Georgetown University Study Finds Choice Works in D.C.

Published August 1, 2007

According to a second-year evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) conducted by Georgetown University’s School Choice Demonstration Project, parents see positive changes through school choice.

“After nearly two years in the OSP, parents by and large are very satisfied with their school choice experiences,” the study concludes. “Most parents cited changes in their children’s attitudes about learning as the main source of their satisfaction.”

The OSP is the nation’s first federally sponsored K-12 scholarship initiative. It gives students up to $7,500 in tuition scholarships to attend any of 58 private schools. Eligible participants are selected through a lottery system. More than 1,800 students with an average household income of $21,000 are currently enrolled. The program is operated by the Washington Scholarship Fund through a contract with the U.S. Department of Education.

“As a parent, I know that there is nothing more important than giving our children the chance to learn and succeed in this increasingly competitive world,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement.” The D.C. School Choice Program is leading the way in providing opportunities for students and families so that success is within reach.”

Attitude Change

The evaluation, released in May and titled “The Evolution of School Choice Consumers: Parent and Student Voices on the Second Year of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” analyzed conversations with more than 100 families and 180 students about their attitudes and experiences with the program. A quantitative study, focusing on hard evidence such as test scores, will be released later this year.

“This evaluation showed that students’ attitude[s] about education changed,” said lead author Steve Cornman, an assistant research professor at Georgetown, in an interview for this story. “It also showed that self esteem increased. The study highlighted things you wouldn’t see in a quantitative study using test scores.”

The qualitative conclusions are important, said coauthor Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas.

“These are committed families, and they want to make positive things happen,” Wolf said. “This self-selected group of parents is sharp, and they know what they are doing. They are demanding consumers. They understand what school choice involves in terms of their responsibilities and making it a success for their child.”

Greater Involvement

Parents reported greater involvement in their children’s education since entering the OSP, specifically in areas of individual achievement. According to the study, “It was striking how involved the parents in the OSP program were with their children’s life experiences. Parents of high school, middle school and elementary students … emphatically stated that their parental involvement dramatically increases when their children participate in the OSP program. The majority of parents were willing to make the sacrifice to work with their children on an individual basis.”

The report continued, “One of our most important and predominant findings in the Parent and Student Voices study to date is that the majority of parents interviewed reported that they are more involved in their child’s life at school when their children participate in the OSP program.”

Cornman said that may be due to the efforts parents take to find the best participating school for their child.

“Parents might have been passively using benefits of other programs before OSP,” Cornman said. “The school choice program requires more, so they began to become sophisticated, savvy consumers. It requires them to think about what they want, like class size, better academics, and safety. Once they put all that energy into picking the right things, then they are more apt to follow that up with their child on an individual basis.”

Room to Improve

Parents weren’t completely satisfied with their experiences, however. They wanted more information, and they struggled with schools’ ability to accommodate students’ adjustment to the new environment.

“Information is very important on the front end,” Wolf said. “Many families don’t have easy access to lots of good information about schools. They are certainly looking for guides and information that is informative and highly accessible.”

One example, Wolf said, is the “sort of struggle for the families between whether they want the school to make special accommodations or whether they want their child to fit into their schools. A school singled out a child as a scholarship recipient and [the] parents weren’t happy. But other times their children were punished for behavior that was acceptable in public school, and parents believed there should be some accommodations for that.”

Aaron Atwood ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For more information …

“The Evolution of School Choice Consumers: Parent and Student Voices on the Second Year of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” by Stephen Q. Cornman, Thomas Stewart, Ph.D., and Patrick J. Wolf, Ph.D., published in May 2007 by the Georgetown University School Choice Demonstration Project, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #21461.