National School Choice Litigation Week?

August 29, 2014

(Guest Post by A.D. Motzen)

By Friday, school choice advocates were beginning to ask themselves, “what color scarf does one wear during National School Choice Litigation Week?” No, that’s not an official date on the calendar, but it sure seemed like that this week.

The biggest news of course, was the lawsuit filed on Thursday by the Florida teachers union and others to take away the scholarships of 67,000 low-income students. The scholarship tax credit program, enacted in 2001, is the largest in the country and has support of many African American and Hispanic Democratic legislators and community leaders. An overwhelming majority of participants are minority students and the attempt to end a longstanding, successful and popular program makes the lawsuit a highly unusual tactic in the battle of school choice.

Agudath Israel of Florida director, Rabbi Moshe Matz traveled to Tallahassee and spoke at a press conference in opposition to the lawsuit. Rabbi Matz called the lawsuit “shameful” and argued that the program should be lauded and expanded, not litigated.” More than 1000 students attending Jewish day schools are at risk of losing their scholarship if the lawsuit prevails.

On a positive note, the New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling which had prevented the state’s new scholarship tax credit program from being used at religious schools. The court found that the plaintiffs had no standing and could not show how they were harmed by the program.

In other states however, our opponents are not giving up easily. In North Carolina, school choice supporters and lawmakers petitioned the State Supreme Court on Monday to allow students to receive scholarship funds from the Opportunity Scholarship Program while the case is litigated. The case has bounced back and forth between Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood, the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Finally, in Oklahoma County District Court on Thursday, a judge ruled against students using the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities (named after the daughter of Democratic Governor Brad Henry who signed the original legislation into law) to attend a religious school. Thankfully, State Attorney General Scott Pruitt promised to appeal the ruling.

So is school choice at risk? Lawsuits are never good. They scare parents and schools from participating in these programs. They waste valuable resources which could have been better used helping promote the programs passed by legislators. However, the reason we see more lawsuits is because more programs are being passed around the country as the movement gains momentum. These lawsuits, especially ones litigating established programs such as in Florida and Georgia, are acts of desperation by those opposed to giving choices to families.

Around the country, more than three hundred thousand students are attending a private school thanks to a scholarship program. Parents, we need you to speak up. Let your legislators and your local news media know that you support these vital programs. With your help we will prevail.


Florida Teachers are Poorly Represented by the Offensive Actions and Attitudes of the Florida Education Association

August 28, 2014

FEA protestors

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Florida Education Association already filed a lawsuit against an expansion of the Florida tax credit program and the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts on procedural grounds. In so doing, the FEA leadership broadly and Vice President Joanne McCall in particular engaged in utter hypocrisy as they had used an identical procedure to get a large teacher pay raise the session before. In the process a FEA official described the special needs students who could benefit from participation in the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program as “collateral casualties.”

So well, if referring to children with disabilities as casualties wasn’t revealing enough about where the well-being of children fall on the priority list of the FEA, today we have a new example from Florida FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. The FEA joined with the Florida School Boards Association in a legal attack on the Florida tax credit program. The families of 60,000 low-income Florida children use this program to finance their education. As mentioned earlier the program has generated a variety of positive evaluations.

Parents feel very strongly about outside groups trying to force their child out of the school they have selected to best meet their needs. Their child’s learning and their network of friends is all being put under assault by this incredibly callous action by the FBSA and FEA.  In a move that should shock no one, a group of these aggrieved parents have protested the FEA’s action outside of their headquarters in Tallahassee.

Here is the response from Twitter for Florida Education Association VP Joanne McCall:

FEA

 

I can’t imagine a more revealing statement. First children with disabilities were “collateral casualties” to the absurd and misguided fears and hatred of the FEA. Now low-income parents who simply want to exercise the same freedom that higher income families take for granted to choose the best school for their child are “hit dogs.” Perhaps it is necessary to dehumanize your victims in your mind before making them into a casualty.

These children and these parents of course are human beings-people with hopes, dreams and aspirations. The only thing accurate about the statement is that the FEA has indeed struck these people. They have cruelly and needlessly introduced fear and uncertainty into their already difficult lives. McCall and her entire organization should be ashamed of what they have done.


BOOOOOOOOOM! New Hampshire Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Tax Credit Program

August 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Instant analysis from Jason Bedrick.  Ironically enough the Florida School Boards Association and other members of the public school non-profit industrial complex filed suit again the Florida tax credit today. Florida judges would do well to apply the question of harm (and thus standing) to these litigants, because the reality is that Florida public schools have far more money, more students, and employ more people today than before the Florida tax credit passed. The state appointed academic evaluator (and others) have found that part of the source for the remarkable improvement in public schools originated from the tax credit program.  The districts would have higher enrollment in the absence of the program, but they have local funding to cover their fixed costs and have been dealing with enrollment growth for decades and will deal with more in decades to come.

