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December 9, 2015

Some urban districts are ‘choice-friendly.’ So what?

The Fordham Institute today released a ranking of 30 cities according to which ones were the most “friendly” in terms of encouraging and supporting school choice. Topping the list is New Orleans followed by Washington DC and Denver – the only cities to receive an overall grade of B or better.

So what did these cities do to earn these bragging rights? Fordham scored each city on 50 indicators in three domains:

Political support based on interviews with local policymakers and important stakeholders;

Policy environment that, among other things, places no limits on the number of charters, funds them adequately and has quality controls in place; and

Quantity and quality
of choices.

Fordham apparently doesn’t grade on a curve. Almost half of the cities earned Cs and nearly as many got Ds. Albany NY, has the distinction of earning the only F. According to the authors, landing at the bottom of the list means you were deemed “downright hostile” to school choice.

I suppose this is useful information if you are a school choice advocate (Hey, LA: not looking so good with that C-!). But for those who are ambivalent, the ranking omits an important piece of information: how well the city’s schools perform. We’re Americans. Of course we think choice is good. But mostly what parents want are good schools. And being “choice friendly” is no guarantee the choices will be better.

Consider that Charlotte NC and Austin TX are the top-performing urban districts in the nation. Their 2015 NAEP scores in math were not just higher than other participating districts, they were higher than the overall average for the nation as a whole. According to Fordham, neither is a choice-friendly city. Charlotte and Austin respectively ranked 27th and 29th out of the 30 cities in the report. On the other hand, Detroit ranked in the top 10 yet produced the lowest scores in the NAEP urban sample.

This is not to say being “choice friendly” caused low performance. DC, for example, has been one of the highest improving districts in the country on NAEP and was ranked second on Fordham’s list. But it does show that choice for choice sake is not a school improvement strategy. For more evidence see our recent report on school choice.

To its credit, the Fordham Institute advocates for more accountability for student results in the design of choice programs. I also recognize the limitations in the available data. But ranking on “choice friendly” policies doesn’t tell the public what they really need to know: is this helping all students succeed? From what we have found, the promise of school choice has been largely oversold.

Filed under: Charter Schools,NAEP,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 4:46 pm





October 28, 2015

School choice + objective information = Real choice

image001 (2)Giving parents and students the ability to choose their school is promoted by supporters as the key to improving American education overall. On the surface, the idea has great appeal. Who, after all, opposes having choices?

Indeed, both Republican and Democratic policymakers have embraced school choice in various forms that range from opening up alternatives within the public school system to providing taxpayer dollars to students to take to private schools. But for all the rhetoric, does school choice live up to its supporters’ claims?

The Center for Public Education strove to get to the bottom of these questions in our newest analysis which we’ve titled quite simply, School Choice: What the research says. This handy at-a-glance overview of school choice in all its permutations, describes each of the alternatives, provides a quick look at related state policies, calculates the proportion of the school-aged population it serves and, most importantly, distills what the research says about its impact on student achievement.

It’s a comprehensive and unbiased look at one of the most frequently touted strategies among school reformers. Because what we’ve learned is that choice, in and of itself, is not an effective strategy. It’s just a catchphrase.






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





March 27, 2015

One in six chance you won’t get funding for child care

In an issue report authored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), federal child care subsidies were vastly underused in fiscal year 2011. The report found that of the population of children eligible (i.e., 14.3 million in 2011), 83 percent did not receive federal assistance. That translates into just shy of 12 million children (11.8 million) who did not receive financial support to attend child care. In terms of state assistance, the numbers and percentages are only slightly better. Of the 8.4 million children who were eligible to receive child care subsidies under state rules (which can be, and often are, more restrictive than the federal eligibility parameters), only 29% did so (i.e., 71% or 5.96 million children did not receive child care subsidies).

The numbers can continue to be shocking. Here are some other trends reported within the ASPE brief. First, analyses reveal that amongst children from families between 150% and 199% of the federal poverty limit (for 2011), 96% of these families were not served.

Another finding from the 2011 data reveals that the older the child, the less likely they were to receive a subsidy. Moreover, children ages 10 to 12 were more than four times as likely to not receive child care subsidies compared to children ages 0 to 5. This was also true for 6- to 9-year-olds, who were half as likely to have received a child care subsidy compared to those younger (yet still twice as likely as the 10- to 12-year-olds)!

