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October 19, 2017

Vouchers and the Douglas County school board election

The upcoming Douglas County School District school board election is gaining national attention.  Douglas County is the third largest district in Colorado serving 67,000 students.  This hits close to home for me since this is the school district that I grew up in and went to school from kindergarten through high school.  The election is gaining more recognition than most because it centers around the controversial issue of vouchers.

In 2011, the school board approved a voucher/scholarship legislation, in a 4 to 3 vote.  According to the non-profit journalism organization, The Colorado Independent, the legislation proposed giving approximately $6400 to students in the district to give them the option of attending a private school, religious or non-religious, that is either in or outside of the district.  After the school board approved the proposal, the legislation was sent to the Denver District Court where it was blocked.  Douglas County appealed and sent the legislation to the State Supreme Court where it was forwarded to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The past June, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case and sent it back down to the Colorado Supreme Court.  On July 31, the Colorado Supreme court sent the proposal back down to the district court where it waits for further review.  The terms of the four board members that voted for vouchers in 2011 are now coming to an end, leaving four very influential seats up for grabs in this election.  If even one seat is filled by a candidate that does not support vouchers, the legislation could die.  However, if four candidates that support the vouchers program win the open seats, the voucher proposal could go back through the courts.  Right now, these four candidates have grouped together and are termed Elevate Douglas County.  These individuals are united in the idea of expanding school choice opportunities in the district.

This past January, the Center for Public Education (CPE) released an updated report looking at the effects of school choice policies on students.  One conclusion that came about was “school choice works for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools” Basically, the evidence is unclear because school choice can look very different depending on the individual policy and the context. However, CPE’s report did highlight a study of the Louisiana voucher program.  In the study, the public-school students that participated in the voucher program and attended private schools lost academic ground in both math and Language Arts over a two-year period but began to recover by the third year.
LAVoucherGraph
CPE’s report concludes with two warnings to education policy makers.  First, “there is no reason to conclude that choice in itself will produce better outcomes.”  Choice does not translate into better student achievement 100% of the time, so it should not be treated as a guaranteed method to boost student learning.  Second, “policymakers who are considering supporting parents who wish to choose private schools or homeschooling should be aware that very little is known about the overall efficacy of schooling outside of public schools.”

Only 1% of students in the United States use vouchers, and only 10 states have approved voucher programs.  Clearly, this is not a widely adopted policy effecting a large number of students, so much is still unknown about the effects it can have in different contexts.  Some studies on vouchers have reported test score gains for low-income, African American students who have taken advantage of voucher programs, however, as someone who grew up in Douglas County, “low-income” is not a commonly used term to describe area.  The district is located in the fifth wealthiest county in the nation, with only 3.5% of the population in 2015 earning below the poverty level according to the Douglas County Demographic Summary.  This is a very different type of community than those that have reported success from vouchers in the past.

When I was a student in the district, vouchers had not yet become a hot button topic.  The issue around vouchers in the district has sparked a heated debate because there is a lack of agreement about the actual effectiveness of these programs.  Whatever happens in next month’s election, we’ll be watching to see how school choice in Douglas County plays out.

Filed under: CPE,School boards,School Choice — Tags: , — Annie Hemphill @ 9:13 am





October 12, 2017

Survey says: How Americans feel about public schools and school choice

Between May and September, four organizations released the results from their surveys asking Americans about K-12 education policies.  The four surveys by NORC/AP, Education Next, PDK and the American Teachers Federation (AFT), polled different participants but all asked questions about people’s opinion of public education, charter schools and vouchers.  The NORC/AP and PDK poll gathered their data from a random sample of American households.  The AFT and Education Next surveys both gathered data from parents and the Education Next also included teachers.  The data from the surveys agreed on certain issues, like the quality of public schools, but the questions about vouchers and charter schools showed people’s difference of opinion and lack of information about these issues.  This is an attempt to point out areas where these surveys agreed and disagreed to shed light on the public’s broader opinion about public schools and education policies. However, one overarching theme emerges—Americans, overall, like the idea of choice but still look to their local neighborhood schools as their first choice.

