D.C. Vouchers Bring Better Results for Students, Shouldn't Be Killed

A little earlier this week the U.S. Department of Education released the research results from the final evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). What did it say? Basically, an admission that the very small program hasn’t had any tremendous impacts — oh yeah, except for this one:

The Program significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school, according to parent reports. Overall, 82 percent of students offered scholarships received a high school diploma, compared to 70 percent of those who applied but were not offered scholarships. This graduation rate improvement also held for the subgroup of OSP students who came from “schools in need of improvement.”

Writing on Jay Greene’s blog, Greg Forster deconstructs the control group (since the graduation rate for D.C. Public Schools is actually 49 percent), and concludes the grad-rate benefit from the voucher program is “somewhere between 12 percentage points and 33 percentage points.”

At the Quick and the Ed, Education Sector’s Erin Dillon draws another lesson from the OSP study — namely, that “longer term measures, like high school graduation and college attendance, might capture positive outcomes that shorter-term test score measures miss.” While this observation definitely holds weight, the claim that D.C. vouchers failed to help students improve academic skills is a somewhat arbitrary misreading of the data.

While the Department concluded that improvements in reading scores for students using a scholarship to attend private schools was insignificant, Matt Ladner points out from the data there is 94 percent certainty “that the treatment group did outperform the control group in reading in the final year” (the Department’s cut-off for statistical significance is 95 percent).

Further, the Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer reminds us that the Opportunity Scholarship Program achieved its results with a limited student population for less than a third of what the DC Public Schools spend.

Does the study show the OSP was the perfect panacea American urban education has been waiting for? Certainly not. But if it isn’t good enough for the Obama administration and some adult interest groups that a small program provides a number of measured benefits for poor students, produces no measured harms, and does it all at a fraction of the cost? That says more about adults and politics than the impact of school choice.