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This school year marks the first opportunity for parents who meet income eligibility levels to apply for an Indiana Choice Scholarship for their children.  According to a WNDU story, more than 1,300 students had been accepted into the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program by the end of last week.  The article reports that roughly 470 of the students will attend Catholic schools in the Fort Wayne South Bend diocese (that number is now, at the time of this writing, up to 550).  To read the full WNDU story, click here: Vouchers spark 40% enrollment increase at Our Lady.

To some, 1,300 hundred students may not seem like a high number, given that the statewide limit on Choice Scholarships is 7,500 this year.  (The cap for next year is 15,000, and there is no cap in future years.)  In actuality, this number marks an undeniable success.  The rules and regulations for the voucher legislation were not released until the second week of July, families and schools a brief window to begin the application process.  Changing schools no doubt requires some level of adjustment for not only the students but the families as well.  In many cases, families were making the decision of whether to apply for a Choice Scholarship at a time of year when school enrollment has normally already been long decided.  One can reasonably assume that the uncertainty surrounding this new process may have caused some families to delay the decision until next year; this has in fact been observed in other states in the first year following enactment of choice legislation.  While the cap of 7,500 may not have been reached, that more than 1,300 students’ families have taken advantage of greater choice is a cause for celebration.

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Three weeks ago, Wisconsin Representative Bob Turner (D-Racine) submitted a Letter to the Editor describing his opposition to expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).  To someone unfamiliar with school choice, this letter could be confusing or, even worse, misleading.  He does note that “parental involvement is the key to our students’ educational achievement,” a statement with which few would argue.  Curiously, he opposes vouchers, even though a district’s participation in a voucher program would necessarily increase parental involvement. Turner argues against the MPCP because “the standards for participating voucher schools are minimal. They may employ teachers with no training and only a GED, and administrators without a high school or college degree.” If the schools are so bad – filled with incompetent and unqualified teachers and administrators – no parents with the ability to choose their children’s schools, as vouchers would give them, would send their children there, so what’s to fear?    Opposition to the voucher program on these grounds reflects a complete lack of confidence in parents’ ability to make the right choice on behalf of their children.  No one has a greater interest in holding schools accountable than parents.   Rep. Turner claims that parental involvement is the key to success, yet he doesn’t want them to have the opportunity to decide where their children go to school.

In explaining another reason for his opposition, Turner claims, “The current pending state budget bill, 2011-13 Senate Bill 27, will expand the Milwaukee parental choice program to all school districts in Milwaukee County.  This will have the effect of more affluent families taking advantage of this program so that their children can attend a school that hand picks the best students possible and limits, or does not accept, any special needs students.”  (Emphasis is my own.)  This statement is particularly troubling, as it 1) inaccurately characterizes access to vouchers and 2) misleads people into thinking that the wealthy and not the intended beneficiaries of vouchers, namely poor families, will benefit most.  In actuality, for families to take advantage of the program, they have to qualify for a voucher; to qualify for a voucher, a family must fall below a certain income level.  Even with the income eligibility raised to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (~ $68,000 for a family of four), affluent families – ones who by definition have an abundance of money, goods, property, etc. – will simply not qualify.  A family income of $68,000 a year is nothing to scoff at, but it should not be confused with affluence.  Many more families than before will directly benefit from the expansion of the voucher program…just not affluent ones.

He also calls into question the success of voucher programs, boldly claiming that “the results of the testing [Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination] showed that voucher students scored the same or worse as students attending a Milwaukee public school.”  With no reference to where he obtained this information, one has reason to be skeptical.  (Side note: critiquing the efficacy of a voucher program simply by comparing all voucher students to students attending a Milwaukee public school is misguided and does not account for other factors at play.  Students who take advantage of vouchers are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and therefore they would be expected to initially score at lower levels than public school students – a group that would include both disadvantaged students and ones who come from families of greater means.)  As it turns out, research conducted by John Witte and Patrick Wolfe demonstrates that – after looking at carefully matched sets of students in the choice program and in Milwaukee public schools – the MPCP has been successful.  Among the findings were the following:

  1. Competitive pressure from the voucher program has produced modest achievement gains in MPS
  2. The three-year achievement gains of choice students have been comparable to those of our matched sample of MPS students
  3. High school students in the choice program both graduate and enroll in four-year colleges at a higher rate than do similar students in MPS

The claims that voucher programs are not producing academic benefits are simply not accurate.

