D.C. school vouchers -- the last word?
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education issued its final evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- aka school vouchers.
To review, the federally funded voucher program is on life support. The Democratic Congress has thus far resisted attempts to reauthorize the program. The Obama administration last year budgeted enough money to allow current voucher holders to complete their high school educations, but not enough to allow new applicants; Congress has maintained that approach since.
So will the study move the ball? Here's what it found: (a) "There is no conclusive evidence that the [voucher program] affected student achievement." (b) The program "significantly improved students' chances of graduating from high school" -- by 12 percent. And (c), the program "raised parents', but not students', ratings of school safety and satisfaction."
An initial glance at those results -- no rise in test scores, but a significant rise in graduation rates -- would fall into the category of mixed results. And mixed results, given the heated political climate under which the voucher program operates, means plenty of room for spin.
A group, D.C. Parents for School Choice, issued a news release lauding the study, claiming that it "is making a difference for students who need our help the most and it is helping lead a revitalization of D.C. schools." This newspaper's editorial board today also endorsed the study and called on Congress to continue the program. Meanwhile, teachers unions remain opposed to any voucher program, on the grounds that it serves a small portion of students without directly aiding the school systems that are left to educate the majority. And unless the makeup of Congress changes dramatically, that position is likely to continue to prevail on the Hill.
But how to explain the essential dilemma of the findings? How can there be such a dramatic rise in graduation rates with so little change in test scores?
Patrick Wolf, the University of Arkansas researcher who led the study, tells me the phenomenon isn't unheard of. As far back as the 1980s, he says, famed sociologist James S. Coleman had theorized that, when it came to disadvantaged students, private schools "had a stronger effect on their persistence in the education system rather than their performance." In other words, they may not do better, but they stay longer.
"It could be that the private school environment provides these students with greater self-confidence, greater self-discipline, and those are two elements that are key to having kids stay in school," Wolf says.
And staying longer, Wolf says, is a worthy goal in itself. High-school graduates live longer, make more money and are less likely to end up in prison than dropouts. "If you ask a parent, what would you rather have: Your child score higher on tests but drop out or have the score the same but graduate from high school," he says, "100 percent of them would say" the latter.
The more complex question -- and the question more relevant to school reform in the District -- is what's the value of vouchers apart from the value of the other, much larger school-choice initiative: charter schools.
Charters, after all, have become a fixture in the educational firmament of the District, attracting some 30 percent of public school children and the wide support of both local officials and some congressional voucher foes.
Wolf says there is some evidence that charters provide the same boost to graduation rates as vouchers do. He points to a 2008 Rand Corp. study of charter students in Chicago and Florida which found that "among students who attended a charter middle school, those who went on to attend a charter high school were 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to earn a standard diploma than students who transitioned to a traditional public high school."
That, of course, complicates the political picture considerably. It does nothing to counter this argument, presented by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa): "Already, D.C. parents have a choice. We have over 60 charters in the District of Columbia, and they're growing all the time."
Wolf says vouchers may still have value. For one, some parents prefer religious environments for their children -- something charters can't provide -- and, he points out, with charters struggling to meet demand, private schools offer instant capacity.
And then there's this point: "I think the question to ask is, Where's the harm?" Wolf says. "What's the harm of extending this program? There's no evidence that anyone was harmed. And there is some evidence that this helped students."
Photo: By Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post
Posted by: efavorite | June 23, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Nemessis | June 23, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: SalesA1 | June 23, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: debonisma | June 23, 2010 11:53 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Wyrm1 | June 24, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: robert158 | June 24, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: efavorite | June 24, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: efavorite | June 24, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: FormerMCPSStudent | June 24, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: IMGoph | June 26, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.