More evidence that school choice works

D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program boosted student learning

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Thursday, July 8, 2010

A month before the U.S. Department of Education quietly released a report revealing the benefits of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program for low-income kids last year, congressional Democrats voted to kill the program.

Remarkably, they seemed unconcerned that families in the program were striving to free their children from District of Columbia schools that — by the federal government's own standards — were failing badly. Nor did they seem to care that the per-pupil cost of each voucher was a mere pittance (less than a fourth) of what the District normally spends (over $28,000 per pupil).

Parents' efforts to revive the program have been fruitless so far, but could bear new life if lawmakers understand — or care about — the significant improvements in graduation rates shown by another new report on the Opportunity Scholarships.

Both the 2009 and 2010 reports on the program used the gold standard of scientific research: random assignment. Individuals randomly included in the test group received vouchers, while those included in a control group did not. This allowed researchers to control for outside variables, such as parental involvement or selection bias.

The 2009 report found that after three years, reading scores for students winning vouchers showed a statistically significant positive impact amounting to 3.1 months of additional learning.

The 2010 report found that after four years, the graduation rate for students receiving vouchers was 12 points higher than the control group. The new study also found that students receiving the voucher did better in reading.

"The D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government's official education research arm so far," said Dr. Patrick Wolfe, the principal researcher for both reports.

An oddity of the 2010 study was that it considered the test group to be all those students who simply won an Opportunity Scholarship voucher, rather than those who won the scholarship and then used it to attend a private school. And of students in the test group, 22 percent never used the voucher, while just 27 percent used the voucher consistently to attend a private school.

Thus, the study really only measured the effect of "being offered a voucher." According to Dr. Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute, this is like studying the effectiveness of telling people that diet and exercises is good, rather than studying the effect of people actually dieting and exercising. Noted Ladner, "the voucher kids have to drag the non-users over the finish line, because they are still in the experimental group."

When one probes a bit deeper, examining the results of the students who won a voucher and actually used them, the outcomes are stunning. Students actually using the voucher saw a graduation rate that was 21 points higher than the control group. Additionally, students using the vouchers to attend private schools for at least three years saw reading gains equivalent to an additional 18 months of learning.

Further nuances in the 2010 report make the results even more interesting. As it turns out, 47 percent of students in the control group (those not receiving vouchers) ended up attending a charter school or private school anyway.

School choice works. Nevada, with our last-in-the-nation graduation rates and some of the country's lowest scores in math and reading, desperately needs more charters and — more importantly — vouchers or tax credits to help children attend better schools.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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