In Vouchers, an Opportunity That Works For D.C. Schoolchildren

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Education Secretary Arne Duncan "will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It's not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works."

So said President Obama in a landmark education speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in the District on March 10. I agree with the president: In evaluating an education program, the most important question must be whether it improves student performance.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has generated considerable controversy. This initiative, also known as the D.C. voucher program, offers scholarships to low-income children from failing schools to allow them to attend better private schools. In doing so, the program gives the parents of disadvantaged children a choice that's available to the more affluent, including many in Congress and the Obama administration. It is a program that teachers unions and many in Congress strongly oppose. However, the program is working, and accordingly, it should be reauthorized.

When the program was created, the law required that an independent entity evaluate it and that the evaluation be "conducted using the strongest possible research design for determining the effectiveness of the program." The Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences released the results of that evaluation, which was based on three years' worth of data, earlier this year. According to testimony by Patrick Wolf, the principal investigator for the institute, the voucher program "has met a tough standard for efficacy in serving low-income inner-city students."

Wolf told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which I chair and which has jurisdiction over legislation involving the District, that most programs evaluated using similar rigorous methods fail to show any statistically significant improvement.

According to Wolf, a student participating in the program from kindergarten through high school could be reading 2 1/2 years ahead of his peers by the time he graduated from high school. That could go a long way toward closing the achievement gaps that persist in this country. In sum, this program is working and is improving student performance. It meets the president's sole stated criterion and should be continued.

Critics argue that the voucher program takes away funds from public schools.

That is simply not the case. The three-pronged strategy to tackle the District's education problems called for putting more money into the public schools, the charter schools and the voucher program. I agree with all who say that vouchers aren't the solution to our public-school woes. But they are part of the solution, at least until our public schools perform better.

I strongly support Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's efforts to transform D.C. public schools. Support for the voucher program does not hamper the efforts of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Rhee to improve the public schools, and it may help by promoting choice and innovation. We should continue our strategy of meeting the District's educational challenges on three fronts: by funding public schools, public charter schools and opportunity scholarships. Congress should act quickly to pass legislation to support full reauthorization of the program and provide certainty to economically disadvantaged students.

There are low-income children in the District who can't wait for their local schools to turn around. Without programs such as this one, their opportunity will be lost forever.

Joe Lieberman is an independent senator from Connecticut.

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