DC Parents Support Renewal of Vouchers

Published March 1, 2008

After three years, the primary concern of parents with children in the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP)–a federal voucher program in the nation’s capital serving about 1,900 low-income students–has changed from basic school safety to academic outcomes. That is a positive development, school choice experts note.

In addition, OSP parents are pleased with their children’s academic progress and want to tell lawmakers all about it as the time for congressional reauthorization approaches, according to a report released in December.

“With their children now in safer schools, OSP parents report becoming increasingly focused on the academic development of their children,” said Patrick Wolf, co-principal investigator and a professor at the University of Arkansas.

The report, “Satisfied, Optimistic, Yet Concerned: Parent Voices on the Third Year of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program,” is the latest on OSP from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, which is in charge of evaluating the DC voucher program.

The new report is not part of the official evaluation mandated by the law that created OSP–the next installment of that evaluation is expected mid-year–but is the third in a series of reports using focus groups to gauge parents’ views about DC’s voucher program.

Defining Success

The report broke 110 focus-group families into two cohorts–the first consisting of parents who have participated in the program since its inception in 2004, and the second since 2005. The movement of academic considerations to the top of parents’ concerns was especially pronounced in Cohort 1, though most parents in both groups still cited safety among the three most important characteristics they considered when choosing a school.

The focus groups also revealed parents:

  • typically judge academic success by changes in their children’s attitudes toward learning;
  • believe an independent entity is needed to verify the information schools provide and to monitor them; and
  • found visiting schools and talking with staff was more valuable than reading school brochures or other written material.

Parents also reported they would be willing to speak directly to Congress or the District of Columbia City Council to express their support for the program.

Lobbying Congress

This last finding could become very important in the next year because the scholarship program will expire after the 2008-09 academic year unless Congress renews it. A GOP-controlled Senate barely passed OSP when it was enacted in 2004, and the Democratic Party could very well control Congress when renewal becomes necessary for the program’s continuation. The program’s supporters think OSP will need all the support from parents it can get.

Asked about the likelihood of parents actively lobbying for the program, Wolf said while some focus group parents may have “exaggerated their actual willingness to lobby on behalf of the OSP … if it really appears that reauthorization will be a struggle, I think a significant number will offer to help–especially if it involves a ‘one-off’ like writing to Congress, testifying, or making a short speech at a rally.”

Changing Minds?

Dan Lips, an education analyst at the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation, said such lobbying could have a strong effect, possibly even swaying members of Congress such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), both of whom opposed the program the first time around.

Noting almost 2,000 students are benefiting from OSP, Lips said, “If members of Congress and the public hear about how the scholarship program is positively impacting [students’] lives, even the biggest school choice opponents–including Sen. Kennedy and Del. Norton–will be hard pressed to vote to send these kids back to low-performing public schools.”

Only time will tell how energetically OSP parents will defend the program, but at the very least “Satisfied, Optimistic, Yet Concerned” shows that despite some concerns among focus-group parents, they are generally happy with the program and think it should be continued.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in Washington, DC.

For more information … “Satisfied, Optimistic, Yet Concerned: Parent Voices on the Third Year of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program,” by Thomas Stewart, Ph.D., Patrick Wolf, Ph.D., Stephen Q. Cornman, Esq., and Kennan McKenzie-Thompson, M.Ed., Georgetown University School Choice Demonstration Project, December 2007: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=22766