President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have heaped praise on the District of Columbia’s school voucher program. But a report released Wednesday by FutureEd, a think tank housed at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, finds that the number of students who actually used the vouchers dropped to 1,154 in the 2016-17 school year, from 1,638 four years prior.
About a third of the students who had already snagged vouchers through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program didn’t use them. And more than half of the students who received vouchers through the 2016 lottery didn’t up enrolling in a private school.
The drop in program participation may be partly due to problems with the
program’s design, the report notes. The voucher program exists at the pleasure of Congress, which means some school administrators and parents could be reluctant to count on the money. The District gets about $45 million in federal funding, spread between the voucher program, charters, and public schools.
What’s more, the vouchers are sometimes provided after the city’s private schools have completed their admissions process. And the voucher program is getting “stiff competition” from the city’s charters and from rapidly improving public schools, the report notes.
The report’s findings “call question whether vouchers can meaningfully increase the number of high-quality classroom seats for disadvantaged students in a district with so many public sector options,” the report’s authors Phyllis Jordan and Kendell Long write.
But John Schilling, the chief operating officer of the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy organization that DeVos once chaired, said that there may be other, more political reasons for the downturn in enrollment.
The Obama administration, Schilling wrote in an email, “imposed highly restrictive implementation rules on the program administrator that had the intended effect of depressing participation in the program.” The program administrator would get thousands of applications, he said, but could only admit a limited number of interested new students. And he said that the previous administration “sat on” money that was supposed to be for new scholarships.
A report released in April by the Institute for Education Sciences—the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education—found a negative impact on student achievement, and no increase in parent satisfaction among children who enrolled in the program. Parents whose children received vouchers did, however, perceive that their schools were safer.
Schilling, however, sees the study as a “a one year snapshot.” Students need at least two to four years to begin showing significant academic progress, he said.
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