Despite a short deadline for initial applications, the groundbreaking program of federally funded vouchers for needy Washington, D.C. students is off to a promising start, according to the first annual evaluation mandated by Congress released this week.
A bipartisan coalition led by D.C. Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams and President Bush championed the $7,500 scholarships in order to make it possible for children in low-performing public schools to transfer to private schools. However, Congress did not give its final approval until January 22, 2004, for opportunities that had to be allocated that spring.
Nevertheless, an independent evaluation by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute shows that in the inaugural year of vouchers, more than 1,000 disadvantaged children were able to select from slots at 58 of the 109 private schools located in the District of Columbia, even though the program launched after many of the schools’ normal admissions periods had closed.
That sets the stage for significant growth in the second academic year beginning this fall, with participation likely to hit the 2,000 vouchers approved by Congress. The Washington Scholarship Program, the nonprofit organization implementing the D.C. School Choice Incentive Program, is reporting more than 2,700 applications for the 2005-06 school year, with 66 private schools now expected to participate.
Leaders of the program have expressed hope that the number of slots available for voucher students at Washington D.C.’s leading private and independent schools will increase with time. The law requires that only private schools inside the District may accept the “opportunity scholarships,” ruling out valuable potential seats at first-rate private schools located in nearby suburbs.
Over time, evaluators will assess the academic impact of vouchers by taking a side-by-side look at the test scores of voucher students and their peers who wanted vouchers but were not able to secure them through the lottery process. The initial year of matriculation was too early for such a randomized study of impact data. However, the 103-page report yielded many promising augurs of success, among them the following:In grades 6-12, the program was oversubscribed, despite being in its infancy, thus necessitating the awarding of vouchers through a lottery.
All 1,848 students who met eligibility guidelines came from families at or below 185 percent of the poverty level. Their average family income was $18,742. Students whose parents described school safety as their most important reason for choosing a school were more likely to use scholarships than those who did not.
Disadvantaged students from public schools received preference over private-school applicants for vouchers. Thus, although public-school applicants submitted 72 percent of the applications, they received 84 percent of the scholarships awarded.
All the highest-priority children — those in schools designated as “in need of improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act — were awarded scholarships. There has been virtually no attrition of students from the program.
As a group, the participating private schools are more racially diverse and have lower student/teacher ratios than do D.C. public schools. Only 12 percent of them require an entrance examination. Fewer than one-third of them charge more than $7,500 per year tuition, and virtually all of those charging higher tuition accepted the vouchers as full payment.The analysis also showed that contrary to contentions of school-choice foes, the vouchers were not “creaming” the most privileged students from the public schools. Indeed, voucher applicants were more likely to be in special education, or from low-income homes, or to be
African-American, than were non-applicants.
” This report confirms that the D.C. scholarship program is providing new options and new hope to many children who might otherwise be trapped in schools identified as underachieving under the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act,” commented House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner.
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