D.C.'s School Voucher Program: Lessons Learned & Continued Questions

D.C.'s School Voucher Program: Lessons Learned & Continued Questions
Susan Phillips
February 27, 2006


About 1,700 low-income children in Washington, D.C. are now attending independent schools with help from the first and (so far) only federally-funded school voucher program. The Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is now in its second school year, and skeptics and supporters are watching closely.

The program provides vouchers of up to $7,500 a year for tuition, transportation, and related expenses to eligible students, who must be from families with incomes no greater than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That works out to $28,990 for a family of three.

Passage of the voucher legislation in January of 2004 was a major victory for proponents of vouchers and for broader school-choice efforts involving charters, vouchers, and tuition tax credits. Congress authorized $12 million a year for the program for five years.

Hear from Voucher Opponents
Learn what the National Education Association, the National PTA, American Federation of Teachers, and People for the American Way have to say about vouchers.

This year, there are 62 schools participating, and they cover a lot of territory—from the tiny Academia de la Recta Porta, with 45 students in grades K through 12, to the 900-student all-boys Gonzaga High School, to elite independent schools such as former first daughter Chelsea Clinton's alma mater, Sidwell Friends.

In the Spotlight

Much of the work of getting the program started has been handled by the Washington Scholarship Fund, a non-profit that was already operating a privately funded scholarship program in the city. DC Parents for School Choice partners with WSF on efforts to create a community among participating families and ease the transition to a new school culture.

WSF President Sally Sachar says the process has been rewarding—but difficult.

"We felt so much under the microscope," said Sachar recently. "If you do something like this, you are going to be very watched...We've tried to be bi-partisan, and we are all deeply committed to public education. We would never say that non-public education is the whole solution."

Though the program has considerable local support, especially from D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, it also faces strong opposition both locally and nationally.

Hear from Voucher Supporters
The Heritage Foundation pulls together a lot of the research and thinking behind the school choice movement, as does the Center for Education Reform.

One frequent argument against federal funding for vouchers is that is violates church-state separation. In D.C., 22 of the participating schools—including some of the largest—are Catholic, and another 14 are based in other faiths.

Because private schools cannot be required to admit any student, the argument is also made that vouchers use federal tax dollars to subsidize discrimination—whether against learning disabled and handicapped students, or children who just don't fit the school's profile.

Of the 62 participating schools listed in the OSP directory, 44 indicate they cannot accept children with physical disabilities, and 23 say they cannot accept children with learning disabilities.

"Several of the participating schools are adept at taking children with learning disabilities," said Sachar. "It is by no means the case that kids with learning disabilities won't find a place...But children with severe disabilities are better off staying in the public system, and perhaps getting tuition through the special education system" to attend specialized schools. Similarly, says Sachar, the list of participating schools does include several that "are wheelchair accessible and/or can handle students with physical disabilities. These schools are spread across the District and serve all grades from kindergarten through high school at every tuition level. Therefore, scholarship families may choose a school that they feel meets their needs."

Starting From Scratch

When Congress passed the voucher legislation in January, 2004, the clock started ticking on efforts to reach out to families, verify eligibility, award vouchers and place students in schools. Sachar describes a whirlwind effort that didn't really get underway until late March of 2004, when WSF was selected to administer the program.

The vouchers were awarded in June. A school fair was held to allow the winners and their parents to learn more about their options and then apply separately to the private schools that seemed to fit. The tight time frame created a number of pressures: parents were visiting schools during the summer, rather than having a chance to see them in session; schools were anxious to finalize their enrollments; and families were struggling with an unfamiliar application process.

When only 1,027 students received vouchers for the 2004-2005 school year, critics and skeptics said that the failure to distribute all of the voucher funds proved there was no strong demand for the program.

"If I were to do it again, I would have said right up front, "We will not fill the program in the first year.' I would have made sure that was accepted and understood as appropriate," said Sachar. "We felt a lot of pressure to fill the program... That's been my biggest epiphany, understanding the importance of pacing and ramp-up."

In this second year, thanks to a comprehensive outreach effort, the program awarded 1,086 vouchers, bringing the program up to the maximum number that can be funded under the legislation—about 1,700. (A number of students from the first round either graduated or left the program. Sachar notes that a shortage of high school programs is becoming a problem as students move up through the grades.)Almost as many students applied for vouchers but lost the lottery.

