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June 10, 2015

Nevada bets the schools’ bank

Nevada is known for gaming. That could explain why lawmakers there are willing to gamble on the delivery of public education in the state by passing the most sweeping school choice bill in the nation.

SB 302 (the bill has no name that I could find) offers Nevada public school parents a grant that they can use to pay for private school, online courses, or homeschooling expenses for their child. The roughly $5,000 per student subsidy will be deposited in individual education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents who leave public traditional and charter schools. The cost will be deducted from the state per-pupil allotment that would have otherwise gone to the child’s resident school district.

ESAs are not unique to Nevada. Arizona, Florida and Tennessee provide similar grants to parents whose children have special needs or, in the case of Arizona, are currently attending a low-performing school. Other states like Indiana and Florida provide state-funded vouchers to qualifying families that are similar to ESAs but are typically restricted to use in private schools only. What truly distinguishes the Nevada program from these others, however, is its universality. While other states limit eligibility, Nevada opens up ESAs to every child who has been enrolled in a public school for at least 100 consecutive days prior to applying for the grant. Officials estimate that the bill will affect 93 percent of all school-aged children in the state.

School choice advocates are relishing in the unprecedented scale of the Nevada bill in the belief it will give them a chance to do something decades of choice experiments across the country have failed to do  – demonstrate that a free market approach to education will drive school improvement. Education Week reports that the bill was drafted with the help of several national pro-school choice organizations, including the Goldwater Institute, the Freidman Foundation and the Foundation for Excellence in Education through its lobbying arm, Excel National.  Following its passage, Excel National released a statement saying, “This is a monumental leap forward in the fight for student-focused policies that allow every child the opportunity to receive a quality education.”

But will SB 302 offer this opportunity? Here’s what Nevada is gambling:

Gamble #1: Private schools will want ESA kids. Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. Yet three years into the program, two-thirds of the state’s private schools are declining to accept voucher students. This is perhaps one reason only 4% of students who are eligible to participate are taking advantage of the state vouchers.  Even if a Nevada private school will accept ESA students, there’s no guarantee the school will take all who apply. For one, there may not be available seats. For another, there could be admissions criteria that screen for the most desirable students.

Gamble #2: ESAs will benefit low-income students. Children with disabilities or from families at or below 185 percent of the poverty line qualify to receive 100 percent of the state per-pupil allocation, currently about $5,700 per year. All other students are able to receive a grant equal to 90 percent, or $5,100. Nationally, the average yearly tuition at private schools was $10,740 for the 2011-12 academic year. Elementary schools, which tend to be cheaper, cost an average of $7,770. While Nevada may have some more affordable options available, families are certain to run into tuitions that exceed the ESA. Those who can afford to supplement the costs will do so, but low-income families are not likely to be among them. This begs the question – rather than opening up opportunities for all Nevada children, will the state be subsidizing private education for those who are in a better position to afford it anyway?

Gamble #3: Choice schools will be better schools. This is the basic premise underlying all choice arguments — that when parents are given the opportunity, they will choose a better educational fit for their child who will in turn perform better. This is not to say that parents do not want to make a good choice or are incapable of choosing well. They do and they are. However, it does assume that the simple act of allowing parents to opt in produces better results. And the track record on choice policies to date is really weak.

CPE has reviewed research on various educational options, including charter schools, voucher programs, virtual schooling and homeschooling. (A concise overview of all these findings will be published later this year.) The best that can be said is that school choice works for some students sometimes, is worse for some students sometimes, and is often no better or worse than the public school students attended before. Research on voucher programs, for example, shows some gains for minority and/or low-income students, while most studies show similar performance to public school students. One exception may be higher graduation rates. In addition, our earlier report on virtual schooling found, with the exception of a few noteworthy instances, there was little to commend in full-time online schooling for most students, and that even single courses had their risks.

