FAQ: Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP)

What is the DC OSP?

The Opportunity Scholarship Program is a scholarship program created by Congress and administered by the Washington Scholarship Fund that provides federal funding to parents who choose to send their children to private schools instead of DC Public Schools.

Why is Congress involved in DC city schools?

The US Constitution grants Congress governing authority over Washington, D.C.  Unlike the states, which have general sovereignty over their own education systems, education reform initiatives such as the DC OSP must receive Congressional approval.

Why do parents want their children out of DC Public Schools?

Despite spending more money on each student than all but two states-$13,500 per pupil in 2005-06-a 2006 report indicates that DC city schools only graduate 43% of their students within five years, and only 9% of DCPS graduates earn college degrees within five years of graduating high school.

When did the DC OSP start?

The DC OSP was established by an act of Congress in 2004 and was funded for five years. Funding has been extended through the 2009-10 school year but future funding is dependent upon Congressional reauthorization and DC City Council approval.

How many students receive scholarships through the OSP?

1,715 students receive OSP scholarships in 2008-09.  These scholarships are in high demand; approximately four students applied for every available scholarship.

How much money is the scholarship worth?

Students can receive scholarships up to $7,500, but most K-8 students receive considerably less.  If tuition is less than $7,500, the student will receive a scholarship equal to the school’s tuition.  As a result, the average scholarship is only worth $4,950.

Who is eligible for a DC OSP scholarship?

DC residents whose family income is below 185% of the federal poverty line.  The average family income of OSP participants is below $23,000.

What schools can kids attend with DC OSP scholarships?

58 private schools in DC have opened their doors to DC OSP kids.  Of these, 55% are faith-based (35% are Catholic) and the rest are independent private schools, like Sidwell Friends, which has two children on OSP scholarships.  80% of the students receiving scholarships attend faith-based schools, with 53% in Catholic schools (Wolf et al., 2008).

What is the future of the DC OSP?

It depends.  Congress recently passed a $410 billion spending bill that included within it language that severely threatens the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.  The bill funds the program for one year beyond its original scope but requires that future appropriations be contingent on Congressional reauthorization and approval of the DC City Council.  This is an unusual move; typically, programs are reappropriated without being reauthorized, so the language in the spending bill is specifically targeting this program.  Given the balance of power in Congress and on the DC City Council, reauthorization will be difficult.

Does the DC OSP work?

Wolf et al. (2008) evaluated the program after two years. Generally only one line of this study is paraphrased in mainstream news stories about the program:

“Overall, the primary analysis indicated there were no statistically significant general impacts of the Program on reading or math achievement after 2 years.” (p. 34).

There are, however, some findings in the study that haven’t been much reported in the mainstream news media:

  • Lots of kids are learning. Three subgroups, which comprise 88% of the students in the study, demonstrated statistically significant achievement gains in reading (p. 37).
  • Parents are satisfied. OSP parents are more highly satisfied with their children’s schools than parents whose children remained in DCPS schools (p. 45).
  • Parents feel safer. Parents believe their children’s new schools are significantly less dangerous. (p. 41).
  • OSP students enjoy improved school conditions. OSP students attend schools that are smaller, have smaller class sizes, and are better racially integrated than the schools (p. 58).

Also, the same group issued a report on family satisfaction in January 2009.  There are two findings here that jumped out at me and are worth discussing:

  • Parents are empowered. Parents report taking an active role in their children’s educational lives and they see the OSP as providing a means for their family to break the cycle of poverty (pg. 49).
  • Low-income Latinos are particularly satisfied with the program. They believe their children are more motivated, more focused, and working harder than they did in their previous schools (p. 32).

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