The big test of vouchers in DC has begun. More than 200 parents attended an orientation session for the DC voucher program this week and more than 4000 families (which could include as many as 8500 students) have expressed an interest in participating. Of course, DC’s alternative city council/school board/nanny (aka Congress) short changed the program, only allocating enough money for around 1700 students to receive up to $7500 each. So, a lottery will be held to select the lucky few.

Before a voucher can be assigned, however, the student must have been accepted to a private school in the District. That may be a problem for many of them since there aren’t very many empty seats available and it will be difficult for most schools to expand to accept these new students. In addition, some private schools have declined to participate in the program. On top of that, the $7500 won’t cover the tuition at many of the non-parochial schools, leaving the families to make up the difference.

The children of the parents profiled in the article who make it in to this program will do well in their new school, certainly better than they did in their DC public school. But the private school they’ll attend will be only part of the reason for their achievement, and not the most important factor. The major factor for the likely jump in test scores will be the parents. The fact that they were willing to go through this process means that they are far more involved with their kids education than other parents who didn’t even try. Their kids are probably some of the better performing students in their current schools.

Which leads to questions I’ve asked about vouchers before. How is this program going to improve public schools? It will likely help most of the students who get the vouchers but how will spending all this money help the students who don’t? Voucher advocates claim that the competition will force public schools to improve. I may be dense, so someone needs to explain to me exactly how that happens. And while you’re at it, how about a little evidence of where improvement commensurate with the money spent has occurred in the existing voucher programs. Just thought I’d ask.