By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow
In 2011, Congress passed the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act which reestablished the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income families in the District.
The OSP provides tuition vouchers so that parents can send their kids to a private school.
While many states have such programs, this is the only one authorized by Congress and, as part of the Act, the U.S. Department of Education was required to evaluate the program.
The first year analysis was released in October – and it has a lot of good news for kids.
Because SOAR expanded the scholarship amounts, the types of students who receive priority for the scholarships and the accountability requirements for the private schools, the report looks at the program from 2004 to 2013 so there is some historical comparison.
The analysis addressed three questions:
- How many private schools participate and what are their characteristics?
- What is the nature of the demand for the program among eligible families and students?
- To what extent is the OSP enabling students to enroll in private schools?
It showed that more than half the private schools in the DC area participate in the program, though the percentage of participation has declined. The study concludes that the 2011 changes did not result in increased private school participation.
However, it also says that 52 schools currently participate, including 33 that have participated since the beginning in 2004. Nine schools that were part of the program transformed into public charter schools and were no longer eligible under OSP. It also found that four of the private schools closed during their participation. Only five private schools actually withdrew from the program.
Other findings about the schools show they added high school grades, are less likely to be religiously based, serve a small percentage of minority students and are more likely to have tuition rates higher than the scholarship amount.
The report also says the private schools have smaller class sizes, a smaller student enrollment and a higher proportion of white students than public schools. But according to program statistics for the 2013-2014 school year, 97.2 percent of OSP participants were African American and Hispanic.
What isn’t surprising is that applications for the program vary based upon available funding.
Most applications were filed the years the program was authorized, when new funding was first available. In other years, OSP funds were used to support continuing students or only replace those who left the program. Without additional funds for new applicants, it’s no wonder the applications were down.
But the report also notes that less than 5 percent of eligible families actually participate. Based on eligibility criteria, estimates say that about 53,000 children would qualify for scholarships. However, there were only 1,550 applicants in the first two years after the SOAR Act was passed.
The report suggests that demand for the scholarships is lagging.
But the American Federation for Children, a leading school choice advocacy organization, says that’s a false conclusion, noting that demand is not the same as applications.
“Applications and new enrollees are lagging because of restrictive implementation guidelines, such as prohibiting eligible children currently in private schools – including those with siblings in the program - from entering the program,” they state in a press release.
AFC also notes that thousands of families are on the waiting lists for charter schools in the District and that many of them are eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
“In addition,” AFC says, “the OSP new application period closes in late January, before the charter school application deadline, preventing hundreds if not thousands of eligible families from considering the OSP as an option.”
They also dispute the analysis which says that SOAR Act applicants are less likely to have attended a low-performing school or SINI, “schools in need of improvement.”
“During the 2013-14 school year, 98% of enrolled OSP students were otherwise zoned for a School in Need of Improvement (SINI),” AFC states.
“The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program continues to serve the city’s lowest-income families and produce remarkable results,” Kevin P. Chavous, executive counsel to AFC and former member of the D.C. city council, said.
He also said that with some common sense modifications the OSP could be serving another 1,000 children in low-income families next year.
“For a program that has averaged a 93 percent graduation rate, with 90 percent of those graduates enrolling in college, and a 92 percent parent satisfaction rate since 2010, we should be doing everything humanly possible to enroll more kids in this life-changing program,” Chavous said.