Study of the Voluntary Public School Choice Program: Final Report



The purpose of the Voluntary Public School Choice (VPSC) program is to support states and school districts in efforts to establish or expand public school choice initiatives. The program has four key priorities: 1) providing the widest possible choice to students in participating schools; 2) promoting transfers of students from low- to higher-performing schools; 3) forming interdistrict partnerships to allow students to transfer to a school in another district; and 4) requiring sites to use funds to support transportation services for students. The VPSC program functions independently from the choice provisions in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). This study focuses on the thirteen sites across the country that received program funding from 2002 through 2007.

The VPSC national evaluation was authorized under Title V of the ESEA, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Part B, Subpart 3, Section 5246). This study report documents and analyzes the program's progress in meeting program goals and fulfilling the intent of the VPSC Program's legislation. In addition, as directed by Congress, the evaluation addresses three central questions:

  1. What are the characteristics of the VPSC program's grantees?
  2. How and to what extent does the VPSC program promote educational equity and excellence?
  3. What academic achievement is associated with the VPSC program?

The evaluation uses quantitative and qualitative methods, drawing from multiple data sources, including site visits, surveys, program documents, and student achievement records. Data collection started in the fall of 2002 and continued through the end of the five-year grant cycle in the spring of 2007. The evaluation data suggest the following trends:

Program and Participant Characteristics

  • The thirteen projects differed widely from each other in design and scope, though all focused on two core activities: 1) reaching out to parents and the community and 2) building capacity at schools to attract and accommodate choice transfers.
  • Sites could be categorized into four types of choice arrangements: 1) Five sites had pre-designated sending and receiving schools; 2) Five sites had geographic areas where students could choose any school, and schools could be both sending and receiving; 3) One site had only within-school options and, thus, had no transfers; and 4) Two sites had a mixture of the first three types of choice arrangements.
  • Participating schools covered all grade levels: 64 percent spanned the elementary grades, 15 percent covered the middle school grades, 11 percent covered the high school grades, and three percent were classified as "other."
  • The majority of student bodies in all participating schools were nonwhite and eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. However, the sending-only schools had the largest of these majorities (72 percent nonwhite and 74 percent Free and Reduced-Price Lunch) as well as the highest proportion of Title I schools (93 percent). The receiving-only schools were 57 percent nonwhite and 59 percent Free and Reduced-Price Lunch, and just 47 percent of these schools were Title I schools.

Student Participation at the VPSC Sites

  • In 2005-06, across 12 of the 13 VPSC sites, 24,921 students enrolled in choice initiatives, reflecting an overall participation rate of 2.8 percent of the students eligible to enroll. This number of students represented those who had enrolled in a choice initiative for the first time that year.
  • Of the VPSC sites' enrolling students, ten provided eligibility and enrollment data for four consecutive years (2003-04 to 2006-07). First-time enrollee participation rates at these ten VPSC sites increased from 1.5 percent to 4.1 percent from 2003-04 to 2005-06, and then dropped to 3.0 percent in 2006-07.

Progress in Meeting Legislative Priorities

  • The VPSC program made progress on the first statutory priority, providing a wide variety of choice options overall. Sites expanded the assortment of choice options in participating schools and offered diverse academic programs to transferring students.
  • Five of the 13 sites either limited or tracked their transfers from low- to higher-performing schools. In these sites, only 21.8 percent of the total transfers in 2005-06 were from low- to higher-performing schools. Only three of the 13 sites limited their enrollment to transfers from low- to higher-performing schools.
  • Most of the VPSC sites limited their choice initiatives to within-district options, rather than develop interdistrict options. Five of the 13 sites created formal interdistrict options.
  • Relative to enrollment, transportation costs did not increase proportionately as might have been expected because the VPSC initiatives permitted many students who were attending distant schools to select schools closer to home.

Student Achievement

  • Although achievement data were analyzed for a large number of students, these students represented only six cohorts of "first-time enrollees" across four of the 13 VPSC sites. Among the six cohorts, mathematics and reading scores for the same students were tracked for a minimum of three years.
  • When the VPSC and non-VPSC trends were compared, students enrolling in the VPSC initiatives had higher achievement gains than those not enrolling.
  • These findings need to be tempered by several conditions that could have affected evaluation results: the procedure for matching students; the length of time covered by the trends (more data points came from the years before the start of the VPSC program rather than after); and the fact that data came from only four of 13 VPSC sites, representing only a small fraction of enrolling students.

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Last Modified: 11/19/2008