Two Court Cases Plus Two Voucher Studies Equals Four School Choice Wins

June 26, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

There’s so much good news for school choice today, it’s hard to know where to begin.

A Legal Victory in the Peach State

I woke up this morning to the news that the Georgia Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that private donations to private nonprofit scholarship organizations that help children attend private schools are (shocker!) private funds, even if the donors receive a tax credit:

We also reject the assertion that plaintiffs have standing because these tax credits actually amount to unconstitutional expenditures of tax revenues or public funds. The statutes that govern the Program demonstrate that only private funds, and not public revenue, are used.

I discuss the case and its implications in greater detail here.

SCOTUS Strikes Down Discrimination Against Religion — But Saves Blaine for Another Day

A couple hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri that it is unconstitutional to exclude religious organizations from benefiting from secular aid programs that are otherwise neutral with respect to religion. As Neal McCluskey explains, the court didn’t go as far as many school choice advocates would have liked, but it is unambiguously a step in the right direction. Writing for the majority, Justice Roberts wrote:

It is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel. But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” […] As the Court put it more than 50 years ago, “[i]t is too late in the day to doubt that the liberties of religion and expression may be infringed by the denial of or placing of conditions upon a benefit or privilege.” […]

Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character. The “imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deter[s] or discourage[s] the exercise of First Amendment rights.” […] The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant. [citations removed]

The Court made sure to note that it was not overturning Locke v. Davey, in which the Court held that it did not violate the Free Exercise Clause for the state of Washington to deny funding to a student who was attending a post-secondary religious school to pursue a “devotional theology degree.” Although the “selective funding program” generally allowed students to attend both religious or secular colleges, the funds couldn’t be used to pursue a purely religious education for the purposes of becoming a religious minister. In Trinity, SCOTUS clarified that “Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do—use the funds to prepare for the ministry.”

Left open is the question of whether the state can prohibit families from using school vouchers at religious schools. If the voucher program is intended to give parents more choices among schools that teach reading, math, science, etc., then seemingly it shouldn’t matter whether school that teach those subjects have a religious affiliation. Indeed, Justices Gorsuch and Thomas clearly indicated they wished the majority had gone further (“the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else”), while Justice Breyer likened the playground resurfacing program at issue in the case to churches benefiting from police or fire protection, but saw no need to address the question of private school tuition. Tomorrow SCOTUS will announce whether it will consider the Douglas County, Colorado voucher case, which would give it the opportunity to answer that question.

Louisiana and Indiana Voucher Studies: Neutral to Positive Outcomes After a Few Years

I’ve already run long and I know that others will be writing about them soon, so I won’t dive deep into the Louisiana and Indiana voucher studies today. In short, they each find that the negative impacts on test scores that voucher students experience in the first couple years of participating in a voucher program disappear by the third year. Indeed, Indiana finds some positive effects in years three and four.

Given that states spend significantly less per pupil on voucher students than at district schools, performing as well or better after just a few years in the program should be exciting news for choice supporters. However, I confess that I am uneasy. Both Indiana and Louisiana mandate that private schools administer the state test to voucher students and I am concerned about how that mandate might warp how schools educate children — a concern I have about both district and private schools. Test scores measure only a small slice of the value that parents want schools to provide their children, and as Jay pointed out yet again yesterday, there’s a disconnect between educational measures and life outcomes. It’s great if school choice improves test scores, but the ability to choose shouldn’t be predicated on raising test scores — especially if doing so creates perverse incentives that distort education.

In summary: Three cheers for the court victories and one cheer for the voucher studies.

 

 

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Deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, suburbanites want that wall, but broad choice can take walls down

June 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Important new study from the Fordham Institute on open enrollment in Ohio. The map above shows dark blue show districts not participating in open enrollment, and they just happen to be leafy suburban districts who are both higher income with student bodies that tend to be pale complected that also happen to be near large urban districts with many students who are neither of these things. Feel free to reference this map the next time someone claims that public schools “take everyone.”

Many moons ago I wrote a study for the Mackinac Center about the interaction between charter schools and open enrollment in Michigan. I found a very clear pattern among some of the suburban districts whereby charter schools provided the incentive for early open enrollment participants to opt-in. After one district began taking open enrollment transfers, and some additional charters opened, it created an incentive for additional nearby districts to opt in- they were now losing students to both charters and the opted in district. Through this mechanism, the highly economically and racially segregated walled-off district system began to:

Not every domino fell however. I interviewed a superintendent of a fancy inner ring suburb who related that they saw their competitors as elite private schools, not charter schools. When I asked him why his district chose not to participate in open enrollment, he told me something very close to “I think historically the feeling around here is that we have a good thing going, so they want to keep the unwashed masses out.”

