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.
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.
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