Hammertime: Obama Ignores Results on School Choice

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Mary Katharine Ham
Contributor


The House voted last week to reinstate funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, with the overwhelming support of Republicans and just one Democrat.

Created in a close vote in 2004, the program gave about 1,700 low-income, black and Hispanic students scholarships to attend private schools until it was unceremoniously kneecapped by a Democratic Senate in 2008. After trying to defund the program entirely, Democrats came under public pressure and settled for prohibiting new students from entering the program. The program was left to whither away slowly until a new GOP House majority breathed life into it once again.

Despite President Obama’s promises to do “what works” on education, whether it’s a Republican or Democratic idea, the administration opposed Boehner’s bill to reinstate the program, saying in part:

Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement. The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students. Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the D.C. program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.

The problem is that’s not true. Just ask Patrick Wolf. I’ll let him introduce himself:

I served as the principal investigator of an outstanding team of researchers who conducted a congressionally-mandated independent study of the OSP supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. I am also a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas with more than a decade of experience evaluating school choice programs in D.C., Milwaukee, New York, and Dayton, Ohio.

That would be Dr. Patrick Wolf, the man Congress told to do a study of the program for the Department of Education. He’s testified in front of Congressional committees no fewer than three times in the last two years about the program’s effectiveness. This did not escape the Washington Post as it did the administration, though perhaps Democrats can be forgiven for their ignorance. After all, scholarship critics and teachers’ union leaders have refused time and again to show up to testify against the program.

“We know from this study that participating D.C. students are reading at higher levels as a result of the Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Wolf told a Senate committee in 2009.

Wolf’s study found statistically significant gains among students in reading achievement amounting to a gain of about three months of reading instruction over D.C. students in the control group. Though D.C. Opportunity Scholarship students scored higher on math tests, too, the results were not statistically significant. In testimony to a Senate committee in February, Wolf preemptively answered the administration’s claim that no progress was shown:

Another way to think about the statistical significance of the reading impacts in the final year of the evaluation is that, if you claimed that the OSP (Opportunity Scholarship Program) had no positive impact on student reading achievement, using the final year results as the basis of your claim, there is a 94 percent chance that you would be wrong.

But according to Wolf’s evaluation, the reading gains weren’t the most important gains the program achieved.

Moreover, the D.C. Oportunity Scholarship has proven effective at boosting the outcome that matters most— educational attainment…Using an opportunity scholarship increased the likelihood of a student graduating by 21 percentage points, from 70 percent to 91 percent.

Among students coming from public schools designated “Schools in need of improvement,” using a scholarship boosted graduation rates from 66 percent to 86 percent.

The graduation rate for D.C. students overall is 55 percent. The control group was made up of those students who applied for the program but did not win the lottery and therefore were unable to attend private schools on the Opportunity Scholarship. Their rate of graduation is likely higher than D.C.’s average because those who apply for such a scholarship are more likely to have motivated parents. Wolf’s study was able to eliminate the influence of that “self-selection” bias by comparing only groups of students who applied for the scholarship. Because the experimental and control groups were chosen by random lottery, the study method is considered the “gold standard for policy evaluations,” Wolf testified.

Wolf also testified about whether the higher graduation rates were attributable to the scholarship:

“We are more than 99 percent confident that access to school choice though was the reason why OSP students graduated at these much higher rates.”

In March 2010, the president spoke about graduation rates as an educational and economic priority:

Graduating from high school is an economic imperative.  That might be the best reason to get a diploma, but it’s not the only reason to get a high school diploma.  As Alma mentioned, high school dropouts are more likely to be teen parents, more likely to commit crime, more likely to rely on public assistance, more likely to lead shattered lives.  What’s more, they cost our economy hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of a lifetime in lower wages and higher public expenses.

So this is a problem we cannot afford to accept and we cannot afford to ignore.  The stakes are too high — for our children, for our economy, and for our country.  It’s time for all of us to come together — parents, students, principals and teachers, business leaders and elected officials from across the political spectrum — to end America’s dropout crisis.

Of 14 educational reform programs the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences has studied, only four have shown statistically significant results, Wolf testified. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program rates as the “second most impressive” reform the department has studied, while 10 of them show either mixed, insignificant, or negative results. The only program more effective than the scholarship was problem-based economics instruction.

According to the White House, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is “not an effective way to improve student achievement.” For the sake of the nation’s students, here’s hoping all of our public schools someday become similarly “ineffective.”

Video of Dr. Wolf’s complete testimonies:

March 1, 2011 to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

February 16, 2011 to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

May 13, 2009 to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

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  • giniahawki

    Interesting, the dems will fight to the death for preschool which proves non-effective except as a babysitter and fight against an effective education program such as vouchers. Gotta protect the union base!

  • partymanrandy

    By the metrics Obama uses, the voucher program WAS a huge failure. When you compare the amounts donated to democrat campaigns, schools run by the teacher unions vastly outperform private schools.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jorge-Emilio-Emrys-Landivar/37403083 Jorge Emilio Emrys Landivar

      And Randy get it in 1.

  • gooners

    Effectiveness aside for the moment, don’t you think it’s weird that Congress gets to meddle in D.C.’s city schools? Seems like if these Republican Congressmen from around the country really believe in this system, they should be working to install it in their home districts, not experimenting on a city they don’t have any stake in. Doesn’t it run counter to what conservatives tell us they support – localized choices and less interference from the federal government?

    How do the new allegations of fraud in D.C. standardized testing affect Wolf’s findings? Were those tests used in his data, or was he using other tests?

    • gatortarian

      DC has always been run by the Feds right down to the police force so I really don’t see your point. DC is in fact the poster child for getting the Feds out of our schools. They spend the most per student, try every liberal pipe dream and still get horrible results.

      • gooners

        Err…my point is that it seems weird that Congress has that power and that conservatives would choose to use it in a way that seems counter to their rhetoric.

        Which part of that don’t you get?

        • gatortarian

          As I explained, everything is run by the Feds in DC. They act as the state normally would in the District of Columbia. Republicans have been talking about vouchers for decades so in no way does this go against there rhetoric.

        • rasqual

          What part of conservatism don’t you understand?

          Why would conservatives in Congress appropriate for themselves on a national level the responsibility they believe belongs to the states for enacting such things? They rule on DC because it’s their jurisdiction. Aside from that peculiarity of history, their jurisdiction in Congress is federal. Instead of foisting something on all states like Democrats do, they prefer to leave all such decisions to state legislatures. Education simply isn’t a constitutional mandate for the federal government, so they’re not going to extend their reach — again, as Democrats do — into state affairs.

          In truth, of course, not even Republicans can behave so purely — alas, they breathe Washington air that’s been sullied by big government legal transformations over a long, long period of time.

    • callenlaw

      Interesting questions. The answers are:

      1) By statute (based in turn on Us Const. Art I sec 8) Congress has gubernatorial oversight over DC. Many residents wish it did not, but because it does, major initiatives in how the city functions begin and end in Congress. Republicans, as the majority party in the House, are Constitutionally obligated to regulate DC education.

      2) The allegations of fraud in DC involved inflating grades for student standardized testing performance, meaning that DC public school student grades were higher than they should have been. I don’t know which specific results Wolf used, but since he used DC public schools as his control group, if the scandal has any impact it be that private students actual performed BETTER than his analysis suggests because they beat a control group whose results were inflated.

      • callenlaw

        * that smiley face should be “sec. 8 )”. Stupid emoticon auto-correct.