Colorado Faces the Future

July 22, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I’ve been writing about Colorado’s charter school sector’s delightfully high NAEP scores. To wrap this up, I’d like to put this success in a broader context of Colorado’s present and future.

So if you’ve been to Denver in the last few years, it is hard not to notice that the place is booming. The Big Bird construction cranes kind of give it away.  Growing up in oil-boom Texas, I was told about an old saying that held that if you see more than two Big Bird Cranes in a downtown area get ready for a crash. Denver seems to be defying this old nostrum comfortably. So far.

Favorable age demography stands as big if subtle factor in favor of Colorado’s boom.  The state has an unusually large working age population vis-a-vis the elderly and youth populations. Demographers quantify this through age dependency ratios- take the number of working age people (18-64) and dividing that by the combined number of 17 and younger and 65 and older. The basic idea is that at any given time working age people are pushing society’s cart, while young people are drawing upon public services such as education (for the young) and healthcare (for the elderly) at high rates.

Colorado age dependency


In 2010 Colorado had an age dependency ratio similar to that of the United States as a whole in the 1980s and 1990s.  Lots of working age people with relatively few elderly and young people worked wonders for the United States back then as the Baby Boomers entered their prime working, earning and taxpaying years.  We even had these quaint things called “budget surpluses” at the federal level in the 1990s while the Republicans and Democrats locked each other up and the tax revenue continued to pour in.

Ooops almost got drawn down the 1990s nostalgia event horizon. In any case with one of the nation’s lowest age dependency ratios, le bon temps continuer à rouler dans le Colorado! Perhaps Colorado will make better use of the current boom than the country made of the 1990s in education, as you see from the figure above that the Census Bureau does not project favorable age demography to last.

Colorado youth and elderly

Colorado is currently advantaged by a large middle-aged population, but middle-aged people have a funny way of becoming old.  Elderly people typically move out of their prime earning years, thus paying fewer taxes, and represent some of the most expensive patients in our health care system, some of which state taxpayers foot the bill. A growing elderly population creates strains on all other state spending priorities.

Over the next 15 years, through a combination of an expanding youth population and (mostly) through population aging, the Census Bureau projects Colorado’s total age dependency ratio to move from one of the lowest in the nation in 2010 (55) to a number that is far higher than any state in 2010 (72).  The Colorado of 2030 will have greater age demographic challenges than the Arizona or Florida of today.

One of the few things you can do about this now- world class education results. The United States largely squandered this opportunity in the 1990s, and the consequences seem ever more obvious and ominous.  The American economy may or may not be “rigged” but it seems terribly likely to seem that way to those who did not acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in life in school. Is there any aspect of American life more rigged than K-12 education?

Colorado’s embrace of charter schools has rewarded the state with a highly effective system of schools producing globally competitive results.  A survey found that 66% of Colorado charter schools had wait lists, and they average size of the wait lists was larger than the average student enrollment of a charter school. Wonderful though it is, one can infer from this that the charter sector alone cannot satisfy parental demand for options. Colorado needs as much improvement as it can get from any and all available sources. More effective and more cost effective education is precisely what Colorado needs and what charter schools have delivered, but the pace needs to quicken.

Much of the Colorado working age population of 2030 will be going back to school in a few weeks. A slowly growing but still minority of these students show globally competitive academic achievement. The clock is ticking- Colorado has the opportunity not to repeat America’s mistakes from the 1990s, but it is far from a given. Unless you succeed, you’ll live to regret it. Colorado has however a record of success to build upon- fire up the Big Birds!



Mississippi ESA Update: The Magnolias Are Blooming

July 21, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Back in February, opponents of educational choice criticized Mississippi’s new ESA program for attracting fewer than half the number of students with special needs as there were slots available, claiming that this showed that the program was a “failure.”

Well, surely they will now issue a press release declaring the ESA program a success now that it is oversubscribed for next year. Empower Mississippi has the details:

Yesterday the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) conducted a lottery to award the remaining 175 scholarships for the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program. This year a total of 425 scholarships will be awarded to students in Mississippi.

