Last month, the results of the evaluation became available, and what the researchers found should be seen as incredible good news: the treatment group—those students receiving the vouchers—were significantly ahead of the control groups in terms of reading. After three years, kids who had used vouchers were the equivalent of 3.7 months ahead of their peers. Importantly, those who had been using vouchers since the program's beginning were 18.9 months ahead. Even though researchers caution that the last finding isn't statistically significant due to the small sample size, it is still very encouraging, suggesting that the longer a student participates in the voucher program the more improvement they enjoy.
From the taxpayer’s point of view, it’s also noteworthy that the voucher program effectively saves money even while creating these superior results. The scholarships being offered to D.C. students are worth $7,500—or less than half of the per pupil expenditure in D.C.’s public schools. That means by expanding this successfully program, lawmakers could ease pressure on strained education budgets and reduce crowding in public schools, while still providing a superior education.
It may sound like the public policy equivalent of a slam dunk, but that’s before one considers the politics. Voucher programs—indeed, just about any measure that facilitates students being educated someplace other than a union-controlled public school—are reviled by most Democrats. President Obama had provided education reform supporters with hope that he might be a different kind of Democrat. His Administration has promised to put aside politics, focus on results, and do “what works” for students.
But instead of trumpeting the evaluation’s results—finally, a federal education program is helping poor children learn better—the Department of Education released the report on a Friday afternoon, effectively burying the news story. What’s more, Secretary Duncan released a statement minimizing the evaluation’s findings. Past rhetoric about hope and change aside, Secretary Duncan’s move comes as no surprise. The Administration did nothing in March when Congress effectively voted to phase-out the scholarship program.
Yet the impressive results evaluation gives D.C. parents and school choice supporters across the country a chance to press Congress and the Administration to reverse that mistake. Now that there is clear empirical evidence that the voucher program is helping participating, low-income children improve their reading skills, perhaps Congress and the Administration can be encouraged to continue one of the few federal programs that’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to.