Policy Documents

Study: DC Opportunity Scholarship Program Benefits Participants

Lindsey Burke –
June 25, 2010

As the Obama administration and Congress move to phase out Washington DC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, a new evaluation of the popular voucher plan finds widespread benefits for student participants, including significantly greater high school graduation rates.

The federally mandated study by the Institute for Education Sciences is the last of a four-part series examining the effects of the program, which provides scholarships of up to $7,500 per year for low-income children in the nation’s capital to attend a private school of their parents’ choice.

Lead IES researcher Patrick Wolf says the new study underscores the positive benefits of voucher programs for students.

“All else equal, low-income inner-city students are more likely to graduate from high school if they are provided with the opportunity to attend a private school of their parents' choosing,” Wolf said. “We can’t be sure why this voucher program boosted the graduation rate of students, but the data are compelling that it did, by a lot.”

Graduation Rate ‘Holy Grail’

Eighty-two percent of voucher students graduated high school, compared with 70 percent of students who were offered a voucher but chose not to use it, IES researchers found. The overall high-school graduation rate in Washington, DC is around 50 percent.
Wolf says the impact of the scholarship program on high school graduation rates, especially for the subgroup of students who didn’t actually use the voucher, is “huge both in size and importance.”

“If the younger [scholarship] students experience the same benefit, of an increase of 12 percentage points in the likelihood of graduation simply from the offer of a scholarship, an extra 449 low-income DC students will graduate from high school solely because of the Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Wolf said.

“High school graduation is the Holy Grail of educational interventions in the inner city,” Wolf said, noting high school graduates live longer, experience lower rates of unemployment, earn higher wages on average, and are less likely to be convicted of a crime. “If a program boosts the graduation rate, and does nothing else, it’s a success,” he said.

Standardized Test Scores Mixed

Although voucher students’ graduation prospects are significantly higher than those of non-voucher students, the IES evaluation found a smaller impact on test scores even though the analysis showed overall gains in reading.

Wolf explained several factors might have contributed to the lack of significant test score gains. Several hundred students who were included in the first three studies “aged out” of the final year. Wolf also noted DC public school students showed a surprising 20 percent gain on NAEP scores in the past few years, making it more difficult for the voucher group to “pull away.”

“We know that it is rare for a rigorous evaluation of an educational intervention to show clear achievement gains for all kinds of participating students,” Wolf said. “Rigorous evaluations such as this one are very conservative, for example, in that they factor the achievement of scholarship ‘decliners’ into the [voucher] group average even though they never used the [voucher].”

“The pattern of test score results across the years and across the subjects strongly suggests that the program produced modest achievement gains in reading, most likely for certain subgroups of students,” Wolf said.
Slated to End

The evaluation has brought new calls on Congress to reauthorize the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has provided children a lifeline out of the underperforming and unsafe DC public schools since 2003. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) in 2009 inserted language into an omnibus-spending bill to prohibit new students from receiving Opportunity Scholarships. Congress also cut OSP funding $13 million to $9 million this year, with funding “zeroed out” next year.

The DC-based American Federation for Children, a bipartisan coalition of education reformers and activists, issued a statement on Tuesday urging Congress to renew the program based on the study’s results.

“As we review the evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, it is clear that the time has come for President Obama and his Congressional allies to reauthorize the program and empower thousands of additional, low-income D.C. schoolchildren with the opportunity to graduate from high school and achieve their dreams,” said Kevin P. Chavous, former DC City Councilman and member of the American Federation for Children's board of directors.

Violent, Ineffective Public Schools

The OSP has been a success for students who would have otherwise been relegated to a school system in which just 17 percent of fourth graders and only 14 percent of eighth graders achieve proficiency in reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Among the worst performers nationally on academic measures, DC public schools also has the notorious distinction of ranking among the most violent school districts in the country. One in eight public school students have reported being threatened with a deadly weapon.

Parents Satisfied With Choice

Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice and a school choice advocate instrumental in the fight to create the scholarship program, notes OSP has not just been a success for students but has also been a success in the eyes of parents.

“Parents whose children received a scholarship continue to be satisfied with their school and view it as safer,” Walden Ford explained.

Walden Ford highlighted the importance of the graduation rate findings. “In a city where graduation rates have been abysmal, this is incredibly good news,” she said.  “Since one of Obama’s priorities is to increase graduation rates for disadvantaged minority students, we see in this evaluation that the DC OSP does just that.  It is a program that seems to fall right in line with this administration’s position.”

Scholarships Save Money

Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, noted the IES findings are especially poignant when also considered along with the cost of the Opportunity Scholarships. Ladner notes the vouchers cost about one-third as much as the DC public school system spends per pupil, with better results and higher parental satisfaction.

“Higher graduation rates and happier parents at a two-thirds discount is quite an achievement,” Ladner said.

“If President Obama were the least bit serious about 'funding what works regardless of ideology,' he would push to reauthorize the program immediately to provide disadvantaged children in the District the same types of opportunities he enjoyed as a child and which his daughters are enjoying now,” Ladner explained.

Meanwhile, Wolf says decisions about the future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program should be based on research results.

“I always think that policy decisions should be based on the results of rigorous research,” Wolf said. “This was a rigorous and informative evaluation.”

The IES study was released on June 22.

Lindsey Burke (lindsey.burke@heritage.org) is a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, www.heritage.org.