President Obama wants to expand government’s role in everything from providing healthcare and preschool to dictating executive pay and our energy use. To pass this ambitious agenda, he needs to convince the public that government is capable of delivering results. Given public disgust for the mishandling of the banking bailout and bonus scandals, one might expect that the Administration would be anxious to tout any evidence that a government program works. Yet at least in the case of the federal D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the Obama Administration has been downplaying—even hiding—a government initiative’s success.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program was created in 2004 with the purpose of giving students from low-income families in the nation’s capital access to a quality education. Washington D.C. has long had one of the nation’s worst public school systems. D.C.’s public school students—who are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, and lower-income—regularly score at the bottom of national standardized tests and have one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates. Congress holds a particular responsibility for the happenings in the nation’s only federal city and recognized that something needed to be done to give the next generation of D.C. residents better opportunities.
That’s why the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program was launched as part traditional education program and part experiment. The law provided $14 million in scholarships to qualifying low-income students that could be used to pay tuition at a private school of their parent’s choosing. While thousands of D.C. students have applied for scholarships, vouchers were only available for about 1,700. A lottery determined which students got the vouchers, which allows researchers to compare the outcomes of the treatment group (those who received vouchers) to the control group (those who met the criteria and applied for a voucher but did not win the voucher lottery).
This evaluation was an important part of the program: it would provide valuable information to members of Congress and lawmakers throughout the country about the effectiveness of the voucher program and school choice, generally.