Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Silver Lining in the Florida School Choice Expansion Loss

Supporters of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship (FTS) program are understandably disappointed that the state senate abandoned legislation to expand the program on Thursday. The FTS assists low-income families that want to enroll their children in private schools by offering tax credits to donors of nonprofit scholarship organizations. This year, the state’s only active scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, was able to aid more than 60,000 students but there were not enough funds to aid the more than 30,000 additional applicants. The proposed expansion would have provided enough funds to aid about 6,000 more students. The bill’s withdrawal therefore leaves 6,000 students without the funds they need to attend the school of their choice.

However, the disappointment should be tempered by a large measure of relief. While the legislation contained several praiseworthy changes and eliminated some red tape (including a requirement that would-be scholarship recipients spend a year in a government-run school first), legislative negotiations threatened to add a poison pill that would have severely affected school autonomy and parental choice.

The FTS currently mandates that all participating schools administer a nationally norm-referenced test. Nevertheless, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz insisted that the FTC expansion bill include a provision requiring that scholarship students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is soon to be replaced by a Common Core-aligned assessment.

While the existing mandate is unnecessary because private schools are already directly accountable to parents, it still allows schools and parents some measure of flexibility in deciding how best to measure performance. By contrast, the proposed state testing mandate would have forced all schools into a uniform testing regime. Since tests dictate what is taught, when, and how, this mandate would have induced conformity at the expense of diversity and innovation. As explained in the open letter on choice and accountability that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others, such mandates undermine the central purpose of educational choice:

Educational choice has also been repeatedly shown to produce far higher levels of parental satisfaction than does centrally planned schooling. That’s because choice empowers parents to find the best education for their children, and test scores are not their only consideration. Research shows that many parents care more about safety and discipline, graduation and college acceptance rates, and moral values.

Dictating uniform standards and tests threatens those other valued features by redirecting educators’ focus from serving families to catering to bureaucrats. It also contributes to a culture of “teaching to the test” that has already resulted in several large-scale public-school cheating scandals.

Children are not interchangeable widgets that can be beneficially fed through their education on the same conveyor belt. Even within a single family, children often learn different subjects at different speeds. Myriad new options are arising in response to that reality that allow students to learn at their own pace in every subject, helping all to fulfill their individual potential — the very antithesis of uniform government mandates.

Fortunately, the FTS already contains an “escalator” provision that allows it to grow over time, albeit not as quickly as it would have under the expansion bill. Hopefully, Florida legislators will take a second look at some of the important reforms that would have expanded access to the program. Meanwhile, other states that are considering scholarship tax credit legislation should learn from Florida’s experience. Design matters.

Conspiring to Be Civil

A few days ago, a reporter asked me to comment on a conference video in which I appeared. The event was four or five years ago, but the Florida teachers’ union must have just discovered the video and apparently was circulating it to the media. Couched as a smoking gun, it was purported to reveal school choice advocates’ “true intentions.” But the media, apart from some left-leaning Florida bloggers, seem to have concluded it was wasn’t newsworthy (not enough hand-wringing or maniacal laughter, I suppose).

That’s really too bad, because upon rewatching the clips that the union selected, I’m really pleased to have attention drawn to them. Several deal with the strongest argument that can be leveled at government-funded school choice: that, like state-run schools, it can force taxpayers to pay for the promotion of ideas that violate their convictions, leading to social conflict.

Here’s my take on how to address that problem:

WaPo Blogger Wrong About School Choice… Again

Once again, the Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Strauss, failed to do her due diligence before posting a hit piece on school choice. A year ago, she falsely claimed that scholarship tax credit programs benefit corporate donors and wealthy recipients. In fact, donors break even at most and the best evidence suggests that low-income families are the primary beneficiaries even in the few programs that are not means-tested. Unfortunately, Strauss has still failed to issue a correction.

Now Strauss has posted an op-ed from an anti-school choice activist in Florida that contains numerous additional errors, which the good folks at RedefinED.org have thoroughly debunked, including the following canard:  

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

Not only did the op-ed’s author fail to correctly explain the law, she failed to understand that school choice is accountability. As explained in an open letter that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others: “True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs.” 

Moreover, the claim that “private entities receive public tax dollars” is also false. The money flows from private donors to private nonprofits to private citizens to spend on their children’s tuition at private schools. That the donors receive a tax credit does not transmogrify their donation into “public” money. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this view erroneously “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.” Likewise, neither tax deductions for donations to a church nor the church’s own property tax exemption mean that churches are therefore funded by “public tax dollars.”

The Washington Post has an in-house fact-checking team. They should not have to rely on RedefinED.org or others to ensure the veracity of what their bloggers post. 

How Has Your State’s Academic Performance and K-12 Spending Changed over the Past 40 Years? Find out Here.

Last summer, I stumbled across a clever 1993 paper by education statisticians Mark Dynarski and Philip Gleason that proved it was possible to adjust average state SAT scores for variations in the test participation rate and demographic factors, making them comparable to one another. Barely able to contain my excitement (hey, don’t judge), I set about extending their method so that it could discern trends in state SAT scores over time, and improving the validity of its estimates by using more data, fewer assumptions, and more exhaustive methods. Last week, I released the technical paper presenting those extensions. Yesterday, I released a paper that uses them to chart academic achievement and spending trends, for every state, back to 1972. How did your state do? Find out here.

