The education debacle of the decade

Dr. Patrick Wolf spoke to a packed audience in the Capitol Visitors Center last Monday.

The seats were full and people stood all along the edges of the room, even spilling out into the hallway.  We all came to hear him explain his latest research on the tiny education program that has caused a national uproar—arousing so much passion that African-American leaders from around the country recently gathered downtown to engage in an act of civil disobedience.

The Department of Education commissioned Wolf to conduct a series of detailed studies on the results of the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP).  Established in 2004 as a five-year pilot program, OSP is among the most heavily researched federal education programs in history.

OSP targeted about 2,000 of the poorest kids in DC who were stuck in some of the worst schools in the country.  It gave their parents a $7,500 scholarship to attend a private school of their choice.

The response was immediate.  Four applications were filled out for every slot available.    Parents loved the program, considering it a lifeline for their children, a way to escape failing schools and enter safe, functional schools.

Everyone knew OSP would be a bargain.  DC has among the highest spending per pupil in the nation.  At a conservative estimate of $17,542, the public schools spend over $10,000 more per child than the $7,500 spent through the scholarship program.

But would OSP achieve measureable results?

The answer is a resounding yes.  Previous studies by Wolf showed an improvement in academic performance, to the point that a student participating in OSP from kindergarten through high school would likely be 2 ½ years ahead in reading.  The key finding in this final round of research, Wolf told us, was the graduation rates.   OSP dramatically increases prospects of high-school graduation.

Wolf pointed to research showing that high-school diplomas significantly improve the chance of getting a job.  And dropouts that do find employment earn about $8,500 less per year than their counterpoints with diplomas. Further, each graduate reduces the cost of crime by a stunning $112,000.  Cecelia Rouse, an economic advisor to President Obama, found that each additional high school graduate saves the country $260,000.

Simply put, OSP has a profoundly positive effect not just on students, but on the city and the country as a whole.

So when it came time for Congress to reauthorize OSP, it would seem to be a no-brainer:  Expand the program.

Instead, they killed it.

Buried deep inside a 1000+ page, half-trillion-dollar spending bill was a provision that prohibited any new students from entering the program.  To top it off, the 216 new students added to OSP for the new academic year were pulled out by Education Secretary Arne Duncan just before the school year started.

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  • QNetter

    Of course, simply by starting with a program for which self-identification and an application process is required, you are pre-selecting for kids whose parents want to invest in, and support, their kids’ education. When you look across the entire charter school population, even this difference does not hold up — the average performance of charter schools is LOWER than that of public schools.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tim-Glynn-Burke/575903595 Tim Glynn Burke

    We can’t assume that OSP and similar innovations in education or the social sector more broadly will ever be adopted, replicated or scaled based on evidence of results. Yet policymaker obligations to teacher unions are not the only impediment to social innovation. Others include the risk of failure, fear of getting one’s name in the newspaper for the wrong reasons, close-knit social networks among urban elites, and lack of political will to overcome opposition from those invested in the status quo.

    In our new book, The Power of Social Innovation (www.powerofsocialinnovation.com), we highlight the Bradley Foundation’s efforts to bring school choice to Milwaukee parents. The lesson there is not the inherent value of vouchers, which still raise serious questions. The real lessons are in the tools and strategies that social innovators like Bradley use to help a good idea overcome the inevitable stumbling blocks.

    Your story of OSP demonstrates how important, but also just how impossibly difficult, it is to employ one of these most important approaches: mobilizing your own political constituency sufficiently powerful to overcome the existing constituencies supporting the incumbent providers.


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