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Study Shows Divisive D.C. Voucher Program Doesn't Reach Neediest Students

Written by Arianna Prothero. This blog first appeared on Charters and Choice.

A number of school vouchers go unused from the District of Columbia's Opportunity Scholarships Program, with some of the most disadvantaged students using the program at lower rates than others, according to a report from the Institute of Education Sciences.

The OSP, which has been the source of several federal funding fights, awards vouchers to low-income students living in nation's capitol to use toward tuition at private schools, including parochial schools. The voucher program is unique because it is the only one in the country created and funded by Congress.

The Findings

The IES report only looks at the most recent two years of available data since the program was expanded in 2011 to, among other things, increase the scholarship amount. 

The report looked at students who were offered school vouchers but turned them down, and it found that older students as well as students from more disadvantaged schools and families were less likely to use the program than other eligible students:

  • Sixty five percent of students who were eligible and attended a school identified as "in need of improvement" took advantage of the program, compared to 73 percent of eligible students not attending a school in need of improvement;
  • Fifty-one percent of high school students who were awarded scholarships used them the following year compared to 78 percent of elementary school students and 69 percent of middle school students;
  • And sixty-nine percent of students whose parents were unemployed or not working full time and were awarded a scholarship used their voucher compared to 79 percent from a family with one working parent. Of eligible students whose parents were unmarried, 70 percent entered the program compared to 79 percent of students with married parents.

Among the report's other findings, about seven in 10 students who received a tuition voucher used it the following year to enroll in a private school. You can read the full set of findings here.

Little Program, Big Fights

Voucher programs regularly stir up controversy. They are vigorously opposed by teachers' unions, who argue that the vouchers take money away from the public school system. (In reality, voucher programs typically rely on separate sources of appropriations instead of pulling directly from federal education program dollars.)

D.C.'s Opportunity Scholarship, in particular, has been the subject of multiple federal fiscal battles, pitting the Obama administration against Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner.

As my colleague Sean Cavanagh observed in a 2012 story, "if judged merely by the attention it receives from the upper reaches of government, the District of Columbia's Opportunity Scholarship Program is probably the most closely scrutinized private school voucher enterprise in the country."

The Obama administration has tried for years to sunset the program, and the president's fiscal 2013 budget request zeroed out funding for the program, though the proposal was never carried out.

The issue came up again in 2013, and as my colleague Alyson Kline reported, top GOP lawmakers worried that the Obama administration was putting up "roadblocks" to student participation in the program:

The program serves less than a couple thousand students and costs the feds just $20 million a year--moisture in the U.S. government budget bucket. But it has long been a political flashpoint in Congress, partly because it's the most prominent federally-funded voucher program. Some congressional Democrats have been trying to eliminate the program, saying it's not the federal government's place to pay for vouchers. But the program is a big priority for Rep. John Boehner, the Speaker of the House.

Last spring, the administration and congressional Republicans agreed to a deal that essentially boosted the number of slots in the program from 1,615 to about 1,700, in part so that there would be enough kids to perform a rigorous evaluation of the program.

RELATED: GAO Report Finds Major Flaws in Implementation of D.C. Voucher Program

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