Local: Education

GAO fails to account for success of school choice

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Only dug-in Washington bureaucrats would criticize the District of Columbia’s successful local school choice program for — wait for it — failing to offer enough information about choice.

A quibbling new report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, faults the administrator of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for not giving adequate information to parents about participating private schools.

The administrator in question is the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. The GAO evaluation, conducted at the request of Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., sought to determine, among other things, “the extent to which the trust provides information that enables families to make informed school choices.”

In short, GAO wants to ensure that families in Washington who turn to the scholarship program to find better schools for their children are aware of all their choices — and what those choices entail.

After all, it’s tough to live up to the transparency standard of government, including government schools.

GAO also criticizes the trust for not ensuring that schools outside the public school system comply with D.C. government regulations.

Compliance and administration are certainly important. But GAO ought to note that the voucher program already imposes the most critical form of accountability — to the parents who can vote with their feet and choose where their children attend school.

And because of that high level of accountability, actual outcomes of the program are positive and indisputable, as the U.S. Department of Education has demonstrated.

Here’s how the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program works: It provide scholarships to children in low-income families to attend a private school of their choice.

Since becoming law in January 2004, the program has bestowed scholarships on nearly 6,000 students. The scholarships, or vouchers, range from $8,000 for children in grades K-8 to $12,000 for students in grades 9-12.

Demand has been high since the beginning, with more than 13,000 students applying. To be eligible, a child must be part of a family that qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch; the average household income of participating families is under $21,000 a year.

Notably, the American Federation for Children reports that 99 percent of children participating in the program otherwise would have had to attend an underperforming D.C. public school.

Again, although it is important for the scholarship program to be well administered, the GAO report — in typical Washington bureaucratic style — focuses on paperwork and compliance rather than the impact of school choice on families.

“This program has been a lifeline for 6,000 children from low-income D.C. families and yet the GAO and the members of Congress who posed the questions didn’t bother to focus on educational outcomes, parental satisfaction or the lives now filled with hope, but on whether the program administrator is a sufficient regulator,” said Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. Council member who is executive counsel for the American Federation for Children.

Indeed, parents consistently report that their primary reason for seeking a scholarship and sending their child to a private school was to ensure the child’s safety. Parents also report high levels of satisfaction with the program.

What should hold particular import for policymakers is the statistically significant graduation rates of participants — and by extension, what that means for their future prospects.

Congress mandated an earlier evaluation of the program, which was led by researcher Patrick Wolf for the Department of Education.

The study found that 91 percent of those who used their scholarship to attend a private school got their high school diploma. This graduation rate was 21 percentage points higher than the control group, at 70 percent.

To put the 91-percent graduation rate into context: Nationally, for all students, graduation rates hover around 74.7 percent.

Minority students have considerably lower rates, with about 62 percent of blacks and 68 percent of Hispanics graduating.

So the 85 percent of D.C. students who are black and the 13 percent who are Hispanic in the program are graduating at significantly higher rates than their peers nationwide.

In focusing on the water flow to a few trees, the GAO analysis misses the thriving forest: D.C. Opportunity Scholarships are demonstrably improving the lives of poor children.

Yes, the program administrator should improve the information about options that it makes available to parents. But policymakers also should work to limit the burden placed on participating private schools to comply with city regulations.

Unlike our underperforming public schools, private schools already are held to the strictest level of accountability. Unsatisfied parents, exercising choice, are free to enroll their children elsewhere.

Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation, where Virginia Walden Ford, an early proponent of the Opportunity Scholarship program, is a visiting fellow.

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