Beach Reading for Mr. Obama: Useful Literature on School Vouchers

Friday, August 28, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA reportedly has a hefty reading list while vacationing this week, but we would like to offer two additions, both hot off the presses. One is an article by the education expert who studied the D.C. voucher program; the second is a study on school safety in the city's public and private schools. Read together, they might cause the president to rethink his administration's wrong-headed decision to shut down the voucher program to new students.

He should start with Patrick J. Wolf's article in the new issue of Education Next. Mr. Wolf, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, is the principal investigator of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. He was unequivocal in his findings: "The D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government's official education research arm so far." Equally adamant was his opinion that vouchers paid off for the students lucky enough to win them: "On average, participating low-income students are performing better in reading because the federal government decided to launch an experimental school choice program in our nation's capital."

Mr. Obama, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has repeatedly promised to support "what works," so we figure he should be interested in Mr. Wolf's findings. Also instructive is a new report by the Heritage Foundation, in conjunction with the Lexington Institute, on violence and criminal activity in D.C. schools. The report pays particular attention to the plight of the 216 students who had planned to attend private school before the administration rescinded their scholarship offers while Congress debates the future of the program. The study looks at the 70 public schools to which these students have now been assigned and finds there were 2,379 crime-related incidents, including 666 violent incidents (one of which was a homicide), for the 2007-08 school year. No wonder many parents cite school safety when explaining why they want choice in where their child goes to school.

Latasha Bennett, for example, lost a nephew to school violence: "I wonder if he would be sitting here today as a success story, if a scholarship had been available for him to attend private school." Ms. Bennett, as we have reported before, is scrambling to find a school for her daughter after Mr. Duncan decided to withdraw the scholarship that would have allowed her to attend Naylor Road School, where Ms. Bennett's son is enrolled by virtue of a voucher.

As we've said before, vouchers aren't the answer to Washington's school troubles; we enthusiastically support public school reform and quality charter schools, too. But vouchers are an answer for some children whose options otherwise are bleak. In Washington, they also are part of a carefully designed social-science experiment that may provide useful evidence for all schools on helping low-income children learn. Why would a Democratic administration and Congress want to cut such an experiment short?

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