I’d love to hear a coherent claim of harm in any of this. The New Hampshire Supreme Court was wise and just in drawing this conclusion, and thousands of low and middle income children will have greater options because of it. I hope that Florida’s judges will prove equally adept.


Florida School Boards Association Prepares to File Suit Against Tax Credit

August 27, 2014

Florida census

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Despite the wishes of the parents of 69,000 low-income children, despite the fact that Florida districts improved outcomes substantially during an era of increasing parental options, despite positive third-party academic evaluations of the tax credit program, and despite Census Bureau projections that show that Florida’s district schools will likely face a severe overcrowding problem, the word is out that the Florida School Boards Association is set to file suit against Florida’s tax credit program.  As you can see from the post below, Florida is one of the lower-income states. As you can see from the chart above, both the youth and elderly populations of Florida are set to substantially grow over the next decade and a half.  Elderly people already consume a majority of Medicaid funding, and when your population of 65+ projects to grow from 3.4m to 7.8m you’ve got a huge problem on your hands.

The tax credit program will not begin to solve this problem by itself, but nothing will.  Florida is going to need a series of policy innovations to improve state outcomes while lowering costs to get through this.  Innovations with results **ahem** like the tax credit program.  The average scholarship amount is about half of the public school spending rate. Better still, the third-party academic evaluations by Northwestern economist David Figlio found academic gains for both participating students and for public schools facing higher levels of competition.

If the Florida School Boards Association has a plan to deal with the age demographic storm on the horizon, which includes a projected million plus increase in the size of the K-12 population while the state ages, I would like to know what it is.  Stamp out successful reforms and then cover the playgrounds with trailers and hope for the best?  School districts are always going to be the backbone of the education system in Florida. Funding for education is guaranteed by the Florida Constitution and supported by the public.

Nevertheless, Florida urgently and badly needs improvement and innovation in the public sector, especially in K-12.  This lawsuit represents a step in the wrong direction and more worrying still speaks to a complete lack of either awareness or seriousness about the challenges facing Florida’s future.


Open Letter to David Plouffe: When Fighting an Entrenched Status-Quo, Don’t Stop at Transportation

August 20, 2014

(Guest Post by A.D. Motzen)

Dear Mr. Plouffe,

Congratulations on your new position as senior vice president of policy and strategy at one of my favorite companies, Uber.  Ever since I spent 35 minutes waiting for a cab outside of LaGuardia airport, I’ve become a dedicated Uber customer.

Before you get too settled in at your new office, however, I would like to offer you a position at my new start-up. I call it UberEd.

You were recently quoted as saying that you would work “to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation.”

Presumably you were hinting at the challenge you will face from an entrenched monopoly which doesn’t like competition. Rather than improve their product and meet the needs of their customers and employees, your adversaries will spend millions of dollars on political donations and lobbyists to ensure that laws and regulations will be written to keep out the competition.

But you and Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, apparently believe in transportation choice. While perhaps not a Constitutional right (yet), transportation is one of the most basic needs of every American citizen, especially for those who live or work in urban areas. By providing choices and flexibility you will be able to offer a better product that meets the needs of individual customers at a lower cost. Why, even the employees will be happier! Most importantly, even the competition – those dreaded yellow taxi unions – will ultimately be forced to compete and either lower their prices or improve their service.

My start-up is based on those same principles, so it should be a good fit with your philosophy. Rather than working “to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation,” my idea would ensure that parents and children are not denied their opportunity for choice in education. My motto would be “everyone’s private or public school.”

It’s a simple concept that was already Beta tested in more than a dozen states using “experiments” such as charters, vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and now education savings accounts. In all of those vehicles, parents have a choice on how to get their child from point A to point B – traditional public, charter, or private school.

Using UberEd, a parent can check which schooling options are available for their child simply by pressing a button on a smartphone. The name of the closest schools (or alternative program) come up on the screen and by clicking on the school icons, the parent can find out information about each option. Parents don’t have to worry about tuition bills as the app is set up so that the state funding allocated to that specific child would be credited to their spending account. Just tap the payment button and the school will get the money through a third-party without having any access to your personal bank account. If a parent wants a more expensive school they can always  choose UberEd Xtra and supplement the state-allocated funds with their own personal resources. Schools could be rated by a parent based on any number of criteria so that other UberEd users would know what to expect.

I could go on, but I don’t want to give up too much information just in case someone actually goes out and files a patent (I haven’t) and raises some venture capital before I do.

Uber was recently valued at $18 billion because it will completely redefine and improve transportation as we know it. UberEd (a.k.a. school choice) is radically changing education as we know it. Education is the uber-vehicle to a brighter future for our children. Isn’t that priceless?

