Education Reform 2003 to 2017: Modest Success/Epic Failure so What’s Next?

July 23, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Having had some time to reflect upon the 2017 NAEP, let’s take stock of things. In this we should keep in mind our broad ignorance between policy changes and state NAEP trends- and the same goes for average school quality. NAEP gives regular 4th and 8th grade scores in math and reading, and all 50 states have participated since 2003. 8th grade scores are more likely to reflect school quality than 4th grade scores in my opinion, as the students have more years of schooling. I’m not sure what to make of positive 4th grade score trends that do not result in higher 8th grade scores for instance. So this in essence a window into what we have to show for American K-12 reform 2003 to 2017 in 8th grade math and reading by state:

So what to make of the above chart? The below chart eliminates a lot of clutter by only including the states with statistically significant gains in both math and reading 2003-2017:

 

So 19 out of 50 states demonstrate statistically significant gains in both 8th grade math and reading. Notice also the absence in the second chart of mega-states Illinois, New York and Texas (although it is good to see California and Florida making it in). Texas has as many K-12 students as the 20 smallest states combined and annually adds approximately a Wyoming public school system sized number of new students. Florida has half as many students as Texas and California is still larger than Texas.

Since we don’t know the relationship between policy and academic trends, we are limited in the conclusions we can draw with confidence. Having said that, policies that have been broadly applied across all 50 states apparently suffer from severe limitations in their ability to move the needle academically. All 50 states for instance have adopted state academic standards and accountability exams, but most states have failed to move the needle on 8th grade scores. Even if we were feeling incredibly generous and made the wild assumption that none of the second chart gains would have happened in the absence of testing, a failure rate of 62% after 14 years is a far cry from leaving no child behind.

Mike Petrilli and Peter Cunningham recently offered up “where do we go from here” think pieces. I think Mike has some interesting ideas, but Peter’s call for a vast increase in spending is broadly unrealistic imo given the nation’s trillions of dollars in unfunded pension and entitlement liabilities, 10k Baby Boomers per day reaching the age of 65, etc. In normal times, Mike’s incremental adjustments might make a lot of sense, but we don’t live in either normal times, or in times that are going to allow some Great Society on Steroids increase in K-12 spending.

A much more difficult scenario may loom whereby the district system continues to resist reform, reformers continue to push reforms the public does not care for, and severe funding needs for increased health care spending leads to a broad reduction in per pupil spending.  State constitutions guarantee K-12 funding, but whether or not they will be creating schools that the vast majority of parents will continue to entrust with their children, I don’t feel as confident about. There are hopeful signs in the NAEP from state charter sectors:

…but the rate of charter growth has slowed substantially nationwide. Of particular disappointment are the last several state charter laws to pass that produce very few charter schools. Even states with relatively fast growing sectors have large wait lists. There are alas limits to what we can realistically hope for from a charter movement that has to a large degree lost its way by prioritizing cartel behavior over the interests of children on wait lists imo.

The private choice movement enjoyed a strong run earlier in the decade, but has since ran into political headwinds. Many private choice programs exist, but most remain modest in scale. The case for private choice remains as strong as ever, and the need will continue to grow, but the looming state funding crisis is coming fast. In four years, half of the Baby Boom generation will have reached the age of 65, and by 2030 all of them will be there. They have called dibs in advance on all plausible funding increases and a whole lot more.

So what is next? An increasingly likely scenario in my mind is that state district systems retain their flaws but loses a significant part of their funding and that choice systems continue to fail to meet existing much less expanded demand. In such a scenario an increasing percentage of families may decide to fend for themselves. Call them home-schools, home-school co-ops or micro-schools, my spidey-sense tells me that we should expect to see a great many more of them in the years ahead. I’ll write more about this in a follow-up post.

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Two Minute Hate-Florida Science Edition in Hillbilly 3-D Satanovision!!!!!!!!!!

