The Political Economy of D.C. School Choice: An Institutional Analysis of the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program




Kasic, Allison

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Economic theory gives us many reasons to think that school choice programs would address several problems plaguing our nation‘s public school system. This thesis examines one attempt to implement that theory, Washington, D.C.‘s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), to see how the positive predictions of school choice theory play out or do not play out in practice. The economic case for school choice rests on three related factors: knowledge, incentives, and competition. School choice should allow for better school-child matches than geographically-assigned government-run public schools, as parents are able to act on the intimate knowledge they have of their child‘s educational needs. School choice should also incentivize parents to be more informed educational consumers and incentivize schools to improve their services in an effort to attract or retain voucher students. This would lead to a more competitive educational market, ripe with innovation and, ultimately, improved student performance. OSP was successful in some of these areas and not in others. Evidence from OSP suggests that at least some students benefited as a result of participating in the program, either by improved standardized test scores in reading and/or by higher graduation rates. There is no evidence that any participants were worse off for having participated in the program. Further, most participants were highly satisfied with their experience in the program on a wide variety of margins including safety and school quality. The program was less successful in sparking widespread competition amongst schools, though some public and private school principals did report making changes in hopes of either retaining or attracting OSP students. The program features and institutional constraints of OSP were key in shaping these outcomes. The wide range of options available to OSP students allowed for the increased possibility of finding good school-child matches, though this was harder to achieve at the high school level where fewer options were available. Also key to finding good school-child matches was the wide range of information available to parents, including formal guides to personal connections. Evidence suggests that parents acted as informed consumers, examining substantive school qualities over superficial attributes, when choosing a school. They also improved as educational consumers over time, as school choice provided the incentive for them to be more involved in the educational process. A key factor in OSP‘s inability to affect system-wide change in D.C. schools is likely the program‘s funding structure, which did not provide a financial punishment for public schools that lost students to OSP. If policymakers wish to improve the performance of school choice programs in the future, it is these program features that they should address.



Education, Education Reform, School Choice, Vouchers