Dear Commons Community,
Last Thursday, the United States Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, released a report, The Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded voucher program in the country, that found students who attended a private school through the program performed worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts who did not use the vouchers. As reported by the New York Times:
“For more than a decade, House Republicans led by the former Speaker John A. Boehner have used school children in the nation’s capital as an experiment for school choice, funding a far-reaching voucher program to send poor children to private schools over the opposition of local teachers and unions.
Now, with Betsy DeVos, one of the country’s fiercest advocates of school choice, installed as education secretary, that experiment is poised to go national. But Ms. DeVos’s own department this week rendered judgment on the Washington school choice program: It has not improved student achievement, and it may have worsened it.
Among students who attended poor-performing public schools — the targets of this and other voucher programs — there was no significant effect on achievement.
Researchers and experts said the report offered a valuable, if limited, snapshot of the program that was based on a one-year study of 1,700 students — 995 who were selected through a lottery to receive scholarship offers, and 776 who were not.
The program was established in 2004 during Mr. Boehner’s tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and he proposed the legislation to reauthorize it in 2011 under the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act. Congress also mandated an independent evaluation of the program.
The report, released Thursday, was well underway before the 2016 election, but it comes as President Trump and Ms. DeVos press Congress to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to a voucher program as part of a $1.4 billion plan to expand school choice among private, parochial and public charter schools — a move that critics say would cripple the public education system.
Researchers said that the Washington program was not intended to make a case for or against a national voucher system. The city has a robust choice of charter and private schools, and public schools have significantly improved in the past decade — conditions not mirrored in other school districts.
“In D.C., it’s good to think of this as a study of value added to an environment that is already rich with school choice,” said Marsha Silverberg, who oversaw the evaluation for the Institute of Education Sciences.
Still, the results are sizable enough to conclude that students who were not selected for vouchers fared better academically.
Math scores among students who used the vouchers were roughly seven percentage points lower than students who were not selected. The negative academic effect was even more pronounced for students who were not attending a low-performing school when they were awarded the vouchers — their scores were 14.6 percentage points lower in reading and 18.3 percentage points lower in math — and for students in elementary school.
Switching schools had little effect on the achievement gap, the report found, but students in public schools did receive more instruction time each week in math and reading than students who used the private school vouchers. Private school proponents have often argued that comparing standardized test scores of public and private schools is unfair because public schools are held more accountable for test scores and tend to spend more time teaching tested subjects while private schools offer enrichment programs like art and music.”
Regardless of these findings, there will be a major push for school vouchers in the coming year. It will be interesting to see how state leaders and education departments will react to voucher proposals from the USDOE.