Whose Brother’s Keeper? Obama Administration Denies School Choice

The Obama administration’s proposed budget for 2015 would continue unsustainable spending growth at more than twice the rate of inflation and hike taxes by more than $1 trillion. It also includes $69 billion in education spending, much of it on programs that are unconstitutional, proven to be ineffective, or both.

And yet, in one area where the federal government has the constitutional authority to fund and manage education policy—the District of Columbia school system—the Obama administration’s budget cuts all funding to the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which has proven to be much more effective than the government-run school monopoly.

The administration’s proposal is particularly puzzling in the wake of the president’s announcement last week that he is launching a $200 million charitable initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to help young, male minorities. As Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas points out today at the Choice Words blog, there is solid evidence that school choice programs tremendously aid exactly that population:

Three evaluations of private-school choice programs have followed enough students for sufficiently long to determine their effects on the rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, or both. A 2010 evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found that students offered private-school choice by winning a random lottery graduated from high school at the rate of 82 percent, compared with 70 percent for the control group. The impact of actually using an Opportunity Scholarship was to increase the likelihood of graduation by 21 percentage points, from 70 percent to 91 percent. Over 90 percent of the participants in the study were African American, and almost all of the rest were Latino American.

A similarly rigorous experimental study of the impact of privately funded partial-tuition K–12 scholarships on college-enrollment rates was conducted by Paul Peterson of Harvard University and Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution. They followed a large group of low-income elementary students in New York City for over a decade after half of them were awarded private-school scholarships by lottery, while the other half were randomly assigned to the control group. They determined that the impact of using a private-school scholarship was to raise the college enrollment rate for African Americans in the study from 36 percent to 45 percent, a gain of 9 percentage points that represented nearly a 25 percent improvement over the control-group rate. As with the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program evaluation, President Obama’s very own Department of Education assigned this study its highest rating for scientific rigor.

Finally, I worked with a large team of researchers to evaluate the effect of the nation’s oldest and largest urban school-voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, on student educational attainment in the form of high-school graduation, college enrollment, and college persistence. Over two-thirds of the students in our study were African American, and almost all the rest were Latino American. We found that low-income students who used a voucher to enroll in a private school in ninth grade subsequently graduated from high school, enrolled in a four-year college, and persisted in college at rates that were 4–7 percentage points higher than statistically similar Milwaukee students who started in public schools in ninth grade. These higher rates of educational attainment due to the Milwaukee voucher program represent improvements of 15–20 percent over the rates obtained by the comparison group of public-school students—nearly as large as those for the African-American students in the New York City study.

Given the results of these three studies, one which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Education and two which were recognized with the Department’s highest award for rigor, we might expect President Obama to receive a swift response regarding his call for the federal government to search for programs that boost educational outcomes for African American men. The U.S. Department of Education need not search far and wide for such initiatives: they have already found one. Research shows that private-school choice through vouchers or scholarships is one of our nation’s most effective dropout-prevention programs for African Americans. It should be number one on the list of programs that President Obama encourages My Brother’s Keeper to support. But, apparently, it isn’t.

Not long ago, President Obama woefully misstated the research on school choice programs. The most charitable explanation is that he hasn’t seen the research from his own Department of Education. Fortunately, a few highly respected education policy gurus cut a short video to remedy that oversight:

Let’s hope the president gets YouTube on his Blackberry.


[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post included the statement: “This cut does not even save the taxpayers a dime, since the OSP only spends up to about $8,250 for elementary school students and $12,400 for high school students each year compared to the $30,000 per pupil per year that the government-run schools spend to produce some of the worst educational outcomes in the nation.” Actually, the OSP relies entirely on federal funds but the D.C. public schools are primarily funded locally, so a transfer of students out of the public schools in D.C. would not reduce spending as it would in other school choice programs where states fund schools on a per pupil basis.]