With the future of the closely watched voucher program for students in the District of Columbia hanging in the balance, the latest round of data from a federal study offers the first evidence that, overall, participating students are getting some extra academic benefit.
The study found a positive impact on the reading scores of students who have used the $7,500 vouchers to attend private schools, three years after they first applied, when compared with a randomized control group of similar students who sought, but did not receive, the tuition aid. No statistically significant differences were seen in mathematics.
On average, students who used the vouchers were performing at statistically higher levels on reading tests, equivalent to about 3.7 months of learning. The study also found statistically significant, though slightly lower, reading gains when looking at all students who were offered the scholarships, whether or not they used them.
However, no positive impact on reading and math achievement was seen for the students given the highest priority under the federally funded program: those in schools identified as low-performing under the No Child Left Behind Act. Likewise, there was no apparent academic advantage for students who, when first applying for vouchers, were in the lower third in their baseline test results.
The findings, released April 3 by the U.S. Department of Education, come as many observers expect the Democratic-controlled Congress will seek to halt the voucher program at the end of the 2009-10 academic year. The fiscal 2009 omnibus-spending bill President Barack Obama signed in March contained language indicating the program would end at that time if not reauthorized by Congress.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said last month that the administration would oppose taking away vouchers from students already in the program. At the same time, the Education Department recently indicated that no new voucher students should be accepted for the coming school year, a stance that is consistent with nonbinding instructions included in the conference report Congress attached to the omnibus bill.
The voucher program, enacted in 2004 by a Republican-controlled Congress, provides scholarships of up to $7,500 for Washington students from low-income families. This academic year, 1,716 students are participating.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week