Reading Ahead

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

THE LATEST study on the impact of vouchers for D.C. students is sure to be read through a prism. Supporters of the scholarship program will see a glass half-full, opponents one half-empty. We prefer the characterization of the federal researcher who directed the exhaustive study: "promising findings" but no slam-dunk. And that's why it would be wrong for Congress to abort a program whose potential is still being studied and realized.

The report released yesterday by the U.S. Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences covered only 19 months of students' participation in the program. Accordingly, it found no statistically significant difference in test scores overall between students who were offered a scholarship and students who were not. But researchers reported an encouraging trend. Specifically, 88 percent of participating students are reading two to four months ahead of children who did not receive a scholarship. It is hard, as institute director Grover J. Whitehurst noted, to positively drive reading results, so the findings are significant.

So, too, is the report's conclusion that parents continue to be satisfied with the program and the all-important choice it gives them in the education of their children. The study echoed previous reports in which parents whose children were offered scholarships were much more likely to give their child's school an A or B grade. Lost in the rhetoric about the politics of the program is the simple fact that, if not for these vouchers, 86 percent of these 1,900 children would be attending failing D.C. schools.

Members of a House Appropriations subcommittee today will take up President Bush's request for $18 million to continue the voucher program, along with new money for public and charter schools. Before they adopt language dismantling the program, they might want to take a good, hard look at who these children are: mostly African Americans from mainly single-parent households with incomes averaging around $22,700. As Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) wrote in an eloquent appeal to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a voucher critic: "The program is offering these students an opportunity that would probably otherwise be closed to them, but open to the children of more affluent families." Children, say, like the sons and daughters of those who get to vote on whether this program will continue.

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