Last month a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress — including the Bay Area’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein — introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act. The program would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and adds to a burgeoning movement for education choice across the country.
Congress launched the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2004. In spite of high demand, community support and parental satisfaction, Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, inserted language in an omnibus spending bill preventing the program from accepting new students in 2009. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acquiesced, despite an official U.S. Department of Education evaluation concluding that the “D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far.”
Under the reauthorized program open to new students, elementary schoolchildren would be eligible for SOAR scholarships worth up to $8,000, and high school students would be eligible for scholarships worth up to $12,000. Those amounts are far less than half of what public schools in the District spend per student.
Nearly 200,000 children nationwide are now benefitting from private-school choice programs, double the number of students since the 2004-05 school year. Currently 20 school-choice programs operate in 12 states and the District of Columbia. More than 67,000 students are using publicly funded scholarships. Another
124,000 students are using tax-credit scholarships offered by nonprofit organizations that raise funds from individuals or businesses instead of government.
Publicly funded voucher scholarship programs function in seven states and Washington, D.C., while nine privately funded, tax-credit scholarship programs exist in seven states. These programs are helping students from low- and moderate-income families, in failing schools, with special needs, or from the foster-care system, attend schools their parents think are best. And, in spite of tough economic times, existing school choice programs were expanded in 2010. Oklahoma and Louisiana even enacted new school-choice programs. One reason for such expansion is improved academic outcomes such as higher graduation rates.
Students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program — the country’s oldest voucher program — post-graduation rates 18 percent higher than their public school peers. The graduation rate of
D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program participants is even greater at 21 percent higher than their public-school peers. Such high rates are even more impressive because students participating in those programs are from low-income families and failing public schools.
Likewise, struggling students from low-income families participating in Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program make academic gains similar to average students nationwide (not just their low-income peers), and competition for students improves overall public-school performance in Florida. The latest official government evaluation also found that the program saves Florida more than $36 million annually and recommended it be expanded. In this, Florida is not alone.
Choice scholarships average less — and in some cases far less — than the amounts states would have to spend educating students in public schools that are not working for them. The average American public school spent $11,257 during the 2006-07 school year, the most recent year of data from the U.S. Department of Education.
That amounts to $12,175 in current, inflation-adjusted dollars. The Alliance for School Choice reports funds totaling $714.2 million were used in support of school choice programs nationwide for the 2010-11 school year, which works out to an average school-choice scholarship amount of $3,700 — more than three times less than the average public-school expenditure.
At a time when California is struggling to improve education outcomes and balance its budget, emulating successful and fiscally responsible educational opportunity programs should be a priority for state lawmakers. If Sen. Dianne Feinstein joins prominent Republicans in supporting the SOAR Act, state lawmakers in Sacramento should introduce a similar program.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is the Pacific Research Institute education studies associate director and senior policy fellow.