Small victory: DC school vouchers approved

It's unfortunate that President Obama agreed to extend a school voucher program in the District of Columbia only as an 11th-hour concession to avoid a shutdown of the federal government. It gives the impression that the vouchers program was not effective enough to stand for approval in the light of day.Under the leadership of Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education opposed the program, saying it had not raised student achievement. But the department's own study had a startling result: 91 percent of the students who accepted the scholarship graduated from high school, 21 percentage points better than other students. All of these students were black or Hispanic, and came from families earning under $20,000 a year.Since improving high school graduation rates is a major goal of Duncan and the president, it's hard to see how they can justify dismissing the D.C. voucher program. Many studies have found that high school graduation is closely associated with future success. The study also showed that reading scores were higher for the voucher students, although not at a statistically significant margin. Parental satisfaction with the child's school was also higher, as was the parents' sense that students were safe.Duncan has championed charter schools, which have produced mixed results. At the same time, these schools have drawn many students away from Catholic schools in urban areas, further endangering Catholic education. Given the huge amounts of money the administration is pouring into charter schools, the very least it could do is to support a successful experiment in school vouchers without having to be coerced into it.

Unlike the Department of Education, the lead researcher in the agency's study of the school voucher program, Professor Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas, took an upbeat view of the voucher program. In testimony before a Senate panel in February, he said that:

... many federal education programs targeted at disadvantaged students have been the subject of rigor0us evaluations. Most of these programs have failed to demonstrate the ability to move disadvantaged students to significantly higher levels of academic outcomes such as achievement and high school graduation. In my opinion, by demonstrating statistically significant impacts on boosting high school graduation rates and generating a wealth of evidence that students also benefited in reading achievement, the DC OSP has accomplished what few educational interventions can claim: It markedly improved education outcomes for low-income inner-city students.

Wolf said that thanks to the voucher program, 449 more students graduated from high school than would have without the vouchers. Statistically speaking, this will produce a benefit to government worth $116 million in higher taxable earnings and lower social service costs over the course of the students' lives, he said.He concluded, "the research evidence and testimonials of parents confirm that the District of Columbia is a better place because of the Opportunity Scholarship Program."

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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