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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.






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.






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





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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