Vouching for DC Students

By now, the funeral procession for the DC school voucher program has been winding its was through the city streets.  Long a target of the status quo, the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program has been criticized for many things, chief among them for taking money from well-deserving DC public schools and handing it over to local private schools.  As of late, it has faced fire over its effectiveness, with opponents alleging that student achievement had not improved as a result of a change in environment and the empowerment of choice.

When it was introduced at the start of the NCLB era, the model was pretty simple.  DC public schools were failing a significant number of the very students it was designed to serve, to help, and to provide with the knowledge they needed to succeed.  Despite the rich network of public charter schools across the District, federal officials decided to introduce the voucher model, allowing families of children in truly failing schools to send their children to private schools in the area.  Private schools would agree to accept the “vouchers” in exchange for school tuition.  The plan was modeled after successful efforts in places like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida.
Competition for the voucher program was fierce from the very start.  Families lined up 10-deep for the access to these vouchers, all looking to provide their kids a better choice and better options.  Interestingly, vouchers provided no more than $7,500 a year in tuition, fees, and expenses for private schools, less than 50 percent of what DCPS spends to educate its students in the public schools, even in the worst of its failing schools.
Critics have been chipping away at the program from the start.  When initial data showing promising results was released by researchers a few years, ago, we attacked it for being incomplete or not providing a full picture of the situation.  We’ve painted a picture that there has been a mass exodus from DCPS into Gonzaga, Sidwell Friends, and Georgetown Prep, where wealthy schools are getting wealthier off the backs of DCPS and DC taxpayers.  (Let’s forget that most voucher students were not going to these “blue chip” privates and all privates were taking a significant cut in their tuition to admit voucher students.)  Most recently, the dealt the death blow to the voucher effort in DC, getting funding stripped from the federal appropriations bill last month.  For all practical purposes, DC Vouchers is now dead as a doornail, even with more than 1,700 DC students taking advantage of the program.
What’s interesting, then, is the report that came out of the U.S. Department of Education yesterday afternoon.  Despite all of the chatter about the failure of the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program, an ED study determined that voucher students outperformed their public school counterparts on reading proficiency.  The full story can be found here at The Washington Post.
House of Representatives Republican Educator-in-Chief Buck McKeon has used the IES research to demonstrate that the voucher program works and demands it be continued.  Senator Joe Lieberman, who oversees the District in our senior legislative body, is talking about holding further hearings on the issue.  It begs the question, is the great DC voucher experiment as dead as it appeared just a week ago?
This has long been an issue of federal voices deciding what is best for the residents of Washington, DC.  The program was initiated by a zealous Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress who wanted to prove that vouchers were the solution to failing public schools.  The program has faced relentless attack from equally zealous Democrats in Congress (along with the national teachers’ unions) who believed it was robbing the public schools of needed financial resources and was undermining the very foundations of public education.
What about the residents of DC?  What about the very families who have been impacted (or who have chosen not to be) by the DC Voucher program?  One can look at the demand for the limited slots and say there is local public desire for the program. One can look at the qualitative surveys over the years, showing support for the program and satisfaction with its outcomes.  One can even look at recent efforts by the Washington Archdiocese to convert many of its Catholic schools (those where so many DC residents were attending through their vouchers) into public charter schools to ensure that those kids currently in the pipeline were not kicked out of their learning environments when the voucher program came to an end later this year.
WaPo’s Colbert King takes the issue even further this AM, calling on District leaders to make the ultimate decision on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s fate.  What a novel concept.  Instead of seeking the permission and dollars of federal officials, Mayor Fenty, the DC Council, and other local leaders should talk to the community and determine if DC Vouchers are in the best interests of the city.  Imagine that.  Local officials making local education decisions, policies, and funding choices that affect local residents.  It’s almost as if one could build a governmental structure around such a silly idea.
But back to the key issue, the research.  IES has determined that DC voucher students are outperforming the public school peers when it comes reading scores.  Overall, the study found that voucher students were nearly four months ahead of non-voucher students when it came to reading skill.  Those students moving from the lowest-performing public schools did not show that level of reading gain.  And there appeared to be no difference in math proficiency.
Seems that such data requires more than a Friday afternoon media release, with the hopes that few notice it in our rush to celebrate the Palm Sunday weekend (or Eduflack’s birthday, whichever holiday you prefer).  Fridays are notorious for dumping information and data you hope will get short shrift from the media or will get overlooked entirely.  One has to ask if this data was available a few weeks ago when Congress was inflicting its death blow on DC vouchers.  If so, why wasn’t it discussed then?  And now that we do have it, how closely will we look at it?  Does the research model stand up to scrutiny, or does it have its failings like so many recent IES studies?  Do we have some real information here that needs to factor into education policy in our nation’s capital and throughout the country?
At the end of the day, what are we left with?  Is there public demand for vouchers in DC?  Absolutely.  Has the program been implemented effectively?  It appears so.  Is the program working?  It seems so.  Is the program a political atomic bomb?  Absolutely.
It seems, in this era of innovation and demands for improved student achievement, we need every opportunity and every good idea we can find.  If vouchers are showing promise in DC, shouldn’t we let the District decide if they continue the program, allowing us to see if that promise transforms into best practice?  And at some point, shouldn’t those decisions be made by the citizens the program is designed to affect, instead of by representatives who will never receive a single vote from a single resident of the District of Columbia?
Let’s take EdSec Arne Duncan at his word and that he does not want to end the voucher program for any student that is currently participating in it.  Even if we don’t add new students to the program, it seems there is a lot we can learn by supporting those already in the syst
em.  And we haven’t even touched on the positive impact we could have on those kids whose lives have been changed by providing them the opportunity to leave failing schools.  The choice itself has given them hope, a chance at opportunity, and a worldview that education can impact their lives.  That’s a return on investment we all should seek.

161 thoughts on “Vouching for DC Students

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