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The summer of 2011 illuminated a reality that Indiana policymakers have come to appreciate more and more over the past 1.5 years: There is (and was) a latent demand for school choice among Hoosier parents.  As the statistics bear out, parents relished the opportunity to take their rightful place as their children’s primary educators and enroll them in a school that best fit their learning needs.

Even with suboptimal circumstances, the response to Indiana’s choice legislation has been tremendous.  Although Indiana passed its statewide voucher bill in the spring of 2011, details of how the program would operate remained murky for months.  In fact, the rules and regulations for the bill were not released until approximately six weeks before the start of the school year – a time long past when most parents make up their minds regarding which schools their children will attend.  Despite the short notice, more than 3,900 students were enrolled in the school of their parents’ choosing using an Indiana Choice Scholarship.  (About 2/3 of these students were enrolled in Catholic schools.)  This high demand among parents to direct their children’s education was even more evident during the second year, as the number of students participating in the voucher program more than doubled.  (About 3/5 of these students enrolled in Catholic schools.)

The voucher bill passed in 2011 was unquestionably a good start, but the legislation was certainly not without areas for improvement. Given that Indiana was the first state to institute a program of this magnitude, it is certainly understandable that some compromises needed to be made along the way.  Nevertheless, with the success of the program in its first year and a half, legislators are now attempting to grow the program with HB1003.

If enacted, HB 1003 would expand the Indiana vouchers program to more families in the coming school years. Although amendments have been made to the original bill, HB 1003 would still empower more Hoosier parents with greater influence over their children’s education.  Expansions to the current voucher law include granting eligibility to the following groups of students:

  • Kindergarten students
  • Siblings of students who previously received a voucher or SGO scholarship
  • Foster children with family income below 200% of the Free or Reduced Lunch
  • Students with special needs with family income below 200% of the Free or Reduced Lunch
  • Children of parents who are in the military or an honorably discharged veteran with family income under 200% of free and reduced lunch

Additionally, the maximum amount of a voucher for students enrolled in grades 1-8 would increase from $4,500 to $5,000 for the 2013-2014 school year and $5,500 for the 2014-2015 school year.

While the ultimate fate of HB 1003 is still undetermined, such efforts are a hopeful sign for a future in which all Hoosier families will have the resources to enroll their children in the schools the parents deem best for them.

On May 3-4, the American Federation for Children hosted its third annual Policy Summit.  Nearly 350 school choice advocates gathered for the two day event in Jersey City, New Jersey, which featured panel discussions and presentations by leading education reformers, researchers, and policy-makers.

The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, and the mayor of Newark, NJ, Cory Booker, delivered two of the four keynote addresses at the Summit.  Despite representing different political parties, both Christie and Booker agreed that implementing school choice initiatives was not a partisan issue but a people issue – one that stands to benefit millions of children across the country.  Mayor Booker acknowledged that it would be unfair – and even hypocritical – of him to try to limit parents’ control of their children’s education given his own upbringing.  “I cannot ever stand up and stand against a parent having options, because I have benefited from my parents having an option,” Booker said.  Governor Christie, who recognized the looming battle over the Opportunity Scholarship Act in the coming months, told supporters, “If you are ready to fight with me, I’m ready to fight with you.”

Also of note, Thursday evening featured the presentation of the John T. Walton Champion for School Choice Award. This year’s recipient was Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett, whose state witnessed the most successful first year voucher program in the country’s history.

Last week, the Louisiana state legislature approved one of the most expansive school choice programs in the country.  The expansion of the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program will allow low- and middle-income students in Louisiana public schools graded “C,” “D,” or “F” by the state accountability system to receive government-funded vouchers to attend private schools.  The bill (House Bill 976, co-sponsored  by Rep. Steve Carter and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley) received bi-partisan support and was passed  in the House by a vote of 60-42 and in the Senate 24-15.

Parental choice in Oklahoma suffered an unfortunate setback on Tuesday, as a Tulsa County judge ruled that the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program is unconstitutional.  The scholarship program, which allows any Oklahoma student with a disability to use public funds to attend a private school, currently serves 149 children in the state.

Not surprisingly, reaction to Judge Rebecca Nightingale’s ruling was deeply divided.  Tulsa Union Superintendent Cathy Burden praised the decision, arguing that the students with special needs had really been “used as a pawn to try and get a voucher system started.”  Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Nelson, who authored the original bill, questioned the motives behind the school districts’ opposition.  “It’s not about religion….It’s not about what’s best for these children.”  Instead, he claimed, “It’s about power and money with these school districts.

The ruling will be appealed to Oklahoma’s Supreme Court.

Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, speaking on a panel hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago, offered support Monday for public money “following” students to private schools, which comes as a welcome surprise to parental choice advocates.

“It doesn’t make sense (that) our parents pay taxes and then pay tuition (for their children) to go to (private) school as well,” Brizard said.  He also added, “It’s a matter of making sure the dollars follow children. …If 500 traditional CPS (students) would go to the parochial schools … the proportional share (of dollars) should go to the school actually educating those children.”

Although Illinois still has a great deal of progress to make before school choice is realized throughout the state, news like this certainly give reason for hope.

(Guest post by Anna Jacob)

Does expanded parental school choice improve outcomes for students, parents, schools, and communities?  That question is central to current debates about education reform.

On Feb 27, 2012, the School Choice Demonstration Project, an independent education research center based within the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, released its fifth and final set of reports in a comprehensive, longitudinal evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Established in 1990, the MPCP, or “Choice Program” as many refer to it, is the oldest and largest urban school choice program in the United States, providing government scholarships to Milwaukee families wishing to enroll their children in private schools. In its first year of operation, the MPCP enrolled 341 students in seven secular private participating schools. The program has grown substantially since then. In the current school year 23,198 students are using a voucher worth up to $6,442 to enroll in one of the 106 private participating secular and religious schools.

In 2006 Wisconsin policymakers identified the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP), led by Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, as the independent research organization to help evaluate the impacts of school choice in Milwaukee.  The SCDP has now released thirty-one topical reports and five summary reports examining a comprehensive range of program impacts.

The major findings of the most recent set of reports are:

  • The MPCP continues to expand while excluding underperforming schools.
  • Enrolling in a private high school through the MPCP increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college and persisting in college.
  • A consistent sample of MPCP students, tracked for five years, scored higher in reading but similar in math to a comparable group of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students. A high-stakes testing policy added to the MPCP in the final year of the evaluation may have been largely responsible for the boost in reading achievement.
  • A descriptive snapshot study comparing 2010-11 test score data for all MPCP and similar, low-income MPS students reveals that MPCP students, on average, have higher test scores in reading and science in grades 8 and 10 but lower test scores in math and in 4th grade.
  • Between 7.5 and 14.6 percent of MPCP students have a disability, compared to 19 percent in Milwaukee Public Schools. These MPCP figures are much higher and likely more reliable than the 1.6 percent previously reported by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for MPCP students.
  • Site visits in the spring and fall of 2011 to 13 MPCP schools revealed that many Choice students come to the private schools 1-2 years behind academically.
  • The achievement growth of charter school students is similar to MPS students in both reading and math, although the particular subgroup of conversion charters (schools that used to be private schools) demonstrates higher achievement growth than MPS

The school choice movement gathered phenomenal momentum in 2011, a year that saw school choice legislation introduced, passed or signed into law in 41 states. In all, seven new school choice programs were enacted and 11 programs were expanded. The MPCP is the forefather of these programs and the non-partisan evaluation of its impacts offers important insight for policymakers in all states.

Note: Figure comes from ‘School Choice Now: The Year of School Choice. School Choice Yearbook 2011-12’

Readers seeking extensive details regarding study design, sampling procedures and statistical methods used in the SCDP evaluation of the MPCP can download the full set of reports at http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/SCDP/Milwaukee_Research.html.

Anna M. Jacob, M.Ed., is a Ph.D. student in Education Policy and Doctoral Academy Fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. She works as a Graduate Assistant with the School Choice Demonstration Project. She received her B.Ed. from St Patrick’s College Dublin,where she graduated with first- class honours, and her M.Ed. through the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program.

The Foundation for Educational Excellence hosted its annual conference in San Francisco last week, drawing approximately 800 attendees from across the country.  The “2011 Excellence in Action National Summit on Education Reform” featured keynote addresses by prominent figures in the education reform movement, including Jeb Bush, Sal Khan, and Melinda Gates, and offered strategy sessions on topics such as successfully incorporating digital learning into schools, advocating for parental choice legislation at the state level, and implementing educational reforms that work, as witnessed in Florida.

Video of the keynote addresses can be watched online.  For those on their lunch break who are interested in checking out the speeches, Sal Khan’s talk (in particular) offers some really good food for thought.

I wanted to throw my hat in the ring in response to Matt’s most recent post, School Choice and Catholic Schools, and a post that he references from Scott Alessi from the U.S. Catholic.  Both Matt and Scott make important distinctions about why Catholics support school choice.  Scott offers this:

Undoubtedly, Catholic schools do have a lot to gain from voucher systems, but we have to remember that is not the primary reason why Catholics support them. The real issue here is one of justice, that every child deserves equal access to a quality education regardless of their social or economic status.  Our agenda isn’t about self-preservation, it is about doing what is best for everyone. That means we want to see all kids get a quality education, no matter what school they attend.

In other words, vouchers are good because they let under-privileged children get out of low-performing schools and attend higher quality schools.  It is a matter of equality of opportunity.  Undoubtedly this is true and one of the primary reasons to support school choice.

