Greg in PJM Keeps ‘Em Honest With Choice

February 14, 2010

Greg has a great post today on Pajama’s Media about how school choice is the secret sauce that keeps all other reforms honest.  Think of it as a love letter to education reform. : )

Here’s a highlight:

… the biggest political winner in education by far in the past year has been charter schools. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but the Obama administration’s pro-charter rhetoric has been more than just talk. Charter caps are being lifted because the administration really does support charters.

Why? I think it’s mainly because a critical mass of their political base on the left has embraced the principle that parents should be put in charge through choice, and I think that has happened precisely because they want a reform that will keep the system honest. More and more people on the left are sick and tired of the empty promises they’ve been peddled for decades: that this time, throwing another huge chunk of money at the blob will fix the schools — and this time, we really, really, really mean it, cross our hearts and hope to die.

The social justice folks on the left just don’t buy it anymore. They now see that the blob has been pulling the wool over their eyes for generations. You can imagine how they’re feeling about that right now. And woe betide you if the wrath of the social justice folks falls upon you; they’re not known for being gentle with those whom they perceive as enemies of social justice.

Case in point: Did you know that the same team of scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, scruple-at-nothing propagandists who produced An Inconvenient Truth has now made a hard-hitting documentary bashing teachers’ unions and advocating charter schools? And it was the very first film picked up for distribution at the Sundance Film Festival?

… The recent surge in the political fortunes of charter schools has been fueled by the less dramatic but steadily growing success of private school choice: school vouchers and similar policies that allow students to attend private schools using public funds. There are now 24 private school choice programs serving 190,000 students nationwide, up from just five programs in 1996. And private school choice is continuing to gain ground every year with the creation of new programs and expansion of existing programs, even in tough years like 2009.

As my friend Jay Greene likes to put it, vouchers make the world safe for charters. That is, it’s because of the more modest success of vouchers that charters have exploded. As long as vouchers are on the march and are thus a credible threat, triangulating legislators who need the blob’s support can embrace charters without paying too high a price for doing so. If the blob cuts off its support for legislators who back charters, it won’t have anyone on its side when vouchers are on the agenda. Because vouchers are out there, the blob has no choice but to suck it up and pretend to be OK with charters.

The next question, though, is whether charters alone are going to be sufficient to keep the system honest. Charters have ridden to success with the help of a lot of new supporters, but those supporters are a demanding constituency. The social justice folks expect results.


Op-Ed on Head Start and DC Vouchers

February 3, 2010

I have an op-ed in today’s Washington Examiner that will also be on City Journal’s web site on how the Obama administration has betrayed its pledge to do what the evidence says works in education.  It starts:


Milwaukee Voucher Students Have Higher Grad Rate

February 2, 2010

In a new analysis released today by School Choice Wisconsin, University of Minnesota sociologist Rob Warren finds that voucher students in Milwaukee graduate high school at a higher rate than students in Milwaukee Public Schools.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s coverage this morning:

For 2007-’08, Warren estimated the graduation rate in voucher schools to be 77%, and the graduation rate in MPS to be 65%, a difference of 12 percentage points. The information includes comparisons between seven choice schools and 23 public high schools that could provide complete data for all six years studied, and adjusted to account for an expected 5% ninth-grade retention rate in choice schools and an expected 25% ninth-grade retention rate in MPS.

And from the report’s summary we get an idea of how big that difference in graduation rate is:

As Professor Warren illustrates here, had MPS attained the same graduation rate achieved in the MPCP, an additional 3,352 students would have received diplomas between 2003 and 2008. According to the research cited in the Journal Sentinel, the annual impact from an additional 3,352 MPS graduates would include an additional $21.2 million in personal income and about $3.6 million in extra tax revenue.

Warren is careful to note that his analysis does not determine whether vouchers caused the higher graduation rate or attracted students who were more likely to graduate, but he is pretty confident that the voucher students do graduate at higher rates.  the public school officials are not so convinced: “You have to take into account things like mortality, and the number of students who move to another school,” St. Aubin said.

Mortality?  Is that a plausible explanation for the difference?  Warren’s method is similar to earlier work that Greg, Marcus, and I have done in estimating graduation rates and while not absolutely precise is likely to be reasonably accurate.  A forthcoming analysis by the School Choice Demonstration Project led by my colleague at the University of Arkansas, Pat Wolf, and with which I am involved will be able to examine this issue tracking individual students over time.