The federal legislation allows for 3 percent of the $12 million annual appropriation to cover administrative costs—$375,000 a year. Sachar says the actual cost has been four times that. "When they wrote the law, I think they assumed that what you really need to do is write checks," said Sachar. "Writing checks is very important, and we have to do it very carefully and responsibly. But it's just one thread."

Change for the Whole Family

Another important thread is that of support for parents and families. Both the WSF and D.C. Parents for School Choice have developed programs aimed at easing the transition and addressing some of the non-academic issues faced by very low-income families.

Virginia Walden Ford, founder and director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, says that this year her organization has focused on monthly "parent empowerment" meetings, along with other events intended to build community—such as a holiday party in December; a book donation drive, and similar efforts.

The parent empowerment meetings, says Walden Ford, "...are designed to give parents an opportunity to get information about all kinds of educational opportunities—enrichment, college scholarships, tutoring—and to allow us to develop a relationship with parents so we can help them with the transition."

This year, says Walden Ford, attendance at meetings has ranged from a low of 50 to a high of 400, with about 200 coming to most. "We see different faces every single meeting. It seems to me they are coming when they need to have a conversation," says Walden Ford.

Pam Battle is the mother of two children in the program. Her sons Carlos, 14, and Calvin, 10, are attending Assumption Elementary School, a small Catholic school in Southeast Washington for children in pre-K through 8th grade. She applied for the vouchers because she worried about "the environment, the teachers, everything" at her sons' schools. "My biggest fear was junior high school for Carlos," said Battle recently. "And Calvin didn't like his school because he said his teachers didn't like him and didn't pay any attention to him."

Walden Ford has found that parent concerns tend to focus on a couple of areas. One is home-school communication. "There is a whole cultural difference. We did a workshop on diversity, we talked about the way people express themselves to you, how sometimes that can be misinterpreted," said Walden Ford. "Our message is, "Don't always look for the negative meaning.' There's the mother-lion thing, you're not going to let your child get hurt."

A related issue is what the new schools expect of parents. "Most of these schools want parents to come in and volunteer a certain number of hours...That's real new, a lot of our parents are used to a situation where they aren't really welcome in the school," said Walden Ford. She said that the schools expect parents to be quite involved in their children's homework, and that is a change as well. (For a closer look at what parents and students have to say about the program, Georgetown University has published a report based on focus group discussions.)

Battle says it's true that Assumption requires a lot more homework, but she's happy about it. "I'm going to keep them in the program. Calvin will stay at Assumption, and Carlos is going to apply for high school. He's getting straight A's, so he shouldn't have a problem...He wants to be a lawyer."

In general, says Walden Ford, "The kids seem to be doing much better than the adults. Our kids went into these schools generally behind, and we've worked really carefully on making sure they went into environments where they could be brought up. They seem to be doing well."

Does It Make a Difference?

So far, there isn't much hard evidence on whether or not spending taxpayer money for private school tuition improves academic achievement. Researchers looking at state-funded voucher programs, such as the one in Cleveland, Ohio, have had difficulty sorting out the impact of factors such as whether students that wind up with vouchers are more motivated and have more family support than others.

That's why education experts and advocates on both sides are awaiting early results from research being carried out by Georgetown University and Westat. Funding for the research was included in the federal legislation, and researcher Patrick Wolfe of Georgetown said the first analysis of the impact of the program on students will be delivered to Congress in March, 2007.

He notes that because students who lost out in the most recent voucher lottery are statistically similar to those who won, they provide what has been missing from many evaluation efforts: a valid control group.

"This spring, we are doing very intensive and comprehensive data collection," said Wolfe. "In the summer, we will consolidate the data, in the fall, we will analyze it, and in the spring, we will write it up and deliver it to Congress. Everyone is eager to find out how well this program is performing in terms of actual impacts on students."

One part of the research is sure to get a lot of attention: the researchers will be administering an abbreviated form of the SAT-9 test to two groups: 1,200 voucher students, and a control group of 900 students who "are similar in all respects, except that they didn't win the lottery," explained Wolfe. "This will give us the cleanest and most conclusive assessment of program impact."

Wolfe knows that the political focus on the results will be intense. "The best way to prepare for that is for us to do the most rigorous analysis possible, to be absolutely certain we have the numbers right, and to present and describe them accurately in the report, and let the chips fall," said Wolfe.

Susan Phillips is the former editor of Connect for Kids.

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