Grading Public Schools

PollChart1

All four polls indicate that Americans have conflicting opinions about public schools.  They report having a low opinion of public schools when asked about their overall quality from a national level, but then highly rate their local public schools.  These results have been consistent since the 1970s in the PDK poll.

PollChart2

 

Another consistent finding is the particularly high rating public school parents give for the public school where their child attends.  In 2017, 15% of public school parents gave their local public school an “A” in the PDK poll, which is the highest percentage in 20 years.  This year, at least 65% of parents in all four surveys praised their neighborhood public schools by giving them an “A” or “B” rating, or noting that they are of good or excellent quality.  The Education Next poll was the only one that collected responses specifically from teachers.  Teachers opinions mirrored the parents rating in the poll, showing a higher opinion for local public schools than public schools on a national level.  Overall, people are satisfied with their local public schools and the people who are most involved in public schools, parents and teachers, have the highest opinion of these institutions.

Charter Schools

PollChart3

Public opinion about charter schools is less definitive between the three different polls, PDK, NORC/AP and AFT, but basically shows how support shifts when questions are asked differently.  According to the NORC/AP survey, more participants support opening more charter schools compared to those who are opposed.  The Education Next and AFT polls show a different side of the argument.  The Education Next poll doesn’t show a big difference between the number of people that are for and against setting up more charter schools.  But the gap between support and opposition widens slightly when parents and teachers are polled.  Forty percent of teachers support opening more charter schools, but 51% oppose the idea. Teachers represent the biggest gap on this question and the only group that reported more opposing than supporting charter schools.

The data from the AFT survey paint a much different picture, and is likely a result of the wording. Unlike EdNext and AP/NORC who both asked about support for charter schools generally, AFT asked about respondents in terms of spending. AFT found that only 32% of public school parents approve of reducing spending on regular public schools and using the funds to increase spending on charter schools.

The questions in the Education Next and NORC/AP poll also include a brief definition of a charter school, whereas the AFT question does not. Education Next and NORC/AP indicate that many people still do not have a strong opinion one way or the other on charter schools, with over a quarter of respondents neither supporting nor opposing the formation of charter schools.  This suggests that policymakers need to do a better job of educating the public about charter schools and their policy implications.

Vouchers

PollChart4.4

PollChart4.5

The polling data also show discrepancies on the issue of vouchers, which again is a likely result of different wording.  The Education Next poll showed a higher percentage of overall respondents supporting vouchers for all students, as well as, for low-income families specifically.  More parents in this survey also supported vouchers for all students and for low-income students.  Teachers were the only group with a majority opposing both types of vouchers.  The NORC/AP survey also showed greater support than opposition towards vouchers.  This was true for survey participants overall as well as for African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians.  However, the results from the AFT and PDK poll show the opposite when the question involves spending money on either public schools or vouchers. Eighty-six percent of public school parents in the AFT poll agreed that a higher priority should be paid towards investing in neighborhood public schools over vouchers. In PDK, 52% opposed using public dollars to help children attend private school. When given an option of using funds only on public schools or using some to help students attend any school “public, private or religious,” 61% of respondents wanted all the dollars to stay in the public domain.

Similar to the questions about charter schools, the wording of the questions about vouchers can have an effect on the responses.  In the surveys that had more support for vouchers, all of the questions mentioned the word “choice”, which suggests that people support the idea of choice for choice sake.  However, the questions in the polls that had a majority opposed clearly indicated the separation between spending money on public schools or vouchers.

