Research Finds Vouchers Boost High School Graduation Rates
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Students in Washington, D.C., who used a federally funded voucher to attend a private school were more likely to graduate from high school than students in a control group that did not take part in the voucher program, according to the latest evaluation of the program by an Arkansas-led team. This is the first study in the United States to use rigorous experimental methods to determine the effect of school vouchers on graduation rates.
University of Arkansas researcher Patrick Wolf led a team of evaluators who found that the offer to participate in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program raised a student’s probability of completing high school by 12 percentage points, from 70 percent to 82 percent. Some students declined to use their scholarships. Adjusting the data to account for scholarship decliners reveals that actually using a scholarship to attend a private school increased graduation rates by 21 percentage points.
Students from public schools "in need of improvement," a special service priority for the program, graduated at rates 13 percentage points higher if offered a scholarship and 20 percentage points higher if they used it. Two other subgroups of students had statistically higher graduation rates as a result of the program: females and those students who entered the program with relatively higher levels of academic performance.
The impact of the program on student achievement was less clear. Three subgroups of students appeared to gain in reading achievement if they were offered or used a scholarship. The student groups with significantly higher reading scores due to the program included those who had not attended "needs improvement" schools, who were higher performers at the start of the study, and who were female. Other subgroups of students – those who had attended "needs improvement" schools, lower initial performers, and male students – did not improve in reading. Overall, test-score gains from the program were not statistically significant at conventional levels in either reading or math four or more years after the study team began tracking students.
"These results are important," Wolf said, "because high school graduation is strongly associated with a large number of important life outcomes such as lifetime earnings, longevity, avoiding prison and out-of-wedlock births, and marital stability. Academic achievement, in contrast, is only weakly associated with most of those outcomes."
According to Wolf, "In the area of education, how far you go is more important than how much you know, and D.C. students went farther with the assistance of a school voucher."
The low-income students who qualify for the vouchers in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program receive up to $7,500 to attend the private school of their choice. Last year, Congress voted to end the program with the exception that students already attending school with a voucher would continue to receive support until they graduated.
"The Obama administration has, quite correctly, made increasing high school graduation rates a top education priority, especially for disadvantaged students," Wolf said. "Fortunately, we now know of an initiative that has done exactly that – the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program."
Congress, which approved the K-12 voucher program in 2004, mandated a rigorous evaluation funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The final report, issued June 22 by the federal Institute of Education Sciences, represents the sixth annual report on the program.
The research team used random assignment, commonly viewed as the "gold standard" for program evaluation, to divide 2,308 eligible applicants into a treatment group of 1,387 students who were offered Opportunity Scholarships and a control group of 921 who requested scholarships but did not receive them. They then tracked the two groups over five years for the 2004 cohort and four years for the 2005 cohort of study participants.
The report focuses specifically on outcomes that Congress directed the researchers to evaluate including high school graduation, student achievement and parents’ and students’ ratings of school safety and satisfaction. Parents rated their child's schools safer and were more satisfied with them if offered a scholarship, while the program had no impact on student reports of school safety and satisfaction.
Although the study used rigorous methods and the results on graduation rates were conclusive, Wolf cautioned that the study had certain limitations: "The findings in this report are a reflection of the particular program elements that evolved from the law passed by Congress and the characteristics of the students, families and schools, both public and private, that exist in the nation's capital. The same program implemented in another city might yield different results and a different scholarship program administered in Washington, D.C., might also produce different outcomes."
Wolf holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas and directs the School Choice Demonstration Project, which is also evaluating the oldest voucher program in the nation operated in Milwaukee. Brian Kisida, a research associate at the University of Arkansas, was a co-author of the report.
The report can be accessed at: http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/SCDP.html
Patrick J. Wolf, professor of school reform
College of Education and Health Professions
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