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Getting a Private School Voucher in D.C. Lowers Students' Math Scores, Study Finds

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Low-income students who received vouchers to attend private schools in the nation's capital scored significantly lower on math tests than their peers.

That's according to the most recent congressionally mandated evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded voucher program in the nation.

Although the District of Columbia's voucher program is among the smallest in the country, the findings are noteworthy insomuch as that vouchers are among the favored policies of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who continues to push for more federally funded private school choice programs

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The findings will add grist to the mill for critics of DeVos and school choice. Vouchers are a controversial policy, even among school choice advocates.

Created in 2004, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program serves about 1,100 low-income students. Most of them also come from poor-performing public schools and were already scoring below the national average in math and reading.

Most years, the program is oversubscribed, and vouchers are awarded to applicants through a lottery.

The most recent analysis of the vouchers, released this week by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, found that two years into the program, students who received tuition assistance to attend private school showed statistically significant weaker gains in math when compared with students who didn't receive vouchers.

The difference in reading scores was not statistically significant. 

"It is important to acknowledge that these early-year snapshots of test scores, while important for long-term study, may not be the best predictors of long-term achievement or attainment for students who use a choice program," said John Schilling, the president of the American Federation for Children, in a statement. AFC is a school choice advocacy and lobbying group formerly chaired by DeVos. 

And there are some caveats to the report's findings.

Although all students were required to take a nationally normed test in math and reading when they applied for the program, all subsequent testing for the program evaluation was voluntary. That means the findings from the report are based on the 71 percent of students who opted to take the tests.

And not all students who were awarded vouchers ended up using them. Overall, students who were awarded a voucher scored 8 percentile points lower in math two years into the program than their counterparts who applied for, but did not receive, a voucher. The students who received and used a voucher to attend a private school scored 10 percentile points lower on the mathematics test.

Fifty-nine percent of students used vouchers for the full two years of the study, while 19 percent were partial users, and 22 percent did not use the scholarship at all.

The analysis also includes a survey asking parents and students for their thoughts on school quality and safety, as well as the level to which parents are involved in their children's educations. Seventy-four percent of parents and 62 percent of students responded to the surveys.

Although there was no statistically significant difference in how parents and students rated the quality of their schools or the level of parental engagement, families who were offered or using vouchers were much more likely to rate their school as "very" safe.

School choice advocates often say that test scores are not the end all be all. A parent's choice to have his or her child attend a safe school, or a religious school, is just as important as a parent's choice to select a school that boosts the child's academic achievement. However, the IES report notes that the intent of the legislation creating the D.C. voucher program was to raise the academic outcomes of disadvantaged students.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program awards vouchers through a lottery system, meaning the only difference between students who received vouchers and those who did not is chance. That helps researchers weed out other factors that could contribute to any potential academic gains or losses—such as how motivated a student is or how involved the parents are.

An IES analysis released this time last year that looked at student academic gains after being in the program one year had similar findings.

The IES reports join a handful of others released relatively recently—out of Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—that have found students fare worse academically after they leave their public schools for voucher programs. Although a recent study of Florida's tax-credit-scholarship program, which also provides public aid to low-income families for their children to attend private school, found that students were more likely to go to college after high school than their peers who remained in public schools. The longer students were enrolled in private schools, the larger the effects.

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