By Mary C. Tillotson
When her oldest daughter received a scholarship through the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program, Adrienne Lynch said it was like she’d won the lottery.
“It was truly exciting because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pay for that tuition alone. I was a single mom,” Lynch said. “It was a great relief. At that time, I had a new baby, and I knew I needed my 6-year-old to be secure, education-wise. It was a really big weight off my shoulders.”
Since 2004, low-income families in Washington, D. C., can receive scholarships to send their children to private schools through the federally funded OSP. Graduation rates and parent satisfaction saw significant increases during the first five years of the program, according to a study by Patrick Wolf, professor of education and endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas.
“Without the Opportunity Scholarship Program, hundreds of low-income D. C. students would not have graduated from high school,” Wolf said. “That’s a big deal.”
Lynch sent her three daughters to private Catholic schools through OSP scholarships. Her oldest, now an interior designer, graduated college magna cum laude and is married with two children. Her second is attending Old Dominion University and her youngest, age 12, is attending St. Francis Xavier Academy in Washington, D. C.
“I know for a fact that my kids would not be where they are if they were in public schools,” Lynch said.
Private schools’ emphasis on parent involvement factored into her decision, she said.
“If your child misses school and you didn’t call, the school will call you. If there’s something going on with your child, the teacher will call you,” she said. “They seem to be really vested in the interest of their students. No matter what issues my child may have … that I may not see, the teachers are going to let me know and are going to be involved.”
Lynch said she felt her children were safer at their Catholic schools, where visitors couldn’t walk the hallways without checking in at the school office and wearing a visitor’s pass.
“It would be very difficult for someone to enter the school unannounced,” she said.
During the program’s first five years, Wolf collected data from program participants and a control group, evaluating high school graduation rates, academic achievement, parent and student satisfaction with schools, and parent and student views of the schools’ safety.
Nearly 4,000 students were awarded scholarships during that time.
Compared to a 70 percent graduation rate in the control group, 91 percent of scholarship recipients graduated from high school. Academic gains were modest overall, but were more pronounced in certain subgroups – girls, for example, made greater progress in reading, Wolf said.
Parents noticeably were more likely to rate their children’s schools higher, but students’ satisfaction remained constant.
“That could be for any number of reasons,” Wolf said. “The things about the school that satisfy parents – more homework, stricter discipline – don’t necessarily satisfy children.”
Scholarship parents tended to rate their children’s schools to be safer.
Scholarship students’ overall safety ratings were similar to the control group, but they rated their private schools safer in specific key categories: They were less likely to report seeing someone with a gun or knife at school, being the victim of theft, or being threatened with physical harm.
While academic performance was only modestly better, Wolf noted that “there were no negative findings” in the study.
Wolf noted the modest academic gains and substantially higher graduation rate in his study of the D.C. OSP and in a study of a similar program in Milwaukee. At first, he said he was concerned that high schools were lowering academic standards for graduation, but the Milwaukee study followed students into college and found that they were enrolling and persisting at a higher rate.
“It’s hard to move student test scores a long distance in a short period of time, especially if the kids are older,” he said. “I suspect what these private schools are doing is instilling character virtues in the students, and grit and persistence and self-discipline. Those character traits help students overcome challenges and persist in school and raises their aspirations for further education.”
Wolf said this is only a hypothesis, and he is working on finding a way to test it in future studies.
Better for all students
Through tax-credit or voucher scholarships, students can be placed in a better situation immediately, said Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute.
Students don’t have to be in failing schools to benefit from school choice, he said. Some students are bullied, and others have special needs or a different learning style not served adequately by the local public school. School choice makes an immediate change for the child possible, he said.
“A public school cannot be everything for every child. There are a lot of great, hardworking public school teachers – no doubt about that – but they can’t be everything to everybody,” he said.
And when public school leaders see parents’ ability to send their kids elsewhere, they will work to improve their own schools, Butcher said.
“It may not happen overnight, but as you have thousands and thousands of kids either eligible to use school choice or already participating … they’re going to realize that we just can’t do things the way we’ve always been doing them, because the parents will walk,” he said. “For those that remain, it’s a huge benefit to them.”
School choice programs have been in place for a decade or two, Butcher said, and public schools haven’t shown the drastic achievements school choice proponents have forecasted.
That’s because most voucher programs are aimed at students with special needs or low incomes, or who live in failing districts.
“The program’s too small. These tiny niche programs for a couple of kids in a poor area, there’s no way that just those kids are going to change the average test scores of every kid in the country,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to turn education around if you limit the most innovative and exciting education options to small carve-outs of students.”
The cost of public education
D. C. public schools spend about $30,000 per student, according to the Cato Institute, while 2013-14 scholarships are capped at $12,385 for high school and $8,256 for elementary and middle school. Scholarship money can cover “tuition, school-related fees, and public transportation expenses,” according to the program’s website.
“You see that, basically, what the program produced was better results at a lower cost, and economists define that as a better program,” Wolf said.
Options are better
Parents should have a right to choose their children’s schools, Lynch said.
“Even outside of statistics, I’m very close with several parents in the program, and everyone I know, their children are blossoming,” she said. “I’m not saying that public schools are bad, but I’m saying that parents should have a right to have options.
“The only people that have those options are the wealthy and the well-to-do,” she said, “and this scholarship program gives the same opportunity to low- and middle-income families, so that their children can have an equal chance to be productive members of society.”