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.