This study evaluates the initial effect of Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) on the academic performance of public schools and its effects on the opportunities that District students have to attend integrated schools. The OSP is a federally sponsored school voucher program that provides vouchers worth up to $7,500 for an estimated 1,800 to 2,000 students in the District of Columbia. Students can use the scholarships to pay tuition at participating private schools in the District. The pilot program is designed to last for five years.
The authors measure whether a public school’s test-score gains are related to its distance to the nearest voucher-accepting private school or the number of voucher schools within a one-mile radius of a public school. In theory, public schools with shorter distances to private schools or that have more private schools nearby should face greater competition from the voucher program than public schools with fewer educational alternatives.
The evaluation finds that the OSP has had no academic effect, positive or negative, on the District’s public schools after its first year. This finding is different from those of most other studies, which tend to indicate that school choice programs have helped to improve public school performance. The authors argue that a null finding could be explained by the fact that the OSP was designed to have a minimal financial impact on public schools. They also suggest that the null finding could be explained by the small size of the program, the short time span in which it has operated (one year), methodological considerations, or a true lack of a relationship between vouchers and academic performance in Washington, D.C.
The paper also compares rates of racial integration in D.C.’s public schools and private schools participating in the voucher program. The authors find that voucher-accepting private schools have populations whose racial demographics more accurately mirror those of the surrounding metropolitan region than do public schools in the District. The study also finds that students using an Opportunity Scholarship are less likely to be enrolled in a school that is 90% or 95% racially homogeneous than are students attending Washington, D.C., public schools. This finding, combined with a previous evaluation indicating that the vast majority of students participating in the OSP are African American, suggests that the OSP will likely lead to students leaving more segregated public schools for better-integrated private schools.
This is part of the first-year evaluation of the OSP. The authors plan to continue evaluating the OSP using a variety of approaches.