Monday, March 29, 2004

The U.S. Education Department yesterday announced that Georgetown University and two research firms have been chosen to begin designing a lottery and evaluation system for the District’s pilot school-voucher program.

The Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences awarded a preliminary 10-month, $419,903 contract to Westat, a Rockville-based survey research firm, to get the work under way.

“Westat, in collaboration with Georgetown University and Chesapeake Research Associates [of Annapolis], will assist the Washington Scholarship Fund on the design and execution of the lottery that will be used to randomly assign scholarships to eligible student applicants,” the department said in an announcement.

The Washington Scholarship Fund, a District-based nonprofit group, is administering the city’s five-year, $70 million school-voucher program.

Set to begin this fall, the program will award vouchers worth up to $7,500 each to about 2,000 families that have children in 15 low-performing public schools. The money will be used to help the families afford a private-school education.

Westat, Chesapeake Research Associates and Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s School Choice Demonstration Project were chosen to design and monitor the lottery for voucher applicants.

In addition, the firms will start collecting initial school and student data for a comprehensive federally funded evaluation of the voucher program to be announced in June, the Education Department said.

“We are excited about the challenge,” said Stephen Q. Cornman, administrator of the Georgetown project. “This sets the foundation for the initial evaluation program.”

The Education Department in June will award a second, larger contract — based on competitive bids — for the four-year evaluation.

Mr. Cornman said Georgetown will apply for the contract to conduct the evaluation.

“We would be an unbiased approach to see how these vouchers work for the children of the District,” he said.

The current contract calls for three groups to help the Washington Scholarship Fund get the lottery under way, collect school data on students, prepare a report to Congress “on the characteristics of the applicants” and prepare data files for the comprehensive evaluation.

The evaluation would be a scientific study of the achievement of students in the voucher program, compared with the achievement of a demographically comparable group of public-school children in city schools who applied for vouchers but did not receive them, Education Department officials said.

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