The Argument Clinic

January 5, 2010

Stuart Buck and I have a post over on the Education Next Blog addressing a letter that Sara Mead of the New America Foundation wrote in response to our article on special education vouchers.

Here’s a taste of our response:

Sara Mead’s letter almost feels like the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic.” She’s just contradicting us, not providing an actual argument with contrary evidence.

Of course, she could just say that she isn’t.


Tampa Tribune Op-Ed

September 3, 2009

Marcus Winters and I have an op-ed in this morning’s Tampa Tribune on how Florida’s McKay voucher program for special education students has restrained the spiraling growth in special education enrollments in public schools.  We write:

In Florida, as in most other states, schools receive additional funding for each student identified as disabled. Often, these additional resources are greater than the actual cost of providing special-education services, giving schools a financial incentive to increase their diagnoses.

The financial incentive to misdiagnose is particularly apparent when classifying students as having a specific learning disability (SLD). That’s because SLD is the most common, the most ambiguous, and the least costly category of special education. In many cases, school officials might simply be trying to get extra resources to help struggling students. But the net effect is the misclassification of a huge number of students as having an SLD.

The McKay program reduces the financial incentive for Florida’s schools to misdiagnose learning disabilities by placing revenue at risk whenever a student is placed into special education…

In our new study, we found as the number of nearby, McKay-accepting private schools increases, the probability that a public school will identify a student as having an SLD decreases significantly. The program reduced the probability that a fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-grader in a school facing the average number of nearby private options was diagnosed as SLD by about 15 percent.


The Special Ed DC Bubble

August 23, 2009

One of the (many) problems with education policy analysts is that a large number of them live in or around Washington, D.C. 

D.C. is a remarkably abnormal place.  Because of the giant distortions of the presence and subsidies from the federal government as well as the atypical set of people who live in that area, policy experiences in DC are very often quite different from the experiences in the rest of the country. 

The problem is that people tend to generalize from their immediate experiences.  If something happens to you, you hear about it from people you know, or you read about it in your local paper, you tend to think that’s the way it is for everyone.  So, DC education analysts are always at-risk of drawing policy conclusions based on incredibly atypical experiences.

For a prime example see Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead’s thoughts on special education vouchers:

In fact, if special education identification led to funding for private school attendance, it would be unusual if this did not create an incentive to participate in special education in many communities, particularly those with low-performing public schools. For example, Washington, D.C., and New York City currently contend with substantial abuse of special education by affluent parents. In addition, there are reports of parents seeking to have their students diagnosed with learning disabilities in order to gain accommodations on the SAT or for other reasons. [fn 27] 

For another example, listen to Amber Winkler, Mike Petrilli, and Rick Hess discuss our most recent study on special education vouchers (it starts around minute 11:00).  They generally do a good job of describing the study but they express doubts about our findings because they believe that parents, especially affluent parents, have considerable influence over special education placements.

On what basis do these D.C. education analysts believe that a significant number of parents, especially affluent parents, are gaming the special education diagnostic system to get access to advantageous accommodations or expensive private placements?  The evidence Andy and Sara provide in footnote 27 consists largely of newspaper accounts from Washington, D.C..  Mike and Rick provide no source and we can only assume that they are drawing upon their immediate experiences.

Of course, the antidote to mistaken generalizations from our limited and potentially distorted set of immediate experiences is the reliance on systematic data.  If we step back and look at the broad evidence, we can avoid some of the easy mistakes that result from assuming that everyone’s experience is like ours.  As it turns out, DC is a gigantic outlier.

School officials, not parents, make the determination of whether a student has a particular disability and what accommodations are necessary.  Parents are entitled to challenge the decisions of school officials, but they rarely do and even more rarely win those challenges. 

In the fall of 2007 there were 6,718,203 students receiving special education services between the ages of 3 and 21.  And that year there was a grand total of 14,834 disputes from parents resolved by a hearing or agreement prior to completion of a hearing (see Table 7-3).  That’s about .2% of special education cases that are disputed by parents or 1 in 500.

