D.C. Scholarship Program Passes First Evaluation

Published June 1, 2005

Increasing numbers of students and parents in the District of Columbia are taking advantage of the nation’s first federally funded scholarship program, according to an independent evaluation released April 5 by the U.S. Department of Education.

In 2004-05, more than 1,000 students enrolled in 58 private schools through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, created by the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003. Applications are up for 2005-06, with about two students applying for each available scholarship; approximately 85 percent of the applicants currently attend public schools.

The landmark legislation, resulting from cooperation between the Bush administration and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, was passed in January 2004. The Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF) was charged with implementing the program in just a few short months.

Getting Off the Ground

WSF President Sally Sachar is encouraged by the fact that 75 percent of the students awarded scholarships ended up using them for the full academic year.

“We are extremely pleased that the families of so many children want to take advantage of this great opportunity to choose a school that otherwise would most likely not be an option for them.”

The D.C. Scholarship Program offers eligible students up to $7,500 for tuition, school fees, and transportation. Students must reside in the District of Columbia, and their families must have incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Participating private schools must be located in the District and meet program requisites related to accountability and nondiscrimination.

Studying Results

The legislation requires a rigorous, independent evaluation of the program annually. The Department of Education awarded the contract to independent evaluators from Georgetown and Westat–a private statistical researching firm in Rockville, Maryland–who collaborated to assess the program’s effectiveness in several areas, including student performance and the program’s effect on the traditional public school model.

Significant findings from the first year are limited in terms of performance and long-term impact, but descriptively rich:

  • 53 percent of the District’s private schools participated in the choice program; 51 percent of those were Catholic;
  • the average family income for all applicants was $18,742;
  • participating private schools were more racially diverse and boasted better teacher-to-student ratios than their public school counterparts;
  • 72 percent of applicants came from public schools, and they received 84 percent of the scholarships awarded;
  • the program was oversubscribed in grades 6-8, and severely oversubscribed at the high school level; thus, a lottery determined recipients at those levels; and,
  • all students who applied from schools deemed “in need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind Act received scholarships.

Serving Students

Sachar was encouraged by the fact that more students from “schools in need of improvement” (SINI) are being served by the program.

“There are several factors that contributed to an increase in the number of applicants from SINI schools this year,” Sachar said, such as better communication between those schools and students and their parents through mailings and community events. “Further, the number of SINI schools rose significantly this year, which created a larger pool of possible applicants from these schools.

“We have very positive relationships with the D.C. State Education Office and the mayor’s office, which enabled us to communicate to D.C. public school families about a range of educational options,” Sachar continued. “We also had much more time this year to reach out to potentially eligible families, including those whose children attend the lowest-performing schools. Finally, we were able to raise private dollars to support a comprehensive outreach program to D.C. families.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer from Indiana and formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The U.S. Department of Education’s full report on the D.C. Scholarship Program is available online at http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/dcchoice-yearone/index.html.

For more information on the Washington Scholarship Fund, go to http://www.washingtonscholarshipfund.org.