Debating the D.C. Scholarship Program

I was in attendance at the last presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York and was most intrigued about the exchange between the two candidates on the D.C. Scholarship program. The attention given to the role of vouchers and school choice in education reform in the last presidential debate notwithstanding, the magnitude of the worldwide financial crisis was a powerful confirmation of the essential importance of choice to the future strength of the United States.

What was most interesting about the debate was Barack Obama's position that we should not find out whether vouchers should play a central role in education reform and state the facts about how vouchers have single-handedly empowered families and drastically improved the educational experience of many young people.

When John McCain raised the D.C. Scholarship program as an example of a successful project to give parents the same choice over schooling that both Sens. McCain and Obama and their wives had themselves enjoyed, Obama's response was that the data do not show that vouchers work — implying that charter schools were the only choice alternative.

But such data as do exist contain strong suggestions of success, and one of the principal purposes of the D.C. program is to provide enough data over a five-year period for the experts to make some definitive judgments in the context of a federally funded and -administered program.

There are privately funded and state-funded programs in several cities. Milwaukee was the pioneer city, where the results have been very positive, and there is a privately funded program in D.C., where studies are also positive but not definitive about the impact on children. The D.C. Scholarship program is designed in part to yield a statistically sound evaluation. The parents in Washington have registered their evaluation, and in their estimation, the program is overwhelmingly successful and has drastically improved their children's educational opportunities.


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