June 8, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Orlando Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie displays double-plus good duck-speaking two-minute hate in what has to be one of the most impressive displays of over-confident bias I’ve seen in many, many moons. In fact, this column is nominated for the Two-Minute Hate Hall of Fame! Some of Florida’s media have grown suspicious of science in instruction in Florida’s private choice program. Oh dear. Here’s a couple of excerpts:

Some of these schools — 80 percent describe themselves as “Christian” — use textbooks that claim people lived with dinosaurs. Heck, Noah had a couple in the ark. Some say God saved North America from Catholics and gave them South America instead. Others teach that slaves who “knew Christ” had “more freedom” than nonbelievers who weren’t captive. Babble. Just sheer babble.

The only reason these fringe “Christian schools” are getting away with sucking up millions in education funding is that Florida legislators are afraid of offending them. Elected types are so terrified of the instant howling about “Christians” being “persecuted” that they never seriously considered demanding the course of study in voucher schools meet the same standards taught in public school. They’re just happy to buy votes with millions in cash. Your tax dollars.

Folks, these are neither real schools nor, scholars will argue, are they Christian. They’re just money-making little engines for benighted fraudsters whose only other chance at a paying job is the Sears hardware department.

Do fundamentalists want their kids to learn a bunch of hillbilly science? Handle venomous snakes? Learn that God looks down on Catholics, that America would still have slavery except “some power-hungry individuals stirred up the people”? Knock yourself out. Just don’t expect anyone else to pay for it, and stop calling it “education.” It’s not. It’s more like a 12-year sentence to some anamorphic Sunday school class from hell with no time off for good behavior.

So, there is a problem with all of this. Despite a fog of name-calling (hillbilly from hell!) and questioning of motives (profiteering hillbillies from hell!) Ritchie does not present a whit of evidence that private school students learn less science than public school students.

Fortunately, the National Center for Education Statistics runs a project known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which can shed light on this subject. Also known as the “Nation’s Report Card” this source has a huge amount of highly respected academic data, including some on Science, in private schools, among parents without college degrees.

NAEP does not provide private school science scores by individual state, but it does by region. We will therefore focus on the South, and the private school scores of students whose parents did not graduate from college. If you are going to find flat-earther profiteering red-neck science with Dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, or whatever it is Ritchie imagines, this ought to be the place to look.

NAEP tracks four types of Science achievement: Earth Science, Physical Science, Life Science and Overall Science. The 2009 8th grade science exam allowed us to look exactly at what Ritchie denounces: students whose parents did not graduate from college, who attend private schools located in Southern states. How did these kids perform in the various NAEP Science categories compared to their public school peers?

 

You see the same pattern by the way if you compare southern scores for students whose parents did graduate from college in public and private schools in the South. Or if you do these comparisons in Western, Northeast, or Midwestern students. Across four measures of science and four regions of the country and separately for non-college and college educated parents (32 comparisons in all) private school students demonstrated a higher score a mere 32 times out of 32. Most relevant to our present discussion however are the four comparisons in the above chart, among southern students without college educated parents.

Since the author brought up Protestant schools (snake-handling!!!!) it is worth noting that only 15% of Florida tax credit students attend Catholic schools. Unlike other regions of the country, the denominational distribution in American southern states does not lend itself the private school sectors dominated by Catholic schools to the extent seen in other parts of the country. It’s also worth noting that as the state with the (by far) the nation’s largest tax credit program, the nation’s largest voucher program when these data were generated (2009) we can safely assume that Florida kids are over-represented in the Southern sample. Back in 2009, southern private choice programs were few and far between in number and small in size outside of Florida.

In recent years changes in the federal free and reduced lunch program has made it increasingly unreliable as a proxy for family income. This is all the worse among private schools, who often have difficulty accessing the program. We will therefore make use of parental education as an imperfect proxy for family income. Nevertheless, when hunting for hillbilly kids with snake-handling parents suckered by profiteering private school swindlers being taught that the Sun rotates around the Earth in science class, you would be hard-pressed to find a better place to look.

NAEP has private school scores for 8th grade Science from 2011, 2009, 2000 and 1996. The 2011 figures provide no numbers for students whose parents did not college graduate parents attending private school by region, but did provide numbers for college graduate parents in both public and private schools. Private school students had higher scores in three of four regions (one point advantage for public schools in the Northeast). The 2000 and 1996 data do not include a regional variable, but in the national comparisons both students whose parents did not graduate from college attending private schools and college grad private school parents had higher scores than their public school peers in both 2000 and 1996. So I think this basically puts the score at 39 to 1.

Comparisons like the one above do not prove that private schools are better at teaching science than public schools in any way, shape or form. They do however cast substantial doubt on the notion that they do a hugely worse job at teaching science than public schools. If private schools are running profiteering-hillbilly-from-hell science classes, what pray-tell is going on in the public schools?


We’re Going STREAKING! Down to the Federal School Choice Quad!

March 30, 2017

“It is just you Frank!” “There is more coming…”

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The American film classic Old School features a scene in which Frank the Tank (Will Ferrell) believes himself to be leading a streaking crowd. Frank learns in an awkward fashion that there is no crowd following him when his wife and her friends spot him on the road. The relationship between that scene and this Greg Toppo article should be readily apparent when you read it. 


Kevin Carey Flashes Back to 2009 for a Wild West tax credit tale

March 3, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Kevin Carey is at it again- this time by flashing back to eight year old allegations about the Arizona tax credit program as a dire warning about the dangers of a federal tax credit. When these stories ran in 2009, here is what I had to say about it here on the Jayblog:

When presented with this type of information, the first instinct of some will be to deny it, to hunker down, to accuse our enemies of far greater misdeeds, or to otherwise try to put lipstick on a pig. Good luck with that.  It is blindingly obvious to me that Arizona’s tax credit is system is a good program overall that suffers from specific weaknesses that can and must be addressed.  Otherwise, writing articles like this one will become the journalistic equivalent of using a shot-gun to shoot fish in a bucket.

Since then, things have improved substantially, but Kevin did not get the memo. Here are a few items that Kevin left out:

Subsequent to 2009, the state enacted new legislation to require STOs to both consider financial need in the granting of scholarships, and to report to the Arizona Department of Revenue on the family income of recipients. When you examine the Arizona Department of Revenue Reports, you find that approximately 80 to 90 scholarship funds went to middle and low-income students. This not only is a more progressive distribution than many public schools and school districts, it beats the living daylights out of another Arizona tax credit for public school kids that overwhelmingly goes to advantaged public schools. Quite frankly it is likely that a large majority of private choice funds were going to middle and low-income children before the state required reporting. It’s just nice to have an Arizona Department of Revenue report that confirms it.

Carey wrote “Some states, like Alabama and Indiana, limit tax credit vouchers to low- and middle-income families, or to students who were previously enrolled in public school. But others, including Arizona, do not, subsidizing private education for the well-off.” Two of Arizona’s credits are means tested, and two are not. One of the two that is not means tested exclusively serves children with disabilities. I’ll be for completely means-testing private choice programs the very instant that Kevin gets means-testing passed for district schools. Until such time, let’s note for the record that the Arizona private tax credit programs serve provide far fewer dollars to “well off” kids than say, Scottsdale Unified. Someone please wake me up when the Times runs a breathless expose about rich kids getting exclusive access to fancy and abundantly funded public schools.

In addition to the state taking action, donors apparently expressed their displeasure with what they read about in the East Valley Tribune as well during the next donation cycle (see page 8.) If donors don’t like the way scholarship groups run their business, they have the option of not donating, or donating to other groups. 2010 was a rough year for scholarship groups. Decentralized accountability strikes again!

Reasonable people can disagree about the degree and extent of oversight and other devilish details in a program like this. Even we in the Wild West have to make adjustments on occasion, and the democratic process is ultimately pretty good at hashing these sort of things out. I’ll be happy to make my donation this April to help a low-income parent choose a school for their child.

 


Do tax-credit scholarship programs drain money from district schools?

November 15, 2016

(Guest Post by Marty Lueken)

Perhaps the most-cited criticism of educational choice policies is that they “siphon” resources from district schools. High-quality research reveals numerous benefits stemming from educational choice, including benefits for participants, positive competitive effects, and fostering civic values. Policymakers, however, are concerned about the fiscal impact on district schools. A new report, The Tax-Credit Scholarship Audit, finds that such claims about “siphoning” are unfounded.

This report follows up on an earlier report, The School Voucher Audit, which examined the fiscal impact of school voucher programs. In the report, I estimated the fiscal impact of 10 tax-credit scholarship programs in seven states (AZ, FL, GA, IA, IN, PA, and RI) on state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts combined. There are currently 21 tax-credit scholarship programs operating in 17 states. Programs with less than three years of data were not included in the analysis. This sample includes the largest tax-credit scholarship programs in the country. These programs accounted for 93 percent of all scholarships awarded in 2013-14, the final year included in the analysis.

Here’s a summary of the results:

Participation

Since the first tax-credit scholarship program was established in 1997, more than 1.2 million scholarships were awarded to students through 2014. Participation in tax-credit scholarship programs has grown every year since 1997. Participation in these programs grew, on average, by 20 percent each year since 2000.

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Tax-credit scholarship programs require time to establish. Looking at the programs by year in operation, the number of scholarships awarded more than tripled after their fifth year in operation, from 28,000 to more than 95,000.

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Educational choice programs are popular and continue to expand, though not to the detriment of the current district school system, as critics argue. Even in states where eligibility for school choice programs is expansive, we haven’t seen a mass exodus of students from district schools. Moreover, the best evidence on the effects of school choice on district schools shows that district schools improve in response to competition.

Fiscal Impact

Depending on assumptions about the number of students switching from district or charter schools to private schools and the share of students who receive multiple scholarships, I estimated that these 10 tax-credit scholarship programs saved taxpayers between $1.7 billion and $3.4 billion since Arizona enacted the first such program in 1997. That equates to between $1,650 and $3,000 in savings for each scholarship recipient.

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This paints a starkly different picture from the “siphoning” argument that school choice critics like to make. Context is useful when discussing the fiscal impacts of these programs. For all the controversy that sometimes surrounds school choice programs, the fact is that these programs make up a very small share of states’ K-12 revenues. The cost of the taxpayer subsidies for the programs covered in the report range from 0.1 percent each for Rhode Island and Indiana’s programs to 1.5 percent for Arizona’s four programs.

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When critics claim these programs are costly or drain funds, they usually focus on just the cost of the taxpayer subsidy without giving any consideration to savings. But that tells only one part of the story. It’s also true that districts are no longer responsible for educating students that leave via these programs. In the short-run, they incur variable cost savings. My analysis accounts for this and even takes a more conservative approach to estimating variable costs than in other work by economists.

These savings don’t usually show up in budget reports, however, though public officials make choices—whether implicitly or explicitly—about what they do with the savings. As I note in the report:

“When school choice programs are enacted, however, it is usually the case that savings do not automatically materialize as reductions in K–12 expenditures because public officials must actively make decisions to reduce such expenditures. When students leave public schools, officials have more room in their budgets to allocate resources for educating students that remain in those schools.” (pp. 15-16)

Government officials have many options regarding what to do with these savings. They can reinvest them in district schools, which means more resources for the fewer number of students who remain in them, or they can also reallocate those savings to other public services. They can also choose to hold all or some of the funds rather than spend them. They can subsequently lower property taxes or save and invest these funds. Typically, however, it’s not clear how these freed-up resources are used.

It is a worthwhile policy goal to provide and expand quality educational options so that parents can match their children to the education provider that works best for them. Tax-credit scholarship programs offer one way to help achieve this goal by providing avenues for states to attract capital and invest in their state’s education system without harming taxpayers or students.

 

Martin F. Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice.


The Legal Battle for Choice in Georgia

November 4, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship helps more than 12,000 students attend schools of their choice rather than their assigned district school. Predictably, defenders of the government education establishment sued to block parents from exercising educational choice. Thanks to the efforts of the state attorneys and the Institute for Justice, which intervened in the case on behalf of several parents of scholarship students, a lower court ruled against the challengers earlier this year. However, the challengers appealed and the case is now before the state supreme court.

Yesterday, the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in the case urging the Georgia Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the tax-credit scholarships. Cato’s legal eagle, Ilya Shapiro, has more at the Cato-at-Liberty blog:

We urge the court to affirm the determination that the tax-credit program does not violate the state constitution, focusing on the fact that it does not involve spending public funds for any sectarian purpose. Because the program makes no expenditures from the public fisc, it cannot violate the No-Aid Clause. Taxpayers choose to donate voluntarily using their own private funds and receive a tax credit for the amount of the donation; no money ever enters or leaves the treasury.

The challengers attempt to get around this fact by claiming that the credits constitute anindirect public expenditure, but this argument relies on a budgetary theory known as “tax expenditure analysis” that finds no support as a legitimate means of constitutional interpretation under Georgia (or federal, or any other state) law. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this type of reasoning in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011).

The argument that the program constitutes an unconstitutional gratuity is likewise incorrect because the tax credits are not public funds, and the government cannot give away that which it does not own. Even if Georgia were giving up something of value, it would not be a “gratuity” because the state receives a substantial benefit in return: increased educational attainment, plus the secondary effects that increased competition and a more educated citizenry create.

The Georgia Supreme Court should affirm the lower court’s decision and uphold the state’s Qualified Educational Tax Credit Program—ensuring educational choice for Georgia families, regardless of how much money they make.

 

 

 


Setting the Record Straight on Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarships

August 30, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Opponents of school choice spend a great deal of time and energy perpetuating all sorts of easily debunked myths about choice programs. In Florida, the state teachers’ union has worked very hard to spread two such myths about the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association calls a “scheme”:

“It’s a scheme because this tax credit voucher [sic] was enacted by the Legislature to circumvent a previous state Supreme Court ruling saying that public money could not go to fund vouchers,” he said. “So the Legislature set up a scheme that would allow certain types of taxes to be ‘donated’ to the groups administering the voucher program. So instead of paying taxes to the state, they were forgiven their tax obligation if they donated the exact same amount of money to the voucher administrators.”

Fortunately, the Daily Commercial gave Ron Matus of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization, the opportunity to set the record straight:

“The union kept saying the tax credit scholarships were done to circumvent the ruling,” he said. “Their timeline is off. The fact of the matter is the tax credit scholarship program was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2001, five years before the Supreme Court ruling. The opponent keeps arguing the program drains money from public schools. Every single study that has been done over many years by multiple different parties that has looked at the fiscal impact says it does not harm public schools or drain money from public schools.”

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program saved the state $36.2 million in 2008.

Government Accountability stated that while the program “reduces the amount of tax revenues received by the state, it produces a net fiscal benefit.”

This academic year, Step Up for Students will provide more than 90,000 tax-credit scholarships to students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Additionally, they will administer nearly 6,000 education savings accounts. Florida also has a second scholarship organization, AAA Scholarship Foundation, so it’s likely that more than 100,000 Florida students will receive tax-credit scholarships this year.

As Step Up demonstrates, scholarship organizations do much more than just cut checks. They also can provide parents with vital information about their educational options, help connect parents and schools, and–when necessary–they can organize to defend the scholarships from outside attacks. As Jay noted in a recent post, politically viable policies require “constituents who can then be mobilized to protect and expand” them. School choice policies generate those constituents, and as Step Up has amply demonstrated, scholarship organizations can mobilize them.