Tag: school choice

School Choice Works

The evidence is in: school choice works. Yesterday, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released their third edition of their report “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice.” The report provides a literature review of dozens of high-quality studies of school choice programs around the country, including studies from scholars at Harvard University, Stanford University, Cornell University, the University of Arkansas, the Brookings Institution, and the Federal Reserve Bank. The studies examine the impact of school choice programs on the academic performance of participants and public school students, the fiscal impact on taxpayers, racial segregation, and civic values.

The report’s key findings included the following:

  • Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
  • Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.
  • Six empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers. All six find that school choice saves money for taxpayers. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.
  • Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.
  • Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.

On the same day, a new study from researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that a school choice program boosted college enrollment among African-American participants by 24 percent.

While many of the findings show only modest improvement, they consistently show that school choice programs produce the same or superior results across a gamut of measures. Moreover, not all the benefits of choice are easily measurable. Some families are looking for a school that better meets a student’s special needs, instills the parents’ values, inspires a lifelong love of learning, or where a student is safe from bullying. These outcomes are sometimes difficult if not impossible to measure in the aggregate, but parents are in the best position to tell the difference for their own children.

School Choice Survives Repeal Attempt in New Hampshire

Just moments ago, New Hampshire’s state senate rejected an attempt to repeal the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit law by a 13-11 vote*. The program grants tax credits to businesses worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that fund low- and middle-income students attending private or home schools. The program took effect on January 1 of this year but scholarships will not be distributed until the new school year in the fall.

The support of Senate Education Committee Chairwoman, Senator Nancy Stiles, was decisive in saving the program. Last year, Sen. Stiles had voted against the school choice proposal, but she decided to oppose the repeal because she believed “it would be irresponsible to overturn it without seeing whether the legislation made a positive difference.” She also noted that without having had the opportunity to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, the opponents of the school choice program want to “rescind a program, not based on its effectiveness, but on philosophical differences. I cannot support or be a part of this effort.”

The legislative battle does not end here, however, since the NH House also repealed the scholarship tax credit program in the House version of the budget. Budget negotiations between New Hampshire’s Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are expected to continue until about mid-June.

The law is also being challenged in court by the Americans for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU, who claim that the school choice program violates the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funding of private schools. Their argument is based on a false premise, which is why the courts have ultimately rejected it wherever it has been tried. A citizen’s money is her own until it reaches tax collector’s hand. A private donation therefore does not constitute “public funding” even if it qualifies for a tax credit or deduction. While impossible to predict the future, it is likely that the Granite State courts will rule in line with other states’ interpretations of the Blaine Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court’s understanding of tax credits.

*UPDATE: I originally reported that the vote was 14-10 to table the repeal bill. In fact, one state senator had mistakenly voted for the motion when he intended to vote against it and that was later corrected. The 13-11 vote was along party lines.

School Choice Expands in Georgia

Shortly before midnight last night, the Georgia House of Representatives voted 168–3 to pass legislation that expands the Peach State’s scholarship tax credit program. The legislation also increases the program’s transparency and accountability while mostly resisting demands for unnecessary new regulations like mandatory standardized testing.

The total credit cap was raised from just over $52 million to $58 million—a good thing, but less than the $65 million that was in an earlier version of the bill. The increase came at the expense of the program’s annual adjustment for inflation, which is unfortunate beause, without additional legislative intervention to expand the program, the credits will be worth less with each passing year.

Most of the transparency and accountability provisions are narrowly tailored and greatly improve the program. The bill requires that scholarship organizations file an independent audit with the Georgia Department of Revenue to ensure that they are complying with the program’s regulations. The department must post information about the scholarship organizations’ contribution and award activities on its website. The bill also forbids the “earmarking” of donations for specific students, including the children of donors.

Some of the new regulations are counterproductive, such as the requirement that students spend at least six weeks in a public school before participating in the program. The requirement is essentially an accounting gimmick to inflate the program’s perceived savings by transforming almost all scholarship recipients into “switchers” from the public school system. Though there are some exceptions for students who are assigned to low-performing public schools, subject of bullying, or who have homeschooled for a year, the requirement is an unnecessary impediment to many families who would like to participate in the program. Moreover, critics see through the gimmick. There are other ways to demonstrate savings, as Florida has done, without creating needless hurdles for families to jump.

