Let Me Rise

In a sweeping victory for school choice, a bill to reauthorize and expand the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) passed in the U.S. House last Wednesday. During what turned out to be an at times intense debate on the House floor prior to the vote, legislators spoke passionately about the DCOSP. Unfortunately, some Democrats who stood in opposition to the program didn’t seem to get their facts straight.

For example, Representative George Miller (D–CA) proclaimed: “There are a number of concerns about this [DCOSP] bill. First, and most importantly, the program does not help the students succeed.”

Similarly, Representative Mazie Hirono (D–HI) called it a “failed private school voucher program.”

Yet researchers report just the opposite. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that 91 percent of DCOSP students graduate high school, compared to only 70 percent of their peers with similar characteristics. (Contrast this with the 56 percent graduation rate at D.C. public schools.)

Miller continued: “The D.C. voucher program does not increase student achievement or graduate students so they are prepared to go to college or careers.”

Not so fast. First, previous evaluations of DCOSP have revealed increases—albeit modest—in reading scores for these students. While the most recent of the evaluations did not show statistically significant increases in reading for all students, some groups (girls, for example) did report significant improvements in reading scores. Researchers generally require a 95 percent level of confidence to be “statistically significant”; test score gains for students as a whole were not technically significant, but they increased to the point where researchers could say with 94 percent confidence that the gains were not due to chance.

Still, Miller insisted, “These [DCOSP] students are not going to the schools that will change the outcomes.”

Try telling that to the nearly 450 D.C. youth who graduated from high school thanks to the DCOSP. As Patrick Wolf, principal investigator for the congressionally mandated evaluations of the program estimated, these students wouldn’t have received a diploma had it not been for the DCOSP. And high school graduation makes a difference—even more so than does academic achievement—being strongly linked to a “number of important life outcomes such as lifetime earnings, longevity, avoiding prison and out-of-wedlock births, and marital stability.”

Yet perhaps one must give Miller the benefit of the doubt and assume he merely mixed up his studies, as his next step was to extol the successes of Head Start, a program that research has shown is anything but effective.

A recent national study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found that of the over 100 potential outcomes they measured, Head Start children made gains on only about 2 percent of them. And the only significant academic outcome was negative: Students who had spent the most time in the program performed worse in kindergarten than children who did not attend Head Start.

Yet Miller called Head Start “an effective program that makes a difference.”

What’s more, despite the evidence of Head Start’s failure, the federal government has continued to pour money into it for the last 45 years. Since 1965, U.S. taxpayers have spent $167 billion to fund it.

Which makes Miller’s concluding words against the DCOSP all the more preposterous. He noted:

If you’re gonna say, “Well fund them, whether it’s successful or not … because it comports with our view of the constellation,” that’s just the wrong way to proceed.

Fortunately, many Members of Congress realize that the success of the DCOSP is no starry dream. Unlike so many government programs, it is achieving its goals of helping students take greater academic strides than would otherwise be possible for so many of them. Whether some Members of Congress, along with the Obama Administration, come to realize this is yet to be determined. Let’s hope that doesn’t have to remain just a wish upon a star.