Final Report Vindicates D.C. Scholarship Program

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 23, 2010

Arlington, Va.—Today the U.S. Department of Education released its final report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a program that is popular with D.C. parents and provides low-income students with the chance to escape failing public schools.  The report states that OSP “significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school.”  Established in 2004, the five-year OSP pilot program was not reauthorized by Congress last year, allowing it to slowly disappear through attrition.  In fall 2009, the Obama Administration announced that it would allow the program to end.

“It is tragic that the Administration and Congress have condemned such a successful experimental program to a lingering death, rather than doing all they could to build on that success by expanding the program,” said Richard Komer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that defends school choice nationwide. “Given the billions of dollars the federal government spends on decades-old, massive federal programs that have never been shown to improve graduation rates or academic achievement, it is appalling that such a cost-effective program is allowed to die because it threatens the teachers unions’ monopoly on public education funds.”

OSP—the first and only federally funded K-12 scholarship program in the United States—provided scholarships of up to $7,500 to eligible D.C. public school students to attend participating D.C. private schools, a fraction of the $17,542 per child spent sending kids to the D.C. public schools.  At its peak in fall 2007, 1,930 students used scholarships under the program, with four applications filled out for every scholarship available.  After the Obama Administration made it clear the program’s future was in jeopardy, student participation declined to 1,322 in fall 2009.
The key finding of the final report is that use of a program scholarship increased prospects of high-school graduation by 12 percent over those students offered scholarships who did not use one. A full 82 percent of scholarship users graduated from their private schools, compared with 70 percent of the control group students, who had been offered but did not use scholarships and remained in public schools.  This result also held true for the subgroup of students who came from public schools in need of improvement, who received a priority for scholarships under the program.
“This administration’s actions in letting such a successful program die, while spending several billions of new federal tax dollars on unproven ideas contained in its Race to the Top initiative, belies the President’s stated commitment to fund whatever works, regardless of whose ox is gored,” said Komer. “It is clear that the preferences of the teachers unions remain a sacred cow, despite the demonstrated fact that programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program can deliver superior results for a fraction of the cost.  In this era of exploding budget deficits and after decades of increasing per capita expenditures on public schools, it is past time to get serious about real education reform.  We need to expand, not destroy, programs based on proven methods of empowering parents to choose the best available schools for their children.”