Lastly, Rep. Turner writes, “With the Racine Unified School District receiving the second largest projected budget cut in the state, over $11 million in school aid and over $40 million in revenue reduction, we cannot allow additional voucher schools to be started in Racine.”  He makes the not-so-subtle suggestion (given his intentional bolding of the figures) that the voucher program will cost the state money at a time when money is already hard to come by.  As it turns out, the Milwaukee Choice Program saved the state of Wisconsin an estimated $52 million in Fiscal Year 2001.  If anything, given the financial benefits Wisconsin could receive, the numbers Turner provides offer economic justification to an issue where the moral justification (giving disadvantaged children increased access to more schools) already suffices.

Voucher legislation is simply messy.  From building support for vouchers to withstanding legal challenges, the process is simply not a smooth one.  Then again, because vouchers will increase school options for the disadvantaged, I suppose this is no surprise.  In reality, when is combating injustice ever easy?

This article details the “messiness” of voucher legislation in PA, while this one discusses the legal challenges a Colorado voucher program in Douglas County faces.

As USA Today reports, Indiana has just passed the nation’s most sweeping parental choice plan.  Boom.  This is huge.  My man Mitch…

See the details about this exciting legislation here.

A quick heads up:

Dr. Patrick Wolf and myself are giving a presentation at NCEA in New Orleans this week entitled “What educators need to know about school choice”.  It will be in room 217 of the Convention Center at 1:15 on Thursday.  We would love to see you, and please come with questions!

 

So I have an article in today’s Baltimore Sun defending the good work that Michelle Rhee did during her time as Chancellor of the D.C. public schools.  Recent allegations of cheating during her tenure have caused status-quo apologists like Diane Ravitch to call into question everything that she did.  Now, other than just the generally nasty and hostile tone taken against a woman who worked tirelessly to improve educational options for students in D.C. (who by the way supports vouchers, just btdubs), these critcisms are generally unfounded.  Ravitch and hamfistedness with data is now about as guaranteed as death and taxes, so  I’ll leave it to Paul Peterson (my mentors’ mentor at PEPG) to dismantle her argument.

I do want to direct your attention (as most of the article is about how to do testing right) to the fourth lesson that we state can be learned from the tenure of Michelle Rhee:

“Fourth, regulation without choice is tinkering at the margins. We have learned through years of data on schools failing to make adequate yearly progress that if students lack the power to leave their schools, centralized accountability mechanisms can only do so much to regulate school behaviors. Using data to help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children could combine the best of both systems to ensure the highest quality education for students.”

This is why the more I read and study, the more I support school choice.  Regulating the monopoly of traditional public schooling is simply an impossible task, and the standardized tests and testing procedures necessary to do so are not what we want to use to govern our education system.  By combining a system of regulation with market mechanisms (informed and empowered families picking where their children go to school) we can go light-years farther in ensuring a high quality education for every student in America.

 

 

Oh, and I failed to mention that in all of this budget strum und drang in D.C. it looks like the Opportunity Scholarship Program is surging back to life.  It is going to be a part of a fresh infusion of money into the “three-sector solution” for D.C. schools (traditional public, charter, and voucher schools) and given the success of the program in it’s previous incarnation, this news bodes well for the children of the District. 

 

This morning the Supreme Court Ruled in favor of tax credits supporting private school scholarship organizations.  Couple this with 2002’s Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, and it looks like-Constitutionally speaking- private school choice is safe and here to stay.  Or, as the great MC Hammer would say to school choice opponents- U CAN’T TOUCH THIS!!!

