Tag: school choice

DeVos Moves On, and So Does Choice vs. “Accountability” Debate

In a committee vote the tightness of which surprised no one, this morning President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was approved on a purely partisan basis by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. DeVos’s nomination now moves to the full Senate.

While the rhetoric surrounding DeVos has been heavily targeted at her competence, the main issue seems to be that Democrats generally oppose private school choice programs while Republicans generally do not. Even questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at DeVos’s confirmation hearing—would she support attaching IDEA rules to public funding that disabled students could take to a chosen school?—were primarily about choice.

Choice is fundamentally different from public schooling. With choice, families have real power—the power to leave a school not serving them and take their education dollars elsewhere. This is why Florida’s McKay scholarship program for children with disabilities—which DeVos tried to defend before being cut off in questioning at her nomination hearing—has very high satisfaction levels among parents using it. Public schools, in contrast, get taxpayer money no matter what, and require seemingly endless political, bureaucratic, and legal combat to hopefully—just hopefully—get improvements made.

Of course, choice needs freedom from stultifying rules and regulations to be meaningful. Specialization, competition, innovation—none can meaningfully exist without educators having the freedom to engage in new and different ways of delivering education.

The powerful inclination to wrap programs in incapacitating layers of red tape…er, “accountability”…is a major reason that the federal government should not try to deliver school choice, or govern education at all. (The Constitution is the other big one.) It is simply too dangerous to have one government—the federal government—supply choice nationwide. But there is good reason to fear that the Trump administration will try to do it nonetheless, based on Trump’s promise to make a  $20 billion choice “investment.”

Empowering parents with choice is the right way to deliver education. But the clear and present danger of freedom-smothering rules and regulations, as we’ve seen brightly illustrated by the debate over DeVos, accompanies any government funds. Which is why choice must not be delivered by Washington.

Will 2017 Be Another Year of Educational Choice?

It’s National School Choice Week, so it’s a good time to survey the countryside and see what’s in store for the year ahead.

Last year was relatively quiet in terms of school choice legislation. South Dakota enacted a relatively limited tax-credit scholarship program and Maryland enacted a small voucher program, but there wasn’t much progress otherwise. 

By contrast, 2015 was the Year of Educational Choice. Not only did 15 states adopt 21 new or expanded educational choice programs, three of them enacted education savings account (ESA) laws. As I’ve noted previously, ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Already, several states this year are considering ESA legislation. Last week, legislators in Arkansas introduced a universal-eligibility, tax-credit funded ESA similar to what Jonathan Butcher and I described in our report last year, “Taking Credit for Education.” Donors would receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that would fund the ESAs. According to a just-released study from Julie Trivitt and Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas, if enacted, the ESA would expand educational choice while saving taxpayers an estimated $2.8 million.

This week, the Missouri Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to create tax-credit funded ESA, similar to the Arkansas bill described above. Missouri will also consider publicly funded ESAs, as well as other choice proposals.

Other states considering publicly funded ESAs include Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas. I’ve also heard that Arizona legislators are considering expanding their ESA, possibly to include all Arizona students. Meanwhile, in Nevada, Gov. Sandoval is looking to find ways to fund his state’s ESA after the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the program but struck down its funding mechanism

Several states will also be considering tax-credit scholarship programs, including Kentucky, Nebraska, and (likely) Texas. In addition, South Carolina is looking to expand its tax credit.

I’m likely missing a number of proposals, and it will be tough to top 2015, but 2017 very well might be the Year of Educational Choice, Jr.

Victory for Kids: School Choice Safe in Florida

This morning the Supreme Court of Florida declined to hear McCall v. Scott, the Florida teachers’ union lawsuit against the state’s popular scholarship tax credit, which helps nearly 100,000 low-income students attend the school of their choice. That means the lower court’s decision dismissing the lawsuit stands, and the law is safe from further challenge on these grounds.

