Politics & Policy

Vouching for D.C.

New evidence confirms the scholarships work. So how will President Obama respond?

On March 10, Pres. Barack Obama gave a major education speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In that speech, he declared that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”

How sad, then, to see the shameful behavior of Duncan’s department in sitting on, burying, and spinning the third-year evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Established in 2003 by Congress and the District of Columbia’s mayor, Anthony Williams, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program gives 1,700 low-income students the chance to attend a private school of their choice. Two of Malia and Sasha Obama’s classmates at the elite Sidwell Friends private school attend with the assistance of Opportunity Scholarships.

#ad#On March 13, Senate majority whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) wrote of the D.C. scholarship program in the Chicago Tribune:

Allowing the program to continue through end of next school year (2009–2010) will give Congress a chance to examine all the evidence to determine whether or not this program works.

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the authorizing committee, has promised a timely hearing on reauthorization of this program.

Many benefiting from this program want no questions asked about its efficacy. I think the taxpayers deserve better.

Senator Durbin, the results are in: The program works. In fact, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is one of the few programs funded by the Department of Education about which we have supportive evidence of the highest possible scientific quality.

The Department of Education has been funding a multiyear random-assignment study of the program’s impact. In the most recent evaluation, participating students showed gains equivalent to 3.7 months’ worth of additional reading achievement, a statistically significant difference from the control group.

This is typical of random-assignment studies of voucher achievement. Students do not instantly bolt ahead of their peers. Instead, they make steady progress over time until the difference between participants and non-participants becomes statistically significant. After the fourth year of the program, the differences would grow steadily larger.

Despite President Obama’s inspiring rhetoric about embracing what works, the Department of Education attempted to bury the latest analysis of the D.C. voucher program, releasing it on a Friday afternoon. This is a classic bureaucratic maneuver designed to minimize press attention, since Saturday is the lowest circulation day for newspapers.

Worse still, the department’s press release on the report was filled with negative spin. Rather than focus on overall achievement, the press release discussed the achievement of subgroups that were too small to yield significant results. It spun the reading result as “modest” and claimed there were “no gains” in math. In fact, anyone familiar with these studies would say (more accurately) that there have been no statistically significant gains in mathematics yet.

Outside of academics, the study also found statistically significant differences in parental and student satisfaction with their schools. Program students reported significantly higher teacher expectations and higher levels of school discipline and safety.

These results are nothing short of phenomenal, considering the long trail of failure and frustration produced by earlier attempts to significantly improve the education of disadvantaged children. We should bear in mind that the maximum size of the Opportunity Scholarship ($7,500) is a fraction of average per-pupil spending in the District of Columbia public-school system.

If President Obama and Senator Durbin are true to their word, they will support the reauthorization of the voucher program – not just for the children currently enrolled in it, but for all the children like them who could benefit from such opportunities. Congress voted to end the Opportunity Scholarship program absent reauthorization just a few weeks ago. Yet while U.S. lawmakers conducted that debate, they were not privy to the most recent study of the program. Several Democrats said that their decision on the voucher program would be guided by the evidence, but they didn’t get an opportunity to examine that evidence.

President Obama stated in the starkest of terms that Secretary Duncan should be guided not by ideology but by practical evidence of what improves student outcomes. By sitting on a crucial report, and then attempting to bury and spin it, Duncan is failing to meet that standard.

Unless the administration lives up to Obama’s ideal, the president will have aided and abetted a decision to rip opportunity away from some of the nation’s most disadvantaged students. Moreover, Obama will have done so in the face of high-quality evidence that the D.C. voucher program is benefitting these students.

If you have any doubt as to whether this program should exist, ask yourself a simple question: Would you enroll your children in violence-ridden D.C. public schools with decades-long records of academic failure? Bill and Hillary Clinton didn’t. Barack and Michelle Obama didn’t. Members of Congress don’t.

What about you? Would you enroll your children in those schools?

No? Welcome to the parental-choice movement. The children in this program need your help. More important, these children need Democrats who are willing to follow the evidence where it leads, and who are willing to show greater courage than Secretary Duncan.

– Matthew Ladner is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute and blogs at www.jaypgreene.com.

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