Before the Door Closed

, Daniel Allen, Leave a comment

The District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act was signed by President Bush in January, 2004, allocating $14 million for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). This money gave low-income families, chosen by lottery, the opportunity to send their children to private schools of their choice, with the understanding that private schools would be safer and more conducive to learning.

The University of Arkansas’s School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) studied this program and released a report, with the intent “to document the experiences of a small group of families and illuminate those aspects of their experiences that can help interested stakeholders improve the OSP or inform other attempts to replicate this model.” The idea was to study how those who benefited from the scholarship program chose their child’s new school and what factors made that choice a positive or negative experience.

SCDP found that parents were generally very satisfied with DC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, and that it stimulated growth and learning in the children who were given funding. The study also revealed an important factor in private school education by discovering exactly what it is that parents look for in a school. When interviewed, parents of children benefiting from the scholarship program for the first time listed reasons for choosing the schools that they chose, “the most common being smaller class sizes, school safety, and a religious or values-based environment. Parents also sought a more rigorous academic curriculum, the opportunity to learn foreign languages, racial diversity, and close proximity to their home.”

The School Choice Demonstration Project also showed the necessity of readily-available information on different schools. As parents try to transition from public to private schools, they often struggle to find which private school is right for their child. Interviews with parents “revealed that access to ‘reliable information’ is one of the most consistent needs expressed by parents of elementary, middle and high school students,” read the report.

Parents expressed the desire for formal sources of information, as well as opportunities to discuss school programs face-to-face with administrators. Some parents were dissatisfied with their choice because the information that they initially received was either inaccurate or was not followed-up on. One parent expressed the opinion of some respondents: “They always seemed like they’re [good schools] with their open house but after you get your child there it’s not the same. Everything is just totally different, just totally different.”

A third observation of SCDP was that although transferring schools can be difficult, parents are happy with the results. The report explains that “transferring away from friends at a familiar school to a new school with different peers and a dissimilar educational environment, which might include different sets of expectations, is likely to be challenging, at least initially.” Most parents who responded agreed “that the curriculum in their children’s new school was more challenging,” but added that “the increased demands were a good thing.”

Parents were generally prepared for an uncomfortable transition between schools, because they were convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs. As one parent noted, “Our kids need to come up, we don’t need to bring our standards down.”

SCDP’s final analysis of the Opportunity Scholarship Program was that it is necessary, and a positive tool in helping provide low-income families “access to and support for pursuing nontraditional school options.” The study revealed that “a total of 23 of the 31 respondents agreed with the statement—‘my family is very satisfied with OSP’; 15 of them strongly agreed with the statement. Eight (8) respondents disagreed with the statement, and one of them did so strongly.”

The parents were also given the opportunity to offer suggestions on how to better administer the program. The most common requests were for “an independent entity to evaluate and monitor the schools. In addition, some parents hoped that this entity would hold participating schools accountable for delivering the services and programs they advertised.”

Daniel Allen is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.


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