As I wrote back in August, the union and its allies had alleged that the scholarship program unconstitutionally supported a “parallel” system of public education and violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits publicly funding religious schools. However, the trial court judge rejected this claim, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because the scholarships were privately (not publicly) funded and that they were unable to prove that the scholarship program adversely impacted the district school system. The union appealed but the appellate court unanimously upheld the lower court decision. (For a more detailed explanation of the history of the case and the tax credit, see here.) Today’s state supreme court decision is the proverbial nail in the coffin for the union’s legal challenge.

Supporters of the scholarship program expressed their satisfaction this morning:

“The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children,” Doug Tuthill, [president of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization], said in a statement. “We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”

After the lawsuit was filed in 2014, supporters of the program — including parents and clergy members — waged a full-court press supporting the program. Almost exactly a year ago, they staged a massive rally in Tallahassee.

“On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law,” Reverend R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with all parties to improve the educational outcomes of low income children in our state.”

School choice is safe in Florida. But just north of the panhandle, Georgia’s scholarship tax credit faces a similar legal challenge. Oral arguments in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue are scheduled for next week, which just happens to be National School Choice Week. For justice to prevail, the Georgia Supreme Court should dismiss that case as well. 

Prepping for DeVos Confirmation Hearing

At 5:00 this afternoon—almost guaranteeing it will interrupt my usual dinner time—the confirmation hearing for education secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos will take place. With my Hungry Man “Gamer Grub” on a tray and my laptop right next to it, I’ll be live-tweeting the proceedings. So, too, will Jason Bedrick, though I have no idea what he’ll be eating if he’s dining at all. One can easily lose one’s appetite while witnessing political theater.

Here are the things I’m hoping to hear discussed:

  • Broadly speaking, what does DeVos think is the proper federal role in education? I know my—and the Constitution’s—answer.
  • What role, if any, should the federal government have in advancing school choice? For my answer, see the point above. And this. And this.
  • Does school choice work? Dems are likely to point to Michigan—DeVos’s home state—to answer “no.” In contrast, Jason and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden show that a fair reading of the Michigan research indicates the answer is “yes.”
  • President-elect Trump talked about getting rid of the Common Core. How would DeVos do that? Here’s what I think.
  • How should the Every Student Succeeds Act—the more hands-off successor to No Child Left Behind—be implemented? I say follow the spirit and letter of the law.
  • How do we get control of skyrocketing college prices, not to mention massive noncompletion? It is unclear what DeVos will say, but the evidence is powerful that Washington must do the opposite of what it has been doing.
  • What will be DeVos’s approach to for-profit colleges? I hope she’ll put them in the full higher education context.
  • What is the federal role in enforcing civil rights? My answer here.
  • Finally, won’t school choice—educational freedom—destroy the “cornerstone” of democracy, or America, or something else equally foundational? The answer—despite decades of rhetoric—is crystal clear: Quite the opposite.

There could be a lot of substance to chew on if the hearings stick to issues and not political theatrics. But if we mainly get the latter, at least I’ll have my frozen Salisbury steak, or some other grub, on which to chew.

NYT Misleads About School Choice Yet Again

Once again, the editors at the New York Times have allowed their bias against school choice to get in the way of reporting facts.

On Friday, the NYT ran a blog by Professor Susan Dynarski with the incredibly misleading headline (which, in fairness, she likely didn’t write): “Free Market for Education? Economists Generally Don’t Buy It.

Based on that description, you might think that a survey of economists found that most economists think a market in education wouldn’t work, or at least that there were more economists who thought it wouldn’t work than thought it would. Well, not quite. Dynarski writes:

But economists are far less optimistic about what an unfettered market can achieve in education. Only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreed that students would be better off if they all had access to vouchers to use at any private (or public) school of their choice.

Follow the link to the 2011 IGM survey and you’ll find that 36% of surveyed economists agreed that school choice programs would be beneficial–but only 19% disagreed and 37% expressed uncertainty.

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Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex blog writes:

A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.”

By leaving it at “only a third of economists support vouchers”, the article implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. Heck, it more than implies it – its title is “Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It”. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a large majority are pro-voucher. […]

I think this is really poor journalistic practice and implies the opinion of the nation’s economists to be the opposite of what it really is. I hope the Times prints a correction.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Oddly, Dynarski did not include the results from the more recent 2012 IGM survey, in which the level of support for school choice was higher (44%) and opposition was lower (5%), a nearly 9:1 ratio of support to opposition. When weighted for confidence, 54% thought school choice was beneficial only 6% disagreed.