That said, Georgia’s school choice expansion is an impressive achievement.

WaPo Blogger Still Won’t Let Facts Get In Her Way

There she goes again.

Just a few weeks ago, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post falsely accused scholarship tax credit programs of being “welfare for the rich,” an absurd claim that was easily debunked. Now Strauss is making similarly absurd claims about voucher programs in response to the Indiana Supreme Court’s unanimous decision upholding their constitutionality:

The notion is that families deserve to have a “choice” of schools for their children. The reality is that the amount of money provided in each voucher isn’t enough to cover tuition at a great many private schools, especially the elite ones that get most of the media’s attention, such as Sidwell Friends, which the Obama daughters attend.

The implication is that since school choice programs do not provide enough funding to make all choices affordable for low-income families, they don’t really provide “choice” at all. Moreover, Strauss seems to be arguing that if we can’t afford to send every child to the same school as the children of the president of the United States, then we shouldn’t do anything to expand educational options for low-income families. One wonders if Strauss also opposes food stamps because recipients can’t afford filet mignon every night.

While hiding behind weasel words that are technically correct—a “great many private schools” are too expensive for most low-income families even with vouchers—Strauss ignores the “great many private schools” that school choice programs do make affordable for low-income families. Take, for example, this story from yesterday’s New York Times:

Some parents of modest means are surprised to discover that the education savings accounts put private school within reach. When Nydia Salazar first dreamed of attending St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, for example, her mother, Maria Salazar, a medical receptionist, figured there was no way she could afford it. The family had always struggled financially, and Nydia, 14, had always attended public school.

But then Ms. Salazar, 37, a single mother who holds two side jobs to make ends meet, heard of a scholarship fund that would allow her to use public dollars to pay the tuition.

She is now trying to coax other parents into signing up for similar scholarships. “When I tell them about private school, they say I’m crazy,” she said. “They think that’s only for rich people.”

GOP Senators Playing With Federal Education Fire

It’s easy to understand why several prominent GOP Senators, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, are sponsoring federal school voucher legislation. State-level voucher programs have raised student achievement, increased high school graduation rates, and boosted college matriculation. School choice programs are also market-based initiatives that aid and appeal to low-income voters. As Senator Paul argued:

“School choice for low-income parents and students across America is a way out of the poverty cycle,” Mr. Paul said in a statement. “Allowing Title 1 funds to follow the student creates an opportunity for students to get the most out of their education in the best environment possible.”

Moreover, a recent survey from Harvard University’s Program on Education and Governance found a high level of support for expanded school choice programs. All that said, the GOP should resist the temptation of a federal voucher system.

Even setting aside the question of constitutionality (education is not listed in the Constitution as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers), there are practical reasons for being skeptical about increased federal involvement in America’s education system. It is very likely that a federal voucher program will lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. While there’s no law of the cosmos that states that federal dollars must come with strings attached, they most often do. And while the GOP legislators proposing the vouchers will likely keep regulations light at the outset, when the political pendulum swings—as it inevitably will—opponents of vouchers might find that it’s politically easier to add regulations to the program than to kill it outright. Once private schools become dependent on the federal money that their students bring with them, the vast majority will accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

Instead of playing with federal fire, the GOP should embrace federalism. As David Boaz wrote in the Cato Handbook for Congress a decade ago, the case against federal involvement in education:

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

School choice programs have been expanding rapidly among the states in recent years (albeit not as rapidly as I would like). Supporters of school choice should be encouraging that trend, working hard at the state level to expand educational opportunities. Expanding choice all across the fruited plain in one swoop may be tempting in its immediacy, but it’s not worth the price.

Why School Choice Programs Should Not Require Testing

As Georgia’s legislature considers a bill to expand the state’s scholarship tax credit (STC) program and increase transparency, some are calling for additional regulations. Writing in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Adam Emerson of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argued that the Peach State should require private schools that accept scholarship students to administer standardized tests. That would be a mistake.

