By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009; B01
A U.S. Education Department study released yesterday found that District students who were given vouchers to attend private schools outperformed public school peers on reading tests, findings likely to reignite debate over the fate of the controversial program.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first federal initiative to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition, was created by a Republican-led Congress in 2004 to help students from low-income families. Congress has cut off federal funding after the 2009-10 school year unless lawmakers vote to reauthorize it.
Overall, the study found that students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school. However, as a group, students who had been in the lowest-performing public schools did not show those gains. There was no difference in math performance between the groups.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that the Obama administration does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation.
"Big picture, I don't see vouchers as being the answer," Duncan said in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. "You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you're leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it's not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically."
Since it began, the voucher program has awarded scholarships to more than 3,000 students from low-income families, granting up to $7,500 a year for tuition and other fees at participating schools. This school year, about 1,715 students are participating.
The Bush administration, and many Republicans, have championed the program as a "lifeline" for students in struggling schools.
Supporters hailed the congressionally mandated study as proof the program works. "With concrete evidence in hand that this program is a success, we look forward to reauthorizing it as quickly as possible," Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), the top Republican on the House education committee, said in a statement.
The study, conducted by the Education Department's research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, compared the performance and attitudes of students with scholarships with those of peers who were eligible but weren't chosen in a lottery. Parents of students in the program were more satisfied with their children's new schools and considered the schools safer, the report found. Students showed no difference in their level of satisfaction.
In a letter Thursday to Duncan, several GOP leaders urged him to continue awarding grants. "Under no circumstances should the funds be withheld by the U.S. Department of Education when so many children in the District need and deserve access to a quality school today," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other lawmakers wrote.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs has jurisdiction over the District, has said he plans to hold hearings on the program.