USED Evaluation Illustrates Flaws in DC Voucher Program

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The U.S. Department of Education released a new evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program this week, demonstrating several flaws with the program. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) plays a central role in the debates over school voucher programs, and previous evaluations have already failed to find any improvement in student achievement. This most recent study even found that the accepted students most likely to use the scholarships were students already enrolled in private schools. In 2011, the OSP was reauthorized under the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which expanded the scholarship amount and types of students eligible.

The USED evaluation analyzed which schools participated, who applied for scholarships, and who used the scholarships to enroll in a private school. The report illustrates many problems with the program. Just over half (54 percent) of private schools in DC participate in OSP, and these schools are more likely than nonparticipating schools to be religiously affiliated, have larger class sizes, serve a higher share of white students and be situated in the most affluent parts of the city. The share of participating schools posting tuition rates higher than the OSP allowance has also risen – 64 percent now charge more in tuition than the scholarship covers.

While the SOAR Act increased the amount of funding available, applications rose, but the increase in applications was not consistent with the first years of the OSP, showing limited demand for these vouchers. A priority group for OSP is students enrolled in schools designated as “in need of improvement.” However, under the SOAR Act, these students applied at lower rates than were eligible.

Once accepted, only 72 percent of students used the scholarship to attend a private school. These numbers were even lower for students from schools in need of improvement and were highest for students already attending private school. This is consistent with findings from other studies that demonstrate that school vouchers are used by students already enrolled in private schools, therefore diverting money from the public school system without changing the placement of any students.

These findings reinforce previous findings that private school vouchers are inefficient policy. The results from the USED evaluation show that OSP is not working as advertised: scholarships are going to students already enrolled in private schools, students most in need accept the scholarships at low rates, demand has fallen, and the schools that accept the scholarships are charging more and are the least accessible for participating students. Paired with previous evaluations showing no increase in academic performance, this evaluation further illustrates the failure of the DC OSP and school voucher programs in general.


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