Voucher advocates have protected D.C.’s voucher program, known as “Opportunity Scholarships,” since it was created in 2004 despite lack of strong evidence for its benefits. Evaluations have found little or no improvement in test scores. This new evaluation shows negative effects on test scores in the elementary grades for those who enrolled in voucher schools. This echoes studies in Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio, where voucher students lost ground as compared to their peers who were offered vouchers but stayed in public schools. In the past, the D.C. evaluation team was led by Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, the high temple of school choice. The evaluation team for this new study was led by Mark Dynarski of Pemberton Research and a group of Westat researchers. Dynarski, you may recall, wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution calling attention to the negative impact of vouchers in Louisiana and Indiana. Previous evaluations showed higher graduation rates in voucher schools, but also–as is now customary in voucher schools–high rates of attrition. Of those who don’t drop out and return to public schools, the graduation rate is higher.

The Washington Post reports:


Students in the nation’s only federally funded school voucher initiative performed worse on standardized tests within a year after entering D.C. private schools than peers who did not participate, according to a new federal analysis that comes as President Trump is seeking to pour billions of dollars into expanding the private school scholarships nationwide.

The study, released Thursday by the Education Department’s research division, follows several other recent studies of state-funded vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio that suggested negative effects on student achievement. Critics are seizing on this data as they try to counter Trump’s push to direct public dollars to private schools.

Vouchers, deeply controversial among supporters of public education, are direct government subsidies parents can use as scholarships for private schools. These payments can cover all or part of the annual tuition bills, depending on the school.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long argued that vouchers help poor children escape from failing public schools. But Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said that DeVos should heed the department’s Institute of Education Sciences. Given the new findings, Murray said, “it’s time for her to finally abandon her reckless plans to privatize public schools across the country.”

DeVos defended the D.C. program, saying it is part of an expansive school-choice market in the nation’s capital that includes a robust public charter school sector.


“When school choice policies are fully implemented, there should not be differences in achievement among the various types of schools,” she said in a statement. She added that the study found that parents “overwhelmingly support” the voucher program “and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

DeVos’ statement suggests that neither vouchers nor charters will ever outperform public schools. The goal of choice is choice, not better academic achievement or better education, not to “save poor kids from failing schools,” but to provide choice.