It is clear that people like their public schools.  This is not new.  The majority of people have ranked their public schools highly for more than three decades.  The results around different types of school choice are less one-sided, but even those numbers may be misleading by the public’s lack of awareness about the implications of policies concerning choice.  For example, the NORC/AP survey data continued to show more people supporting charter schools and voucher programs, but that may not be the case.  The researchers report that the majority of parents want to keep their children in school in their own neighborhood with 67% of Americans saying “preference should be given to children living in a school’s catchment, with children living outside that area given a lower chance of admission.”  This shows that most people still rely on their neighborhood public schools and want them to be of high quality.

 

 

Filed under: Charter Schools,CPE,School Choice — Tags: , , , — Annie Hemphill @ 2:33 pm





September 19, 2017

New report details history of school vouchers in US

The Center For American Progress (CAP) recently released a report on the history of vouchers in the United States, a reform strategy that has garnered renewed interest in the Trump Administration, despite it’s murky origins and outcomes.

Image result for prince edward county protest

The report begins by referencing a 1951 strike organized by black high school students in Virginia’s Prince Edward County who were lobbying for a new school with improved facilities and resources. The students were convinced, with the help of lawyers and the NAACP, to sue the district for segregation. Their story was a classic example of the “separate but equal” legal doctrine that allowed racial segregation to flourish even after the abolishment of slavery and it was cited in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.  After the Supreme Court ruled that public schools had to integrate black students, many districts found ways to get around the verdict. Prince Edward was one of the most extreme examples of the lengths some communities went to avoid adhering to the law.

The county decided to drastically decrease public education spending to the minimum $150,000 and shut down all public schools in 1959. The closure lasted for five years.  Officials thought if public schools weren’t open, they couldn’t be integrated. During this five year period the state offered tuition grants, specifically for white students, to attend schools in neighboring counties.  The white residents of Prince Edward also came together and built a private school, Prince Edward Academy, that was only for white students.  Between 1959 and 1964 some black families sent their children to schools outside of county lines or even outside of the state to live with relatives, but most were forced to go five years without any kind of formal education.  The tuition grants were specifically designed to sustain the idea of segregation in Prince Edward County and the entire state of Virginia where public money was being used to help only a handful of students.

Today, vouchers still do not help most students achieve a quality education.  There are 49 million public school students but there are not 49 million vouchers to be offered. While current voucher programs do not segregate students by race in such an obvious way as those of the past, many still see segregation as an unintended consequence.  Public schools have legislation attached to them to address racially isolated schools but vouchers do not have the same civil rights legislation attached to their policies.  The research on vouchers today suggest that, in general, more vouchers are associated with more segregation in national and international studies.

The consequence of increased segregation from vouchers directly opposes the current beliefs about school diversity.  In the recent PDK poll on the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools, 70% of the parents surveyed would prefer sending their children to a racially diverse school.  The data shows that the majority of public opinion has drastically changed regarding integration in schools, so it is time for our policies to reflect this transformation by learning from episodes like the one in Prince Edward County and moving forward.






May 8, 2017

Black and Latino parents express their views on education

School choice advocates seemed surprised earlier this year when the NAACP called for a moratorium on new charter schools. The need for school choice, according to many advocates, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, stems from lack of choices and underperformance of public schools for low-income students and students of color. However, a new survey by the civil rights group The Leadership Conference asks black and Latino parents about their views on education. Instead of education advocates and policymakers presupposing that all parents want is choice, we should stop and listen to them.

Parents want changes that would provide fair opportunities to their students. Most of their criticism is centered around race-based inequalities in funding and resources, as well as biased treatment of their students. Some parents may use school choice to attain greater equality, but until every school provides a high-quality education, providing options alone isn’t enough.

The Leadership Conference surveyed 600 black parents and 600 Latino parents across the U.S., all with children ages 5-18. The margin of error for each group is 4 percent. In addition to ensuring that our education system hears the voices of all groups of parents, this survey is particularly important because it helps peel back the layers on why black and Latino students often lag behind in educational attainment. They also make up nearly half of the student population.