Good data on homeschooling is non-existent. Anecdotes about the Tim Tebows and other homeschool success stories get wide play, many of which you can find here. Less heard are the stories about when homeschooling goes wrong – voices that are just beginning to emerge, for example, here and here. What is missing is a picture of how homeschooled students fare overall.

Nevada’s bill attempts to hedge its bets when it comes to quality control over school choices by requiring all ESA recipients to take standardized tests in math and English language arts. Participating private schools must further report the aggregated results of these tests to the Nevada Department of Education, which will publish the data. No performance thresholds or consequences are defined, however, so it’s unclear what, if anything, would happen if the ESA students don’t get the quality education they were promised.

And that, my friends, is a huge gamble.  — Patte Barth

Filed under: Charter Schools,Parents,Public education,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 7:30 am





August 21, 2014

Common core support drops, local control rules, and other public opinion trends

Back to school season means it’s also time for the yearly ritual of gauging American attitudes about their public schools. Two major surveys released this week once again show that the public says its local schools are great even though they think U.S. schools overall are in the tank (a mathematical impossibility, by the way). The surveys also highlight some inconsistencies in public thinking as well as widespread acceptance of misinformation, particularly regarding the common core. So let’s start there.

First, what a difference a year makes! The 46th annual PDK/Gallup poll registered a big increase in public awareness about the Common Core State Standards between 2013 and 2014. Last year, only 38 percent said they had heard of them. This year, awareness has more than doubled to 81 percent. But that wasn’t the only shift. Of those who knew about the Common Core in 2013 a majority liked them, but that pendulum swung, too. Now according to PDK, only 33 percent support the new standards while a full 60 percent are opposed.

A new poll from Education Next shows the same downward trend in public support for Common Core as PDK, although EN shows that a majority are still favorable: 53 percent of the public supported them in 2014 compared to 65 percent the year before. EN teased out attitudes by party affiliation and found that Democrats were more far more likely to support Common Core than Republicans — 65 to 43 percent, respectively. Still, even among Republicans, support is significantly higher than PDK reported.

EN also conducted a small randomized experiment. They asked the same question about Common Core standards to one half of the survey pool, except they eliminated the words “Common Core” in the brackets below:

As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use [the Common Core, which are] standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of these [the Common Core] standards in your state?

Now it gets interesting. When the words “Common Core” are eliminated, public support rises from 53 to 68 percent. Moreover, Republicans approved of the non-Common Core statement at the same rate as Democrats. The conflicting poll results could suggest that the Common Core critics are winning the media war. As EN puts it, the words themselves may have become “toxic.” As further evidence, the poll found that the majority of the public believed statements about the Common Core that were not true, such as the federal government requires states to use the Common Core. Yet these beliefs have entered into the information stream and are affecting public attitudes.

Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing a sea change in attitudes. The EN survey raises an issue that should be of major concern: teacher support for the Common Core declined the most. In 2013, a full three-quarters of the teachers polled were in favor of the Common Core. In just one year their support plummeted to slightly less than half (46 percent). One has to wonder if teachers are expressing their frustration with inadequate implementation support. If this is the case, state and district policymakers should pay close attention.

On other topics, the public continues to view public schooling as a mostly local concern, according to PDK. The majority of the public — 56 percent — say local school boards should have the “greatest influence in deciding what is taught in public schools,” followed by 28 percent who say the state should, and only 15 percent who say the federal government should. In addition, to know public schools is to love them. Consistent with results of the last 20 years, the public gives public schools nationally poor grades, but grade their local schools highly. In 2014, 50 percent of the public and 67 percent of public school parents gave their local schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ compared to 17 percent who gave the nation’s schools high grades. However, this represents a slight drop from 2013 overall.

Both PDK and EN found that the public continues to like the idea of charter schools. But the polls conflict over voucher support. PDK reported that nearly two-thirds of the public opposed vouchers, while EN showed that about half support vouchers for students in “failing public schools” and even for “universal vouchers.” Surprisingly, only a third told EN they would support vouchers for low-income families.

