Panel Paper: Impacts of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program after Three Years

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Governor's Square 12 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Ning Rui, Ann Webber, Roberta Garrison-Mogren, Rob Olsen and Babette Gutmann, Westat

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, public school reform has been the focus of heated debate among American educators, politicians, and economists. Among various initiatives to address and remedy deficiencies in the education system, school voucher has been one of the most prominent movements for improving education quality and student learning. While earlier studies showed positive findings of vouchers (e.g., Greene, Peterson, & Du, 1999; Rouse, 1998; Greene, 2001; Cowen, 2008), recent evaluations of state voucher programs in Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio found negative or null effects on student achievement (e.g., Mills & Wolf, 2017; Waddington & Berends, 2017; Figlio & Karbownik, 2016). The District of Columbia (DC) Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is the only federally funded program that provides vouchers to low-income families to send their children to private schools. The program selected voucher recipients using a lottery process, which allows for an experimental study that compared outcomes for a treatment group and a control group.

This study examines how the offer and use of a scholarship affected student and family outcomes, such as math and reading achievement, satisfaction with schools, perceptions of school safety, chronic absenteeism, and parent involvement, three years after entering a lottery. The study also analyzes variations in the impacts across subgroups of students, which can be useful for understanding whether the program was effective, or more effective, for some and not others. In particular, we estimated the effects for four student subgroups: (1) whether students applied to the voucher from low-performing schools, (2) whether students scored above or below the median in reading, (3) whether students scored above or below the median in mathematics, and (4) whether students were in an elementary or secondary grade. A generalized estimating equation is used to estimate the parameter estimates and to account for clustering among siblings within family.

The study found a negative impact on mathematics achievement and no impacts on reading achievement after the first and second years. The program did not have a significant impact on parents’ or students’ general satisfaction with the school after two years, but had a positive impact on both parents’ and students’ general perceptions of school safety after two years. For both parents of students applying from low-performing schools and the students themselves, the program had a positive impact on perceptions of school safety. The program did not have a significant impact on parents’ involvement in the education of their child after two years. Findings about the program’s impacts after three years will be discussed at the conference. This study contributes to the literature by providing the latest experimental evidence on the effectiveness of school vouchers in improving student learning and education experience. It is important to note that the OSP operates in DC, where the majority of families already exercise school choice, which makes it challenging to generalize the findings to other settings with limited choice options. However, the evaluation’s findings have a high degree of validity when viewed within the context of DC.

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