The lottery drawing, held at MDE’s temporary headquarters at the South Pointe Business Park in Clinton, utilized a random number generator to determine the 175 recipients. There were 304 approved applications in the lottery competing for the available slots. Those that did not receive a scholarship, along with those that continue to apply, will have their name put on a waiting list for future openings.

Last year, in the first year of the program, 251 of the 434 available scholarships had been awarded by the beginning of the school year. Because of the rolling application process, and the available slots, that number increased each quarter last year. This year the program will be at maximum capacity of 425 students at the beginning of the year.

Enrollment in the program has grown by 70 percent over a one-year period and the number of approved applications has increased by more than 120 percent during the same time period.


Source: Empower Mississippi

Next step: raise the cap on participation!

Rocky Mountain HIGHHHHH!!! (State Score Backup!)

July 21, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been digging into the very impressive NAEP scores of Colorado charter schools.  NAEP is the gold-standard of academic testing data, but it does make use of sampling whereby a representative sample of students in each state takes the NAEP rather than every single student. Charter school students in Colorado are now more numerous than say left handed kids with blonde hair and blue eyes, and each NAEP example involves a separate sample of students.  So a single sky-high score on one of the NAEP exams for charter school students could easily be the product of a favorable sample, solid achievement across all four tests instills confidence.

Still it is good to examine other testing data that does not involve sampling. The Colorado Department of Education released a 2016 State of Charter Schools Triennial Report that contains state testing data comparisons for charter and district schools. This data addresses a different question than what we have examined in the previous two posts. Previous posts have demonstrated that Colorado charter schools show top-notch performance across a variety of subgroups when compared to high-performing states. The data below uses state data to address how Colorado charter students scored compared to Colorado district students.

These data have further limitations. The report notes them as “preliminary” and we do not have access to the raw data- only the percentages of students meeting for exceeding grade level benchmarks. The Arizona Charter School Association analysed state data and determined that the state data displayed an even larger gap between charter and districts than the NAEP gaps. Without analysis however, we can’t make comparisons between state and NAEP data. Note also that judging by NAEP that Colorado’s district system is relatively high performing itself compared to other states.

With those caveats in mind, the state data shows a consistent advantage for charter students in math:



And in English Language Arts:

CO PARCC Reading

The report contains some breakdowns by student subgroups (family income, ethnicity) on both the current and previous state exam. These comparisons broadly favor the charter schools. The report also presents aggregate data on schools by type under the state’s accountability framework:


For those squinting at their Ipads, the last four columns basically show that a smaller percentage of Colorado charters fell into the “Does Not Meet/Approaching” category (40.52% to 52.07%) than districts, and a larger percentage made either “Meets/Exceeds” (59.48% for charters, 48.93% for districts).

The overall conclusion of these data is not that Colorado charter schools are “good” while Colorado district schools are “bad” whatsoever. Good or bad for whom? The good news for Coloradans is that you have a system of independent public schools operating at scale and producing on average world-class academic results.

Keep it up- in the concluding post I’ll show how Colorado’s need for highly skilled/educated workers is set to grow over time.

American Jewish Committee Endorses Abolishing Public Schools?

July 21, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In response to calls at the Republican National Convention for more school choice, the American Jewish Committee’s spokesperson announced that not only do they oppose the taxpayer subsidy of private schools, but they even oppose public schools. See for yourself:

For more than 50 years, school choice has been a contentious issue for American Jews. Decades ago, mainstream Jewish organizations were vociferous in defending the separation of church-and-state, worried that if the government got involved in funding religious schools in any way, it could lead to infringement on Jewish religious freedom. Those fears, according to American Jewish Committee associate general counsel Marc Stern, remain today.

“The Jewish community has long been concerned that government not be in the business of supporting private education,” Stern said. “Communities that want to maintain religious schools should pay for them on their own without government support. People shouldn’t be taxed to support things they don’t agree with.”

Okay, so he didn’t say it explicitly, but Mr. Stern is intelligent and knowledgeable enough to know that lots of Americans object to what is taught in public schools, so this was a clear endorsement by the AJC for the complete abolition of public schooling.

