Public Schools

Washington, D.C.’s Private School Voucher Scheme: 15 Years Of Failure

  Elise Helgesen Aguilar

It’s been 15 years since the program began, and the Washington, D.C., private school voucher program has little to show for itself. Despite champions of the federally funded voucher program like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who claim that the program is a success, the evidence tells a different story.

In fact, the most recent congressionally mandated study conducted by the Department of Education demonstrates that vouchers are not improving students’ academic achievement and are having other negative effects for students like providing less classroom instruction time and less access to critical services for English learners and those with learning disabilities.

That vouchers don’t improve student achievement is not a new finding. The Department of Education has conducted a total of seven studies of the D.C. voucher program, and they have all consistently found that students in the program do not perform better on tests than those students not in the program. In fact, studies in 2017 and 2018 found that students using vouchers actually performed worse in math than those students not using vouchers.

Negative findings are not isolated to the D.C. voucher program. Longitudinal analyses released earlier this year of both the Louisiana and Indiana voucher programs have also shown that voucher students perform worse academically than their peers not using vouchers. Those findings match prior year studies in both of those states, as well as a 2016 study of the Ohio voucher program. 

It would be logical to assume that voucher proponents might reassess the validity of private school voucher schemes given the mounting evidence showing a lack of improvement in academic outcomes; yet, rather than admit that the D.C. voucher program is not working, members of Congress who pushed for its reauthorization in 2017 instead inserted language in the legislation to lower the standard of research for analyzing the program. They didn’t like the results, so they changed the rules. It appears they would rather obscure poor academic performance outcomes to promote vouchers rather than seek sound data that could lead them toward policies that would create better educational opportunities for students.

Proponents often point to other non-academic metrics for success like school safety and parental satisfaction. However, as this year’s study also notes, the D.C. voucher program has failed to improve parental perceptions of school safety, parental satisfaction or parental involvement with their child’s education.

These failures could be a reason that students in the program drop out over time or do not use their voucher in the first place. The study noted that after three years, less than half of the students who initially received vouchers were still in the program, and 22 percent never used them at all. It could also be that 70 percent of private schools in the voucher program charge tuition higher than the amount of the voucher, making enrollment at those schools impossible. Or, it could be that students in D.C. already have public school choice options, including charter schools and other public schools outside of their assigned neighborhood schools.

What is clear is that federal taxpayer dollars should not continue to be funneled into these private schools – which the study notes are predominantly religious in character – and should instead be used to support D.C.’s public schools.

To read a summary of the 2019 Department of Education study, or to learn more about the D.C. voucher program and how you can take action to oppose vouchers, visit the website for the National Coalition for Public Education, which AU co-chairs:

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