Governor Brewer signs two small ESA expansions

April 23, 2014

 

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The 2014 Arizona session is winding up, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed two bills to improve the ESA program today.  Collectively these bills will keep the dependents of military children if their parents are killed in the line of duty, will make it easier for pre-school aged special needs children to enter the program without enrolling in a public school, and will make the siblings of eligible children eligible to participate in order to make it more possible for families to send their children to the same or at least nearby schools. The 2014 session marks the last rodeo for Governor Brewer, who is term limited.

Governor Brewer signed the ESA and a number of improvements into law, several tax credit program improvements into law, called for the creation of A-F school grades and fought hard for an earned promotion policy on literacy. She also vetoed a few choice measures here and there including a small tax credit measure today. She hammered through a temporary three-year sales tax ballot measure to increase to stabilize K-12 funding, but then stayed true to her word and stayed out of it while the alphabet soup groups made a complete hash of trying to create a permanent tax increase. Governor Brewer began Arizona’s first steps towards funding results rather than just seat time.  Let’s hope that further steps will materialize.

It’s been an incredibly difficult and tumultuous five years- the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” springs readily to mind. Several of the K-12 initiatives Governor Brewer supported remain a work in progress, making it feel strange to think that someone else will be exercising the duty of governor next year.  There has been a great deal of political blood spilled over some very difficult issues, but in my book, Governor Jan Brewer got far more right than wrong in K-12 reform.


MS Governor Phil Bryant makes a powerful case for Special Education Choice

March 31, 2014

Governor Bryant 2

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Down the stretch they come in Mississippi, and Governor Phil Bryant weighs in with a powerful case for reform. The bill will pass or die in the next two days, so stay tuned….


Say It All Together Now Class: TESTING ≠ ACCOUNTABILITY

March 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I tuned into the Fordham Foundation podcast yesterday, only to find that Fordham is stubbornly holding onto a misapprehension that their own research ought to have disabused them of long ago, namely that standardized testing equates to “accountability.”

This came up in a discussion of the Arizona ESA court ruling.  Broad misunderstandings of the program were on display, especially regarding the term “accountability.”

Sigh. Let’s start with the basics. The dictionary defines the word accountability as:

the quality or state of being accountable; especially :  an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

Standardized testing is widespread in education, but “accountability” is scarce indeed.  So in my state more or less every public school student takes the AIMS test, but you would struggle to find anyone who is held “accountable” for the results.  Forty percent of 4th graders in Arizona scored below basic on the 2013 NAEP reading test, but good luck finding a policymaker, superintendent, teacher or parent who was held “accountable.”  Strangely enough, no one accepted responsibility for this sad state of affairs, making this a very unique form of accountability one where no one  is ever held responsible.

So what Mike and Michelle seem to actually be talking about is academic transparency to the public.  Arizona’s ESA program is indeed lacking in any form of academic transparency to the public.  There are a variety of forms this could take, some much more sensible than others, and Arizona policymakers would do well to pick one of them.  If they don’t pick one of the reasonable models, one must assume that an unreasonable model will be imposed sooner or later.  I’ve testified on a number of occasions at the Arizona legislature that policymakers should embrace transparency in the program. I will keep on doing it in the future.

Now let’s discuss the difference between faux and vrai accountability.

Kathy Visser, the mother of Jordan Visser, an ESA student featured in the above video, testified before the Arizona legislature regarding accountability recently.  She more or less noted that for all this shallow talk of “accountability” in this particular hearing (holding the same flawed understanding of the term displayed by Fordham) that there is in fact accountability in the ESA program. Everyone who educates Jordan is directly accountable to her.

Good luck getting that level of accountability in the public school system.

I followed up with Ms. Visser in a subsequent conversation. She experienced a number of difficulties in the public school system that are sadly common for special needs families. She had an open enrollment request denied without explanation with a public school official going so far as to hang up the phone on her. She consulted a specialized attorney who helps special needs families, but found the $15,000 retainer financially out of reach.  Fortunately the attorney told her about the ESA program.

