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D.C. Voucher Program Boosts Grad Rates But Not Test Scores

A closely watched program that provided scholarships of up to $7,500 for public school students in the nation's capital to attend private schools spurred more students to graduate from high school but didn't do much to boost their scores on standardized tests.

That's according to the final report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was released yesterday by the federal Institute of Education Sciences. All eyes have been on this program since it started because it's the first federally funded, private school voucher program in the United States. President Obama has said he wants to eliminate it, but congressional Republicans and parents continue to lobby for its survival.

The new study tracks educational outcomes over four to five years for 2,300 public school students who applied for the scholarships, which were assigned by lottery. Of that group, 1,387 students were offered a scholarship; the remaining 921 were not. Nearly 300 of the scholarship recipients, however, never used their scholarships at all.

At least four years later, the study found, the lottery winners' reading and math scores were not statistically different from those of students who failed to nab a golden ticket, leading the researchers to concluded that the program had had "no significant impact" on student achievement. This was also true for lottery winners coming out of schools deemed to be in need of improvement, which was the group that Congress was particularly concerned about when it created the program in 2003.

A brighter picture emerges, though, when you look at the much smaller group of 500 students who made it to 12th grade by the end of the study. Their graduation rates were 12 percentage points higher than those of lottery losers.

If the lottery winners actually used their scholarships, the likelihood of graduating was 28 percent higher.

In the end, this is a very, very small sample, but graduation rates, after all, are where the rubber meets the road, as the U.S. secretary of education has been saying.

An interesting aspect of this final report is that it explores why so many students either didn't use their scholarships or used them intermittently. The number one reason—cited by more 30 percent of parents—was that the private schools had no room for their kids. The second most-cited reason was that the private schools lacked the special services their kids needed, such as special education. That, too, says a lot.

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