WASHINGTON-Under the direction of a Democratic Congress, the first federally funded program providing low-income families with education scholarships in Washington, D.C., is presumably in its final days. But a newly released Department of Education study evaluating the program's first three years shows reading improvements among participating students.
Students going to private schools with the vouchers had more than three months edge in reading ability over their public school counterparts, while voucher recipients were on a level field with public school students on math aptitude. The report found a high level of satisfaction from parents with children in the program, who said their children's new schools were safer and more orderly.
Demand for the $7,500 vouchers has outpaced the supply, but Congress will end the program next year unless it is reauthorized with the approval of the D.C. Council-which congressional Democrats have promised will not happen. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, however, has said that while he doesn't support vouchers as a policy, he thinks D.C. students should be able to stay in schools where they are content. The district's public schools are notoriously underperforming.
The head of the voucher program's board, Joseph Robert Jr., pressed Democrats to reauthorize the program in a statement: "We welcome a change of heart based on these new findings, or shame on them, if that's possible."
The findings reinforce the position of congressional Republicans, who believe the program should continue. A Republican Congress began the offering vouchers in the district in 2004. Rep. Buck McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House Education Committee, said the report "confirmed what we've been saying all along: When parents are given a choice, and children are able to attend safer, higher-performing schools, achievement and satisfaction will rise."
The voucher recipients highlighted in the report came from backgrounds at public schools that aren't on the list of "schools in need of improvement." Typically students coming from lower-performing schools need more time to gain traction in a new school with higher standards, showing improvements more slowly.
Education experts said three years is still a short time to effectively evaluate a program. More than 1,700 D.C. students are currently enrolled in private schools through the scholarship program.