D.C. School Voucher Program Deserves More Time, Further Study

Saturday, April 4, 2009

THE INK WAS barely dry on the latest study of D.C. school vouchers when Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that he is ready to pull the plug on the program, although he doesn't want current students moved. The study's findings are no slam-dunk for the program's success, but they are, by no means, proof of failure. Indeed, for the first time, researchers found statistically significant improvement in reading test scores for students offered vouchers and that, at the very least, demands further study.

An evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program released yesterday concluded that, after three years, students offered scholarships earned reading scores equivalent to 3.1 months of additional learning. It also mirrored earlier studies in showing that parents who had children in the program were more satisfied with the schools, viewing them as safer and more orderly. The study found no difference in math performance and no gains for students from the lowest-performing public schools.

It's no surprise that partisans on both sides of the debate over the nation's only federal voucher program will seize on the mixed bag of findings to buttress their political points of view. We had hoped that Mr. Duncan, who prides himself in being a pragmatist interested in programs that work, would have a more open mind. For one thing, this report -- while carefully calibrated as a scientific study -- has limitations in that it does not compare the performance of students who use vouchers to attend private schools against the performance of students in the city's public and charter schools. Instead, it compares students who were "offered" scholarships against those who weren't. It makes sense to want to do further study before rendering a verdict on the efficacy of vouchers.

So it's perplexing that Mr. Duncan, without any further discussion or analysis, would be so quick to kill a program that is supported by local officials and that has proven popular with parents. Unless, of course, politics enters the calculation in the form of Democratic allies in Congress who have been shameless in their efforts to kill vouchers. Most recently, they inserted language in the omnibus budget bill that cuts off funding after the next school year unless Congress and the District government reauthorize the program.

We've made no secret of our support for vouchers. They are no substitute for serious public school reform, but they give low-income, mostly minority, parents what wealthier people take for granted: a choice in where their children go to school. Still, we agree that the program should be judged on its merits. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, under the leadership of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), has scheduled hearings for May. Mr. Duncan might want to watch.

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