 

As I have had a chance to listen to this week’s congressional testimony regarding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a consistent argument that comes against the program has been brought up by several members of the House, and it needs to be addressed.

Several members (and untold numbers of voucher opponents) argue that we should be focusing our time, effort, and money helping the public schools (who educate the vast majority of students) and the time, effort, and money that we spend on school choice programs is simply a distraction from the larger issues of education reform.  “We have a fiscal crisis”, they argue, “and this is taking money from public schools that need it!”.

My three responses:

1. The DC OSP was designed to avoid this exact problem. When the original OSP was designed, it was part of the “three sector” solution to the problems plaguing the D.C. school system.  This involved increased funding for public and charter schools and creation of the voucher program, which was funded from a completely separate budget line item.  Not a single penny left the D.C. public schools and went to a private school. In fact, the program made money for DCPS as they were given more money but had fewer students to educate!

2. Children are not Social Workers. I stole that line from a statement from Mayor Cory Bookerregarding the New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act wherein he argued that it was ludicrous to keep kids in failing schools while the adults figure out how to fix them.  WE (and as a taxpayer, educator, and adult I’m right there with ya’ll) are to blame for our nation’s failure to educate children, and WE need to figure out how to fix it, but while WE’re getting our act together WE need to do everything possible to help the kids currently in the system.

Former D.C. city council member Kevin Chavous used the following analogy during his House testimony:  “The house is on fire and we have to proceed on different tracks, there are firemen that have to go put that fire out, and there are firemen that have to go inside that building and pull some of those kids out, and you know what?  You may not pull everyone out of that building, but you’re gonna pull out as many as you can to stabilize the system and to save lives…I really believe that by any means necessary really means by any means necessary when it comes  to the children we are trying to save.”

If you are of the belief that we shouldn’t help some because we can’t help all, I ask you a simple question, would you send your kids to these schools? And if you wouldn’t, why in God’s name would you force someone else to?

(If you’re more about the philosophical arguments for school choice, and are persuaded by the idea that it is wrong that some people get to choose where their kids go to school and others aren’t, you can feel free to stop reading now.  However, if you are a part of that minority that wants a deeper level of argument (and haven’t lost interest yet) I encourage you to read on, because it’s about to get dorky)

3.  A Rising tide raises all boats. In a more difficult to digest journal article (and a more reader- friendly piece in Education Next), superstar economist Caroline Hoxby looked at the performance of public schools in Milwaukee, Michigan, and Arizona after the implementation of school choice programs.  The money quote:

“Taken together, the findings presented here, from Milwaukee, Arizona, and Michigan, offer a first glimpse at how public schools are responding to these new forms of school choice. They suggest that the fears of a downward spiral aren’t merely overblown. They’re simply wrong.”

As it turns out, either because public schools get worried that they’re going to lose funding when students leave their schools, or because when students and parents get to choose where they go to school they sort into environments that better fit their needs, public schools get better in response to choice programs.

In graphic form (from Education Next):

The different types of schools (“most affected” “somewhat affected” and “not affected”)  describe how much pressure these schools felt from school choice, that is, how many of their    students were eligible and able to leave if they so chose.  It turns out the more of the “threat”   that vouchers were, the better the school performed.  If you read further in the article, you can     see her comparisons for charter schools in Michigan and Arizona (they look pretty similar).

So it turns out, rather than being a “distraction”, school choice can be a mechanism to help all of  the kids that don’t take advantage of the program.

Why?  Well you don’t have to be Milton Friedman to believe that the monopoly that traditional  public schools have in most urban areas is a hindrance to innovation and progress.  By introducing competition in the form of charter schools and voucher programs, all schools have to get better or risk losing their students (and funding).  While possibly painful for the adults involved, in the end, this is in the best interest of our children.

