By Maria Glod and Bill Turque | Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 17, 2008; Page B06
Students in the D.C. school voucher program, the first federal initiative to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition, generally did no better on reading and math tests after two years than public school peers, a U.S. Education Department report said yesterday.
The findings mirror those in previous studies of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, passed by a Republican-led Congress in 2004 to place the District at the leading edge of the private school choice movement. It has awarded scholarships to 1,903 children from low-income families, granting up to $7,500 a year for tuition and other fees at participating schools.
The report comes at a politically perilous moment for the program. Congressional Democrats, led by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, want to phase it out, arguing that it drains money and other resources from public schools. Most scholarship recipients have enrolled in Catholic and other faith-based private schools.
Voucher supporters assert that Democrats, who now control Congress, should not deny poor families the kind of choices available to the well-to-do to satisfy such anti-voucher interest groups as teachers unions.
This afternoon, a House Appropriations subcommittee will consider President Bush's request for $18 million to continue the program.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings renewed her call yesterday to preserve the program, stressing that it has shown promising achievement trends. Researchers found gains in reading among some groups of scholarship recipients, although they said the bump could be due to statistical chance.
"No one in a position of responsibility can sever this lifeline right now and leave these kids adrift in schools that are not measuring up -- not when they have chosen to create a better future for themselves," Spellings said.
The congressionally mandated study, conducted through the Institute of Education Sciences, the department's research arm, compared the performance and attitudes of students who had scholarships with those of peers who sought scholarships but weren't chosen in the lottery.
Both groups took widely used math and reading tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test. Overall, there was no statistically significant difference in performance.
But some groups of voucher recipients showed improvement. For instance, among students who earned relatively high reading scores before the program started, those with scholarships progressed faster and are now about two months ahead of their peers.
Students who previously attended struggling schools -- a group the program is designed to help -- showed no boost in test scores compared with their peers. Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the institute, said one possible explanation is that those children lagged far behind academically and had trouble adjusting to what may be a more demanding classroom.
Parents of students with scholarships were more satisfied with their children's new schools and were less likely to worry that schools could be dangerous, the report found. Students showed no difference in their level of satisfaction.