To pique your interest, here’s the chart for Masschusetts:

Massachusetts education and spending trends

What the Useful Polling Shows about Common Core

Whether the Common Core is good policy, or was federally driven, is not dictated by polling results. But the Core’s political fate is tied to public opinion, which is probably why pro-Core pollsters are spinning like mad, and supporters like Bill Gates are undertaking a new PR blitz.

Achieve, Inc., a creator of the Core along with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, has released Common Core survey results for several years running. What these polls have primarily been notable for finding is (1) very few people know much about the Common Core, and (2) if you feed respondents a glowing description of the Core they – surprise! – like it. At the end of last week, Achieve released their latest such survey.

What did they find? According to the main point of their summary, “solid majorities of voters support common standards, common assessments, and allowing teacher (sic) and students time to adjust to these new expectations.” But the really important finding was this: Of the people who reported knowing about the Common Core – those not relying on the loaded description of the Core as all wonderfully state-led and egalitarian – 40 percent reported having unfavorable opinions of the Core, versus 37 percent favorable.

Alas, Achieve blamed this, essentially, on people being misinformed by vocal Core opponents:

It is likely this mixed number is attributable to CCSS opponents who in the past year have made their opposition known through all media outlets, leaving a more negative “impression” among voters.

Opposition couldn’t be based on evidence and logic. No! Common Core is too pure and beloved. It must be coming form a lot of light-thinking, highly impressionable people. In contrast, respondents reporting that they agree with a loaded, glowing description they were just read? That’s real support!

Distaste for the Core among people who report being knowledgeable about it is mirrored in recent polling in New York, the state, along with Kentucky, that is furthest along implementing the Core. After massive “proficiency” decreases under its first round of Core testing, New York is also the state that is most convulsed. A February Siena College poll found Empire Staters very closely split on the Core.

That support cracks after people learn about the Core is almost certainly why defenders like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bill Gates are undertaking a massive PR campaign to push the Core. Unfortunately, based on an ABC News interview with Gates this weekend, and longstanding pro-Core practice, the main messages are likely going to be that the Feds have nothing meaningful to do with the Core; high standards will revolutionize education; and anyone who tells you otherwise is willfully misleading you.

But here’s the thing: Core supporters can spin and spread gloss wherever they want, the more the public experiences the Core, the less they seem to like it. And then, of course, there is all the evidence and logic showing what a policy failure the Core is likely to be. You know, showing that the Feds have driven and must drive the Core; high standards – if the Core even is thatwill not fix education; and many Core opponents know exactly what they’re talking about.

Educational Choice IS Accountability

There’s been a lot of confusion over what constitutes “accountability” in education lately. In response, representatives of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, and the Center for Education Reform have issued a joint open letter explaining why the best form of accountability is directly to parents.

To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced and their prescription is inimical to the most promising development in American education: parental choice.

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.

This confusion about accountability is not limited just to tests. It even extends to personnel management. An example of this confusion comes to us today from a Republican legislator in Tennesee:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, a voucher critic, has filed an amendment that would tweak Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill by requiring private schools that take public scholarship dollars to use the controversial Tennessee Evaluator Acceleration Model [TEAM] to grade its teachers.

The reason government schools need such heavy-handed evaluation systems is because tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “School and Staffing Survey,” during the 2010-11 school year, only 1.9 percent of Tennessee teachers were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to poor performance, up from 1.1 percent in 2007-08.

By contrast, private schools have greater flexibility than government schools over hiring, firing, and evaluating teachers. They’re also held directly accountable to parents, so there is market pressure not to retain teachers who perform poorly.

Moreover, the legislator’s argument that the government should force its evaluation system on private entities because they are accepting students who are publicly subsidized is patently absurd. It’s like arguing that all employees at grocery stores that accept food stamps or hospitals that accept Medicaid must be evaluated according to the same metrics as DMV employees.

State and local governments have the prerogative to devise whatever accountability measures they deem necessary to operate their schools and manage their employees. Private schools should continue to enjoy the freedom to set their own goals and to determine how best to measure their own performance and we should empower parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.

Now You Can Draw Meaningful Time Trends from the SAT. Here’s How…

Over the years, countless reporters and even policy analysts have attempted to draw conclusions from changes in state SAT scores over time. That’s a mistake. Fluctuations in the SAT participation rate (the percentage of students actually taking the test), and in other state and student factors, are known to affect the scores.

But what if we could control for those confounding factors? As it happens, a pair of very sharp education statisticians (Mark Dynarski and Philip Gleason) revealed a way of doing just this—and of validating their results—back in 1993. In a new technical paper I’ve released this week, I extend and improve on their methods and apply them to a much larger range of years. The result is a set of adjusted SAT scores for every state reaching back to 1972. Vetted against scores from NAEP tests that are representative of the entire student populations of each state (but that only reach back to the 1990s), these adjusted SAT scores offer reasonable estimates of actual changes in states’ average level of SAT performance.

The paper linked above reveals only the methods by which these adjusted SAT scores can be computed, but next week Cato will publish a new policy paper and Web page presenting 100 charts—two for each state—illustraing the results. How has your state’s academic performance changed over the past two generations? Stay tuned to find out…

Update: Here’s the new paper and charts!