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Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program

April 2005

Executive Summary

The District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act of 2003 was passed by Congress in January 2004. The Act provided funds for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) improvement activities and charter school facility acquisitions. Most notably, the statute established what is now called the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program—the first federal government initiative to provide K-12 education scholarships, or vouchers, to families to send their children to private schools of choice.

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has the following programmatic elements:

  • To be eligible, students entering grades K-12 must reside in the District and have a family income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

  • Participating students will receive scholarships of up to $7,500 to cover the costs of tuition, school fees, and transportation to a participating private school of choice.

  • Scholarships are renewable for up to 5 years (as funds are appropriated), as long as students remain eligible for the program and remain in good academic standing at the private schools they are attending.

  • If there are more eligible applicants than available scholarships or open slots in private schools, applicants are to be awarded scholarships and admission to private schools random selection, for example by lottery.

  • Private schools participating in the program must be located in the District, and agree to program requirements regarding nondiscrimination in admissions, fiscal accountability, and cooperation with the evaluation.

The Act requires that this 5-year scholarship program be rigorously evaluated by an independent research team, using the “strongest possible research design for determining the effectiveness” of the program and addressing a specific set of student comparisons and topics (Section 309). The evaluation thus has several components: (1) an impact analysis, comparing outcomes of eligible applicants (students and their parents) from public schools randomly assigned to receive or not receive a scholarship through a lottery, and (2) a performance reporting analysis, comparing all students participating in the scholarship program to students in the same grades in DCPS. All participating students includes those randomly assigned scholarships and those who received scholarships automatically, those who were attending public schools and those attending private schools when they entered the scholarship program. Because DCPS students who did not apply to the scholarship program are likely to be quite different from those who applied and are participating, the impact analysis will be the source of the reliable, causal evidence on program effectiveness called for in the legislation.

This document is the first of a series of annual reports from the evaluation team, as mandated by Congress. Because the initial cohort of program participants—those who applied in spring 2004 to receive scholarships for the 2004-05 school year—just recently matriculated at their new schools, no impact information is available at this time. Instead, the report describes the purposes and design of the scholarship program, the first-year implementation activities that generated 1,848 eligible applicants and 58 participating private schools, the process of awarding scholarships to 1,366 student applicants, and the characteristics of both applicants and scholarship users. The report provides an important foundation for the later examination of program impacts.