Tough scrutiny for the D.C. voucher program, but it deserves the attention

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program remains perhaps the most scrutinized voucher initiative of its kind, so it’s not surprising that it finally got a “review” from the Washington Post, and not a very positive one at that. The Post team determined that the program is subject to few quality controls and asserted that “the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management,” despite the fact that some schools collect more than 90 percent of their revenues from the voucher program.

Of course, governments have little to no say over the curricula at any private school that participates in any of the voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs that exist presently in fifteen states—as well they shouldn’t. But some state governments have, in recent years, held their voucher programs to account for producing decent results, and that’s where the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has fallen short.

Private schools that participate in the D.C. program must provide parents with the academic progress of their own children along with the aggregate performance of their children’s grade-level peers, but that’s as far as school-level disclosure goes. Students receiving vouchers must take standardized tests every year, but their results are not made public; they go instead to independent evaluators who determine the program’s overall academic impact.

By contrast, Republican-controlled statehouses in Indiana and Louisiana recently enacted voucher legislation that not only requires private schools to administer the same standardized test given at public schools but stops the flow of voucher money to schools that consistently show poor test performance. Wisconsin, too, requires the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs to administer the state’s standardized test and to publicly post the results from each participating private school, a matter of transparency that some researchers say may have led to larger achievement gains for voucher students.

Advocates for the D.C. program—congressional and otherwise—ought to consider at least two significant quality control measures:

1.) A sliding-scale of public accountability, one in which demands are raised for schools that rely more heavily on voucher revenue to stay in business. This is an approach my Fordham colleagues outlined three years ago and one that Louisiana recently adopted to a large degree. Specifically, private schools in Louisiana that enroll an average of ten voucher students per grade or more than forty in the grades that are tested will be subject to a scoring system similar to one administered to public schools. A lower score could keep a school from enrolling students in the program, and it could, over time, trigger a quality review by the state Department of Education.

2.) A better, and more independent, flow of school information to prospective parents. This is a problem that afflicts all voucher and tax credit scholarship programs: Families must either rely on the marketing of the schools themselves or on the scant academic indicators that states provide. However meaningful test scores in Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin are, they say little about the climate of schools, or about graduation rates, or absenteeism. And changing this doesn’t take an act of Congress. If the nonprofit group that manages the D.C. voucher program thinks that quality oversight of the program is a “dead zone,” as its CEO told the Post, than it could work to get buy-in from the fifty-two schools in the program to collect data that can help parents be smarter shoppers. The D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation can devise an information site of its own that prospective parents can visit or it can work with an organization like GreatSchools to distribute the information. Either way, an action like this would make the D.C. program a leader in the voucher movement.

Perhaps it’s unfair to burden the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship with such a leadership role. After all, at 1,584 students, it remains one of the smallest private-school-choice programs in the nation. But, like it or not, it is a bellwether for the national voucher movement. And it’s surprising that, with so much attention otherwise paid to the program, it took the Post this long to write such a critique. By embracing some modest measures of standards and accountability, the D.C. program might set in motion effects that could ripple beyond its boundaries.

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