School Choice & Charters

D.C. Vouchers Have Scant Effect on Scores, Study Finds

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Alyson Klein — June 16, 2008 4 min read
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For the second year in a row, researchers have found little to no overall difference in the standardized-test scores of students who are enrolled in private schools under the District of Columbia’s federally funded voucher program and their peers who attend public schools in the nation’s capital.

Specifically, for students who had attended public schools deemed to be failing before the students took part in the voucher program—a high-priority target for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—the new federal study shows no statistically significant impacts on their test scores.

At the same time, the researchers found that being offered or using a voucher under the scholarship program may have improved reading scores for three other subgroups of students, though researchers urged that those impacts be “interpreted and used with caution.” Those three subgroups constituted 88 percent of students who are participating in the voucher program and included: students who attended schools that were not labeled as failing when they applied for vouchers; students who had relatively higher academic-performance levels before entering the program; and students who were voucher applicants in the program’s first year of operation, the 2004-05 school year.

See Also

For more stories on this topic see Charters and Choice.

For background, previous stories, and Web links, read Vouchers.

“The subgroup effects here are certainly promising in regards to the effect of the lottery, but they have to be interpreted cautiously,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, which issued the report.

The report comes as the voucher program, which is set to expire after the 2008-09 school year, faces an uncertain future. The program was approved in 2004, when Congress was under Republican control.

But Democrats, who now hold the majority in both houses, are generally more critical of the program. Many say it siphons off taxpayer funds that could be used to improve public schools and violates the principle of separation of church and state, since the money can be used at religious schools.

Upbeat Interpretation

The Education Department, which jointly administers the voucher program with the Washington mayor’s office, interpreted the findings optimistically, saying the report “reaffirms academic gains” for the students who are participating in the program.

In a press release, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings praised the findings and called the voucher program a “lifeline of hope and opportunity.” She also said the findings show that “no one in a position of responsibility can sever this lifeline right now and leave these kids adrift in schools that are not measuring up.”

The National School Boards Association, based in Arlington, Va., had a different take on the report.

“The key finding is that there are no statistically significant differences overall in academic achievement between the two groups of students,” Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs for the NSBA, said in an e-mail. “This is the second straight year in a row with those findings. The alleged rationale for the program was improved student achievement. The voucher program, like others before it, has come up short. Vouchers are not a miracle ticket to a better education.” Mr. Egan urged federal lawmakers to let the program expire.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting representative in Congress, told The Washington Post that she does not expect her fellow Democrats to extend the program, which was authorized for five years. Ms. Norton, who opposes vouchers, said she is working on a plan to phase out the program, without harming the scholarship recipients.

Federal education officials said that would be a mistake. President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2009 budget calls for $74 million for District of Columbia public schools, including $18 million for the voucher program.

A House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the program is scheduled to consider the fiscal 2009 federal funding bill for the nation’s capital tomorrow, said a spokesman for Rep. Jose E. Seranno, the panel’s chairman.

“We view [the voucher program] as an essential element to overall reforms taking place in the [District of Columbia] for all students,” said Doug Mesecar, an assistant deputy secretary in the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement.

‘Time to Catch Up’

The new report compares test scores of a sample of students who attended secular or religious private schools with vouchers that they were awarded through a lottery system with those of similar students who applied for vouchers but did not receive them.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers led by Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas who was the principal investigator under a subcontract with Westat, a Rockville, Md.-based research organization. Westat is the primary contractor for the study with the department of education.

The voucher program serves roughly 2,000 low-income students. In 2004, the Education Department tapped the Washington Scholarship Fund, a scholarship-granting organization based in the District of Columbia, to run the program.

One supporter of the program said critics should not rush to judgment on the program’s effectiveness.

“Given our deep understanding of the community being served by this program, we know full well that it’s unrealistic to think these scholarship students will make immediate improvement in their new, higher-performing private schools,” Maudine Cooper, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Washington Urban League, said in a press release. “They need some time to catch up and educators know this, especially if the students are coming from struggling schools.”

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