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Education Secretary DeVos Celebrates 15 Years of DC Opportunity Scholarships

February 22, 2019

The only federally funded school voucher program has been a success

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) needs “predictability and stability in funding,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at a forum celebrating the scholarship program’s 15th anniversary.

The DCOSP is the only federally funded school voucher program in the nation. It provides annual funding in a multitier structure, with $20 million in grants to government schools to help them improve and compete and $20 million in tuition scholarships that give children from low-income families access to private schools.

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program was reauthorized through 2022 by the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act of 2017, though Congress must appropriate funds annually.

Funding ‘Predictability and Stability’

The program has had its ups and downs, says DeVos. Authorized in 2003 under the Bush administration, funding lapsed under the Obama administration in 2009, leaving private donors to fill the gap.

“This program has been a political football, in too many ways and for too many years,” DeVos told the audience at The Heritage Foundation on January 23 during national during School Choice Week.

“It is imperative that Congress not only reauthorize this program but do so with predictability and stability, and I would argue with an automatic growth piece put into it so that more and more students can take advantage of the choices some have today,” DeVos said. “The demand continues to be unmet.”

‘Clear and Convincing Evidence’

Critics of the program often refer to a slight drop in test scores among students who enroll, but that is not representative of the results, DeVos says.

“Everybody wants to constantly refer to the one [statistic] where students—especially in math—showed a little dip after their first two years,” said DeVos. “Well, think about it: if a kid is struggling in a school to which they're assigned, they then change schools and start something new. Any time we change anything, it takes a little while to get up to speed”

Over the long term, DC scholarship students show improvement, DeVos says.

“All of the studies that have been longitudinal in nature, and for students that have been in the program the longest period of time, they continue to show growth year after year,” said DeVos.

Teachers vs. Public, Children

The major opposition to school choice in DC and nationwide is teachers unions, DeVos says.

“Sixty-seven percent of the people in this county—two-thirds—support choice,” DeVos said. “The only thing standing in the way is the teachers unions that have a personal, vested interest.”

DCOSP and similar programs face a constant threat of closure, says Lennie Jarratt, project manager for the Center for Transforming Education at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“The DC Opportunity Scholarship comes under threat of being defunded every few years,” said Jarratt. “This is political gamesmanship of talking points that usually ends in the program getting funded.

“The continued funding is due to several facts: an increase in graduation rates, increase in student safety, and the cost savings of these scholarships over the district-operated schools,” Jarratt said. “This program should be expanded instead of threatened with closure.”

‘Copious Empirical Research’

Scholarship programs are a cost-efficient way to improve education, says Tim Benson, a policy analyst at The Heartland Institute.

“Copious empirical research on the DC program and other voucher programs throughout the country finds these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively, benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decrease segregation, and improve civic values and practices,” Benson said.

“There is also a strong causal link suggesting voucher programs such as the DC Opportunity Scholarship Fund improve the mental health of participating students,” said Benson.

Cites Parental Satisfaction

School choice works by matching students with schools that meet their needs, DeVos told the audience.

“The preponderance of evidence is really clear that choice ultimately works for students and works for families,” said DeVos. “There's too many kids across this country that don't have the chance to be in the right school with the right fit.”

Parents of school choice students are highly satisfied because the schools they choose better meet their children’s needs, says DeVos.

“Survey after survey shows that the satisfaction of parents that have had the opportunity to choose their child's school is very high,” said DeVos. “They’re happy because they're in a place that they feel is right for them. They’re happy because they feel the school is safe for them, and they're happy because of the outcomes and the achievement that their children are demonstrating and doing.”

Concerned About Political Prospects

Funding for the DCOSP faces political opposition but will probably survive it, says Benson.

“It’s unfortunate that the future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Fund is up in the air,” said Benson.

“I don’t expect Senate Republicans or President Trump to go along with Democratic efforts to gut the program,” Benson said. “So, while plans to eliminate it may pass the House of Representatives, that is hopefully as far as the attempt will go.”

The restrictions on the DC program could undermine it, Jarratt says.

“The larger threat to the program is the limitation of participants and the regulations imposed on the scholarship schools,” Jarratt said. “The more mandated regulations, the less flexibility and future participation rate of alternative schools.”

Ben Dietderich (bdietderich@hillsdale.edu) writes from Hillsdale, Michigan.

Internet Info:

Tim Benson, “Research & Commentary: Growing Support for Universal School Choice Programs,” August 31, 2018: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/research--commentary-growing-support-for-universal-school-choice-programs

Author
Benjamin Dietderich writes from Hillsdale, Michigan.
bdietderich@hillsdale.edu