An Evaluation of the Effect of D.C.'s Voucher Program on Public School Achievement and Racial Integration After One Year

Liam Julian

Jay R. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute
January 2006

One of the primary purposes of Washington, D.C.'s, Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) - a federally sponsored voucher program launched in 2004 - is to test the effectiveness of private school choice as an educational innovation. To that end, it has spawned several independent evaluations (like the one we reviewed here), along with the Congressionally-mandated impact evaluation (whose first-year results are reported here). This third study asks two fresh questions about the program. First, has it increased racial integration in D.C. schools? And second, has OSP created a "competitive effect," boosting the academic performance of public schools in the District? The study did find that OSP has provided more opportunities for integrated schooling in D.C. (specifically in private schools), but - not surprisingly - the academic effects of OSP vouchers on the District's public education system are minimal. To determine OSP's academic influence, the authors looked at test score gains or losses in District public schools between 2003-04 and 2004-05. Further, they looked at those schools' locations. In theory, a smaller geographic distance between a public school and voucher-accepting private school should correlate with increased competition. Thus, the authors could measure voucher effects on public schools' performance by evaluating test score gains or losses through the lens of geographic proximity. And "while using proximity [of public schools] to competing schools has proven a workable design in previous school choice systemic-effect studies," the authors concede that it may not work as well in D.C., where public transportation is abundant and could remove the effects of geographic separation. But why - especially when other independent studies have shown voucher competition improves the performance of surrounding public schools - does D.C.'s voucher program yield no significant effects? The authors suggest that "one year is not long enough for voucher competition to have any positive or negative effects on public schools." But, perhaps more importantly, D.C.'s OSP was specifically designed "so that the public school system would not be adversely affected financially from the program." Whereas, in a true voucher experiment, public schools that lose students would also lose funding, OSP removes that threat. There may be another explanation. The explosion of charter schools in the district has already siphoned off students from traditional public schools. By comparison, the voucher program serves relatively few students, so the impact on district schools is correspondingly small. Read this report here, and stay tuned for more.