Vouchers were no Chuck Norris but Megan McArdle Should Hang in There

October 24, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Megan McArdle wrote a lament for school vouchers at Bloomberg. I’ll briefly lay out why I think a stronger case for optimism is warranted before trying to beat back insomnia with a youtube documentary of ancient Egyptian engineering (I wish I was making that up).

The first problem involves an over-reliance on studies of short-term test score trends. Our ability to study student test scores within the confines of a random assignment study usually lasts about three years.  During the early part of those three years students are dealing with negative transfer effects in the early going.

So if we take the available evidence from Milwaukee, within the random assignment window the evidence looks to me like this: the normal trajectory for a low-income urban child is to fall further behind over time. The control group of voucher users does not follow suit.  By the time the random assignment study falls apart some of the differences in test scores are statistically significant and in favor of the voucher students.

Is this a failure? It depends largely upon your expectations. If you had expected Milwaukee vouchers to heal the world’s pain, this is indeed disappointing. If you however gather some longer term evidence, find that the voucher kids have meaningful long-term attainment benefits and realized these benefits at a much smaller cost per pupil than the public system, you take a different view. I see Milwaukee vouchers as a success in an evolutionary process and want to find ways to make it more successful.

Milwaukee type programs suffer from design limitations and have hit a ceiling politically. They were basically designed to give families the option to move children into a preexisting set of private schools with empty seats. That’s a wonderful thing for many families, until you run out of empty seats. This doesn’t make these programs bad, just limited. Compared to the district that spends twice as much, has lower test scores and lower graduation rates, it is a bit of a triumph at least until your supply of empty seats runs out.  If we want more than that (and we should) we need more robust programs.

By “more robust” I mean programs with more equitable funding levels, enough to spur the creation of new schools. Programs that allow parents options outside of just private school tuition into a wider array of colleges, tutors, and service providers. Programs open to all children and communities that address with equity issues through funding weights rather than self-defeating exclusion.

Parental choice 2.0 (ESA) programs emerged from the unconstitutional ashes of an Arizona voucher program for children with disabilities just six years ago. Governor Napolitano signed a voucher bill for students with disabilities in 2004, but the Arizona Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Lawmakers subsequently replaced it first with a scholarship tax credit law, and then the first ESA program. How is that whole crazy freedom and opportunity and ability to vote with your feet thing working out for AZ students with disabilities? Thanks for asking:

The ESA concept remains a work in progress with young programs operating in AZ, FL, MS, NC and TN. For a number of reasons, I believe that this model has a much higher academic and political ceiling than version 1.0, but caution is warranted. Part of the reason we see articles like McArdle’s is because we promised that the tears of vouchers would cure cancer like tomorrow.  School vouchers were a vitally necessary step in a process of unpredictable pacing, but they were more like your father’s Oldsmobile vis-a-vis your great grandfather’s Model T. We all want our flying car and we want it now and I can only tell you we are working on it, and the status-quo is both undesirable and unsustainable. The tears of ESAs won’t cure cancer tomorrow either, but the best is yet to come in the evolution of putting families in charge of the education of their children.

 

 


Another ESA momma bear attack spotted in the Arizona Republic letter page

August 15, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

If you are squinting  at your iPad, this letter basically asks where the calls for oversight were when her child’s district received $26,000 from the state and the district delivered an hour of speech therapy with a side order of indifference. “Before we attack and try to defund the ESA program that is doing a lot of good things for disabled kids, maybe we should look into the lack of oversight and accountability in our public schools.”


Recall Challenge for Arizona ESA expansion

August 10, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Anti-choice activists delivered 111,540 petition signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office two days ago in advance of the deadline in order to subject SB 1431 (2017 ESA expansion) to a vote of the public. Whether or not this will result in the number of legally required valid signatures remains unclear- judging from the previous history of validity rates it is very likely to be close either way. It will take weeks before we have a final answer. Only the expansion of the program, rather than the program itself, faces uncertainty. The program will continue to operate for the students eligible under the previous law without interruption.

What “Save Our Schools” group has done is both impressive and misguided. The chattering classes in Arizona, including me, were broadly skeptical regarding their chances. Gathering signatures out in the summer Arizona heat is an indicator of real passion. Their fury however were deeply misplaced. The real victims here are the hundreds of parents who had submitted an application to the Department of Education to participate and the larger number who had planned to apply.

Last Friday at a public Arizona Talks debate, Zeus Rodriguez made the point that the question of whether to have parental choice and the question of how much to spend on public schools are entirely separate decisions. Choice opponents seem to fail to appreciate that school funding decisions are reached democratically (both directly and indirectly) and that districts remain (by far) the best funded option both in absolute and on a per student basis. The fixation on the ESA program as a boogeyman is especially odd. Approximately 3,500 students participated in the AZESA program last year- we have multiple individual high schools with more students. Whether you examine numbers of students or dollars invested, the absurdity of blaming private choice for every district grievance becomes clear:

and in terms of dollars:

Funding for K-12 education is guaranteed in the Arizona Constitution and this provision enjoys the broad support of the public. It is under no threat from anyone as far as I can tell. The history of the last 22 years demonstrates that even the district portion of public education has more kids and more money than when parental choice experiments began. Fast growing states do not in other words face a zero sum game. Had Arizona choice supporters been out to “destroy public education” in the state the two charts above demonstrate that this imaginary effort would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

Fortunately, our real project is entirely different.

