If it were up to the children and their parents, there'd be no question that the District's five-year experiment with school vouchers would be renewed for an additional five years or more.What has happened with the DC OSP is remarkable, and not just the students are benefiting. The schools the children attend benefit as well and not from the value of the voucher but from parental involvement.
That's the most emphatic finding of an independent evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program published last week. "The vast majority of families participating in this study are satisfied with the OSP in general, and their choice of new schools in particular," the report found.
Either this year or next, Congress will have to decide whether to continue the program. In September 2003 the House endorsed it by a single vote, 209 to 208, with only four Democrats voting yes. Many opponents argued that the program wouldn't help poor people.
"This legislation represents an ominous step toward federally sponsored privatization of public education that heavily favors the wealthiest families to the detriment of the majority of public school students," argued Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, which campaigned against the program.
Now Democrats control both houses of Congress; when the time comes, will they really argue that the 1,800 children who have been given this chance should be sent back to schools they do not want to attend? Since the program began, four students have applied for each available $7,500 scholarship. The average income of scholarship families is $21,100, for a family of four.
Time after time schools, educrats and pundits will tell you that the surest way to ensure a child's success in school is to make sure their parents are involved. I would argue that a motivated teacher has more impact, but parental support is important. Other people will tell you that parents don't make good choices about schools and are incapable of making decisions about school quality themselves (I have been told so repeatedly by commenters to my posts about school competition). But the story Hiatt paints is very different.
Strikingly, the report's authors found that the parents aren't just happy; they're involved in their children's education, and increasingly so the longer they are in the program, despite challenges related to time and transportation.The ultimate fallout of NCLB will not be testing, although testing opponents will tell you differently. The ultimate fall out is that parents, now in possession of information about schools will begin to make some very important decisions based upon the availability of data on schools. While test scores may be one dimensional, parents use them as a starting point for making decisions about either where to live, if they can afford it, or where to send their kids to schools if there are programs like OSP or open enrollment available.
They also are demanding consumers. Parents visited an average of three schools before selecting one; the small minority who were disappointed with their first choice visited even more as they weighed the possibility of moving their children. They were primarily looking, the report found, for "smaller class size, a more rigorous curriculum and school safety."
Mayor Adrian Fenty rightly is focused on reforming the public schools, with their 55,000 pupils. The small voucher program can't, and wasn't intended to, lessen the importance of improving those.
Yet the program may have a lesson for the larger reform, too, given that defenders of the District's troubled schools often place much blame on the absence of family input. It seems that parents -- when they are given choices, when they are provided with information to make those choices meaningful, and when they are treated respectfully as consumers of education -- take their jobs seriously, and participate more and more. It doesn't matter if they're poor or rich.
Consumers need information to make decisions. Sometimes those decisions may not seem rational to outsiders, but they do entail internal rationality. But there other matter is that in a marketplace, even one as limited as schools and education, the crowd of consumers, using the information they have, will often make very wise choices, resulting in a general improvement of the market. Schools will work harded to get better and those that don't will fail. The measurement of failure for any school in DC would be the number of its assigned students looking for the escape route of OSP or charter schools.
In the matter of the OSP, I think Congress will have to renew, not because they think it is right for education, but so leaders in Congress don't have to look a bunch of poor kids and their parents in the eye and tell them, "We are going to send you back to your crappy neighborhood school because we don't believe in vouchers." The cruelty of such a move would be more than the Demcorats in Congress could bear.