DC Parents Say Kids Thrive Under Voucher Program

Published April 1, 2009

Parents participating in the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program report their children are thriving, according to a new study that explores the experiences of low-income parents seeking better education for their children through the capital’s publicly funded voucher program.

Researchers found parents strongly appreciate the ability to choose their child’s school. Participating parents feel the scholarships represent an opportunity to pursue schools offering learning environments most appropriate for their children.

Like other school choice evaluations, “Family Reflections on the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program,” released in January by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas, found strong levels of parental satisfaction with choice schools. This is the project’s fourth annual qualitative study of the program’s participants.

The qualitative study used focus groups, interviews, and interactive wireless polling to analyze the input of 110 participating families representing 180 scholarship students. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences also will release a report on the Opportunity Scholarship Program later this year.

Reauthorization in Doubt

The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides federally funded scholarships of up to $7,500 for low-income students to attend participating private schools. More than 1,700 students are currently participating. Funding for scholarships expires after the 2009-10 school year and advocates are actively seeking its continuation, though its prospects for renewal are uncertain.

Under the federal government’s fiscal year 2009 omnibus appropriations legislation, the scholarship program cannot continue beyond the 2009-10 school year unless it is reauthorized by Congress and approved by the DC government. Accompanying language instructs the DC public school system to ensure a smooth transition for students enrolling in public schools due to “any changes made to the private scholarship program.”

Supporters express concern the provisions will end the program, but they are maintaining their reauthorization efforts.

“We must come together in support of continuing and strengthening this program,” said former DC Council Member Kevin P. Chavous. “The DC OSP is helping low-income kids get a good education. Ending or even weakening this program would send a terrible signal—to those currently using the program and others who hope to in the future—that politics is more important than our children’s future.”

Report Praised

Congressional supporters expressed enthusiasm for the report’s findings.

U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said, “This latest report confirms what we’ve always believed—when parents have a say in their children’s education, everyone benefits.

“In a school system as troubled as the one here in the nation’s capital, the improvement in parental involvement and satisfaction that has come with the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is striking,” McKeon said. “I truly hope members on both sides of the aisle take these findings to heart and extend this vital program.”

John Schilling, interim president of the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy group based in the District, noted the fourth annual report from the School Choice Demonstration Project reaffirms its earlier findings, as well as some from the Institute for Education Sciences.

“The OSP is making a positive difference in the lives of nearly 2,000 very low-income District children who are experiencing educational opportunity for the first time,” Schilling said, adding he hopes the findings will positively affect reauthorization discussions.

“This report, along with last year’s IES report showing academic gain among subgroups, sends a strong message to Congress and the Obama administration that this program must be reauthorized and strengthened,” Schilling said.

Satisfied Consumers

Parents told researchers their children were thriving in their new schools. “They really excel at this program, because I know for a fact they would never have received this kind of education at a public school,” one parent reported. “I listen to them when they talk, and what they are saying, and they articulate better than I do, and I know it’s because of the school. … I like that about them, and I’m proud of them.”

“The program allows families to feel like customers in ways they don’t elsewhere,” the report’s lead author, Thomas Stewart, said. “The students are acquiring skills that will make them informed customers, as well. In the previous [public] school environments, not a lot was expected of the families. Now they’re making meaningful choices about their children’s education with the knowledge that they can go elsewhere if they’re not satisfied.”

Parental Advocates

Parents and students say they are determined to fight for the program. Patricia William, whose two sons receive Opportunity Scholarships, has attended meetings with government officials to discuss the program’s future.

“The opportunity to send my children to the school that best meets their needs has positively impacted our whole family,” William said. “I’m not just fighting for my children’s scholarships. I’m also fighting for other DC parents so they will have the opportunity to choose the best school for their children’s needs.”

Virginia Gentles ([email protected]) writes from Virginia. She previously served in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and led Florida’s school choice office.

For more information …

“Family Reflections on the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, Final Summary Report,” by Thomas Stewart, Ph.D., et al., University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project, January 2009: http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/SCDP/DC_Research/2009_Final.pdf

Save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKzZJoPu1OQ