The evidence supporting the real project (improving variety, diversity and performance) is much stronger. Arizona has more choice options than any other state, and alone among all states made statistically significant progress on all six NAEP exams for the entire period that we can track all exams (2009-2015). When you net out significant declines from increases the typical state saw one significant increase during this period.  Arizona students made more progress on math 2009 and 2013 as 4th/8th graders, and then did it again between 2011 and 2015. This of course does not prove that choice caused the improvement, but when you take a close look at the gains, it is very difficult indeed to argue that they have hurt:

Stay tuned to see what happens next. My sympathies lie entirely with the families who just had an opportunity yanked away just before the start of the school year.

 

 


Arizona ESA Momma Bear Mauls Arizona Republic in LTE

June 29, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

#!!BOOOOOOOOM!!

I’ll give the Republic credit for running the letter, but totally agree with Mrs. Visser.

 


North Carolina sets special needs children free, will Texas be next?

June 22, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The North Carolina legislature has passed an Education Savings Account program for children with disabilities as a part of the budget. If the budget becomes law as expected North Carolina will become the sixth state to join the ESA family.

Next month Texas legislators will return in special session, and Governor Greg Abbott has put a choice program for special needs children on the session call. Governor Abbott quite rightly has called for a choice program as part of an effort on the part of the state to dig itself out of a deep hole with special needs parents after 12 years of secretively running a de facto cap on the number of children who would receive services. Today in the Texas Tribune I make the case for why such a program would be especially beneficial to special needs children in Texas:

Put yourself in the shoes of a special needs student or parent for a moment: Would you desire a limited set of options and cold-blooded state policies discouraging districts from meeting your needs? Or would you desire a system in which you have additional options if things don’t work out?

Lawmakers can and should take other actions to improve the dismal state of special education in the Lone Star State. However, any reform effort should include the broadening of opportunities and should not preclude other efforts. After all, children with disabilities will only have the best opportunity to thrive and flourish when they have the ability to choose their service providers.

During the same period Texas bureaucrats covertly implemented a cap, Arizona lawmakers began increasing the options for special needs children. Let’s see how that has been working out for the special needs children:

K-12 reactionaries dragged us through the court system twice trying to stop us from offering options to these students in Arizona. We had to invent an entirely new form of school choice in order to ultimately prevail. It.was.worth.it.

 


Arizona Students with Disabilities thrive during choice era

May 16, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the chance to meet some of the folks from Raise Your Hand Texas a few years ago, and they seemed entirely delightful and respectable people. I’m afraid however that they have rushed off to form a judgement about the subject of education freedom from students with disabilities without examining the available evidence. We have statistical analyses of the impact of such programs on student outcomes for children with disabilities, surveys of parental satisfaction for participating parents, etc. but in the end this comes down to a gut check: do you believe choice for children with disabilities should be limited to those who can pay for it themselves or hire high-priced attorneys? Or do you believe that everyone can benefit from giving all children with disabilities the opportunity to seek education solutions with their share of funds?

Put me down in the latter category. If you put yourself in the former category, please feel free to explain how Arizona children with disabilities managed to show such strong gains during a period when they were being “oppressed” by not one but two different private choice programs for children with disabilities. You don’t have to trust me- go look up the numbers yourself.

As you can see, a large number of states (including Texas) either made zero progress or else saw declining scores for students with disabilities during this period. None of the states with functioning private choice programs for children with disabilities made it into the “Zero or less” club. Oddly enough several states with such programs operating during this period made it into the top 10, including Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia and Indiana. Others with long-standing programs-including Florida and Utah- had more modest gains during this period but high overall scores in 2015 (NAEP science scores only go back to 2009 in the current framework).

None of this demonstrates that private choice programs drive academic improvement for students with disabilities remaining in public schools. Far more thorough studies make that case. The opposite proposition that such programs harm the academic progress of children remaining in districts- can survive neither a cursory examination of evidence nor formal statistical evaluation.

It is deeply misguided for Raise Your Hand Texas to attempt to “protect” Texas children with disabilities from more diverse schooling options, the ability to hire certified academic tutors and therapists, assistive technologies etc. Given a 12 year long effort on the part of the Texas Education Agency and 1,054 Texas school districts to undermine the intent of IDEA, I’m inclined to think that these children could use some protection from the public schooling system-as in the option to leave. As for the question of whether participating students have things to gain, you should listen to parents directly involved: