The effects of D.C.'s voucher program

A recent federally funded evaluation examines the impacts of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Overall, its authors estimate that participating in the program for two years reduced students’ achievement by about 10 percentile points in math and about 3.8 percentile points in English language arts, though the latter estimate isn’t statistically significant. However, the program did positively impact parents’ and students’ perceptions of school safety.

In general, these results are highly consistent with the results of a similar evaluation published last year, which found that program participation reduced math and reading achievement by 7.3 and 4.9 percentile points, respectively, after one year. And because these estimates are based on the results of a program-wide lottery, there’s not much to quibble with methodologically.

Conceivably, the latest negative achievement estimates could still reflect the “transition costs” associated with switching to a new school. But the consistency between the first- and second-year estimates doesn’t bode well for this hypothesis. The more likely explanation is that the performance of D.C.’s public schools—including both its district schools and its many charters—has improved to the point where at least some private schools are struggling to compete. (After all, D.C. boasts one of the country’s largest and highest-performing charter sectors, and its district system is famously reform-minded—recent scandals notwithstanding.)

Regrettably, some observers have tried to downplay the most recent results by arguing that concerns about safety should trump concerns about academic performance. But as Fordham has long argued, it’s not at all clear that parents or taxpayers should be forced to choose. D.C. charter schools are routinely closed for low academic performance, for example, yet few would argue that students’ safety has suffered as a result.

Unlike D.C.’s charters—and unlike voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana—D.C.’s voucher program is not subject to any form of test-based accountability. So participating schools can continue to enroll new voucher recipients (and pocket the accompanying public funds) regardless of their academic performance.

This state of affairs leaves policymakers—in this case, the United States Congress—with three options:

  1. Shut the program down and force participating families to send their kids to what they believe are more dangerous schools.
  2. Leave the program untouched and accept that its mostly low-income and historically disadvantaged participants will be even less academically prepared than if they had attended a traditional public school or charter.
  3. Add an accountability component to the program so that families can choose from a lightly curated list of private schools that (on average) provide both a safer environment and better academic preparation than the public schools students would otherwise have attended.

Because the study in question does not yield “value-added” estimates for individual schools, it’s difficult to say how many private schools would need to be culled for the third option to become a reality. But assuming that school performance is normally distributed, the number is probably modest. And in some ways, the question misses the point of the exercise: Kids need to be safe. Kids need to learn something.

Any program that fails to deliver on both counts needs improvement.

SOURCE: Mark Dynarski et al., “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts Two Years After Students Applied,” U. S. Department of Education (May 2018).

 
 
David Griffith
David Griffith is a Senior Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.