As always, polls can be useful in understanding what the public is thinking. But this year’s polling seems to further cast a light on winners and losers in communicating their messages. — Patte Barth






July 22, 2014

Do charter schools really get more bang for the buck?

Cost-benefit A new study from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas claims that charter schools are 40 percent more productive than traditional public schools. They found that for every $1000 invested, charter schools obtain approximately a year and half more in student learning than traditional public schools — meaning, in essence, charter schools can be just as effective as traditional public schools at nearly half the cost.

These are incredibly strong findings for charter schools. If charter schools can do everything traditional public schools do at nearly half the cost why shouldn’t policymakers invest more in their expansion? The problem is this study doesn’t even attempt to determine if charter schools can provide the same services with fewer funds than traditional public schools. While the study excludes funding for pre-k and adult education from their calculations — services many traditional schools offer but most charter schools don’t — the authors did not make any adjustments for the fact that:

      • Traditional public schools are much more likely than charter schools to provide costly services such as transportation and extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, theater, and civic clubs.
      •  A smaller proportion of charter schools than traditional public schools are high schools which typically require significantly more funding than elementary and middle schools.
      • Traditional public schools enroll a larger proportion of special needs students such as special education and English Language Learners (ELL) who typically require more funding than the average student. This is especially true for severely disabled students which typically cost districts four times more to educate than the average student. However, charter schools rarely enroll severely disabled students.
      • A number of charter schools are located in buildings owned by traditional public schools at no or reduced costs to the charter school. Even though by doing so traditional public school are in fact subsidizing charter schools, this is not accounted for within the study so it appears that traditional public schools are using more funds than charter schools.

The authors claim they did not make these and other adjustments, “To avoid the appearance of taking an advocacy position…” However, making an apples to apples comparison of how much funding charter schools receive to provide similar services as traditional public schools is not taking an advocacy position. It can be done with objective statistics.

Yet, as the authors note doing so is extremely difficult, if not impossible, as it would take going through every line item of the budgets for both charter schools and traditional public school districts. While indeed it would an arduous undertaking, it is the only way to accurately determine if charter schools can educate our students as well as traditional public schools but at a lower cost.

Until such a study is conducted that at least attempts to compare the funding for similar services provided, such claims that charter schools are more productive than traditional public schools cannot be substantiated. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Charter Schools,CPE,Report Summary — Jim Hull @ 3:42 pm





July 17, 2014

School choice in Sweden isn’t working

Earlier this week, Slate ran this analysis of school choice in Sweden that should be required reading for everyone who makes public school policy in the U.S. as well as those who write about it. I encourage everyone to read it for themselves. But briefly, the author describes how Sweden came to adopt Milton Friedman’s free market ideas for school reform in the mid- to late-1900s and since then, the nation, once a leader among OECD countries on PISA, has witnessed its international standing plummet.

According to the article, the main reason for this decline is the failure of free market principles to translate to school improvement. In Sweden, competition led to artificial test score inflation among charter and traditional schools alike.  But even if policies could be put in place to better control for that, there remains the futility of applying for-profit practices to meet what is essentially — and vitally — a not-for-profit public mission.

The author is not a complete charter school opponent. Like CPE, he recognizes the value of innovative, successful charter schools as laboratories that can provide lessons traditional public schools can learn from.  At the same time, we do not see any evidence to argue for expanding charter school — or school choice in general — as a way to improve public education. Indeed, an absolute free market system for public schools poses greater risks to the effort to raise student performance across the board, as Sweden is apparently learning the hard way. — Patte Barth

 






January 21, 2014

Expanding school choice: An education revolution or diversion?

House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) was speaking recently at the release of the Brookings Institution’s latest report on Education Choice and Competition. Calling these policies “an education revolution,” the House leader baldly stated, “school choice is the surest way to break [the] vicious cycle of poverty.”