We have to do something to help the kids that are in D.C. both today and tomorrow.   It is always important to remember with vouchers that no student is ever required to use them.  If they are happy in the schools that they are in, they can stay.  But if they aren’t, all vouchers do is extend to them the same privileges that middle-class and wealthy people all across the country have, and to be against that is just plain wrong.

(Guest Post by Shannon Stackhouse Flores)

As a graduate of a doctoral program at a large public university, to even say the words “school choice” or “Catholic education” causes me to cringe in fear of retribution from many of my colleagues. For this reason, I have hesitated in the past to identify myself with the school choice movement, at least as a political concept.

In order to expand the reach of my passion, however, I think it is very important to define for myself and for others my convictions at this moment, as a fairly young researcher. It is impossible to deny that my viewpoint has been very much formed by my own schooling experiences (Catholic K-8, magnet high school, private undergraduate institution, Catholic graduate school and public graduate school) as well as by the foundational fact that I am black and Catholic, the latter largely a result of my elementary experience.

That out of the way, one of my hesitations in joining this debate has been that despite a great fondness for Catholic education, I chose to enter the field of education policy NOT primarily in order to further the aims and viability of Catholic schools, but rather to be part of the contingent of people really pushing for greater justice within the educational system at large. My general passion is for children, particularly poor and minority (be they Catholic or non-Catholic) who daily suffer the injustice of low quality education. My concern is for kids who attend schools that are at best places to go to get off the streets and at worst just as dangerous as the neighborhoods from which they come. I have recently been researching some Chicago public school data (not to point fingers; this just happens to be the data I have been researching) and while I am fully aware of all of the difficulties inherent in using testing data – particularly as a snapshot and in the aggregate – to measure performance, I ran across some such data that was truly horrifying. More or less randomly, I encountered multiple public high schools in which only 15% or 20% of students met state testing standards in reading and math. Regardless of what the specific standards are, this means that a majority of those students will leave school not knowing how to read or perform calculations at even the most basic of levels. It literally turns my stomach that there are hundreds of youth, still children really, who are going to leave school unequipped with even the basic level of skills with which to survive in our society, much less having the opportunity to thrive in our knowledge economy. For those schools to even be called schools is to me a crime against humanity, specifically that of the children they purport to serve. (Note: I understand/believe that in many places, schools are called upon to do far too much; essentially to function in dysfunctional communities. That is a topic for another post. For now, let us just consider it at the very least a crime of our society against a portion of itself that we allow schools like this to exist.)

The fact is that there are schools that do succeed with poor and minority kids: some charter, some private, some Catholic, some public. I believe that schools that do succeed in this area MUST be rewarded. Perhaps any school that meets certain academic standards and brings poor and minority children up to grade level (or beyond) could receive some amount of funding… and those schools, of all kinds, that are serving their student populations the worst, can be closed and their funding redirected.

I know that the issue of church/state separation is not trivial, do not consider it so myself. But there must be a way to create standards by which as long as certain ideals are upheld (and others explicitly not proffered), and as long as all publicly funded schools share some common ways of measuring success, we can begin to better sustain schools like those inner-city Catholic schools that have historically maintained that poor immigrant and brown children CAN learn, and have a system already in place for ensuring that they do.

At the end of the day, we really need to increase the urgency of this issue. I do not know or really care to know what political label to place upon my viewpoints, but I do know that as a new mother, my little family’s near limitless freedom of educational opportunity is very clear and extremely valuable to me. Also crystal clear is the fact that nothing is as important to me as ensuring that my daughter will be safe, happy, and loved by all to whose care she is entrusted; and that every possible opportunity be available to her. Every child deserves all of those things. I know that “my people” as a whole still fail to secure these very basic human necessities at far too great a rate. We know how important education is in improving quality of life along every dimension. We just need to work harder, more quickly, and with greater passion to extend access to quality schools to those who need it the most.

(Guest Post by Daniel Bowen)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “school choice?”  For me, it’s spaghetti sauce.  Now, before you begin psychoanalyzing my mental association of education and Italian cuisine, let me explain.