Contrast this as well with Scottsdale Unified in Arizona, which is built for 38,000 students, educates 25,000 students, 4,000 of whom transferred into a Scottsdale Unified school through open enrollment. 4,000 transfer students would rank Scottsdale Unified as the 9th largest CMO in Arizona, and they are far from the only district participating in open enrollment in a big way. Why is Scottsdale willing to participate unlike those fancy Ohio districts? They have 9,000 kids living within their boundaries attending charter and private schools.

Why haven’t choice programs torn down the Berlin walls around suburban districts? Sadly because they have been overly focused on urban areas. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Dashboard shows that 72.6% of Ohio charter schools operated in urban areas. The voucher programs likewise started in Cleveland, and then expanded out to include failing schools (and children with disabilities statewide). More recently a broader voucher program has begun the process of phasing in slowly on a means-tested basis, but the combination of adding a single grade per year and means testing promises to unlock a very modest number of walled off suburban seats.

These programs have benefits, but they will not provide an incentive for fancy suburban districts to participate in open enrollment any time soon. Informal conversations I have had with Ohio folks related to me that Ohio suburban and rural dwellers- aka the people who elect the legislative majorities-tend to look at charter schools as a bit of a “Brand Ech” thing for inner city kids. Rest assured that the thousands of Scottsdale moms sitting on BASIS and Great Hearts charter school wait lists do not view charters as “Brand Ech.” Likewise these folks probably see themselves as paying most of the state of Ohio’s bills through their taxes and just might come to wonder why the state’s voucher programs seem so determined to do so little for their kids and communities.

A serious strategic error of the opening act of the parental choice movement was to look out to places like Lakewood Ohio or Scottsdale Arizona and say “those people already have choice.” This point of view is both seriously self-defeating in terms of developing sustaining coalitions, it also fails to appreciate the dynamic interactions between choice programs. Arizona’s choice policies include everyone and have created a virtuous cycle whereby fancy districts compete with charter and private school options for enrollment. This leads to a brutal crucible for new charter schools in Arizona whereby parents quickly shut many down because they have plenty of other options. Educators open lots of schools and parents close lots of schools-leading to world-class Arizona charter scores. Arizona’s charter NAEP score triumph was more or less mathematically inevitable once this process got rolling. Did I mention the part about Arizona leading the nation in statewide cohort NAEP gains since 2009? That too but Ohio not so much.

I’m open to challenge in the comment section from any of my Ohio friends or anyone else, but by contrast to these eyes Ohio’s choice programs look to be mired in an urban quagmire and they need the leafy suburbs to play in order to win. Current policies not only have not unlocked Ohio’s Scottsdale Unified equivalents, they likely never will. NACSA put Ohio’s revised charter school law in their top ten, but allow me to pull up a couch and heat up some popcorn for the next few years as charters lawyer up and parents resist arbitrary bureaucratic closures, and the rate of new schools opening goes glacial.

Competition is by far the best method of quality control and bringing the leafy suburban districts into the melee is crucial if you are in the urban fight to win. The districts currently largely untouched by charters and private choice overlap with those not participating in open enrollment. Regulating urban charters is not going to make your suburban districts into defacto CMOs. This.isn’t.hard.to.figure.out. While counter-intuitive to many if you want to secure improved education options for the poor, you need to include everyone.

 


The Slow-Motion Agonizing Death of DC OSP

May 2, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

David Leonhardt delivers what I suspect will soon become standard talking points on the left: vouchers have failed but the more heavily regulated charters have succeeded with the latest DC Opportunity Scholarship Program evaluation serving as the launch point.

Mind you it takes a severe case of recency bias in order to reach this conclusion. Previous evaluations of DCOSP found a very large high-school graduation rate advantage at a fraction of the overall cost per pupil, but never mind that the more recent evaluation found lower math scores after year one-FAIL! Get more charter schools in here stat!

The thinking in the piece is both flawed and shallow, but private schooling in the District of Columbia is in fact in a death spiral, and one of our tribe’s own making. The Urban Institute has been tracking private school enrollment in DC, and it has been in steep decline despite the existence of OSP. OSP in short is far too weak of a policy to compete against DC’s charter school law.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program lacks crucial features that would give it a chance to compete. First and foremost DC charter schools have higher and far more reliable per pupil funding. The reliable part in the long run outranks the amounts in importance. DC OSP budgets have been a political football over the years. You would not only be nuts to start a private school in preference to a charter in DC, the finances have given hard nudges for many private schools to convert into charters-which has in fact happened.

Second charter and district school funding in DC is universal. Donald Trump can send his son to a district or charter school in DC and no one would blink. For some reason however DC OSP is limited to only a small number of low-income families on the basis of a continually imperiled appropriation. Stare long and hard at the above chart if you’d like to see how this strategy works out politically over time, but self-marginalization looks pretty accurate term to these eyes.