And as Marcus Winters and I described in our new study, schools prevail in most of these disputes:

According to Mayes and Zirkel’s (2001) review of the literature, “schools prevailed in 63% of the due process hearings in which placement was the predominant issue.” In cases where the matter went beyond an administrative hearing and was actually brought to court, one study cited in Mayes and Zirkel’s review found that “schools prevailed in 54.3% of special education court cases,” which the authors say is in line with the findings of other studies. In suits seeking reimbursement for private school expenses (because a special-education voucher program is unavailable), Mayes and Zirkel found that “school districts won the clear majority (62.5%) of the decisions.

In addition, as Marcus Winters and I documented in a 2007 Education Next article, private placement is amazingly rare.  Using updated national numbers from the federal government, as of fall 2007 there were 67,729 disabled students ages 6 through 21 who were being educated in private schools at parental request and public expense.  That’s only 1.13% of the 6,007,832 disabled students ages 6 through 21 and barely one tenth of one percent of all public school students.  If private placement supports Andy and Sara’s claim of “substantial abuse of special education” we’d have to redefine “substantial” to include minuscule proportions of students.

The systematic evidence clearly shows that school officials dominate special education, parents rarely challenge school officials’ decisions, schools win most of those challenges from parents, and parents very rarely get their children placed in private schools at public expense. 

So, why do Andy, Sara, Rick, and Mike ( as well as all of those DC reporters who Andy and Sara cite) believe that parents, especially affluent parents, control special education decisions?  Well, perhaps it is because in D.C. parents do have much more control than in the rest of the country. 

Remember how there were 14,384 students nationwide who resolved a dispute with their school over special education in a hearing or by agreement prior to the completion of a hearing?  DC contained 2,689 of those 14,384, or about 18% (see Table 7-3).  But DC represents only .15% of total student enrollment nationwide.  That means parents in DC are about 120 times more likely to lodge these challenges than the typical parent nationwide.

And while private placement is very rare, it is somewhat less rare in DC.  Out of 67,729 students privately placed at parental request, 1,864 of them were in DC, or about 2.75% of the total.  Again, given that DC student enrollment represents only .15% of national enrollment, DC students are about 18 times more likely to receive a private placement than students nationwide.

It’s clear that DC is just different — very different.  Making generalizations from DC experiences or newspaper articles is like saying that Seattle is a sunny place if you happen to arrive there on a day when the sun was shining.

D.C. isn’t the only outlier.  New York is also pretty atypical when it comes to special education.  Dispute resolution hearings in New York state are about 7 times more common than in the rest of the country.  And private placements are almost 3 times more common in the state of New York than they are nationwide.

It’s too bad that so many of our media and policy elites live in these two atypical places because they are giving us a very distorted picture of special education.  They need to get outside of their bubbles and rely on systematic data rather than immediate experiences.


Great Minds Think Alike

August 19, 2009

Just as we released our new study on special education vouchers in Florida, Marc Thiessen and Michael O’Hanlon have a piece in USA Today advocating for the policy, specifically to help students with autism. 

Thiessen is a Republican and fellow at the Hoover Institution and O’Hanlon is a Democrat and fellow at the Brookings Institution.  Special education vouchers clearly appeal across party lines.  And since disabilities are distributed roughly evenly across all racial and economic groups, the programs can have a broad base of political support to be adopted and protected from destructive regulation or roll-back efforts.  One thing we are learning from urban voucher programs targeted at disadvantaged populations is that they are very hard to sustain politically.  The targeted groups are also the most politically powerless.


Special Ed Vouchers Restrain Growth in Disabilities

August 18, 2009

Marcus Winters and I have a super-awesome study released today by the Manhattan Institute.  It shows that offering disabled students special education vouchers reduces the likelihood that public schools will identify students as disabled.

This isn’t what Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead expected.  They claimed in a 2003 report for the Progress Policy Institute that: “special education vouchers may actually exacerbate the over-identification problem by creating a new incentive for parents to have children diagnosed with a disability in order to obtain a voucher.”

It didn’t. The reason special education vouchers restrained growth in disabilities, rather than exacerbate it, is that the vouchers check public schools’ financial incentives to identify more students as disabled.  Public schools may get additional subsidies when they shift more students into special education, but if they then make students eligible for special education vouchers, they risk having those students walk out the door with all of their funding.  It makes the public schools think twice before over-identifying disabilities for financial reasons.

And outside of the DC bubble, schools control the process of whether students are identified as disabled — not parents.  So, if we can check the positive financial incentives that public schools have for over-identifying disabilities, we can significantly slow growth in special education.