Heck, this “people shouldn’t be taxed to support things they don’t agree with” principle is something that my colleagues at the Cato Institute could really get behind. I’m sure that by the time the sun sets today, we could assemble a very long list of government programs to which many Americans object and we welcome the AJC’s support in abolishing them as well.

Then again, it’s always possible that the AJC’s attorney misspoke. Perhaps they’re not really in favor of abolishing the public school system and hundreds of other government programs, and the attorney just didn’t think through the logic of what he was saying. But if the AJC isn’t embracing anarcho-capitalism, then their “people shouldn’t be taxed to support things they don’t agree with” objection has no force or consistency. What they really mean is “we don’t think people should be taxed to pay for things we don’t like, but they should be taxed to pay for things that we do like,” which is not really a principle so much as an expression of political will — a political will that is fundamentally anti-pluralist, as I’ve explained previously:

Let’s consider an imaginary “public” school district where there are three groups of people: Hobbits, Ewoks, and Terrans. Each groups has very different and passionately held views about what should be taught in school and how it should be taught. All three groups are required to pay taxes to support the district school, which is ostensibly nonpartisan, nondenominational, and open to all. However, the majority of the district is Terran so the school reflects the Terran preferences. When the Hobbits and Ewoks open their own schools and seek equal per-pupil support from the local government, the indignant Terrans respond that the district school is meant for everyone. “It’s your right to open your own schools,” explain the Terrans, “but it’s your responsibility to pay for them.” Thus the majority brazenly forces minority groups either to abandon their values or to pay for two school systems. And lower-income minorities may have no choice at all.

Fortunately, other Jewish groups understand this and are willing to advocate for the greater freedom and pluralism that school choice programs deliver:

The Orthodox Union and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America have both successfully lobbied for New York City and New York State to fund programs like security and special education for private schools. According to Maury Litwack, the OU Advocacy Center’s director of state political affairs, more than 100,000 students attend Jewish day school in New York City.

“For parents who send their kids to Jewish day school, tuition is prohibitively high,” Litwack said. “They pay property taxes and a variety of other taxes. In American education there’s too often a one-size-fits-all approach to education. There should be more options.”

Republicans agree. A section of the party’s 2015 platform, titled “Choice in Education,” says, “Empowering families to access the learning environments that will best help their children to realize their full potential is one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time. A young person’s ability to succeed in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, ZIP code, or economic status.”

The AJC is an organization that claims to be committed to the principle of pluralism. I look forward to a day when they fully embrace the ideal of pluralism in education.

[H/t David Benkof. Cross-posted at Ricochet.]

Rocky Mountain HIGHHHHH!!! (Reading Scores Too!)

July 20, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday we ran through the 2015 NAEP Mathematics scores for Colorado charter schools for various available subgroups. Today we will run through the 2015 Reading NAEP scores for Colorado charter schools, comparing them to the top 10 statewide averages. Let’s start with scores by ethnicity, I’ve truncated these charts but just for perspective the lowest statewide average for Anglos students in 2015 was 261.

CO charter reading Anglos

and for Hispanic students (lowest statewide average =245):

CO charter reading Hispanic


Next we’ll look at scores by Free and Reduced Lunch status. The lowest statewide average for FRL kids in 2015 = 245:

CO charter reading FRL

and students not eligible for FRL (lowest statewide average = 266):

CO charter reading non-FRL

The Colorado Department of Education report indicates that Colorado charter schools have more ELL kids than districts, fewer special education kids. The NAEP does not provide standalone estimates for ELL or Special Education students (sub-samples of sub-samples are tough) but we can compare the general education scores of Colorado charter schools to the general education scores of the top 10 states. The lowest statewide average in 2015 for general education students stood at 257.

CO charter reading general ed

So just as a reminder from the work of Peterson et al, if you are in the Massachusetts neighborhood on NAEP, you are also keeping company with the academic achievement of the upper echelon of European and Asian countries.  So to all the Colorado charter students, educators and supportive policymakers and philanthropists here is to you:

Going bold in Missouri with Education Savings Accounts

July 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Martin F. Lueken)

Last year, Missouri was one of 18 states that introduced legislation to create an education savings account (ESA) program for families. While it didn’t ultimately become law, it’s stoked the conversation about educational choice in the state and how we can empower families to find schooling options that work for their kids.

