It is a beautiful thing, and all too rare, to find an education program that works for at-risk students, for those with low incomes, across all racial groups. That is what Washington, D.C. found in the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which gives scholarships to thousands of mostly low-income and minority students, who have used them since 2005 to get out of failing public schools and thrive in private schools.
The scholarship program was the result of a hard-fought grassroots battle by District parents led by Virginia Walden-Ford, whose own son had been given a private scholarship she credited with his academic and professional success. She wanted that opportunity for other students. As was to be expected, teachers unions and nearly all Democrats in Congress aligned against her, but Ford is no stranger to fighting for a quality education against formidable foes. She and her twin sister were among the first black students to integrate Little Rock’s public schools on a larger scale after the Little Rock Nine. She’s the kind of woman the press would lionize, and rightly so, if she didn’t happen to be on the school-choice side of the issue.
But she is, and in 2005, with Republican control of the Senate and some help from a few Democrats, public school students in D.C. got a scholarship, at no cost to the D.C. public school system, which got matching funds to appease detractors.
Fast forward four years, and a Democratic Senate does the unions a solid in 2009:
The Opportunity Scholarship’s $14 million in yearly funding was nixed last week by Senator Dick Durbin, who inserted language in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill to sunset the program at the end of the next school year. On the Senate floor, he and ally Chuck Schumer attributed their action to a newfound interest in evaluating federal programs for effectiveness. Neither mentioned that Durbin counts the National Education Association among his top 10 lifetime contributors. Nor did they mention that Head Start, a federal pre-K education program, which has yet to present the evaluation required by its 1998 reauthorization, was nonetheless funded to the tune of $7 billion in the same bill.
“I had hoped that the successes of these kids would just speak for themselves,” Walden-Ford says, the moms in the room shaking their heads in somber agreement as the room turned serious. “I can’t even imagine telling these kids they have to go back to public schools.”
Nevada Republican John Ensign offered an amendment to strike the Durbin language, but it was predictably defeated, 58-39.
D.C. students once again fought for their educational opportunities, many of them openly baffled by the president’s refusal to help them keep their scholarships, especially since he had benefited so much from a scholarship of his own as a child in Hawaii. President Obama finally relented in the face of unpleasant public relations as Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Joe Lieberman went to bat for the OSP students, and the program remained funded.
So, what of this program unions tell us is a scourge? Below are the results of the Department of Education’s own commissioned study (2009). Note the difference between them and the results of the $8 billion Head Start program, which purports to educate the same populace.
Department of Education’s commissioned report on student achievement in the program has show “statistically significant” gains for scholarship kids over public-school counterparts of the equivalent of 3-5 months extra of instruction.
“This isn’t just noise or random variation. This is a true difference,” said Patrick Wolf, the University of Arkansas professor who oversaw the three-year study. “In my opinion, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has met a tough standard for efficacy in serving low-income students.”
Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas and I recently published a cost-benefit analysis of the DC opportunity scholarship in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.
The takeaway, as we noted in the National Review Online:
The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) produced $2.62 in benefits for every dollar spent on it. In other words, the return on public investment for the private-school voucher program during its early years was 162 percent.
How did this happen? Well, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program increased the graduation rate of students who won the voucher lottery by 12 percentage points. Couple that with the fact that:
Students who graduate from high school live longer, healthier, and more productive lives than their peers who do not. They make significantly more money and as a consequence pay significantly more taxes, are less likely to commit crimes, and are less likely to become a burden on the public.
…and you see the serious economic benefit of this program.
In total, the net-present value of the benefits of these new high school graduates, who would not have graduated absent the program, is $183 million. The program cost taxpayers $70 million, yielding that 162% rate of return.
This program would have died four years ago, unceremoniously, had Senate Democrats and President Obama gotten their way. Since then, whole new classes of high-school students have graduated. In the past, such students have gone on to Howard and Brown, among many other colleges. No educational solution is perfect for every student, but this one has been weighed on the scales, in public, over and over, and found to be more than sufficient. It has shown results, for the exact students we wish to help, at a lower price than failing them costs at some of the area’s public schools.
Ignoring this opportunity and others like it to do what works is unconscionable. But it’s amazing how quickly the urge “to help even just one child” disappears as soon as a program veers anywhere near a liberal sacred cow.
Just ask Michelle Rhee, whose new book “Radical,” I’m ordering now.