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We should give Professor Dynarski the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn’t know about the more recent results (though they pop right up on Google and the IGM search feature), but the NYT deserves no such benefit for its continuing pattern of misleading readers about the evidence for school choice.

Want Satisfied Parents? Empower Them to Choose

Parents are more satisfied with their child’s learning environment when they choose it. Indeed, as economist Tyler Cowen put it recently, “the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact” about educational choice programs is that “they improve parent satisfaction.” A slew of new reports add a number of hefty boulders to the mountain of evidence. 

As I explained in greater detail last week, bureaucrats tend to focus excessively on test scores but parents take a more holistic approach to evaluating the quality of an education provider. As Cowen notes, “parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.” Parents know their children are more than scores.

Voters generally tend to reflect the views of parents more so than education technocrats. In a recent survey from Public School Options, only 14 percent of voters said they “consider state standardized test scores the critical factor in assessing a student’s overall success in school” and 78 percent said that schools “should never be closed primarily on the results of that particular school’s average” on the state’s standardized test. Moreover, 65 percent said they “believe an ongoing summary of each school’s status using a dashboard of multiple measurements would be more helpful to parents and policy makers” than a “system that provides a single letter grade for each school.” If we want an education system that considers the individual needs of each child rather than grading schools on a few narrow measures of performance for an imagined “typical” child, then we should entrust parents with holding education providers accountable for academic outcomes.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) are one way to accomplish that goal. With an ESA, parents can customize their child’s education, using it to pay for private school tuition as well as tutors, textbooks, online courses, educational therapy, and more. The ESAs are typically funded from a portion of the funds that the state would have spent on a child at his or her assigned district school, but they could also be funded through tax-credit eligible donations. In a 2013 survey, Arizona parents of students with special needs expressed unanimous satisfaction with the educational settings they chose for their children using the ESA funds. Moreover, the lowest-income families were the most likely to express dissatisfaction with their assigned district school (67 percent) and the most likely to say they were “very satisfied” with the education their child obtained through the ESA (89 percent).

Last week, Empower Mississippi released a similar survey of parents of students with special needs using Mississippi’s ESA. Participating students had an array of conditions, including autism, hearing or visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, speech impairment, emotional disturbances, and more. The results mirrored those from Arizona. As shown in the two figures below, most participants were dissatisfied with their previous experience in their assigned district school (67 percent) but they overwhelmingly expressed satisfaction with the educational setting they chose using ESA funds (98 percent). 

Empower Mississippi: Parental Satisfaction

Source: Empower Mississippi

Want Accountability in Education? Empower Parents

The selection of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has exposed longstanding tensions among education reformers who are united in their support for expanding educational choice but divided over the government’s role in regulating such programs.

The schism is often portrayed as being between those who support or reject “accountability,” but this isn’t quite accurate. The real disagreement is not whether there should be accountability, but to whom schools should be held accountable: parents or bureaucrats. As Lindsey Burke and I argue in a new report published by the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, educational choice programs like education savings accounts should place the accountability for academic outcomes with parents.

For decades, the term “accountability” primarily referred, in education policy circles, to government regulations intended to ensure quality. That’s because most children attend their assigned district schools, which are not directly answerable to parents and function as de facto monopolies. As Lindsey and I explain:

A distinctive feature of monopolies is lack of accountability. Because district schools are not held directly accountable to parents, some policymakers have attempted to impose accountability through top-down government regulations. Yet decades of attempts to regulate district schools into quality have had little effect. Unfortunately, too many policymakers have still come to see centralized government regulations as synonymous with “accountability” rather than an inferior alternative to direct accountability to parents, and have therefore sought to impose similar regulations on choice programs. However, regulations designed for a monopoly system are inappropriate for a market-based system.

