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White House ignores evidence of how D.C. school vouchers work

WITH THE HOUSE poised to vote Wednesday on legislation to reestablish a voucher program that allows low-income D.C. students to attend private schools, the Obama administration issued a strongly worded statement of opposition. The White House of course has a right to its own opinion, as wrongheaded as we believe it to be. It doesn’t have a right to make up facts.

“Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the D.C. program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.,” President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget proclaimed Tuesday, in response to H.R. 471, sponsored by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

That dismissal might come as a surprise to Patrick J. Wolf, the principal investigator who helped conduct the rigorous studies of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and who has more than a decade of experience evaluating school choice programs.

Here’s what Mr. Wolf had to say about the program in Feb. 16 testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Operations. “In my opinion, by demonstrating statistically significant experimental impacts on boosting high school graduation rates and generating a wealth of evidence suggesting that students also benefited in reading achievement, the DC OSP has accomplished what few educational interventions can claim: It markedly improved important education outcomes for low-income inner-city students.”

There are, we believe, other benefits to a program that expands educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. The program, which provides vouchers of $7,500 to low-income, mainly minority students to attend private schools, is highly regarded by parents, who often feel it allows their children to attend safer schools or ones that strongly promote achievement. Our view has never been that this voucher program is a substitute for public school or public school reform. But while that reform proceeds, scholarships allow a few thousand poor children to escape failing schools and exercise a right that middle-class parents take for granted — the right, and dignity, of choice.

We understand the argument against using public funds for private, and especially parochial, schools. But it is parents, not government, choosing where to spend the vouchers. Given that this program takes no money away from public or public charter schools; that the administration does not object to parents directing Pell grants to Notre Dame or Georgetown; and that members of the administration would never accept having to send their own children to failing schools, we don’t think the argument is very persuasive. Maybe that’s why an administration that promised never to let ideology trump evidence is making an exception in this case.

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