Ms. Visser first tried a private school for Jordan.  She related that Jordan did not have a terrible experience in the private school, but that she decided to try the customized education approach with private tutors and therapists featured in the video above. Ms. Visser agreed that with a school voucher like the McKay Scholarship Program, she would have been able to hold the public schools accountable for the services they provided Jordan.  With an ESA, she can hold all providers accountable private schools, tutors, therapists, you name it.

That my friends is true accountability, you know, the kind where people actually get held responsible for their results.   Not the largely phony kind of accountability where states administer dummied down academic exams with massive item exposure, dropping cut scores, and all sorts of statistical games and tricks and other problems that I have read about in Fordham reports with most states obscuring things further behind fuzzy labels whose scale almost no one understands.

The type of “accountability” that Fordham is talking about however has proven to be baloney in most states for decades now.  Even in states with the most useful testing systems, like Massachusetts and Florida, you won’t find any parents wielding the type of authority exercised by Kathy Visser. It’s long past time for us to recognize the difference between genuine accountability and mere bullshit accountability.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness please note that Mike did say he supports the ESA program in the podcast and expressed that we should let this experiment play out.  My point is not to claim that the ESA program is perfect (it isn’t) but rather that our notions of what constitutes “accountability” badly need a reboot.


Education Savings Accounts in the News

February 25, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Clarion-Ledger endorsed ESAs for Special Education children in Mississippi in a powerful editorial today:

In 1997, The Clarion-Ledger published an award-winning series of stories highlighting the problems facing special-needs students in Mississippi.

Among its findings: Parents had to battle public schools to get federally mandated services for their children; the state had few qualified teachers to provide an appropriate education to disabled students; and just 17 percent of special-needs children graduated high school.

On Feb. 2, the newspaper published another series on special education that found little has changed.

Nearly two decades later, parents of special-needs kids still battle school districts. Teachers and administrators still lack training. And despite six new state superintendents, countless different strategies and billions of dollars in federal funding since that first series ran, Mississippi’s special-needs graduation rate has risen just 6 percentage points.

Less than one in four students with disabilities leave high school with a diploma in Mississippi. It’s the worst special-needs graduation rate in the nation. Most states graduate 50 percent or more.

….

We support public schools, but we cannot support the systemic failure of certain students over the course of several decades without any signal from MDE that something will change.

For that reason, we believe SB 2325 and HB 765 offer a reasonable solution to a longstanding problem and the first glimmer of hope for thousands of parents.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!

Meanwhile NPR interviewed Oklahoma Rep. Jason Nelson on his ESA proposal. Money quote:

Q: If the students who are left in public schools are the least likely to succeed, doesn’t it almost guarantee those schools won’t do well?

I’ve got two children in public school. I’ve not yet talked to any parent that sees their child as a funding unit for the public school system. None of us see our kids that way. It’s silly to make an argument like that: “Your child needs to come to this school because they’re a funding unit and we need to have that.”

The people who are leaving are the people that aren’t getting their needs met. If you’re happy, then you’re going to stay. If the school’s not working for your child for whatever reason, you should have no obligation to stay.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!


Please Return to Your Seats and Fasten Your Seat Belts…

February 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a new guest post on RedefinED today showing that everything in Florida will be fine as the children of the Baby Boomers have children and the Baby Boomers retire. So long that is if they find a way to reformat Medicaid to keep it affordable, create 1.4 million new school spaces and somehow avoid a major drag on economic growth as the percentage of working age people declines.   

You know, just a few minor things here and there. 


Elephants are Afraid of Mice, Giant Public School Establishments are Terrified of Small Choice Programs

February 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We had a bit of a fauxtroversy here in Arizona last week as some quarters got riled up over Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal’s decision to record a message for parents whose children attend D/F rated Arizona schools about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.  Superintendent Huppenthal serves as the legally designated administrator of the ESA program- it is quite a shock that he might work with private groups to raise awareness of the program.  Quelle horreur!  This is surely going to lead to the destruction of public education in Arizona right?

Elephants are afraid of mice

Well, no actually not so much.  More on the NBC news show Sunday Square Off:

http://www.azcentral.com/video/3203027567001


The Disaggregation Era of K-12

February 10, 2014

Pay attention 007, and do try to keep up!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mike McShane hosted an event last week at the American Enterprise Institute, and I had the opportunity to serve on a panel with Mike, Andy Smarick and Kara Kerwin.  During the discussion, Andy confessed that what he found the “disaggregation” of K-12 unsettling. This came up in the context of a discussion of Arizona’s ESA program and students like Jordan Visser:

“How do you assign a teacher of record?” I recall Andy asking.  For Jordan, such a question is already antiquated. Should his tutor be classified as the teacher of record? Or the physical therapists? Mr. or Mrs. Visser?  What if Jordan is taking a MOOC from Stanford is a few years? Should the state of Arizona attempt to hold Stanford “accountable” for what Jordan learns?

Personally I choose “none of the above.”

The trend towards disaggregation in K-12 predates Arizona’s still tiny ESA program.  The ESA program can in fact simply be viewed as the best vehicle for managing a customization trend as a quasi-market mechanism that gets us as close as possible to realizing the benefits of markets while preserving the public funding of K-12. The disaggregation trend however has been moving out into the bloodstream for decades. Consider the following program data from Florida:

Florida disagregation

This is a snapshot of traditional “school choice as you knew it at the end of the 20th Century.”  Most but not all of these choices are mutually exclusive such that they are something any one student does to the exclusion of others. You don’t expect to find many students for instance enrolled in a private school full-time and doing full-time virtual instruction, for instance. Most of these options are either/or propositions you are either sitting in this type of seat, or that type of seat. Major avenues of part-time education, such as dual college enrollment and virtual education, are not included, so we are just getting warmed up.

Let’s take virtual education on next:

FLVS Credits

The Florida Virtual School is not the only supplier of accredited virtual courses in Florida, so the 148,000 or so courses they provided in 2011-12 underestimates the strength of the trend. Nevertheless FLVS long ago begged the question: if a child takes an online Mandarin course from an approved online provider, just what, if anything, does this have to do with the results on the host schools’ accountability scores?

“I’ll take ‘Absolutely Nothing at All’ for a Thousand, Trebek!

Needless to say, FLVS found it necessary to develop alternative methods for measuring student achievement related directly to course content.  High-school students have been taking classes at community colleges for decades with what appears to be an entirely understandable disinterest in sorting through just how much responsibility, if any, the Community College holds for what happens on the high-school students minimal skills accountability exam.

So what happens when we mix dual enrollment with virtual education?

MOOC 1

Since we live in an age of wonders, we have over a thousand Massive Open Online Courses provided by some of the finest universities in the world available for free. Oh and the number of courses keeps growing. Did I mention that it has already been worked out for MOOC students to take third-party proctored final exams and receive college credit for them? Yes, right, that too.  Has anyone thought through the fact that the $89 cost for a third-party end of course exam may prove incredibly attractive for both families but also to schools who don’t enjoy having a portion of their budget sent off to an online provider?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves Trebek! I’ll take ‘Months that begin with Oct’ for five hundred…

So, let us imagine a 15-year-old taking a Calculus class from, say, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He or she successfully completes a third-party end of course exam, he or she either is or in the near future will be eligible for college credit from a large number of universities around the world. Obviously provision for this student to receive high-school calculus credit will need to be made as well if we are to maintain any semblance of sanity.  Should authorities in Arizona disallow this because MIT’s Calculus course doesn’t precisely fit the state of Arizona’s state standards?

I’ll take “Seriously, you have got to be kidding me!” for a thousand Alex.

In short, the disaggregation genie is out of the bottle, and the trend looks set to accelerate in the coming years. As our system of education evolves it will be necessary to update our thinking regarding transparency and accountability: they are already out of date and will be increasingly so moving forward.  It would be absurd to require Jordan Visser to take the AIMS test. The AIMS has nearly played itself out for the 19th Century factory model school system in Jordan’s home state and has nothing to do with Jordan.  Regarding the ESA program, the public’s interest in transparency would be better served by collecting national norm reference exam data and having them analyzed by a qualified academic researcher.  Regarding the broader education system, Texas has already moved to replace minimal skills tests with subject specific end of course exams at the high school level. If a student takes a Physics class, shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not they learned any “Physics”?

Creative destruction usually kills outdated ideas before outdated organizations. Our notions about how to provide transparency in a changing K-12 world have been running behind schedule.