Emerson argues that parents, educators, and policymakers “deserve to compare the gains that students make in different school environments.” Test scores can be a useful, albeit limited and incomplete, method of comparing the academic effectiveness of different schools. Under the current system, parents are free to choose private schools that administer standardized tests and avoid those that do not or vice-versa. Likewise, donors are free to direct their money to scholarship organizations that only fund schools that do or do not administer standardized tests.

By contrast, a testing mandate would severely limit or even eliminate these choices. Parents who are concerned about the “teach to the test” phenomenon or whose child reacts negatively to testing, and educators who believe that standardized testing gets in the way of real learning will have little to no choice but to participate in the standardized testing regime, as even Emerson agrees.

Emerson argues that the vast majority of private schools would still participate in the STC program even with a standardized testing mandate. He cites a recent Fordham study of the impact of regulation in school choice programs showing that “only 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as the most important reason to opt out.” That’s exactly the problem. The mandate would force private schools to choose between eschewing both the tests and all the students who need school choice scholarships to attend their school, or accepting both. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of schools succumb to the financial pressure.

Researchers tend to support testing mandates because they allow them to evaluate the effectiveness of certain reforms, at least to an extent. But the very act of measurement itself can distort the very thing they are trying to measure. Even aside from the cheating scandals, the tests create strong incentives for teachers to teach differently in order that their students perform well on the test.

Of course, some will argue, “that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!” They support standardized tests as a means of increasing accountability. “If you want to move something, you have to measure it,” they argue, and they have a point. But standardized tests are not the only way to measure learning. Supporters of standardized testing know that, but they want a uniform measures so that they can compare apples to apples. The problem is that uniform measures create a powerful incentive to move toward uniform behavior. As James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute wrote recently:

The fact is that curriculum standards don’t tell teachers how to teach in the same way that a high jump bar doesn’t tell a jumper how to jump. You could theoretically jump over a high jump bar in whatever way you would like; but because of how the jump is structured there is a clear advantage to doing the old Fosbury Flop.

While standardized tests are not as imposing as curriculum standards, what’s on the test can drive what is taught in the classroom, when it is taught, and how it is taught. Professor Jay P. Greene argued along similar lines regarding national standards:

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.

Standardized tests create an incentive for uniformity when we should be fostering a diversity of traditional and innovative pedagogical methods. To the extent that researchers, policymakers and some educators believe that standardized tests are useful, they should make their case in the free marketplace of ideas and encourage parents to choose the schools that administer them. What they shouldn’t do is use the coercive power of government to fashion a top-down system of testing that could squelch diversity and innovation. 

School Choice Gains Momentum in Idaho

For the first time in state history, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a scholarship tax credit (STC) bill. Like the bill that the Alabama legislature passed last month, Idaho’s STC legislation is a step in the right direction though it has some limitations.

The Idaho bill would grant tax credits to individuals and corporations in return for donations to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). The SGOs would fund low- and middle-income students attending nonpublic schools. To be eligible to participate, a family’s household income could not exceed 150% of the federal free-and-reduced lunch program’s income threshold ($63,964 for a family of four). According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, that would cover about 59% of Idahoans. The program is limited to students who attended a public school in the previous year or are entering kindergarten or first grade.

The program would be capped at $10 million per year. While the cap would adjust for inflation, there is no “escalator” provision to grow the program over time to meet demand, as in Arizona, Florida, and New Hampshire.

The program would also require participating private schools to administer standardized tests. This is an unnecessary provision that’s intended to provide accountability but could exacerbate the “teach to the test” problem. The most effective form of accountability is the chosen schools’ direct relationship with parents who can choose to leave if their kids’ needs are not met. Most STC programs do not require schools to administer standardized tests, yet many schools voluntarily administer them because parents desire it. However, when the state mandates testing to participate in school choice programs, there are fewer choices available to parents who want to avoid the “teach to the test” issue.

Despite the bill’s limitations, the Idaho House of Representatives just took the Gem State one step closer to having an education system that empowers families to choose the education that best meets their kids’ individual needs.