Voucher Use in Washington Wins Praise of Parents
By SAM DILLON / June 22, 2007 / NYTimes
Students who participated in the first year of the District of Columbia’s federally financed school voucher program did not show significantly higher math or reading achievement, but their parents were satisfied anyway, viewing the private schools they attended at taxpayer expense as safer and better than public schools, according to an Education Department study released yesterday.
The students themselves painted a picture different from that of their parents, though, feeling neither more satisfied nor safer than did students attending public schools.
“The program had a substantial positive impact on parents’ views of school safety, but not on students’ actual school experiences with dangerous activities,” the study said.
A Republican-controlled Congress established the voucher program, for Grades K through 12, in 2004. Over the last three years it has provided scholarships of up to $7,500 annually to cover tuition, fees and transportation expenses for each of about 1,800 poor children to attend private school. About 90 percent of the participating students have been African-American, and an additional 9 percent Hispanic, according to the Congressionally mandated study.
The results were eagerly awaited, because studies of similar programs elsewhere, in cities including Cleveland, Milwaukee and Dayton, had not produced definitive conclusions about whether vouchers significantly increased the academic achievement of students who previously attended public schools.
The new research found that in the Washington program’s first academic year, 2004-5, it “generated no statistically significant impacts, positive or negative, on student reading or math achievement.”
But Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department agency that oversaw the study, told reporters yesterday that it was too early to tell whether the program would significantly affect student achievement. The students had been attending private schools for an average of less than a year when they were tested for the study, not much time for their new academic environment to affect performance.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement, “The report’s findings are in step with rigorous studies of other voucher programs, which have not typically found impacts on student achievement in the first year.”
Because the number of students who have applied for the program exceeds the number of available scholarships, or the number of seats available to them in the 58 participating private schools, eligible students have been chosen by lottery. As a result, researchers were able to study two randomly selected groups: one of scholarship recipients and another of students rejected by the lottery who continued to attend public schools. The researchers, led by Patrick J. Wolf, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, compared the academic outcomes of the two groups, as well as their perception, and that of their parents, toward their schools.
About two-thirds of the participating students attended parochial schools operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington; the rest attended other private schools. The $7,500 scholarship that families spent was about half the average public expenditure per student in the District of Columbia public schools.
Parents of students using the vouchers were significantly more likely to give the school their child attended a grade of A or B than were parents of students rejected by the lottery, the study found.
Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, said those findings were consistent with studies of other voucher programs.
“To me,” Mr. Viteritti said, “it just means that parents are happy to have a choice.”
But Clive R. Belfield, an economics professor at the City University of New York who has studied voucher programs, noted the new report’s finding that of the 1,027 students who entered the Washington program in the fall of 2004, only 788 remained in it by the fall of 2006.
“That’s quite a bit of attrition,” Mr. Belfield said. “If parents are so satisfied, why have about 20 percent of the students left the program?”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company