Provided as an appendix to the report, some background information is provided on this sample of children and their families. Included in this table, are the numbers of families with parents employed for 20 or more hours a month and you can compare this across age ranges. Looking at the total sample, 84% of all eligible families fell into the highest category of employment yet, of this same sample of working families, only 1 in 5 of them received child care subsidies.

Although we would not expect that the same 84% of working eligible families is the same group as the families who did not receive any child care assistance, but clearly there is a big disconnect somewhere in the system. One would suspect that the families who are working as much as possible would be those that need child care (let alone financial assistance for it) the most. Moreover, children (and families) living in poverty are already more likely to face enormous obstacles and as positioned for in our “Changing Demographics of the United States and their Schools” article, these children can especially benefit from programs such as preschool and participation can lead to fewer behavior problems and reduce the likelihood of school expulsion later in their academic career. This misalignment of need and services is unsettling and will be something that we should continue to monitor for change. – David Ferrier






February 14, 2013

What is the economic benefit of vouchers?

A recent study of the Washington, DC voucher program purports to show that the voucher program yields a whopping 162 percent rate of return because more students graduate due to the voucher program than would have without the program in place. Not too shabby. However, a closer look at how they came to this number raises some serious questions about such large rates of returns.

When it comes to calculating the economic benefits of the voucher program the study does use a similar methodology as other studies that have calculated rate of returns on other education policies such as high quality Pre-k and dropout prevention programs, among others.

In this, as well as, previous studies the economic benefit was based on the increased wages and lower unemployment rates of those who graduate high school compared to dropouts, so more high school graduates means more tax revenues.

Moreover, high school graduates tend to require fewer government services so they will use less taxpayer money as well.  While there is certainly room to disagree with the accuracy of these measures, they do provide some estimate of the economic benefit of such education programs. So the question is not how much students benefit from the program.

The big question is actually how many students benefit from the voucher program. The economic benefits may be large but if very few students graduate high school due to the voucher program then it doesn’t matter how great the economic benefits are. So the larger question really is whether the voucher program improves graduation rates as much as the report states it does?

To determine how many more students graduated high school due to the voucher program, the report used the official evaluation of the voucher program which found graduation rates were 12 percentage points higher for those students who used the voucher and those students who entered the lottery but did not receive a voucher. According to the study, if this rate held true more than 400 students per year would graduate high school due to the voucher program.

However, I’ve looked over the report and while its methodology is sound, there are number of issues that raise the question whether the increase in graduation rates can really be attributable to the voucher program?

A major issue to keep in mind is that the voucher evaluation was about determining the impact of having a voucher system not about whether students were better off using the voucher. In fact, the majority of students who were offered vouchers never used them. They either attended a charter school, remained in their traditional public school, or attended a non-participating private school.

Moreover, half of the students who entered the voucher lottery but did not win a voucher (control group) went on to attend to a charter school or a private school. So the 12 percentage point increase in the probability that a student will graduate is based on whether a student was ‘offered’ a voucher, not whether the student actually ‘used’ the voucher.

What the evaluation actually found was simply offering a student a voucher— even if they remained at their local public school or charter school— improves a student’s chances of graduating high school. I am a strong believer in the ‘invisible hand’ and the power of competition. However, this just doesn’t make sense to me. If the evaluation was simply measuring the impact of vouchers to create competition then that impact should be felt by all students even those who didn’t enter the voucher lottery.

This makes the claim that vouchers increase graduation rates 12 percentage points quite suspect, especially since the same evaluation found that the voucher program had no impact on student achievement. One reason this may be the case is that test scores are objective measures provided by the schools. However, the graduation rates of those students who took part in the voucher program are based on parent responses to follow-up surveys.

It could be the parents of students who were offered a voucher, claimed their child graduated but did not. Also, we don’t know if students who graduated from private schools were required to meet as rigorous requirements as students in public schools.  So, it really is questionable whether the DC Voucher program has produced more high school graduates prepared for the real world.

What this new study shows is that any program that increases high school graduates will yield significant economic benefits in the form of additional tax revenue and less demand for government services.  But whether the DC voucher program does actually increase the chances a student will graduate high school is still not known, as the original evaluation failed to isolate the impact of using a voucher. Without an accurate measure of the number of students who graduated high school due to the voucher program it is impossible to say that the DC voucher program provides a 162 percent rate of return.






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