But as you probably figured out by now, I can’t offer you a job just yet. Parents first need more states to actually allow school funding to follow the child. Maybe I’ll give you a call at that point and you and Mr. Kalanick can help me build that app.

In the meantime, I wish you all the luck in the world.

Together with millions of parents across the country, I am hoping that your arguments of opportunity and choice will prevail against the status quo. We are hoping that your former boss, President Obama, and elected officials across the country will take heed and be forced to choose a side.

Entrenched status quo or innovation, opportunity, and choice?

Choose one. Then tap on the UberEd app.

A. D.


Fordham Continues to Advocate Playing with Fire

June 25, 2014

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Imagine the following playground scenario:

Tommy: Hey guys, I have a great idea! Let’s all go play with fire! It’ll be fun!

Cate: No way, Tommy. Playing with fire is very dangerous. Someone could get hurt!

Jay: Cate’s right. I used to think playing with fire was a good idea, but I’ve seen other kids get burned.

Milt: Yeah, plus, there are lots of ways to have fun without playing with fire!

Tommy: Friends, you’ve taught me an important lesson about the dangers of fire. Okay, here’s my new idea: let’s all go play with fire, but if other kids don’t want to, then playing video games is totally cool too. How’s that sound?

If you find Tommy’s response puzzling, then you’re likely to find the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “revised” approach to educational choice and accountability equally puzzling.

In the debate between parental choice and top-down government mandates, the Fordham Institute follows Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Fordham supports choice, but argues that the only way to prevent parents from choosing “bad” schools is to regulate them out of existence. In January, Fordham released a “toolkit” for policymakers that advocated requiring all private schools to administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) and publish the results as a condition of accepting school vouchers or even tax-credit scholarships. Lower-performing schools would be forbidden from accepting students with vouchers or scholarships going forward.

Fordham’s proposal elicited a torrent of criticism. Andrew Coulson, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and I argued that their approach would stifle educational diversity and innovation. Jay Greene noted that standardized tests capture only a fraction of the benefits of educational choice. James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute pointed to the evidence that parents hold a range of legitimate views regarding what constitutes quality. Robert Enlow, President of the Friedman Foundation, reminded Fordham that such top-down accountability has not worked in government schools—something that Fordham itself once lamented when it called certain test-based accountability measures an “illusion.” Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute expressed concern that without any clear limiting principle, mandating state tests could easily lead to mandating “certified teachers, a state-approved curriculum, state-approved facilities, a state-approved plan of emergency services,” etc.

Last week, Fordham’s incoming Executive President, Michael Petrilli, offered what he called an “olive branch” to Fordham’s critics:

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose.

Petrilli then explained that Fordham has updated its “toolkit” accordingly. But if you expected that recognizing “the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation” would mean abandoning the push to mandate state assessments (i.e. – Common Core tests), then Fordham’s “revised” approach will leave you scratching your head. In the “revised” toolkit, Fordham recommends that state policymakers:

Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments. (While we prefer state assessments as policy, we think any widely respected test that allows for ready comparison against other schools or districts is a reasonable compromise);

In case you missed it, Fordham’s “revision” is in the parentheses. Like little Tommy, Fordham claims to recognize the risk of playing with Common Core fire but continues advocating for exactly that (unless they need to compromise for political purposes, in which case other tests are totally cool “a reasonable compromise”). If Fordham truly recognizes the “risk to private-school autonomy and innovation” that Common Core poses, then why is it still calling mandatory Common Core testing as an initial preference?

Petrilli concluded by calling for “a round of Kumbaya” and then getting “back to work on expanding great educational options to lots more children nationwide.” However, expanding educational options should mean more than just which school best teaches to the Common Core tests. By all means let’s work on expanding educational options… but let’s do it right.


Let’s Search for Sweet Spots, but with modesty please

June 5, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a number of friends who have either helped develop or have signed on to a Statement of Principles regarding a three sector reform strategy and what they view as a desirable level of state oversight of private choice programs.  This post will work better for you if you go and read the document first.

The needle starts to scratch across the vinyl for me at:

Even with the expanded choice to the private sector, they also have produced modest results.

This has become a mantra in recent years, but I believe that this statement reflects an incomplete understanding of the research results, and specifically a lack of understanding regarding our random assignment studies of voucher programs. The basic takeaway from the random assignment studies in my view is as follows: the test score impacts are modest but often statistically significant within the three year window that we can reliably study them.

So the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program offered $6,400 vouchers to very low-income inner city parents whose other options were to attend a district spending $14,000 per child and/or charter schools spending somewhere between the voucher and district spending.  We have several random assignment studies of the test score impacts that find that the experimental group basically stays on grade level (a triumph for poor inner city children) whereas the control group declines year by year.  You get to watch this process for about three years before the random assignment breaks down on you.

