Students in the D.C. school voucher program, the first federal initiative to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition, generally performed no better on reading and math tests after one year in the program than their peers in public schools, the U.S. Education Department said yesterday.
The department's report, which researchers said is an early snapshot, found only a few exceptions to the conclusion that the program has not yet had a significant impact on achievement: Students who moved from higher-performing public schools to private schools and those who scored well on tests before entering the program performed better in math than their peers who stayed in public school.The results are likely to inflame a national debate about using public money for private education. Many Democrats, who have long opposed such programs, seized on the study as evidence that vouchers are ineffective.
"Vouchers have received a failing grade," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "This just makes the voucher program even more irrelevant."
But Republicans and other voucher supporters said it is too soon to judge.
"The report's findings are in step with rigorous studies of other voucher programs which have not typically found impacts on student achievement in the first year," U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement. "We know that parents are pleased with the success of the program in providing effective education alternatives."
A Republican-led Congress created the $14 million-a-year program in 2004. The five-year initiative provides $7,500 vouchers each year to 1,800 students, from kindergartners to high school seniors, who attend 58 private schools, most of them Catholic schools. Participants must live in the District and come from low-income families. Advocates say the program offers an alternative to the troubled D.C. public schools.
Known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the initiative is one of the few government-run voucher systems in the country. Milwaukee and Ohio have similar plans, and Florida and Arizona offer vouchers to special education students.
In studies of those programs and others funded with private money, researchers tended to find little improvement in test scores after one year, said Paul Peterson, director of Harvard University's program on education policy and governance. He said it takes time for students to adjust to new surroundings.
"Kids lose ground when they change schools. Even if they may be in a better school, they're not going to adjust to that right off the bat," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight. It's a slow process."
"We welcome the release of this 'early look' at the program's performance," they said in a statement signed by community and business leaders. "Although these findings reflect just seven months of schooling -- typically far too short a time period to see any significant academic progress -- there is an early indication of gains in math, particularly for students who had less academic ground to make up."
The report, released by the Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences, examined test scores from more than 2,000 students who entered a lottery for admission to the voucher program. Scores from students accepted in the program were compared with scores from those who weren't. The study followed two groups of students in their first year in the program, 2004-05 and 2005-06.
The study also found that parents like vouchers. Those whose children are in the program were significantly more likely to rate their school with a grade of A or B than their public school counterparts.Tiesha Lawrence said the voucher program has been a boon for her 7-year-old son, Nickquan.
Lawrence, 27, an administrator for the federal government who lives in Anacostia, said Nickquan had been targeted for special education at the public Orr Elementary School in Southeast because he had trouble finishing assignments.
Using voucher money, Lawrence enrolled him at Ambassador Baptist Church Christian Academy in Southeast. She kept him back in first grade because he knew some words but couldn't read, she said. Since then, there has been a sea change.
"He loves to read, and he does his work on his own," said Lawrence, who hopes to send her 3-year-old son to Ambassador. "It's just really been a great help. It's like [Nickquan] really cares about school, and they are going to make sure that each child gets what they need before they go on to the next grade."
The report also found no evidence that students in the program were safer than their counterparts, even though their parents thought they were.
Nikia Hammond, 30, who has four children in the program, said she thinks the private schools her children attend are safer than public schools.
"It means something to me, as a single parent, not being able to afford private school, to be a part of the scholarship program," said Hammond, an eyewear specialist. "Without the scholarship fund, I'd probably be back at square one, thinking about where I'm going to be putting them in a public school. I think if they were to take this away, I'd be out of luck."
The Bush administration wants to expand vouchers nationwide through revisions in the No Child Left Behind law. But Democrats said the new report will make it easier for them to kill such proposals.
"This report offers even more proof that private school vouchers won't improve student achievement and are nothing more than a tired political gimmick," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, said in a statement.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, which supports vouchers, said she is confident that future reports on the program will show greater gains. But she said the study should be viewed as validation of the program.
"Does it help kids? Does it help families?" she said. "I think the answer from this report is clearly yes."
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.