For 15 years, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has been a District of Columbia institution.
Yet the program, which provides scholarships to children from low-income families to attend a private school of choice, faces death by a thousand regulatory cuts.
Since Congress enacted it, participation among private schools has fallen from a peak of 68 schools during the 2005-06 school year to just 48 schools today.
Fewer schools participating—a 30% reduction—means fewer choices for families. So, what explains the decline?
Each time the program has been reauthorized, new regulations have been added requiring participating private schools to conform more and more to the public school system.
When the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was originally signed into law and began operation in 2004, participating private schools were bound by a relatively light set of regulations.
They were required to abide by federal civil rights laws; had to have scholarship students participate in independent, congressionally mandated evaluations of the program; and had to provide reports about student academic achievement to parents.
But in 2011, Congress added new requirements that participating private schools submit to site visits by the program administrator, inform prospective students about the school’s accreditation status, mandate that teachers of core subjects have bachelor’s degrees, and require participating students to take some form of nationally norm-referenced test.
Notably, the 2011 reauthorization also required, for the first time, that participating private schools be accredited or be on a path to accreditation.
In 2017, Congress again added considerable new regulations onto participating private schools.
The reauthorization mandated that the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education conduct evaluations of the academic achievement outcomes of students attending schools in which more than 85% of the student body uses a voucher to pay tuition.
Notably, the 2017 reauthorization required that each participating school supply a certificate of accreditation to the administering entity upon program entry, demonstrating that the school is fully accredited before being allowed to participate.
Throughout the course of 2018, I interviewed private school principals about their decision to participate, not participate, or withdraw from the program.
Although the majority of the decline in participation is explained by school closures and charter conversions, other schools that exited the program may have done so out of an increasing regulatory burden.
Accreditation was one of the most frequently discussed issues throughout the interviews I conducted with principals and was largely seen as a time-consuming and costly process that outweighed the benefit of program participation.
Another major issue for school principals was the risk and volatility associated with program participation.
In particular, school leaders expressed frustration with the political nature of the congressional appropriations process.
They noted that funding instability makes schools appear risky to banks and donors, and that the scholarship amounts are typically lower than the price of tuition—meaning there’s a cost associated with accepting a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program student for most private schools.
Finally, fear of future regulations was a frequent concern for participating school leaders, and nonparticipating private schools expressed considerable trepidation about future regulations, citing that concern as a reason for their nonparticipation.
Unfortunately, their fears may not be unfounded.
The House Financial Services Committee’s bill includes language reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that would make it more difficult for private schools to participate in the program and serve needy students.
The language would add significant new regulations onto participating private schools, requiring them to certify that they will provide students with “the same services, rights, and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]” as D.C. public schools do.
Parents of children with special needs, however, opt into participating private schools because the services provided to their children in the public school system—and the all-too-often litigious process in which they must engage in order to get what they’re entitled to in the public system under federal law—is not meeting their needs.
Families choose to enroll in a private school outside of the federal IDEA structure because a given private school is a better fit.
Layering on this new federal regulation to private schools in the Opportunity Scholarship Program would effectively end private school participation and the program as we know it.
Additional regulations would only exacerbate the issue of declining school participation.
- There are an estimated 97 private schools in the District (not including pre-K-only schools).
- 48 currently participate in the program, accepting students on a scholarship.
- 49 are nonparticipants.
- Most of the decline can be attributed to school closures (20 participating private schools in D.C. have closed since the program began) and charter conversions. (Seven formerly participating private schools converted to public charter schools.)
- Among the 36 formerly participating schools, just nine remain operational today.
- 13 private schools have never participated.
That suggests that at least 22 operational private schools in the District could be participating in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, but aren’t doing so.
The D.C. scholarship program has been transformative for the students who receive its scholarships:
- Graduation rates for participating students are an estimated 21 percentage points higher than their peers who applied for, but did not receive, a scholarship.
- The academic achievement of participating students was similar to those in D.C. public schools in the most recent federal evaluation—an outcome the Opportunity Scholarship Program has achieved for one-third of the cost.
- Indeed, spending per pupil in the D.C. Public Schools exceeds $27,000 per child, per year. The maximum scholarship award is $8,857 in K-8 and $13,287 for high school.
- In other words, taxpayers spend $351,000 per child in D.C. Public Schools to get them from kindergarten to graduation. They spend a little more than a third of that—$132,861—to graduate a student through the D.C. scholarship program.
- The program also raised parents’ perceptions of school safety and their level of satisfaction with their child’s school.
More than 10,700 scholarships have been awarded since the program began in 2004, providing a lifeline for children from low-income families in the nation’s capital. For the program to continue serving these children, and to expand it to more students in the District, there’s a need for substantive changes.
- Funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which currently stands at $17.5 million, is insufficient to pay for the program and to increase access for more students. In the near term, it should be increased to at least $25 million to pay for projected increases in student participation.
- It should be formula-funded to create stability for participating private schools and families.
- The accreditation regulations should either be removed entirely, or schools should be given a five-year grace period to meet the requirements (instead of having to be accredited upon program entry), and/or the list of allowable accreditors should be significantly expanded to reflect the diversity of schools that would like to participate.
These immediate reforms would put the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only school choice program overseen by Congress, on stable footing, and would set the stage for the program to meet the needs of low-income families in the District of Columbia for years to come.