Choices That Are Changing Lives in D.C.

In 2005, Ronald Hammond, then 8, napped on the shoulder of his sister Zackia, 11, during an hour-long bus ride to attend Nannie Helen Burroughs School in Northeast under the then-new voucher program. Their mother, Nikia Hammond, rode behind them at left.
In 2005, Ronald Hammond, then 8, napped on the shoulder of his sister Zackia, 11, during an hour-long bus ride to attend Nannie Helen Burroughs School in Northeast under the then-new voucher program. Their mother, Nikia Hammond, rode behind them at left. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Fred Hiatt
Monday, May 21, 2007

If it were up to the children and their parents, there'd be no question that the District's five-year experiment with school vouchers would be renewed for an additional five years or more.

That's the most emphatic finding of an independent evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program published last week. "The vast majority of families participating in this study are satisfied with the OSP in general, and their choice of new schools in particular," the report found.

Here's how one mother expressed it to researchers from Georgetown University and the University of Arkansas: "Before . . . his grades were below average, and for the first time he made the honor roll . . . He came home, he was so proud that he made the honor roll . . . They had the awards ceremony, so I wouldn't tell him I was coming . . . When he came out he saw [my husband and me] sitting in the first row . . . He gave us this big grin; but to see him walk up there and receive that piece of paper, I mean you could see the joy all over him."

The parental reaction shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, most Americans enjoy "school choice" without ever thinking about it in those terms: If they don't like their neighborhood school, they can move to a different neighborhood or school district or send their children to private or parochial schools. Only the poor, who can't afford tuition or to move, say, from the District to Falls Church, are without school choice.

That was the argument that prevailed, barely, when Congress approved the District's five-year program in the fall of 2003, with strong backing from then-Mayor Anthony Williams; its first school year was 2004-05. The government provided equal amounts of new money for vouchers, charter schools and traditional public schools, so there could be no contention that the vouchers were sapping resources from public education.

Congress told the District and the federal Education Department to evaluate the results, comparing the academic achievements of children who received vouchers with a control group of children who wanted vouchers but lost out in the raffle. Preliminary results, comparing students after just one year, are expected later this spring. Last week's report, by Stephen Q. Cornman, Thomas Stewart and Patrick J. Wolf, is another component of ongoing evaluation.

Either this year or next, Congress will have to decide whether to continue the program. In September 2003 the House endorsed it by a single vote, 209 to 208, with only four Democrats voting yes. Many opponents argued that the program wouldn't help poor people.

"This legislation represents an ominous step toward federally sponsored privatization of public education that heavily favors the wealthiest families to the detriment of the majority of public school students," argued Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, which campaigned against the program.

Now Democrats control both houses of Congress; when the time comes, will they really argue that the 1,800 children who have been given this chance should be sent back to schools they do not want to attend? Since the program began, four students have applied for each available $7,500 scholarship. The average income of scholarship families is $21,100, for a family of four.

Another parent told researchers: "She's in a school where it's real family-oriented. You know that the principal is very much involved, as well as the teachers. And they really do care so I'm happy . . . I don't have to worry anymore about someone calling saying she got jumped or things of that nature, so really I'm just happy."

Strikingly, the report's authors found that the parents aren't just happy; they're involved in their children's education, and increasingly so the longer they are in the program, despite challenges related to time and transportation.

They also are demanding consumers. Parents visited an average of three schools before selecting one; the small minority who were disappointed with their first choice visited even more as they weighed the possibility of moving their children. They were primarily looking, the report found, for "smaller class size, a more rigorous curriculum and school safety."

Mayor Adrian Fenty rightly is focused on reforming the public schools, with their 55,000 pupils. The small voucher program can't, and wasn't intended to, lessen the importance of improving those.

Yet the program may have a lesson for the larger reform, too, given that defenders of the District's troubled schools often place much blame on the absence of family input. It seems that parents -- when they are given choices, when they are provided with information to make those choices meaningful, and when they are treated respectfully as consumers of education -- take their jobs seriously, and participate more and more. It doesn't matter if they're poor or rich.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company