Let’s imagine a counter-factual in which a wiser Congress had created a DC Opportunity Scholarship program with a dedicated funding stream, had equalized funding per pupil across schooling sectors, and had reflected equity concerns with larger scholarships for low-income families rather than a self-marginalizing means test. I’m willing to guess that the trends would look a bit different than:

If we had this wiser Congress, DC parents would be in charge of what sort of schools survived and thrived in the District. If parents chose to shutter private schools under such a set of circumstances, you would hear no complaint from me. With our current set of policies, it should be obvious that a charter sector with more secure, more generous and universal funding has been and will continue to crush a sector with politically insecure, less generous and very limited funding. Meanwhile back at DCPS, the district continues to produce Detroit-like results for low-income kids despite enormous resources.

Now some of our Congressional Olympians would like to bring their wise and benevolent private choice policy making to the rest of the country. Pay no attention to the complete hash Congress has made of DC OSP for the last decade-this time it is going to work out swell. Congress has unwittingly presided over the extinction of the private school sector in their own city and either did not care or did not notice. Call me a cynic, but skepticism seems abundantly warranted regarding wide-ranging federal adventures into private choice policy.

Congressional supporters of parental choice who want to !do something!  should start by fixing OSP before it is too late. Show some success in crawling before you attempt to run a marathon, please.

 

 


Pay No Attention to the Research Consensus Behind the Curtain

April 6, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Noah Smith dresses up a few fussy methodological quibbles and one big, really dishonest bit of fakery in order to cast aspersions on my Win-Win report and distract you from the research consensus behind the curtain.

My report reviewed over 100 empirical findings on private school choice programs, showing that there is a very strong research consensus in favor of positive effects from such programs. Smith identifies two (2) cases where he thinks I ought to have used a different method to classify the findings. I disagree, but frankly, it’s not worth quibbling about. The research consensus in favor of school choice is still clear even if we were to accept Smith’s cavails.

His statement that “vouchers have generally disappointed” is totally unsupported by the evidence – and if he read my report, he knows it.

But his big, dramatic “gotcha!” is that I allegedly omit a well-known study with a null finding. That would indeed be a serious omission.

Unfortunately for Smith, the study he dramatically accuses me of omitting is not a study of private school choice. Here is the abstract with emphasis on Smith’s dishonesty added:

School choice has become an increasingly prominent strategy for enhancing academic achievement. To evaluate the impact on participants, we exploit randomized lotteries that determine high school admission in the Chicago Public Schools. Compared to those students who lose lotteries, students who win attend high schools that are better in a number of dimensions, including peer achievement and attainment levels. Nonetheless, we find little evidence that winning a lottery provides any systematic benefit across a wide variety of traditional academic measures. Lottery winners do, however, experience improvements on a subset of nontraditional outcome measures, such as self-reported disciplinary incidents and arrest rates.

From the very first sentence, Smith explicitly frames his whole article as an article about private school choice. For him to accuse me of omitting a study on private school choice because I omitted this study is dishonest.

Smith owes me an apology and a retraction. If he refuses, Bloomberg owes me a correction.

I’ll hold my breath waiting.


Good Listen/Reads

January 26, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay goes full podcast with Nick Gillispie, putting the Secretary of Ed debate in context and revealing an “anarcho-socialist” youth. Congrats on keeping the more desirable half btw! Reason also covered the ESA push in Texas:

Andy Smarick presses the attack on the massive failure of the SIG program and sees an opening for choice. Mike Petrilli asks you to please ignore the evaluation disasters as he courts the technocratic tribe on the bossy nature of the Louisiana voucher program.

Finally the most interesting thing you will read this month just might be “What Do You Do if a Red State Moves to You?”  Editorial comment on the latter: there are obviously disturbing trends afoot but democracy is designed to develop compromises that people can live if not love. If the Presidency devolves into whose team gets to make imperial diktats from on high to govern by pen and phone expect unending backlash from all sides of every issue.


The View Sure Looks Good from Here

January 19, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My Win-Win findings read out loud on The View (check it out at the 9:30 mark).

I promise to remember y’all now that I’ve come into my kingdom.


The Mythbusting Never Ends

January 12, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest under the somewhat discouraging title “Ed Choice Mythbusting Never Ends.” At least I’ll never be out of a job:

The funniest thing in the article is where McCloud mocks the emergence of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and then complains about precisely the problem ESAs solve. After making fun of the choice movement for switching from vouchers to ESAs—because apparently it’s a bad sign if you’re willing to move from a good idea to a better one—McCloud asserts that “vouchers would inflate the cost of private education.”

Indeed, vouchers do inadvertently raise private school tuition. That is one reason the movement is switching from vouchers to ESAs, which allow parents to buy education services without creating an artificial tuition floor for schools. It’s also true that even ESAs raise economic demand for education services in general—but that’s just another way of saying they empower parents to pay for those services!

McCloud’s article provides a public service in one respect: It collects almost all the school choice myths in one place. Maybe I don’t mind so much if the defenders of the status quo make my job easy after all.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated!