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April 28, 2017

New federal study of DC voucher program shows academic decline

A new federal analysis of the District of Columbia’s voucher program has found that students who transferred to private schools posted similar and, in some cases, worse scores than their peers who remained in public schools.

The findings appear to be the first time the Institute of Education Sciences (the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education) has noted that voucher recipients performed worse on some academic measures than DC public school pupils in general.

It comes on the heels of new research on Louisiana and Ohio’s statewide voucher programs, which showed precipitous declines in test scores between students who took advantage of the voucher and transferred to a private school and similar students who stayed in public schools.

Created by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2004, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was intended to provide low-income families in the District of Columbia with tuition subsidies to attend private schools. Reauthorized in 2011 as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, it was the first and remains the only federally-funded voucher program in the U.S.

Ongoing evaluation of SOAR was a key feature of the 2004 and 2011 bill, hence IES has conducted numerous studies in the past that looked at student outcomes, parent satisfaction and general characteristics of the participants. But this is the first time researchers have observed a sharp difference between the test scores of SOAR participants and non-participants. Before we get to the specifics, some background: the study’s sample included students who applied to the program in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and were either offered or not offered a scholarship; the difference between the two on a variety of measures was studied one year after SOAR students transferred to private schools.

Among the report’s highlights:

  • Math scores dropped, on average, 7.3 percentile points for voucher recipients compared to students who applied but had not been selected for the program.
  • Reading scores dropped among elementary students (7.1 percentile points) who participated in SOAR compared to those who did not, but there was little discernible difference at the secondary level between these two groups.
  • Students who transferred from low performing schools (the very students the program is intended to help) saw no significant gain on their test scores one year after transferring to private school.
  • Meanwhile, voucher participants who had not transferred from schools designated as “in need of improvement” saw their math scores drop, on average, 14.1 percentile points and their reading scores by 11.3 percentile points compared to students who were in public schools.

While these findings aren’t as dramatic as Louisiana, where students saw a 27 percentile point drop in math one year after transferring to private schools, it’s yet another chink in the, let’s face it, drafty armor known as school choice.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having options. The problem is when one equates more options with better outcomes. This is not always the case, as this and other studies are showing.







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