Under an ESA program, state officials deposit money into an account for education expenses for children who sign up for the plan. Parents can spend the money on a host of education expenses ranging from books to special needs services, online education, tutoring, SAT and ACT preparation or private school tuition. Parents can also roll over unused funds and use them in the future to pay for college tuition.

Currently, there are five K-12 ESA programs operating in five states – Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee.

ESAs are a new and promising innovation with lots of potential because they move beyond just giving parents a say in what school their children attend. ESAs empower parents to tailor an educational experience that they want for their own children.

In essence, it expands on what Nobel Laureate and economist Milton Friedman’s vision of providing parents with freedom to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs. Going a step further, ESAs allow parents to unbundle educational goods and services and choose the ones that best meet their needs. School choice is getting an upgrade.

Critics of ESAs and other school choice efforts like to allege that the programs will “siphon” resources from public schools or harm students in some way. Fortunately, school choice has been around long enough to have produced a large body of research to learn from.

Researcher Greg Forster, for instance, systematically reviewed 100 empirical studies. His findings: school choice affects all of these areas mentioned above in a positive way. Students who choose score higher in reading and math, are more likely to graduate and are more likely to succeed in college. They also are more likely to learn civic values. Moreover, increased competition from school choice makes students remaining in public schools better off. When students choose, schools also tend to become more integrated. And not a single study found that school choice cost taxpayers any money.

Although greater educational freedom for Missouri families would be reason enough for many to adopt a program, some, including taxpayers and legislators, want to know how an ESA program would affect the state’s bottom line – a legitimate concern. A paper I recently co-authored with Mike McShane, Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute, estimated the fiscal impact of a broad-eligibility ESA program on Missouri taxpayers and public school districts. This program would be funded by tax credits for private donations, in which nearly all Missouri K-12 age children (88 percent) would be eligible. We considered a program that is capped at $50 million in its first year, which is a drop in Missouri’s $5.7 billion K-12 education budget’s bucket.

Using a variety of circumstances to make our estimates, we found that state government and local school districts combined would save between $8 million and $58 million per year under an ESA program. The school districts alone would save $21 million to $40 million per year. The state – which is footing the bill by issuing tax credits – could save up to $18 million annually.

What does this mean? For starters, public school districts would have more resources for each student who remains in public school (as well as other tangential benefits such as smaller class sizes and better matches between Missouri students and schools).

Overall, however, Missourians and their children would have little to worry about and a whole lot to gain. The Show-Me State has tried many things to improve their schools, especially in the areas that struggle the most, with little success. It’s time to go bold, and try something that’s already a demonstrated success. It’s time for Missouri to create an education system fit for the future.

Update: rephrased for clarity

Martin F. Lueken is the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Rocky Mountain HIGHHHHHH!!! (Charter Test Scores!)

July 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Colorado’s Department of Education released a study of state scores showing that the state’s charter schools scored higher than districts on the state exam. So in 2015 Colorado charter school students also rocked the NAEP.  The charts below will slice and dice the NAEP 8th grade math exam by subgroups, and displays Colorado charter students only to the top 10 scoring states by subgroup.  Colorado charter students did very well on the other NAEP exams as well, scoring for instance near the very top in overall 8th grade reading, but we will use 8th grade math for purposes of illustration.

Colorado Anglo students attending charter schools came out on top compared to the states with the top overall math scores for Anglos:

CO charter 1

Colorado Hispanic students attending charter schools were near the top (Anglos and Hispanics were the two groups numerous enough for NAEP to report on for Colorado charters):

Co charter 2

What about for kids whose family incomes qualify for a Free or Reduced Price lunch under federal guidelines?

Co Charter 3

What about kids above the FRL threshold?

Co Charter 4

Finally there is always a chance that charter schools have a smaller percentage of English Language Learners and/or Special Education students. The chart below therefore only compares the scores of general education students in Colorado charter schools to general education students in the top 10 states.

CO charter 5

How should folks in Colorado feel about all of this? Approximately like:


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