DC Voucher Program Study Shows Mixed Results


To find out the impact of federal "voucher" programs that enable children from families with low income to attend private schools, one needs to look no further than Washington, D.C., itself. The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program was set up by Congress in 2004 to issue scholarships to students through a lottery process, not unlike what's being proposed by the current administration but on a much smaller scale. The program was reauthorized in 2011 with a stipulation that the program undergo an evaluation to measure its impacts on student academic progress, satisfaction, safety and other outcomes. In April the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences issued that evaluation, and the news was fairly mixed.

The study examined data from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 funding years, comparing outcomes for a "treatment group" (995 students picked through the lottery to receive offers of scholarships) and a control group (776 students who didn't receive the offers). The data specifically covered the first year during which students could have used their scholarships. Some 70 percent of those who received voucher offers actually used them.

On the negative side, math scores dropped by seven percentage points for students who used the scholarships a year after they applied for the vouchers. Reading scores were also lower by nearly five percentage points, a difference too close to call, according to the researchers.

On the positive side, parents perceived the new schools attended by their students as being "very safe" compared with the parents of children who didn't receive the voucher offers. Also, for parents of students in grades 6 to 12, the program had a "statistically significant positive impact" on the involvement of parents in the education of their children who were offered or used a scholarship.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who supports vouchers, issued a statement last month responding to the report with the suggestion that parents "overwhelmingly support this program." That was an exaggeration. The researchers found little difference in parental or student satisfaction with the school attended in that first year among those who were offered or used the scholarships and those who didn't receive the offers.

Critics of school vouchers jumped on the results to advocate, as Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) did, for DeVos "to finally abandon her reckless plans to privatize public schools across the country."

But the researchers were more circumspect in their findings. "Vouchers provide parents with more options for their children’s school, but parents need information about the likely outcomes of exercising the option," the report stated. "And policymakers want to know whether resources invested in vouchers represent a sound use of public funds." Even there, they suggested, more research is needed. "Impacts reported here are from the first year during which students could have used their scholarships. Impacts could differ in later years." Likewise, they reminded readers, the program only operates in the District of Columbia. "Impacts could differ in other settings or locations."

The complete report is openly available on the Institute of Education Sciences website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.