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This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

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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.

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.

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.

 

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.

This morning, the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, headed by Senator Joe Lieberman, heard testimony regarding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. (The video and text of the speakers’ testimony can be found here).

I’d like to give a shout out to Dr. Patrick Wolf (who starts at 94:32) from here at the School Choice Demonstration Project in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who testified about the IES-sponsored evaluation of the program.

Some of the facts from his testimony that anyone talking about the OSP needs to know:

1. The DC OSP “serves a highly disadvantaged group of students”.  How disadvantaged?  The average family income of scholarship recipients was less than $20,000.

2.  OSP students graduated from High School at signifigantly higher rates than the control group (those that applied but lost the scholarship lottery). Students that were offered a voucher graduated at a rate 12 percentage points higher than those that were not, and students that used that scholarship graduated at a rate 21 percentage points higher.  Those students that came from SINI schools (the lowest performing D.C. schools) graduated at a 13 percentage point higher rate if offered a scholarship and a 20 percentage point (from 66% to 86%) higher rate if they used that scholarship.

3. We can believe, with 94% confidence, that the OSP had a positive effect on student reading scores.  These reading gains roughly equate to 2.8 additional months of schooling for the entire treatment group (those offered scholarships) and 3.4 additional months of schooling for those that used their scholarship.

4.  All of these great things were accomplished with only $7500 per student in a city whose public schools spend, per-student,  $28,000+ dollars per year.

 

Let’s hope the truth will set the students of D.C. free.

 

In today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, James Shuls and I have an article arguing for school choice in the Show-Me State. In in we synthesize an argument started by Milton Friedman and clarified by Howard Fuller (amongst many others), explaining what the “public” in public education means.

“But more broadly, as eloquently described by former Milwaukee Public School Superintendent and lifelong civil rights crusader Howard Fuller, public schooling is an idea. It is the idea that we have an obligation to provide for the education of our children. People too often confuse the idea of public schooling with the mechanism that brings about that idea. If a school is educating children successfully, it is serving the public interest and accomplishing the goal of the idea of public education. There is a leap between the government providing for (that is, funding) public education and managing public education (that is, running its set of schools).”

 

There has been talk in Jefferson City about several Ed Reform initiatives for this legislative session.  We’ll see what develops….

Yes Yes Ya’ll.

As national school choice week begins, here is a little round-up of some promising legislative and advocacy action going on around the country.

Check out the National School Choice Week website for various activities being planned in your state.

A promising scholarship tax-credit bill gets out of committee in New Jersey, where it was previously stalled for months.

There would be a limit of 3,900 scholarships in the first year, which would expand to 40,000 by the fifth year. The scholarships are expected to be about $8,000 for each elementary school student and $11,000 for each high school student.

Pennsylvania has bi-partisan support to expand school choice in the state.

Greater school choice is being proposed by a bipartisan group of state senators. Among them is Philadelphia’s own Democratic senator, Anthony Hardy Williams, who made school choice a focal point of his platform in his run for governor last year.

Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia announced a push for school choice in this legislative session, and things look promising there to move forward.

The Governor also announced legislation which will establish a tax credit for companies donating to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to help lower income students attend nonpublic schools.

The Department of Taxation would be responsible for issuing the tax credits. The Department would be allowed to issue up to $25 million in tax credits in each fiscal year of the Commonwealth.

Mitch Daniels in Indiana is putting forward one of the most aggressive parental choice legislative packages anywhere, with both a non-capped voucher program and a much more robust corporate tax-credit program.  He went to bat for it big time during his State of the State Address, and a recent poll suggest that Indiana voters have his back.

South Carolina has tax-credit legislation in play.

Milwaukee has the possibility of expanding their already very large voucher program.  Messmer Catholic School, the oldest in Milwaukee, continues to grow steadily.  This should be the story of all Catholic schools in Milwaukee benefiting from a more even playing field through the large voucher program.

Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada attacks the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments as he pushes for a constitutional amendment in the upcoming session of the Nevada Legislature to allow for tax dollars to be used in a school voucher program that would include faith-based schools.

And a major national add campaign coincides to bring the issue more national prominence.

There is a lot more going on out there, I am sure, but that’s a wrap for tonight! Read the rest of this entry »