Policymakers are Doing their Part to Kill Private Education in DC

December 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been taking a close look at DC education, and I must say I’ve learned a lot- both good and bad. One of the bad things would be these charts from the Urban Institute showing that private schools are going the way of the Dodo in the District of Columbia. K-5 is above and grades 6-8 below:


A couple of notes: we’ve known for some time that charter schools hit private schools harder than districts- and well here you have it again. Also note that the collapse comes in spite of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program starting in 2004. DC’s charter school law effectively operates as a universal school choice program that reliably delivers more than $14k in funding to all comers, but limits the universe of schools to young and/or startup schools.

Now mind you, this is less than half the revenue per pupil in the District of Columbia Public Schools (traditional district-see Census Bureau second bullet Tab 11) and they get better academic results than the district at this lower cost. Bully for them. The law of unintended consequences however is a cruel mistress and she has been whipping DC private schools with a bloody cat o’nine tails.

No but you can have this…

The DC Opportunity Scholarship program meanwhile only offers a maximum of $8,381 per child for students in K-8, and unless it is both reauthorized and redesigned one cannot help but wonder if there will be many private schools for these students to attend in the years ahead. Please someone explain to me how it makes sense for a charter school law to operate as a defacto universal choice program at $14k per child, while the private choice program offers substantially less per child and only to poor children. The Urban Institute data clearly indicates that this is a recipe for extinction of the private school sector outside of elite institutions. To put matters bluntly- who in their right mind would seek to open a private school in preference to a charter school in DC under this system of finance? Did you miss the part where private schools have been dropping like flies while charter schools proliferate? The funding for charters is large, universally available and reliable. The funding for DC Opportunity Scholarships is small, restricted and uncertain.

It’s little wonder why a number of D.C. Catholic schools gave up the ghost a few years ago and converted into charter schools. The school financing system practically clubbed them over the head. I’d like to invite my friends from the pro-means testing wing of the private choice movement to reflect upon the viability of supporting DC style scholarship programs when those programs must compete with defacto universal choice programs with far greater funding. Who wins that battle? Sadly the universal program restricts eligibility to young/startup schools with limited curricular diversity- how does this make sense? If parents decide to extinguish private schools as a result of a remotely equitable competition, you won’t see me shedding any tears. Our currently policies however make it look like we are out to quash private schools kind of like, well, this:



Wolf and McShane in NRO

February 1, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago, a rookie quarterback named Michael Bishop was brought into a game to perform a last second desperation bomb before the end of the half. It was his first pass as an NFL player, and against the odds it resulted in a long touchdown. Commenting on the pass for ESPN, Chris Berman said something to the effect of “Completion rate-100%. Pass to touchdown ration also 100%. QB Rating = INFINITY!!!!!”

This came to mind when reading this great piece by Wolf and McShane in that had Congress redirected money from the bloated and ineffectual DCPS for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, then  the cost of the program would have been nothing and the benefits substantial, meaning ROI = INFINITY!!!”


[Note: This is based on their peer reviewed article that is in the current issue of Education Finance and Policy.]

Is the Obama Administration Smarter than a Hamster?

April 16, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In the Simpson’s episode Duffless Lisa decides to conduct an experiment to determine whether her brother Bart is smarter than a hamster:

Is the Obama administration smarter than a hamster? The Washington Post editorial board leaves some room for doubt as it pertains to the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. The administration seems willing to not only play games with the lives of students, but also to raise questions regarding their trustworthiness in budget negotiations with Congress.

Zzzsztzz Ow!! Zzzstzz Ow!! Zzzstzz Ow!!

Three Down, Four to Go

April 14, 2011

Will Greg choose this one?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has officially been reauthorized! Combined with the new Colorado voucher program, and the new Arizona ESA program, Greg has 3 of his required 7 new programs/program expansions.

Stay tuned for further developments…

Big Day for Parental Choice

March 31, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday the Indiana House passed  a bill to create what seems likely to become the nation’s largest school voucher program, and to improve and expand their preexisting tuition tax credit law. On the same day, the United States House voted to reauthorize the DC Opportunity Scholarship program.

Indiana is poised to do something very special. Under the leadership of Governor Daniels and Superintendent Bennett, they are on the cusp of pushing through major Florida reforms: transparency with teeth (A-F school grading), action against social promotion and parental choice. The rest of us are going to have to pick up our games to try to keep pace.

The long-suffering DC Opportunity Scholarship Program children have suffered through the trials of Job. Kudos to Speaker Boehner for putting his back into delivering a happy ending for these kids!

