The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has been one of the flagship programs in the world of voucherizing education, the only one funded by the federal government-- and its vital signs are not looking good.
2016-2017 applications to the program were up, but the number of students actually using the vouchers is down. In fact, one third of the students who received vouchers didn't use them, more than half of voucher-winners didn't use them for private school, and the total number of voucher students has dropped from 1,638 to 1,154 over the last four years.
What happened to the system that Mike Pence called "a case study in school choice success"? The folks at Future-Ed (a thinky tank at Georgetown U) looked into it and released a study of that very question.
The short answer is that everything that can be, that is likely to be, or is unavoidably bound to be wrong with a voucher program is wrong with the Opportunity Scholarship Program. It is, in fact, a test-case demonstration of why vouchers are a bad idea. Let's dive into the details.
For DC, the problem is that the program's purse strings are held by Congress, so it is blown to and fro on the political winds. It started in 2003 under the GOP, was allowed to sputter quietly in 2009 under the Democrats, then resuscitated by the GOP again in 2011.
We don't talk about this enough with school choice, but one of the effects of choice systems is to gut local control of finances. Choice puts the purse strings in state capitals, where legislators can make decisions based on political wheeling and dealing and, unlike locally school boards, don't have to look their victims in the face when they decide that, for instance, voucher price tags will just stay static for ten years.
Enrollment (Whose Choice Was It, Again?)
The report notes that voucher use has been declining in DC for ages, and there have always been people who receive vouchers and don't use them:
This isn’t a new problem. Between 2004 and 2009, for instance, 22 percent of D.C. students receiving vouchers never used them. The most common reason cited was that students couldn’t get a spot at a preferred private school, according to a survey conducted by researchers for the U.S. Education Department. Other parents cited a lack of resources at private schools for students with special learning needs or admission to a preferred charter school. Some students simply didn’t want to leave their friends.
Emphasis mine. Once again, the basic promise of school choice-- that parents will get to choose the school they want fro their children-- turns out to be inaccurate. In a choice system, it's the schools that choose which students they will admit.
Nor did voucher students pile into the "high-performing" schools-- only 51 vouchers were used in the top schools. And while vouchers provide $8,653 for elementary students and $12,981 for high schoolers, some of DC's top schools charge in the neighborhood of $40K for tuition.
One recurring note struck in the study is that parents did not have access to information about the quality of the schools involved in the voucher system. That was also a problem for the writers of this report-- the voucher system (Serving Our Children) wouldn't provide information about how many students attended which of the private schools in the study citing "student privacy."
Schools involved in the program are not required to tell anybody anything. The school choice notion that parents will pore through data rich reports to find the high-quality school of their dreams is itself a dream. DC public schools must publish detailed test result data:
By contrast, little information is available for parents about private school performance under D.C.’s voucher program. While Serving Our Children offers a handbook describing each of the schools involved, it does not provide information on performance. By law, private schools in the program must prove only that they are accredited and meet health and building codes, not that they are successfully educating students. The District’s elite private schools, worried about devaluing their brands, made it a requirement of their participation that they would not have to disclose test score information on voucher students—despite the use of taxpayer funding to support the vouchers.
Not only is data not available to the "customers," but voucher schools have made that a requirement. But larger studies have repeatedly shown that voucher-using students don't do better, and often do worse. Meanwhile, the report notes new voucher students opening in store fronts and shopping malls, "some relying on voucher students for more than half of their population." In other words, the K-12 equivalent of predatory for-profit colleges-- but with no information available about their actual success at schooling.
Tax Subsidies for the Not-So-Needy
There is a bit of a complication in that voucher awarding doesn't quite synch up with private school admissions. But look at how one school suggests that be handled:
One admissions officer from an elite private school told us he counsels interested students to apply in the fall and gamble that they will receive a voucher in the spring lottery. If the school really wants the student, it will offer a scholarship—then deduct the amount of the voucher from the scholarship. In such instances, the voucher program is merely subsidizing the financial aid offices of elite schools.
Church and State
As we have seen in many voucher programs, DC's vouchers are primarily a means of funneling public tax dollars to private religious schools. 47% of the vouchers went to Catholic schools; another 21% went to religious schools of other denominations.
The report finds that voucher schools do better on graduation rates (it would be surprising if they didn't) and that voucher parents are more satisfied with "safety," which I suspect may translate easily into satisfaction that their children don't have to go to school with Those People's Children any more.
The study is pretty brutal in the end:
Congress has justified its multi-million dollar investment in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program by claiming it gives parents the choice of a high-quality educational experience for their children. But the data on the 13-year-old program suggests there is neither robust demand for the private school choices on offer nor firm evidence of educational improvement for the students receiving vouchers.
Far from serving as a case study for expanded federal investment in private school choice, D.C.’s experience points to the shortcomings of voucher systems with complicated admissions processes, scant information on school quality, and little access to the best schools.
There it is. Far from being a Proof of Concept system, DC's voucher program is a stark display of everything that can be, and I would argue is likely to be, wrong with a school choice system.