Congress is set to expand a school voucher program that was found to hurt student performance

A recent federal report has found that a Washington, DC school voucher program had no positive effect on student performance and potentially even negatively impacted it. But Congress is poised to continue the program anyway, the Washington Post reports.

The study, published April 27, found that private schools that accept vouchers saw no improvements in reading or maths scores of students who used vouchers between 2012 and 2014. In some cases, the scores actually declined.

Meanwhile, Congress announced on May 1 that its new bipartisan budget deal would extend the voucher program, known as the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), through the 2019 fiscal year. The program currently serves roughly 1,100 low-income kids in the DC area.

School vouchers have gained new attention in the months since President Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. Both Trump and DeVos have pushed for vouchers as part of a larger approach toward education rooted in “school choice.”

According to the administration’s philosophy, parents should wield ultimate control over where their kids go to school, and the best way to foster that freedom of choice is to make education less of a public good and more of a marketplace.

Vouchers are a major component of that mission because they repackage public funds, in the form of tax dollars, as a kind of gift certificate that kids can use to pay for private education.

In theory, vouchers could improve the quality of a child’s education by allowing them access to schools they couldn’t afford to pay for without a subsidy. But a growing number of studies have found that vouchers actually yield negligible, and potentially harmful, effects.

For instance, analyses carried out in Louisiana found that voucher-using students in the 50th percentile in maths had dropped to the 26th percentile by the end of the first year. The second year saw modest rebound, but still well below the starting point. Similar drops have been recorded in Indiana and Ohio.

The Washington, DC study revealed students fell by about 5.4 percentile points in the national distribution of maths test scores. Reading scores also fell, but by an insignificant amount. On the heels of those experiments, critics are claiming the data may indicate that voucher programs aren’t just ineffective but potentially harmful.

“I am always disappointed when Congress intervenes in DC local matters, and I think this is one of those areas where it is extremely consequential,” David Grosso, a Washington DC council member, told the Post.

The DC voucher program is the only one of its kind that receives federal funds to support school vouchers. All other programs receive state-allocated money.

As part of its recommitment to the DC vouchers, Congress has also called for a less rigorous approach to future studies about its effectiveness.

Currently, studies compare voucher recipients to kids who applied for vouchers but didn’t receive them. This is the accepted gold standard: comparing an experimental group with an identical control for whom the conditions don’t change.

The new standards would compare voucher recipients to kids with “similar backgrounds” in the local public and charter schools. Experts regard this as a generally weaker comparison since not all public-school students fit the same profile as kids whose parents feel they need vouchers.

Secretary DeVos reacted to the reauthorization positively, saying the study’s limited findings didn’t necessarily reflect the progress made in DC private schools since 2004, when the program began.

“The study released today found that DC OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of DC’s most vulnerable students,” DeVos said in a statement. “We should demand excellence from all of our nation’s schools, regardless of their type.”

However, as The Atlantic’s Leah Askarinam points out, nothing in the report backs up DeVos’ claim that parents or students overwhelmingly support the program.

“The program did not have a statistically significant impact on parents’ or students’ general satisfaction with the school the child attended,” the report stated.

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