Nearly 1 in 7 students nationwide is now classified as having a disability.  That’s 63% more than three decades ago.  It’s clear that this huge increase in disabilities was not caused by a true increase in the incidence of disabilities in the population.  No plague has afflicted our children over the last three decades to disable two-thirds more of them.

Instead, non-medical factors have been driving special education enrollments higher.  Chief among these is the financial incentives we offer schools in most states to shift more students into special education by providing additional subsidies for each student classified as disabled.

Some states have reformed their special education funding formulas to end these financial rewards for higher special education rolls.  Greg and I reported in a 2002 study that states that continued to pay schools per student identified as disabled had much higher rates of growth in special education than states that had reformed their funding formulas.  Elizabeth Dhuey of the University of Toronto and Stephen Lipscomb of the Public Policy Institute of California have confirmed these findings.

Julie Cullen of UC San Diego has found that “fiscal incentives can explain over 35 percent of the recent growth in student disability rates in Texas.”  And Sally Kwak, a student of David Card at UC Berkeley and now a professor at U of Hawaii, finds a significant slow-down in special education enrollments when California reformed its funding system.

The new study Marcus and I released today builds upon this growing research by showing yet again that public schools strongly consider non-medical factors when deciding whether to classify students as disabled.  I don’t mean to suggest that all school officials are conscious of these incentives or acting with evil intention.  But it is clear that the system in which they operate and their actions are shaped by these financial incentives.

If we discovered that hospitals were filling their beds with healthy people who just felt a little tired in order to obtain additional government subsidies, we would be outraged and demand dramatic reforms.  Public schools are doing the same and it is time we get outraged and demand reforms.


New DC Voucher Bill Introduced

July 30, 2009

According to an Alliance for School Choice press release:

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) today unveiled a bipartisan reauthorization bill for the D.C. school voucher program.  Lieberman, along with Susan Collins (R-ME) and four other senators, introduced legislation this morning to reauthorize and strengthen the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for five years…

 Under Senator Lieberman’s bill, the program would be preserved and strengthened significantly. The Lieberman bill would increase scholarship amounts to $9,000 for K-8 students and $11,000 for high school students­indexing the scholarship amounts to inflation. While these amounts remain significantly below the amounts for the D.C. Public Schools, they provide the necessary increases to account for inflation over the past five years.

The bill would also:

–Give scholarship priority to siblings of students who currently participate in the program
–Require participating schools to have a valid certificate of occupancy
–Require teachers of core subject matters to have bachelor’s degrees
–Require an Institute of Education Sciences annual evaluation of the program
–Require students to take nationally norm-referenced tests

I hear that this bill addresses all of the issues raised by Senator Durbin’s bill without any of the program-killing provisions.  If Durbin is really motivated by the concerns he has expressed, such as teachers having bachelors degrees and schools reporting test results, we may be getting close to a compromise.  Of course, that is a big IF.


JPG in CJ on SEV

July 29, 2009

Translation:  I have an article in the special summer issue of City Journal on special education vouchers.

Here is a taste:

Rather than compelling families with disabled children to contend with obstinate public school systems, we should give them the option of purchasing the services they need for their children from a private provider. That is, we should give them special-ed vouchers—good for the same amount of money that we already spend on them in the public school system—that they could then use to pay for private school. Not only would this bring better services to disabled New York students; it could also save the public money.

Many parents of disabled students have a lot of trouble ensuring that public schools give their kids an appropriate education. The parents have to know what they’re entitled to, and most do not. They must negotiate services from the local schools—but the schools are experienced in these negotiations, while the parents generally aren’t, so the schools often get away with minimizing their responsibilities. And even if parents win at the negotiating table, getting the schools actually to deliver on their promises is enormously difficult.

In the end, the only way to compel schools to keep their promises is for parents to engage in ongoing legal battles with the same people who take care of their kids each school day. Most parents have neither the resources nor the stomach to do that. Schools, on the other hand, see little downside in promising few services and delivering fewer. The worst that can happen is that courts will step in and order them to do what they were originally supposed to do; there are no punitive damages in special ed. Research by Perry Zirkel at Lehigh University also shows that courts tend to sympathize with school districts and that schools win most legal challenges from parents. And since children age, delays work to the schools’ advantage.

For all these reasons, most parents of disabled kids simply resign themselves to whatever the schools deliver—or fail to deliver.


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