But it suggests that if we could wave a magic wand and just fix the failing urban public schools – the “drop-out factories” as they are sometimes called – then we would not need school choice.  Some would advocate for such a course of action, despite the enormous challenges to school turnaround policy and programs and their history of being expensive and ineffective.  Yet even if it were a successful strategy and we suddenly transformed drop-out factories into high quality schools, there would still be other compelling reasons for school choice.  And Matt points to an important one:

Redressing a wrong (i.e., that some parents have no say in what school their child attends) is always worthwhile and must remain the primary focus.

Matt’s comment suggests that the injustice is not only that hundreds of thousands of low-income minority children are relegated to failing schools, but that their parents are denied the right to exercise a choice in the matter.  The reality of the situation is that middle and upper income families have school choice.  They can choose to move to a different school district or pay tuition to send their children to a private school.  Because of economic constraints, low-income families do not have choice.  They are legally forced to send their children to a school that is assigned to them based upon where they live.  Now, this injustice is doubly offensive because those schools are often dangerous places that dramatically fail to educate their children.  But the very fact that parents are denied a choice is an injustice.  Parents deserve to have a voice in where their children send their kids to school.  The State is not the primary care-taker of my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and the State will not decide where she must go to school when the time comes.  My wife and I are her parents, the primary educators and caregivers of our daughter, and we will make this profoundly important decision based upon what we think is best for her.  To deny educational choice is not only to deny access to a quality education, it is to deny the dignity of parents as the caregivers of their children.  The principle of subsidiarity from Catholic social teaching is the basis from which the Church advocates for leaving this responsibility in the hands of parents, and not denying it based-upon economic background.

Yet even this fails to provide us with the full picture.  Charter schools provide real choice and options for parents.  They are an important innovation and reform to the American education system, and are one valuable source of choice and educational innovation.  However, only supporting a policy of charter schools or public school choice is not enough. To quote Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to Catholic Educators in America:

No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.

It is not just equality of educational opportunity and recognizing the dignity of parents and giving them due responsibility for their children’s education.  Fundamentally, authentic parental choice is a matter of religious liberty.  Without authentic parental choice that is open to all forms of schooling, including faith-based and private schools, there is still an injustice that Catholics must oppose.  If we opened charter schools and public school choice and turned around all of the failing urban public schools, poor children would still be denied the opportunity to have their souls nurtured through a faith-based education.  It is the noble aim of the U.S. Constitution to protect the religious liberty of the people.  For many parents, providing an education infused with faith, a moral foundation, alignment with the values taught in the home, and a sense of broader meaning in knowledge and life, is of fundamental importance and is a way of exercising religious conviction.  We must protect this free-exercise of religious conviction, for parents but fundamentally for children.  To do anything less is to deny some children the right to an education in faith.

These are the reasons that the Church and Catholics support parental choice, and why many thoughtful and civic minded Americans support it too.

The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program has received quite a bit of attention these past few weeks, and with good reason.  National experts indicate that it marks the most successful first year implementation in the history of the parental choice movement.  One aspect of the voucher program that has drawn attention of late is the high number of students enrolling in religious schools, particularly Catholic schools.  Although details on the final numbers are still a little murky, roughly 2,500 students in Indiana will attend a Catholic school this year on a Choice Scholarship.  For supporters of school choice, the level of participation in such a short time frame demonstrates an undeniable success.  For supporters of Catholic schools, the increase in enrollment comes as welcome news at a time when many Catholic schools are closing.  And for individuals who fall into both categories – proponents of school choice and advocates for Catholic schools – there is a temptation to link the two interests, identifying school choice as a panacea that can “save Catholic schools.”  As Scott Alessi’s post rightfully notes, though, it is important that our priorities are in line.

School choice is not merely a means to an end for Catholic schools.  School choice in and of itself represents an opportunity to address a social injustice, as more families are empowered with the opportunity to send their children to the school they desire.  Those who believe in the value of a Catholic education are certainly right in hoping that more parents would then choose to send their kids to a Catholic school.  Nevertheless, school choice is worthy of support even if not a single family chose to enroll their children in Catholic schools.  Redressing a wrong (i.e., that some parents have no say in what school their child attends) is always worthwhile and must remain the primary focus.  That Catholic schools will have more students is an encouraging, but secondary, consequence.

Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele issued his ruling Monday afternoon to deny a temporary injunction that would have halted Indiana’s recently enacted Choice Scholarship Program.  The program provides vouchers to families who meet income eligibility guidelines and wish to transfer their child from a public to private school.  Opponents of the Choice Scholarship Program claimed that the legislation violates Indiana’s state constitution, contending that the state would effectively be providing public money to religious institutions.  In his ruling, Judge Keele noted that the public funds are directed to religious schools only upon the “private individual choices of parents.”  Because the eligible families are the agents in determining where the vouchers are used – whether at religious or non-religious private schools – the judge held that the law is “religion-neutral.”

This ruling is a huge (even if anticipated) victory for school choice supporters throughout Indiana, particularly for the families who have been empowered with greater choice.  By the time the application deadline for a Choice Scholarship passes, more than 3,000 students will be enrolled in the program.