The evolution of spaghetti sauce exemplifies the importance of variability in a marketplace.  Back in the 1980s, Prego hired Dr. Howard Moskowitz to find a sauce better than that of the sauce champion of the day, Ragu.  However, after extensive field research on consumer preferences, Moskowitz would ultimately fail to find the “Holy Grail of Sauces.”  Instead, he concluded that there was no perfect sauce.  Rather, diversity in tastes and preferences of consumers dictated the need for several “perfect sauces.”  (Malcolm Gladwell gives an extensive overview of Moskowitz’s research – found here).

While you would be hard-pressed to find an adversary to an increase in spaghetti sauce options (except maybe Ragu at the time), increasing school choice is much more contested.  Moskowitz’s research and arguments may focus on spaghetti sauce, but these can be applied to school options too.  Let’s look at three of the central arguments Moskowitz makes for spaghetti sauce variability and apply them to school choice:

1. Informing Consumers

Spaghetti Sauce: Moskowitz discovered that consumers liked variety if given proper information.  The majority of consumers aren’t product innovators or experts.  So, when Prego initially surveyed the public about what they wanted, they either didn’t know or simply reiterated the qualities of sauces they already consumed.  However, after experimenting with recipes and making people aware of different types of sauces, one in three consumers would ultimately prefer chunkier sauce. They just didn’t know this preference until they were made aware of and offered such a sauce.

Schools: Schools work the same way.  One of the great obstacles to an effective system of choice is providing information for choosers.  A parent may be familiar with the schools they went through, but they may not be aware of other options.  As a case and point, many first year D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) parents admit that they sent their children to schools without even making a visit to the school.  They just heard or presumed the school was good based on reputation.  Parents may unknowingly prefer single-sex education or greater emphasis on the fine arts.  They might just be unaware that such options exist.

2. Horizontal Segmentation

Spaghetti Sauce: Once the notion that other options exist, it becomes clear that consumers have a wide range of preferences.  Some consumers prefer a “garden fresh” sauce.  Others long for something spicier.  The key to satisfying a given consumer is not found in a singular, magical recipe.  Moskowitz found that a plurality of those surveyed preferred a chunkier sauce, but he warned Prego to not be simply satisfied with altering their main sauce.  Instead, he advocated that Prego would benefit more from casting a wider net to meet the needs of more consumers.

Schools: Once again, the same goes for schools. Some parents want religious instruction.  Others long for something spicier.  Different students have different needs.  Different parents have different preferences.  Simply tweaking one “recipe” does not suit the needs of the entire market.  Variability in both cases is the key to satisfying a diverse group of consumers.

3. Challenging the “Platonic Dish”

Spaghetti Sauce: The initial resistance to trying different sauce recipes stemmed from producers deferring to “experts.”  Spaghetti sauce chefs and their recipes, prior to Moskowitz, mostly stuck with tradition.  It was believed that there was a singular, best way to mass produce sauce and no one challenged the “experts.”  Moskowitz warned that this mentality would deter innovation and its byproducts.

Schools: Just like sauce producers, parents often defer to the “experts.”  Traditionally, with the exceptions of homeschoolers and private school attendees, parents would enroll their children in the neighborhood public school and this was held as the best way to mass educate students.  However, like sauce, strictly adhering to the “Platonic Dish” restricts our ability to innovate new and better ways to educate our nation’s students.

Moskowitz’s research would ultimately make Prego hundreds of millions of dollars from just their line of extra-chunky sauces.  And, if you need further evidence of Moskowitz’s impact, just spend a little extra time in the pasta aisle next time you frequent the grocery store.  Catholic schools have certainly demonstrated how catering to new tastes can spark innovation through the creation of new school formats found in Cristo Rey, the Notre Dame ACE Academies, Catholic School K-12 Virtual, the numerous single-sex schools provided, etc.  Hopefully, we will see the number of schooling options made available to parents become as expansive as our spaghetti sauce options.