Voucher Students Show Few Gains in First Year

By Amit R. Paley and Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 22, 2007

Students in the D.C. school voucher program, the first federal initiative to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition, generally performed no better on reading and math tests after one year in the program than their peers in public schools, the U.S. Education Department said yesterday.

The department's report, which researchers said is an early snapshot, found only a few exceptions to the conclusion that the program has not yet had a significant impact on achievement: Students who moved from higher-performing public schools to private schools and those who scored well on tests before entering the program performed better in math than their peers who stayed in public school.

The results are likely to inflame a national debate about using public money for private education. Many Democrats, who have long opposed such programs, seized on the study as evidence that vouchers are ineffective.

"Vouchers have received a failing grade," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "This just makes the voucher program even more irrelevant."

But Republicans and other voucher supporters said it is too soon to judge.

"The report's findings are in step with rigorous studies of other voucher programs which have not typically found impacts on student achievement in the first year," U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement. "We know that parents are pleased with the success of the program in providing effective education alternatives."

A Republican-led Congress created the $14 million-a-year program in 2004. The five-year initiative provides $7,500 vouchers each year to 1,800 students, from kindergartners to high school seniors, who attend 58 private schools, most of them Catholic schools. Participants must live in the District and come from low-income families. Advocates say the program offers an alternative to the troubled D.C. public schools.

Known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the initiative is one of the few government-run voucher systems in the country. Milwaukee and Ohio have similar plans, and Florida and Arizona offer vouchers to special education students.

In studies of those programs and others funded with private money, researchers tended to find little improvement in test scores after one year, said Paul Peterson, director of Harvard University's program on education policy and governance. He said it takes time for students to adjust to new surroundings.

"Kids lose ground when they change schools. Even if they may be in a better school, they're not going to adjust to that right off the bat," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight. It's a slow process."

Former D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and former Ward 7 D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, early advocates of the program, reiterated their support.

"We welcome the release of this 'early look' at the program's performance," they said in a statement signed by community and business leaders. "Although these findings reflect just seven months of schooling -- typically far too short a time period to see any significant academic progress -- there is an early indication of gains in math, particularly for students who had less academic ground to make up."

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