Not “a solid education.”  School choice.

The Brookings’ report ranks 100 large districts on their school choice policies. Their report came out in advance of National School Choice Week whose organizers boast 5,500 scheduled events across the country beginning January 26, 2014. Both share a goal to drum up more support for funneling tax dollars into educational options — whether they be charters, magnets, private, or virtual schools.  The rationale is that a free marketplace will force schools to innovate in order to compete for students. Popular schools will equate with “good schools” and unpopular ones will close. And thus, in Brookings words, we will raise “the quality of the product.”

Unfortunately, that’s one mighty big assumption.

Most choice advocates defend their position by pointing to successful charter schools in New York City and elsewhere. Others extol the promise of virtual learning. What they all provide, for the most part, is anecdote, intuition and belief. When they do cite data, it basically shows that choice policies work in some places with some students some of the time.  Truth is, the evidence is much spottier than the champions for choice would have us believe.

Charter schools, for example, are the most studied “choice” reform.  Charter schools are public schools that have certain requirements waived so they can try out new ideas.  There is much to commend successful charters and what they are learning about effective practices. But according to a 2013 study from Stanford researchers, these are the exception. Only one in four charter schools outperforms its traditional public school counterpart in reading. About one in five performs significantly worse. In math, it’s nearly one in three.

The quality of research on voucher programs is notoriously uneven and often contradictory. Nonetheless, there seems to be general agreement that vouchers may have had a modest impact on some low-income and minority youth in some urban districts. But the findings are inconclusive as to their effect overall.  And the general efficacy of virtual schools is a big unknown, largely because districts lack the infrastructure to sufficiently track student performance in online environments.

Ironically, the Brookings report card itself illustrates the disconnect between choice policies on one hand and student performance on the other.  One does not necessarily follow the other.

Only three districts earned A’s on Brookings choice and competition rankings:  Louisiana’s Recovery District, Orleans Parish and New York City. Along with its Brookings “A,” Orleans Parish earned an “A” on Louisiana’s report card for district performance.  Yet the state gave the Recovery District an F. New York City’s A- from Brookings bears little relation to its math scores on NAEP, a national assessment. The city’s scores were at the average for large cities, and below average in terms of gains over the last decade.

Then there’s the low end of the rankings. Atlanta was given an “F” by Brookings. Yet the city boasts fourth-graders who perform above the national “large city” average in reading and posted more than twice the gains their peers made nationwide.  Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, are among the highest performing urban districts in both math and reading. Brookings gave them a C and D respectively.

see full data tables

 

So what does this tell us? That high-achieving, high-gaining districts can have “choice and competition” or not. Either way, it shows it’s a mistake to claim, as Rep. Cantor does, that choice is “the surest way to break the cycle of poverty.”

Contrary to popular perception, public schools have been steadily improving over the last twenty years. Math performance and graduation rates, in particular, are at all-time highs. Neither are public schools the monolithic creature some of the choice advocates make them out to be. Many districts across the country already offer alternatives in the form of charter and magnet schools, and continue to diversify instructional programs in traditional neighborhood schools, too. But parents and students need assurance that the choices they are offered are good ones, something choice for choice’s sake has not done, as the research shows.

In addition, it’s one thing to offer alternatives. It’s quite another to encourage public schools to compete with each other for students which could send the wrong messages. We need only look to our colleges and universities who, in their race to attract students, build football teams and state-of-the-art facilities at the expense of investments in teaching.  I really doubt that’s the kind of marketplace we want to create for public schools.

Far from an education revolution, the political attention given choice and competition is diverting us from the hard work of making sure public schools prepare every child for their next steps after graduation.  This means continuing to invest in those things that an abundance of evidence shows consistently work  — access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, effective teachers, rigorous curriculum and individualized instruction for students. It also means learning from successful schools — including schools of choice — about what works with different students in which situations, and bringing those practices to scale.  When we get that right, districts will earn the grades that really matter.

 






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