In a market-based system, producers are held directly accountable to consumers for results. The government sets certain rules against fraud or health and safety standards, but the consumers ultimately decide whether a product or service meets their needs. Likewise, the government could ensure that ESA funds are spent on qualifying educational products and services, but the accountability for results should lie with parents, who are in the best position to evaluate those results. Holding education providers directly accountable to parents creates a feedback loop that does not exist in more centralized, top-down systems like the district schools. As social scientist Yuval Levin has argued, this enables the system to “channel social knowledge from the bottom up rather than…impose technical knowledge from the top down.” This channeling is accomplished “through a process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.”

If we want an education system that makes significant improvements in quality over time, education providers must be free to innovate and parents must be free to choose the providers that work best for their own children. This system evolves over time because higher-quality providers will attract more parents and lower-quality providers will face pressure to either improve or shut down.

However, technocratic attempts to guarantee quality through imposing uniform standards can interrupt this evolutionary process.

The Price of Technocratic Accountability

The technocratic approach to accountability requires that all schools are judged according to uniform metrics, therefore the technocrats rely heavily (indeed, almost exclusively) on standardized test scores, particularly in math and language arts. The technocratic reformers want to use these scores to set a minimum standard, meaning “underperforming” schools would be excluded from receiving voucher funds–or, in the case of charter schools, be shut down entirely–even against the will of parents who still want to enroll their children there.

Let us be clear about what is at stake. The technocratic approach would eliminate a family’s least-bad educational alternative, leaving children worse off “for their own good.” For example, parents may have chosen a private or charter school that did not perform well on the state’s standardized test overall, but the school may have provided a safer environment than the local district school. Or perhaps the school was succeeding at its mission to aid the most at-risk students, but the state’s uniform “accountability” system failed to take its mission into account. The damage done to children who lose the opportunity to attend schools that their parents believe are better than the alternative is incalculable.

We should also be realistic about the unintended consequences of over-reliance on test scores. Although standardized tests can provide parents with useful information about their child’s academic performance, using them to impose uniform standards that so narrowly define “quality” creates perverse incentives that narrow the curriculum, stifle innovation, and can drive away quality schools from participating in the choice program. As Lindsey and I explain:

When schools are rewarded or punished based on their students’ performance on math and reading tests, they have a strong incentive to divert their time and resources to tested subjects and away from others. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that the time district schools spent on subjects besides math and reading declined considerably after Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB), which mandated that states require district schools to administer the state standardized math and reading tests in grades three through eight and report the results. In the five years after NCLB was implemented, approximately 62 percent of elementary district schools reported increasing the amount of time spent on English language arts and/or math, and 44 percent reported decreasing time spent on social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess.

The narrowing curriculum is particularly alarming because, as Jay P. Greene has noted, recent research has found that “later success in math, reading, and science depends on early acquisition of the kind of ‘general knowledge’ and fine-motor skills learned through art and other subjects.” In other words, a narrower curriculum not only deprives students of having a broader and more enriching education, but also negatively impacts their performance in the tested subjects. “If we narrow education to the mechanics of math and reading as captured by yearly testing,” Greene concludes, “we short-change the broader knowledge that is the key to academic success later.”

Mandating a single test exacerbates this phenomenon. Within the tested subjects, schools have a strong incentive to teach the concepts that will be on the mandated test. This incentive to “teach to the test” can result in a de facto curriculum. For example, if a school had been teaching math concepts A, B, and C in grade 7, but the new state test was going to cover concepts B, D, and E, the school would almost certainly drop concepts A and C in favor of D and E, even if the math teachers believe that the original curriculum was superior. Keeping the original curriculum would put their students at a disadvantage on the state test vis-à-vis students at other schools that had aligned their curriculum to the test. This standardization might make sense in a world in which there was one right way to teach math, or at least one right order to teach concepts, but that is not the case.

Again, this isn’t to say that we should do away with testing entirely. As Robert Pondiscio recently wrote, standardized tests should be “used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it.” Tests can provide valuable information, but using the tests as the sole or primary metric of performance does more harm than good. What’s needed is a more comprehensive understanding of quality that considers the needs of individual students, not just the “typical” student, and that’s something that parents are in a much better position to determine than technocrats.

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