Parents, Children Rally for School Choice in DC

Published June 1, 2009

Approximately 2,000 people gathered in the District of Columbia on May 6 to deliver to the city and Congress more than 7,400 petition signatures protesting the end of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The program, which provides scholarships to 1,700 low-income children to attend private schools in the District, is slated to end in June 2010 unless Congress reauthorizes funding for current recipients.

“You mean to tell me you can give trillions of dollars to the people on Wall Street, but you can’t preserve the program that allows parents to make sure their kids get a great education?” Greg Rhett, father of charter school students and a supporter of the voucher program, asked elected officials at the rally. “That’s not right.”

A new budget proposal released by President Barack Obama on May 7 would provide $12.2 million for the program to continue through the 2009-10 school year. Although no new students would be accepted, current recipients would continue to receive scholarships automatically until they graduate from high school.

Proven Effectiveness

The latest report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) on the impact of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program reaffirmed participants’ academic gains and parental satisfaction. The IES report, “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years,” measures the program’s effects on reading and math achievement and on parent and student satisfaction and perceptions of school safety.

The evaluators found statistically significant positive impacts on reading test scores. Students offered a scholarship were performing at higher reading levels by the equivalent of 3.1 months of additional learning when compared with students who applied but did not receive a scholarship. Students who actually used the scholarships to attend a private school improved even further, showing 3.7 months’ worth of additional gains.

Reading scores are notoriously difficult to raise, so evaluators view the effects as encouraging.

The report is part of an ongoing evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program that analyzes results from annual student reading and math assessments and from parent, student, and principal surveys.

Parental Satisfaction

This latest evaluation revealed once again that parents benefiting from the scholarship program are more satisfied with their children’s education and more confident in the safety of their children’s schools than when their children attended DC public schools. Four consecutive IES reports have found the same effect, with the two most recent annual evaluations demonstrating academic growth by participating students.

“This report demonstrates that the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is fulfilling its purpose and providing a quality education for the low-income DC kids fortunate enough to participate,” said John Schilling, interim president of the DC-based Alliance for School Choice.

Administration Opposes Program

The U.S. Department of Education quietly released the report in early April without a press release or briefing. By posting the evaluation on a Friday afternoon, a timeslot commonly used to attract minimal media attention, the department seemed to bury evidence of the program’s success.

Despite the report’s positive findings, the Obama administration expressed opposition to continuing the program.

According to a statement released the week after the study’s findings were released, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “While the administration supports avoiding a disruption for students currently participating in the program, these results do not warrant continuation of the program.”

The administration’s response to the report contradicts Obama’s declared intention to fund effective programs. In a March 10 speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the president said, “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars. It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”

Proponents Press on

Program supporters are dismayed by the administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge the proof of the program’s success. They intend to work with DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, members of Congress, and the administration to ensure the program continues.

“This study provides further evidence that the Opportunity Scholarship Program is working and should be continued,” said former DC Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, a longtime program supporter. “The Obama administration has said [it is] going to look at what works, not political ideology. It’s time for Congress to do the same and reauthorize this program.”

Scholarships Revoked

Within days of the report’s release, the Department of Education issued a letter rescinding the scholarships families had been awarded for the 2009-10 school year. Parents who had applied and been awarded scholarships for the upcoming school year are deeply disappointed.

“I am very frustrated and disheartened by the administration’s decision to take away my child’s scholarship,” said parent Charisma Gilstrap. “My 5-year old daughter, Journey, was excited about the private school I picked out for her and is very upset she can’t go.

“The DC public schools are not safe for my child, and I can’t afford for her to go to private school without a scholarship. I want my voice to be heard and will definitely fight for the scholarships,” Gilstrap said.

Since the program’s inception in 2004 it has served more than 3,000 children; more than 7,800 have applied for scholarships. Participating students receive scholarships worth up to $7,500 apiece to cover the costs of tuition, school fees, and transportation for a DC private school.

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 …

“The Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years,” by Patrick Wolf, et al., U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, March 2009: