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D.C. Vouchers Show Negative Impact on Student Achievement, Study Finds

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By Alyson Klein

A new evaluation of the nation's only federally funded private school voucher program finds that students' math achievement was negatively impacted by participating in what is known as the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program. The vouchers also appeared to have no impact on parents' overall satisfaction with their childrens' schools.

But the same study—done by the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education—found positive impacts on parents' perception of school safety for those whose children participated in the voucher program.

President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are major supporters of the D.C. voucher program, and school choice in general. And legislation reauthorizing the voucher program is pending in Congress, which is controlled by Republicans. Congressional critics of the program were quick to cite the report in explaining why the D.C. vouchers shouldn't be renewed, as well as to throw cold water on the Trump administration's school choice agenda

The report comes on the heels of other evaluations of voucher programs in Louisiana and elsewhere showing negative impacts on student achievement. 

The D.C. program—created by Congress in 2004—provides vouchers to low-income families to send their children to private schools that agree to accept them. Private school voucher programs for some groups of students also exist in 13 states, but those do not receive federal funding support. 

Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, said the study's findings fit with a 2011 voucher research review conducted by CEP. That review found that vouchers have little to no impact on student achievement, but can boost parent satisfaction and graduation rates, Renter said.

She doesn't expect the new federal report to dampen the Trump administration's enthusiasm for vouchers. But she said it could "give opponents some more data to draw on when encouraging Republicans who are on the fence to oppose vouchers. "

Indeed, Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, said the report is a sign that Congress should not renew the voucher program.

"We know that these failed programs drain public schools of limited resources, only to deliver broken promises of academic success to parents and students," Scott said in a statement. "Congress must end this failed program and support the more than 90 percent of students nationwide who are enrolled in public schools."

And Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, had a similar take.

"When Secretary DeVos' own Department's independent research office tells her that siphoning taxpayer dollars into private schools has a negative impact on students, it's time for her to finally abandon her reckless plans to privatize public schools across the country," Murray said. 

But Jeanne Allen, the CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which supports vouchers, questioned the report's findings, in part because it only looked at student performance over one year.

"It's a ridiculous study, lacking in what most authentic scholars would call rigor," she said. The gold standard, she explained, would be following students in a randomized control trial for a decade. "Some of their findings aren't even backed up by any explanation," she said.

The report looked at 995 students who were selected through a lottery to receive scholarships through the program, as well as 776 students who applied for scholarships, but weren't chosen. It considered student performance in reading and math, as well as parental satisfaction and general feelings about their childrens' schools after the first year of enrollment.

Math achievement for students who used a tax-payer funded voucher to attend private school was  7.3 percent lower than for students who did not participate in the program, the study found. It also found a difference of 4.9 percentage points in reading achievement between students who used the vouchers and those who did not, but researchers didn't consider those results to be statistically significant. 

DCvoucherchart.JPG

The report also found that parents of children in grades six through 12 reported higher instances of academic engagement at home. But the program did not have a significant impact on parent involvement. And it found no statistically difference between students who received vouchers and those who did not when it comes to parents' overall satisfaction with their child's school. 


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