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School Choice & Charters

Study of D.C. Vouchers Finds No Effect on Test Scores, but More-Satisfied Students

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 15, 2019 3 min read
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Students getting vouchers to go to private schools in the nation’s capital were less likely to be chronically absent and were more likely to give their schools a high grade than their peers—but the academic impacts for those receiving the vouchers were mixed, according to a new study.

The evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program from the Institute of Education Sciences was released Wednesday. It looks at various effects of receiving and not receiving the scholarships on students, three years after they applied to receive vouchers. It is the only federally funded private school voucher program in the nation, and is often the subject of wrangling between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

The study covers eligible students who applied to receive the scholarships in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and then tracked results from those who did as well as those who did not receive vouchers.

It’s hard to characterize the results across different areas in a tidy way, so here are a few main findings for you to digest:

  • As the above chart shows, there were no significant differences between the “treatment group” (those getting the vouchers) and the “control group” over three years. But digging deeper into the numbers, students getting the vouchers performed worse in math for two years, but then between years two and three had faster test score growth in math than their counterparts without the scholarships. “Questions about the longer-term effects of the OSP on academic outcomes will remain unanswered, as Congress mandated that the current evaluation conclude,” the authors note.
  • Those in the voucher program were less likely to be chronically absent than their peers who sought but did not get scholarships.
  • Students in the OSP were more likely to give their schools an A or B grade, and more likely to say their schools were “very safe.” However, parents of students offered or using scholarships, as well as those not offered scholarships, reported similar levels of satisfaction on both counts.

A study of D.C. voucher students’ performance in math from 2018 also revealed weaker gains than their peers.

Proponents of school choice often try to move the conversation beyond test scores and focus on what they say are the benefits for students’ experiences. Just last month, for example, researchers Corey DeAngelis and Martin Lueken studied survey data from traditional public, charter, and private schools in Indiana and found “statistically significant private school advantages, relative to traditional public schools, for [eight] out of the 13 safety outcomes.”

However, skeptics of school choice—and private school choice in particular—are likely to play up the test-score parity between the treatment and control groups of students. Research of whether students recover from initial declines in test scores after starting in voucher programs is mixed.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., introduced legislation to reauthorize the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which authorizes the D.C. vouchers, in January. Also that month, legislation to update SOAR was introduced by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. President Donald Trump has praised the voucher program, but there was tension between President Barack Obama’s administration and Republicans in Congress for years. The conservative Heritage Foundation has called on Congress to make the scholarships funded via formula, in order to shield them from the vagaries of the appropriations process, and perhaps more importantly, remove income-based eligibility caps.

Want some basic facts about the scholarships? Say no more:

And read the full report below: