, the principal investigator for the School Choice Demonstration Project at Georgetown and an associate professor in its Public Policy Institute.

For the study, which was paid for by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, the researchers conducted focus-group interviews with parents and older students from 45 families in the program during the 2004-05 school year. Mr. Wolf said three-quarters of the students had previously attended public schools; the remainder had been enrolled in private schools.

The students, coming from most parts of Washington, attended 14 different private schools, including Roman Catholic and other religious schools, elite independent schools, and other secular schools.

Most participants said students’ adjustment was difficult, largely because they faced higher academic expectations and stricter disciplinary standards in their new schools than they had in their old ones.

In fact, the report says parents and students unanimously expressed the view that tutoring or mentoring services would have made the transition easier.

Students Stigmatized?

Parents also cited instances in which they said their children had been stigmatized in their new schools because of their participation in the program. One parent, for example, recounted that a teacher had told her daughter, in front of her class, to behave better because “remember, you are here on a scholarship, and we could put you out.”

“Parents are conflicted,” Mr. Wolf said. “On the one hand, they want special accommodations for their children, such as tutoring. At the same time, they want their children to be treated like everybody else.”

For their part, officials of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the non-profit group that administers the program for the U.S. Department of Education, said they had orally warned schools from the start not to identify which students were receiving the vouchers. This year, the organization stepped up those efforts by requiring private school officials to sign agreements pledging to protect the recipients’ privacy.

Mr. Wolf said families’ confusion over costs for lunches, uniforms, transportation, and other nontuition expenses arose because the scholarships, in theory, could be used for all of those expenses. The fund declined to pay the expenses beyond tuition only when families had exhausted their $7,500-per-student allotments.

“I think we’ve gotten much clearer about that,” said Sally J. Sachar, the Washington Scholarship Fund’s president and chief executive officer. She said she was heartened by other findings showing that all the students interviewed planned to go to college.

Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, cautioned that the report is “a snapshot of an early and as yet immature program,” rather than a definitive evaluation of it.

“Time will tell whether the satisfaction of parents and students deepens or dissipates as the program really begins to take shape,” he said.

Vol. 25, Issue 09, Page 12

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