Children with Disabilities Have Much to Gain from Parental Choice in the Magnolia State

February 6, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mississippi legislators are considering a statewide choice program for children with special needs. Florida pioneered choice for special needs students in 1999, passing a pilot program that went statewide in 2001. Since 2001, all of Florida’s special needs students attending public schools have been eligible to take a McKay Scholarship to a public or private school of their choice.

More than a decade later, we find that 6 percent of special needs students use the McKay Scholarship Program directly by using it to transfer. Special needs students choosing to remain in the public school system however still benefit from the McKay program because it is there if they need it.

The charts below show that special needs students in Florida have made remarkable academic progress since McKay went into law. The first chart shows the progress for public school students with disabilities in Florida and Mississippi on 4th grade reading:

Florida vs. MS Spec 4R

Today Florida children with disabilities are now more than twice as likely to show basic reading skills as their peers in Mississippi. You find the same pattern in the 8th grade reading scores:

Florida vs. MS Spec 8R

 

Math scores show the same trend: narrow gaps opening to larger gaps over time. The point of these charts is not to brag about Florida, but to note a crucial source of improvement for special needs students in Mississippi. In the end, choice is no threat to the public schools in Mississippi but rather an opportunity. Florida’s public schools have more students (including students with disabilities), spend more and employ more people than before the onset of choice programs. That’s not the issue. The most important thing of all for special needs children is that the public school system now does a much better job in meeting their needs.

Florida enacted multiple reforms during this same period, so we cannot attribute all of these improvements to the choice program. Statistical analysis of variation in trends among special needs scores in individual Florida schools however confirmed that the McKay program contributed to the improvement.  Florida’s other reforms are also available for consideration.

Choice is not a threat to public schools in Mississippi, but rather a mechanism of the improvement of outcomes to the most disadvantaged students.  We can and should judge policies in large part with regard to how they treat the most vulnerable in our society. Look at the charts above and ask yourself the following question: if you had to be born as a child with a disability, would you want to grow up in Florida’s system of choice or Mississippi’s system of school assignment by zip code?  Would you want choice, or something much closer to “take it or leave it” in your schooling?

If you answered that question the way I expect, the next question is: what can Mississippi do to move ahead of Florida?

The answer- Mississippi should consider an even more advanced form of choice for special needs students than McKay. Choice for special needs students has the ability to empower parents to seek out the right type of education to meet the specific needs of their individual child. The Mississippi proposal draws inspiration from the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, which is a refinement of the McKay concept. This allows parents to choose to educate their child through a variety of different methods, including public and private schools, certified private tutors and therapists, online education programs and college/university courses. The idea is to give parents the maximum amount of flexibility possible so that they can deliver a customized education to meet the exact needs of their child.

When the federal government passed what became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the 1970s, a million special education students nationwide had been denied access to public schools. That was wrong, and IDEA stands as an important pillar of civil rights legislation. The law however promised an “Individual Education Plan” for every special needs child, and it failed to deliver the substance of this promise for far too many children.  More than a decade ago, the center-left Progressive Policy Institute and the center-right Thomas B. Fordham Foundation used the analogy of a maze to describe the bog of federally mandated paperwork emphasizing process over results to the frustration of both educators and parents.

You can’t really have an individual education plan without choice over who delivers what sort of education. Today it is time for the states, not the federal government, to take the lead in truly delivering the ability for parents to deliver a really meaningful individual education plan for students. Students, parents and the public school system will all win as a result.

 


Mississippi Lawmakers Send ESA for Special Needs Proposal to the Floors of Both Chambers

February 5, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Clarion-Ledger gives the details and a video of the upper chamber sponsor, Senator Nancy Collins.


Education Savings Account Effort in Iowa

February 4, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education put out the following video to explain their next school choice goal: Education Savings Accounts.

The Iowa choice team has an impressive track record, having passed both individual and scholarship tax credits in the past, and having increased the scholarship tax credits with bipartisan support in recent years. Folks in Iowa have long been proud of their high NAEP scores, but the recent years have not seen a strong record of improvement, and others have passed and closed the gap with them as a result:

Hanuskek 4

Iowa needs to get moving again, I am excited to see what happens next.


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