Hammertime: Obama Ignores Results on School Choice

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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

Mary Katharine Ham