Surveyed parents overwhelmingly felt that schools in black and Latino communities received less funding than schools in white neighborhoods. Research from EdBuild, an organization that studies education funding, would back up that sentiment. Black parents whose children attended majority white schools were more likely to rate their school as excellent than parents of students at majority-black schools (61 versus 14 percent). If funding tends to follow white students, then minority students at majority-white schools would also benefit from better supported schools. Socioeconomic status may also play a role in this perception; black and Latino students are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white students.

BlackLatino

Parents also cite racism and bias as contributors to their children receiving an inferior education. When their children had mostly white teachers, parents were more likely to believe that U.S. schools weren’t really trying to educate black/Latino students. This aligns with recent research that shows that black students are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to college if they had at least one black teacher in upper elementary school. While the mechanisms for the research findings are unclear, it is apparent that black and Latino parents feel that schools aren’t giving their children an equitable education.

Parents also shared what they feel will improve their schools: high-quality teachers, access to educational resources and technology, and high expectations for their students. They also care about extracurricular activities and after-school programs. In an open-ended question, nearly half of respondents cited good teachers as the most important characteristic to make a great school, placing it far above the number who cited a core/general curriculum or safe and nurturing environment. Eighty-nine percent of black parents and 81 percent of Latino parents wished that their children were challenged more.

All of these sentiments have been backed up in importance by research. High-quality teachers are paramount to students’ learning. Strong learning materials support great teaching by ensuring that students are prepared for college and careers. Students with same-race teachers tend to have higher performance. Schools receive inequitable funding, with poor and minority students typically concentrated in schools with fewer resources.

And yet, many policy-makers and education advocates have spent the last couple of years debating the merits of school choice. It seems that we’re missing the more important policy questions. Charters perform at about the same level as district schools, and large voucher programs actually have worse achievement results for students. So, instead of trying to create new systems, maybe we should focus on what really matters; just ask the parents.






April 28, 2017

New federal study of DC voucher program shows academic decline

A new federal analysis of the District of Columbia’s voucher program has found that students who transferred to private schools posted similar and, in some cases, worse scores than their peers who remained in public schools.

The findings appear to be the first time the Institute of Education Sciences (the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education) has noted that voucher recipients performed worse on some academic measures than DC public school pupils in general.

It comes on the heels of new research on Louisiana and Ohio’s statewide voucher programs, which showed precipitous declines in test scores between students who took advantage of the voucher and transferred to a private school and similar students who stayed in public schools.

Created by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2004, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was intended to provide low-income families in the District of Columbia with tuition subsidies to attend private schools. Reauthorized in 2011 as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, it was the first and remains the only federally-funded voucher program in the U.S.

Ongoing evaluation of SOAR was a key feature of the 2004 and 2011 bill, hence IES has conducted numerous studies in the past that looked at student outcomes, parent satisfaction and general characteristics of the participants. But this is the first time researchers have observed a sharp difference between the test scores of SOAR participants and non-participants. Before we get to the specifics, some background: the study’s sample included students who applied to the program in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and were either offered or not offered a scholarship; the difference between the two on a variety of measures was studied one year after SOAR students transferred to private schools.

Among the report’s highlights:

  • Math scores dropped, on average, 7.3 percentile points for voucher recipients compared to students who applied but had not been selected for the program.
  • Reading scores dropped among elementary students (7.1 percentile points) who participated in SOAR compared to those who did not, but there was little discernible difference at the secondary level between these two groups.
  • Students who transferred from low performing schools (the very students the program is intended to help) saw no significant gain on their test scores one year after transferring to private school.
  • Meanwhile, voucher participants who had not transferred from schools designated as “in need of improvement” saw their math scores drop, on average, 14.1 percentile points and their reading scores by 11.3 percentile points compared to students who were in public schools.

While these findings aren’t as dramatic as Louisiana, where students saw a 27 percentile point drop in math one year after transferring to private schools, it’s yet another chink in the, let’s face it, drafty armor known as school choice.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having options. The problem is when one equates more options with better outcomes. This is not always the case, as this and other studies are showing.






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