Hold tight reform fans…the best is yet to come.

Conscience Asks the Question, ‘Is it Right?’

April 9, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Charles Miller, former Chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, sent out the following email to hundreds of people on Easter Sunday, which was also the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We reprint the email here with Mr. Miller’s permission:

Early in the Obama administration I was surprised and deeply disappointed by their decision to kill the “DC Voucher” Program.  I wrote most of the piece below at that time and the decision brought me back into the public K-12 debate.  The U.S. Senate recently voted 55-42 to confirm that decision, essentially on a party line vote, so I am sending this to go on record about something I think is horrendously wrong. –Charles Miller
April 4, 2010

What Martin Luther King Said About Speaking Out

“Our Lives Begin to End the Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter”
(Martin Luther King)

The Obama administration, through stimulus funding, the Race to the Top program, its presentation of budgets and proposals for reauthorization of NCLB/ESEA , has moved fast and furiously in the public education policy arena.  It seems very unlikely to me that high aspirations—and hasty action— equate to effective public policy.  In fact, these efforts seem to amount quite clearly to an overreach–strategically, systemically, politically, and culturally

However, what bothers me the most personally is what I consider the most unprincipled action in public education policy since the existence of segregated schools:  The willful decision by the Obama administration, supported by the Democrats in Congress, to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, also called “D.C. Vouchers”

The Obama administration has tied its education policy declarations to a mantra of being non-political and non-partisan, choosing instead a policy focus only on “what works”.  This principle has been repeated incessantly.

However, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is a successful program.

The Department of Education’s official evaluation using rigorous “gold standard” experimental evaluations determined that the OSP has produced significant achievement gains.

The OSP is serving those families and children most in need in one of the worst school districts in America.  Average income of participating families  is less than $24,000 annually and more than 85% of participating students would otherwise be attending a failing school under NCLB guidelines.

D.C. residents polled by three unaffiliated firms in ’07, ’08, and ’09 showed between 66 and 75% support for the OSP.  The D.C. superintendent and the Mayor support the program.

The decision to kill the program is contradictory to anything the administration claims to be its guiding principle.   The cost of the successful OSP is financially very small by comparison to any K-12 standard while at the same time there has been a gigantic increase in education spending nationally— to support status quo systems which are widely considered failures. Strong evidence of success, academically and financially, clearly makes the decision to kill OSP unprincipled.

The reason for killing OSP is the intense opposition of national teachers unions to a voucher program of any kind, anywhere, anytime—even if it is academically successful, financially responsible and so popular with the community served that there are long waiting lists.

If this successful program had been able to be replicated—a fear obviously driving the decision to kill OSP—the number of students from the most disadvantaged families whose life prospects could have been enhanced could be quite large.  This consideration makes the decision to kill OSP even more egregious, although even helping a small set of students is the principled thing to do.

Notably, from the Washington Post, “Duncan had the temerity to admit that OSP students ‘were safe and learning and doing well…but we can’t be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down’.”

The effect of the decision to kill OSP on the lives of the students who could have benefited from its continuation is extremely negative.  There is no way to avoid this conclusion. If a social scientist extrapolated the trends of two sets of students, one in OSP and one in a typical DC school, the loss of life opportunities would be stark for the typical set of students.

The inescapable conclusion I reach is that killing OSP is a despicable and unconscionable decision made for political purposes and with cynical disregard for the lives of the children affected.  “Obama could have stood up for these children, who only want the same opportunities that he had and that his daughters now have.  Instead his education secretary, Arne Duncan, proffered an argument that would be funny if it weren’t so sad:  Scholarships for poor students aren’t worth supporting because not enough of them are given out” (Washington Post, 3/8/10)

This when joblessness for 16-to-24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions — 34.5 % last October and estimated to having exceeded 50% by last year end.

The other conclusion I reach is that policy advocates or officials who turn their face away or avoid taking a strong stand against the decision to kill OSP because it is not pleasant or not convenient to their own activities have a hand in the ignoble results of the decision.  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King)

So, for me personally, I can’t justify supporting such an administration or its policy makers even if some of their other policy choices are more productive, nor can I see believing anything they say or trusting anything they do.  It can no longer be acceptable to be principled just some of the time.   No Mas.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’  Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’  Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’  But conscience asks the question,  ‘Is it right?’  And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”  (Martin Luther King)

Charles Miller

WSJ Video on DC Vouchers

March 11, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Check it out.