School & District Management

Researchers See Opportunity In D.C. Vouchers

By Caroline Hendrie — February 04, 2004 7 min read
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Some scholars see it as a gold mine, others as a subject they wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Either way, the chance to study the new federally financed school voucher program in the nation’s capital has piqued the interest of education researchers around the country.

Spelled out in detail in the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003—part of a catchall spending bill enacted last month—is a requirement that the five- year pilot program be thoroughly evaluated from the get-go. That congressional mandate has some researchers scrambling to assemble teams strong enough to snare the competitively bid federal contract to evaluate what seems sure to be a high-profile program.

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Read the accompanying story, “Paige Calls for Wider Support of School Choice.”

“This study could once and for all answer the key question of whether the act of choosing to send your child to a private school is one that leads to higher student achievement,” said Nina S. Rees, a deputy undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education, whose office of innovation and improvement will oversee the voucher program.

With memories still fresh of a scorching battle over passage of the program—which will provide tuition aid for secular and religious private schools for perhaps 1,700 District of Columbia pupils—interest in the evaluation is high in the research, policymaking, and advocacy communities.

Past voucher studies have become the subject of intensely polarized debate, and some scholars warned last week that federal officials would have to tread carefully for the new study to avoid a similar fate.

“You can’t choose an organization that is either adamantly for or opposed to vouchers,” said Emily Van Dunk, the research director for the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee and a co-author of a new book on that city’s voucher program. “It has to be a set group of people who have the wherewithal to do the study, but who do not have a vested interest in its outcome. They need to be ready to be beat up from both sides.”

The evaluation and the broad topics it will cover are mandated in the legislation that received final congressional approval Jan. 22 and that President Bush signed the next day. (“Federal Plan for Vouchers Clears Senate,” Jan. 28, 2004.)

Under that measure, the impact of the voucher program on the children who participate in it should be the assessment’s primary focus, say officials from the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, which is gearing up to seek proposals from outside scholars.

Mandated areas of inquiry include how students using vouchers perform on standardized tests compared both with students who lost out in the lottery for the vouchers and public school students in Washington at large.

Other issues that must be examined in the evaluation, the legislation says, are the program’s success “in expanding choice options for parents"; the reasons parents choose to sign up; and a comparison of the safety of schools attended by students in and outside the program.

Where possible, researchers are also to compare the retention, dropout, graduation, and college-admission rates of voucher recipients with those of students of similar backgrounds who do not take part in the program.

A Modest Program

Reflecting a topic that has long been at the heart of the national debate over vouchers, the legislation also requires that the evaluation consider the program’s impact on the public schools in the city and their students. But Education Department officials say that issue is likely to take a back seat to the program’s impact on voucher recipients when compared with their peers.

“Honestly, there’s a general consensus that that is the most important question,” said Marsha K. Silverberg, the coordinator of studies of school choice for the Institute of Education Sciences.

Even if that order of priorities were not suggested by the legislation itself, some researchers doubt the new program can yield much insight into the effect of vouchers on public schools.

One factor working against such an impact is the program’s size. With funding of $14 million annually—$1 million for administration—the program could pay for the private school tuition of about 1,700 students, if they all received the maximum allowable voucher of $7,500. Enrollment in the regular public schools stands at about 66,000, and the District of Columbia’s charter schools now serve more than 13,000 students.

“We’re talking about a program that—although it seems like a big deal to people—is actually tiny,” said Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard University who has analyzed the effects of vouchers in Milwaukee, where more than 13,000 students now use vouchers through a 14-year-old state-financed program.

“It’s very unlikely that the regular public schools would respond strongly in a very competitive way,” Ms. Hoxby said.

Yet some researchers said the program’s modest size should be kept in perspective. They noted that the Milwaukee program also was small at the start

“There’s such a dearth of good research on school choice that it’s not something I would easily ignore,” said Jane Hannaway, the director of the education policy center at the Washington-based Urban Institute, who said she was interested in becoming involved in the evaluation.

Besides the program’s size, other researchers said any effort in the District of Columbia to study the systemic impact of vouchers—an issue that many scholars say has not been extensively examined—would be made harder by the other forces exerting pressures on the city’s public schools.

Those forces include the city’s expanding charter sector, the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, and potential governance changes as Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat who lobbied for the voucher program, pursues a more direct role for the city in running the public schools.

“With everything else going on, it’s not a clean test of school vouchers,” said Cecilia Rouse, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. “This is a nightmare in terms of evaluation.”

Other scholars said it was too soon to make such assumptions.

“I don’t think it’s a very good idea to sit around and speculate on what can be done and what can’t be done until people who have thought about this have put their minds to it,” said Paul E. Peterson, a professor in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Mr. Peterson has been at the center of a long-running controversy over research he and others have conducted of privately financed school voucher programs in New York City, Washington, and Dayton, Ohio. (“Researcher Insists N.Y.C. Vouchers Benefit Black Students,” June 18, 2003.) He declined to say last week whether he was interested in bidding for the new federal program’s evaluation.

Two Stages

Some voucher opponents—such as the National School Boards Association—are urging the Department of Education to avoid selecting evaluators perceived as sharing the Bush administration’s policy support of vouchers.

“One would expect that the DOE, wishing to avoid even the appearance of a slanted study, would select a researcher or group whose credentials are impeccable and who clearly does not have a dog in this fight, so to speak,” said Marc Egan, the director of the NSBA’s voucher- strategy center.

Mr. Egan cited the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. as one such research organization. He also pointed to Mr. Peterson and Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the New York City-based Manhattan Institute who has studied Florida’s voucher programs, as researchers who “have made no secret of their support for vouchers.”

Mr. Greene declined last week to discuss the planned evaluation. Said Mr. Peterson: “The Department of Education, I’m sure, will judge proposals on their scientific merits, not on any prejudgments about people’s views.”

Education Department officials said they would do just that. The goal, said Ms. Rees, is “to ensure that this study is as flawless as possible, and one that rises above the criticism of the opponents of school choice.”

In the meantime, the Education Department has broken down the evaluation work into two stages as officials gear up to launch the voucher program in time for the 2004-05 school year.

Because of the tight timeline, the department intends to use an expedited bidding process to request proposals this month for evaluation-related work to be completed this year. Bidders for that initial work will be limited to prequalified researchers. The main contract for the evaluation, however, will be competitively bid through the standard procurement process, which is expected to take about six months.

“It’s exciting to see how this unfolds as education researchers,” Ms. Van Dunk of the policy forum in Milwaukee said. “I think that all eyes are going to be on D.C.”

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