What happens to test scores after Year 3?  No one knows for sure- these studies fall apart over time.  We do know things however about what happens regarding high-school graduation, college attendance, college persistence, etc.  Borrowing a slide that Pat Wolf presented at the Alliance for School Choice conference:

Slide11

So basically you are less likely to graduate in 5 years (first red column) because you are more likely to graduate on time, less likely to graduate from a two-year college (second red) because you are more likely to be going to a four-year college.  The blue columns are all positive impacts from having been a choice student.

Now if you are determined to cling to the “modest” camp by saying that you wish these impacts were even larger, well, I do too.  I also wish that Chuck Norris’ tears really did cure cancer.  At this point it might be appropriate to raise the question as to just how much a positive impact we should reasonably expect from a program giving profoundly disadvantaged children a $6,400 coupon.  Although we don’t know what happens after a few years of random assignment study, those graduation figures ultimately are far more important than 6th grade math scores.

Being far more likely to graduate from high-school and college for less than half the money sounds like a triumph to me, albeit one that we could and should hope to improve upon through more robust program designs.  The standard here should not be to expect MPCP to transform every last profoundly disadvantaged inner city child into a Dean’s List Ivy Leaguers.  Rather in judging the impact of MPCP we should look at it on a return per dollar invested basis.  When you look at it appropriately through this ROI it is clear that the return on MPCP has been quite good, and that we should be looking for ways to get even more of it.

Then I got to this statement:

We know that smart accountability measures can ensure that public money and young lives are not invested in low-performing private schools.

The statement offers no evidence to support this claim, and moreover the claim itself dodges the more important question of costs and benefits to regulation.  Is it possible for “smart” accountability to keep young lives out of low-performing private schools?  Sure it’s possible.  Smart training can ensure that I could go from being a 46-year-old policy wonk to heavyweight champion of the world. I mean it is possible right? Is it also possible, even highly likely, for the whole enterprise to go south on you in a variety of different ways? Yep, that’s very possible too.

Who is going to administer these smart accountability measures and who will administer them a few years later?  What about 25 years from now?  How often will these people do something they think is smart which proves to be otherwise?  Unless we want to have the Federal Reserve administer these programs, how long will it be until politics will subvert the process of “smart” technocratic policymaking?  Also like the Fed, the costs of technocratic mistakes may prove quite costly.

Even well-intentioned efforts at “smart accountability” could easily backfire.  Let’s take Louisiana as an example.  Louisiana policymakers decided to grade all their schools A-F based upon a state accountability test tied to the state academic standards, and then decided to create a mechanism to remove low-performing schools from eligibility to take new students.  This probably sounds clever at a Georgetown cocktail party, but in Louisiana two-thirds of the state’s private schools have decided to stay out of the program, denying thousands of seats to low-income children attending relatively poor performing public schools in one of the lowest performing states in the union.

Ooops.

Let’s take things a step further. Is it possible that the one-third of Louisiana private schools that chose to participate in the program may have had a selection bias towards being more on the financially desperate side than those that have decided to stay out?  I have no data to support that this in fact did happen, but who would be surprised if it in fact did happen?  The correlation between financial desperation and academic ineptitude often proves strong.  In such a case the initial impact of the regulatory regime might have precisely the opposite of what was intended with many higher performing schools choosing to keep their distance.  Worse still, it might create an incentive for private schools to engage in the same sort of gaming strategies that have been common in states with rising state test scores but flat NAEP scores- teaching to test items rather than to standards (Arizona is waving hello!).  Finally of course it is no triumph if the schools do actually teach the state standards because the whole idea of a choice program is to provide, well, meaningfully varying choices for parents.  If you want state tests and standards in Louisiana you already have thousands of options available to you in the form of district and charter schools.

In the end of the day, policymakers must make decisions about where to draw the line in such matters. We have no wrong or right answers here, only preferences. Personally I believe that choice programs should provide academic transparency to the public in ways designed to have the lightest possible touch on the curricular independence of schools.  I’m willing to sacrifice some level of private school participation in return for transparency.  Preferences will vary and we will learn things along the way through variation between programs.  What I think I have learned however is that Arizona’s transparency-light programs represent a costly obstacle to building broad support, and that the Louisiana and Indiana model has far too many private schools saying “thanks but no thanks.”

To my friends who crafted and signed on to this statement I say only that we should continue the dialogue and gather more information.  I don’t believe in regulation free programs nor do I expect or desire for us to pass any, so I agree with you to a degree. I however strongly suspect that many of you are underestimating the cost of regulation and overestimating the capacity of technocratic regimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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