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June 23, 2010 [feather]
Refund the DC OSP

Last year, Congress defunded the historic DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offered scholarships for kids in underperforming public schools to attend private schools. I've met families in the program, I've visited schools participating in the program, and I've seen how transformative the scholarships have been for kids and their parents--for many, it's the difference between a child having a shot at college and a child having no shot at any kind of life at all. Setting aside academics, parents also place an understandable premium on the safety differential: At a private school, they know their sons and daughters will be safe during the school day. In public school, there is no assurance of that at all. DC has some of the worst public schools in the country--and that translates into astounding figures for adult illiteracy, poverty, and crime.

So the program was a godsend when it was created in 2004. But the program got caught up in ideological crossfire, and Congress deferred to the teachers' unions--which oppose vouchers as a threat to their interests--and to associated specious arguments about whether vouchers are actually effective. Matt Ladner explains how tragic that was and is:

The Department of Education released the final report of the evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program today. The major finding of this report, and it is MAJOR, is that students who were randomly selected to receive vouchers had an 82% graduation rate. That's 12 percentage points higher than the students who didn't receive vouchers. Students who actually used their vouchers had graduation rates that were 21% higher. Even better, the subgroup of students who received vouchers and came from designated Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI schools) had graduation rates that were 13 percentage points higher than the same subgroup of students who weren't offered vouchers--and the effect was 20 percentage points higher for the SINI students who used their vouchers!

This is a huge finding. The sorry state of graduation rates, especially for disadvantaged students, has been the single largest indicator that America's schools are failing to give every student an equal chance at success in life. Graduating high school is associated with a number of critical life outcomes, ranging from lifetime earnings to incarceration rates. And, despite countless efforts and attempts at reform, changing the dismal state of graduation rates has been an uphill battle.

Of course, the uphill battle will continue. As most are aware, Congress voted to kill the DC voucher program last year, despite evidence that the program had significantly improved reading achievement for students who received scholarships. That evidence didn't count for much when faced with opposition from teachers' unions.

In the final report, the reading achievement findings just miss the Department of Education's threshold for statistical significance. As a result, the spin put out by the administration claims that there is "No conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement." This is wrong of course. Last year's (third year) report DID find conclusive evidence that the Program raised student achievement in reading. A close read of this year's final report reveals that the sample size of students in the final year was smaller because a number of the students participating in the study had graded-out of the Program. It's not surprising then that the statistical significance of the reading effects fell just short of the required level. Still, with a p-value of .06, we can say that we are 94% certain that the treatment group did outperform the control group in reading in the final year. Moreover, the final report found statistically significant achievement gains for 3 of the 6 subgroups they examined.

In sum, the five-year evaluation of the DC voucher program has shown that low-income students who recieved scholarships have higher graduation rates, higher student achievement, increased parental views of safety, and increased parent satisfaction. There was not one single negative finding over the entire course of the evaluation. I'd say that’s quite a success for a program that spent a fraction of the per-pupil amount spent in DC public schools.

So when does the re-authorization begin?

The short answer to that question is: It will begin when the public puts so much heat on Congress that it has to begin. Right now the heat comes from the unions, which can make or break you at election time.

The parents and kids in the program fought for years to get it authorized (first time around, back in the 90s, President Clinton vetoed it) and they are still fighting to keep it alive--because it's really about life or death to them. But more people have to get involved. If you remember your high school civics classes, people living in DC don't have Congressmen like everyone else. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program must have the support of representatives and senators from the states--which means it's up to you and me to let our Congressmen know that this is an issue they ought to care about.

Did I mention that the program costs about half what the public schools do per student? And that's before we factor in the long-term costs of failing to produce educated adults who can contribute to society--as opposed to uneducated ones with a high probability of becoming dependent, one way or another, on the state.

posted on June 23, 2010 6:38 AM

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