School Choice & Charters

D.C. Voucher Program Signs Up Families

By Karla Scoon Reid — June 23, 2004 6 min read
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Too few public school students have applied for the first year of the District of Columbia’s voucher program to allow for a randomized study of the federally financed initiative.

The inadequate number of eligible applicants has led federal officials to drop plans for a study that would have compared the achievement of voucher recipients with that of students who requested the grants but didn’t receive them.

Confident that more of Washington’s low-income public school students will apply for the tuition vouchers next year, federal officials said a study would be launched at that time.

“It takes a while for new programs to catch on,” said Sally J. Sachar, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit organization administering the voucher program.

The five-year pilot effort, which in January became the first voucher program enacted by Congress, awards grants of up to $7,500 per student for tuition to attend the 50 participating private religious and secular schools. More than 1,600 students could receive vouchers if the maximum grant were awarded to each recipient.

While 2,620 students applied by the May 17 deadline, a third failed to meet the program’s requirements for residency and income eligibility. And of the 1,710 eligible applicants, 27 percent are already enrolled in private schools.

Last week, 1,049 public school students received word that they qualified for the vouchers, along with 200 students already attending private schools, managers of the program said.

But once families select the private schools they want their children to attend this week, the total number of public school students who receive vouchers could be lower because of a lack of space in sought-after schools, attrition, or other factors.

If all of the eligible private school students who applied were awarded grants, all of the voucher spots would be filled, Ms. Sachar said. But because the program’s goal was to expand school choice for public school students from low-income families, the number of private school voucher recipients was restricted.

Nervous Parents?

Voucher critics said the relatively small applicant pool meant that parents were sending a clear message: We’re not interested. But proponents of the initiative countered that the response was strong despite multiple obstacles, including the contentious atmosphere of the voucher debate.

Federal Initiative
The federally financed voucher program for the District of Columbia will award grants of up to $7,500 per student. To be eligible, they must be Washington residents and meet income guidelines. Grants were awarded through a lottery process last week. Students will start selecting the schools they hope to attend this week.
Grants available at maximum amount 1,613
Total applicants 2,620
Total eligible applicants 1,710
Eligible public school applicants 1,241
Vouchers granted to public school students 1,049
Eligible private school applicants 469
Vouchers granted to private school students 200
Participating private schools (44 percent Catholic; 30 percent nonreligious;26 percent other religious affiliation 50
Private schools seats available for public school students 1,264
SOURCE: Washington Scholarship Fund

Washington’s inaugural-year experience appears to mirror the growing pains of the voucher initiatives in Cleveland and Milwaukee, researchers familiar with those programs said.

Both cities’ state-enacted voucher plans were undersubscribed in the first year, a trend that continues today, said Emily Van Dunk, the research director of the Public Policy Forum, a Milwaukee organization, and the co-author of a book about the city’s voucher program.

“Parents are nervous to be the pioneer,” she said.

Ms. Van Dunk said a voucher program isn’t necessarily flawed if it doesn’t reach maximum student capacity.

For example, in 1996, the first year Cleveland public school students received private school vouchers, the program initially appeared to be oversubscribed, she said. But that fall, the city teachers’ union averted a strike and voters passed a property-tax levy, easing negative feelings about the public schools. Ultimately, Ms. Van Dunk said, Cleveland public school students left some vouchers unused.

Kim Metcalf, a professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington who is conducting an ongoing study of the Cleveland voucher program for the state, said Ohio education officials had hoped to commission a randomized study of applicant recipients and nonrecipients much like the study design for the District of Columbia. But they dropped that strategy when too few students applied.

Still, he said the capital city’s program can be evaluated using other methods, including parent and student interviews.

Nina S. Rees, a deputy undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education whose office of innovation and improvement oversees the new voucher program, said that although randomized field studies are the “gold standard” for research, the voucher program’s effectiveness still must be evaluated. The voucher law requires the department to produce annual progress reports. (“Researchers See Opportunity in D.C. Vouchers,” Feb. 4, 2004.)

Researchers could opt to compare the academic performance of voucher recipients with that of similar students attending public schools, Ms. Rees said. The research methods have not been identified, she added, because the contract for the study has not been awarded.

A more “robust” study will be conducted following the 2005-06 school year, Ms. Rees said, adding that up to 800 more vouchers could be awarded that fall by rolling unused funds into the program’s second year.

Time Frame Tight

By the time the Washington Scholarship Fund was awarded a $12.5 million federal grant on March 24 to run the voucher program, the organization had about a month to develop an application process. That left scholarship-fund officials with a 17-day window this spring to drum up applicants in the community through meetings, fliers, and advertisements.

Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, said although she received many calls from parents asking about the vouchers, many were ultimately reluctant to apply. “Many of them felt that it wasn’t real,” she said, “that there’s going to be strings attached. They don’t trust the federal government.”

The city’s 39 charter schools also could have been a factor. Some charter schools, which enroll 13,400 students in the District of Columbia, start accepting applications in January.

Those challenges aside, Ms. Sachar pointed out the voucher program is over- subscribed in grades 6-12, with 540 public school students applying for 296 slots. Only 699 public school students applied for the 968 seats in kindergarten to 5th grade. (A lottery will be held to select scholarship recipients.)

The number of applicants falls short of the predictions made by supporters that thousands of students would clamor to leave public schools, said Marc Egan, the director of the National School Boards Association’s voucher-strategy center. The Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA opposes such vouchers.

Mr. Egan argued, “the demand appears fairly low among families for whom the program was supposedly created for—low-income parents.”

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