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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

By Mike DeBonis  |  June 23, 2010; 1:10 PM ET
Categories:  The District  
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Do voucher kids actually stay longer, or are they just awarded a diploma at the end of senior year, regardless of their low achievement?

We really don't know, do we? My assumption was that the private schools were graduating kids that the public schools were not -- not that the kids were dropping out less.

Let's find out.

Posted by: efavorite | June 23, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

"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."

What is the basis for this statement? Did WTU or AFT comment on the study?

Posted by: Nemessis | June 23, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

Stop the Charter School abuse in the USA. The Gulen Movement manages 97 Charter Schools in the USA. Fetullah Gulen is described as the most dangerous Islamic Imman in the world. These schools are mismanaged and the funds (tax payer money) for HB-1 Visas for Turkish teachers that are uncredentialed. They are indoctrinating American children to Islamic culture, language, dance, poetry with productions in the USA and in Turkey.
DO YOUR RESEARCH CHESAPEAKE SCIENCE HAS CLOSED DOWN. Parents be a part of your child's education not indoctrination.

Posted by: SalesA1 | June 23, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

Good question, Nemessis..

I called the AFT for comment. George Jackson, a spokesman, declined to comment specifically on the study but did express the union's opposition to voucher programs generally for the reasons I mentioned in the post.

Posted by: debonisma | June 23, 2010 11:53 PM | Report abuse

I don't get a hoot if parents would rather have their kids go to religious schools, they should not be doing it with government money.

There are dozens of charter schools in DC giving a ton of options to students and parents, choose one of those. There is no evidence that those charters actually perform better then public schools, but you have a choice.

Religious schools are adamant about NOT taking any sorts of standardized tests, which as we have all been told over and over again are the end all and be all of academic achievment, so how can we know how successful they are.

There are lots of good religious schools, but taxpayers should not be paying for religious educations.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | June 24, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Mr. DeBonis' comments are as weak as is The Washington Post editorial in support of this voucher program. This voucher program was a failure.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | June 24, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Mike - I read through the study again. It doesn't mention a thing about high-school dropout rates, so it's not at all clear that higher graduation rates actually means staying longer.

Also the graduation rates statistics were based on parents' reports only. Why? Surely the schools have records of how many graduated, including both drop-outs and students who stayed the course, but ultimately did not meet graduation requirements. Why not use official records to calculate this, instead of less dependable parental responses?

It makes me wonder if "graduation rates" was tacked on at the end of the study (at the request of voucher proponents? Instigated by principal investigator, Patrick J. Wolf, who spoke out in support of vouchers?) Here’s a quote from a 3/16/10 WaPo editorial about vouchers [with comments from me]:

"The D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government's official education research arm so far," [damning with faint praise?] wrote Patrick J. Wolf, principal investigator for the Education Department's study. He went on to say: "in my opinion, the bottom line is that the OSP lottery paid off for those students who won it. On average, participating low-income students are performing better in reading [a shaky, interim finding, since refuted] because the federal government decided to launch an experimental school choice program in the nation's capital."

Posted by: efavorite | June 24, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Update - While info on the graduation rates was indeed added in the final study, "tacked on" does not fairly describe the process, as it was planned from the beginning, according to this footnote found in interim reports on the voucher program:

9 We are deferring the analysis of education attainment (Question 2) until the final report to allow a sufficient number of impact sample students (30 percent) to age into being potentially able to graduate from (or conversely drop out of) high school, in order to ensure appropriate power to detect statistically significant differences (impact) between the treatment and control group if there are any. The analysis of how DC schools are responding to the OSP (Question 5) depends on changes over time and will also be examined in the final evaluation report. 2009 report, page 5

Still, it's an open question as to why, if it was planned from the beginning, did they just use parents' reports of graduation instead of tracking it through the years using official records?

Posted by: efavorite | June 24, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

They only people who are clearly against the voucher program are the overly paid under performing teachers in DCPS. They're against it because it removes negotiating room for contracts and they'd like to maintain their monopoly on student education --to the general detriment of DC and it's children.

The charters need to be policed better so that they aren't a money making scheme the way DC churches are a money making scheme. However, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with taking the equivalent money to educate a student from DCPS and handing it over to a school. If, on a school-by-school basis, they can prove that they are exceeding the requirements for the grade level or the local PS, they should continue to attract public financing.

Shame on Obama for catering to teachers unions. Let the private schools stand and fall by their merits, not because DCPS is stealing public money.

Posted by: FormerMCPSStudent | June 24, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

...and Robert Vinson Brannum just wants more free taxpayer dollars pumped into the private schools he sends his kid to.

He's also suing the city because he craves attention.

Posted by: IMGoph | June 26, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

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