Washington, DC has become one of the most vibrant cities in the nation. Emerging from the 1960’s with large swaths of the city designated as slums and ghettos, and a high crime rate, the city’s public school system was also in a shambles. It required a major effort at urban renewal and development to turn things around. Gentrification has led to high property values, lots of new construction of high rise housing and business infrastructure, and the city is booming again, with a growing population and a rebuilt public school system.
With many of the city’s residents living on incomes well below the poverty rate, families with children were unable to flee the inner city for the suburbs and better schools. The Opportunity Scholarship program was a federally funded initiative which gave vouchers to families who qualified by income, in order to get their kids out of failing schools and into a classroom where they would have access to quality instruction and the opportunity to succeed. Most of the families who accessed the program were living on incomes well below the poverty line, and a majority of them were African American.
Families who qualified were able to obtain vouchers of varying amounts of money to use for providing educational services at a school which qualified to take the students based on meeting specific requirements, and where the educational standards were aimed at success. Most of the students selected private schools within the city where empty seats were made available for students in the program. Church-state separation hurdles were cleared, since many of the schools where families chose to send their children were church owned and operated. The program serves about 1,800 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Here are some facts, provided by the US Department of Education, that give an overall idea of the success of the program. These are based on data accumulated through the 2011-12 school term.
- The high school graduation rate for opportunity scholarship students is 91%, while that of the DC public schools is just under 70%.
- Students in the program are 25% more likely to attend college than students from the public school system.
- The average cost per pupil of the program averages from $8,000 in elementary school to as much as $12,000 per student in at the high school level, which is significantly less than it costs taxpayers for one student in the DC public school system for a year.
- At each succeeding grade level, test scores used to measure academic achievement are higher among the scholarship recipients than their public school counterparts.
The DC public schools have undergone a renovation and restructuring since the Opportunity Scholarship program began. Buildings were renovated, ineffective teachers were let go, security and expectations for student behavior were improved, and expected student outcomes were raised. Programs were introduced in schools that were designed to meet the interests and needs of students they served. The attitude of the leadership was to provide educational services that would motivate families to leave their children in the public schools, and not migrate to other schools because they believed they could get a better education elsewhere.
The irony that one of the better models for school choice exists in the District of Columbia isn’t lost on those who understand the principle of school choice. In spite of some of the objections, particularly to public funds going to religious-oriented schools, the fact that the program meets the expected student outcomes, and does it’s job is enough for both the parents who use the program, and the congressional leadership. School choice works, and the success of the DC model, as well as that of other states who are trying it, has the potential to change the face of education in the United States.
- Students from inner-city homes where the income is below the poverty level are successful in a Christian or other religious-based school, which puts to rest the myth about Christian school success being based on pre-selecting just those students who are potentially successful.
- Christian and other religious-based schools are able to develop students who achieve at a higher level than most public schools at a much lower cost per student, which proves that throwing money at a problem in education is not always the best way to solve it.
- Religious instruction clearly does not interfere with the academic achievement and quality of a Christian school, and in fact, it may prove to be a factor which enhances the expected student outcomes.
- The public schools in the District of Columbia were not harmed by taking students out of the classrooms, and redirecting the tax dollars that went with the students.
It’s something to think about.