A Florida Family’s Multi-generational struggle for K-12 Opportunity

May 30, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Amazing story by Ron Matus about one of the original 57 Opportunity Scholarship students and her mother over on RedefinED. I could relate the story but it is better for you to watch it:


Bradford Honored by the Children’s Scholarship Fund

May 14, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

You know what the best part about working in the education freedom movement? Hands down, it’s the humans you get to know. Derrell Bradford is one of my favorite humans.


The Rise of Indiana Open Enrollment

February 26, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Choice’s Drew Catt created this open enrollment map of Indiana. For those squinting at their iPhones, bright yellow signifies a district taking in 0-25 open enrollment students, while dark green denotes a district bringing in 501 to 1,680 open enrollment students.

So let’s contrast this with the Fordham Ohio open enrollment map:

The Fordham map denotes participation/non-participation by districts in open enrollment. Suburban non-participation jumps off the page of the Fordham map, so let’s contrast Indianapolis with Columbus. The Indiana map has a lot of green around Indianapolis, signifying open-enrollment participation by the suburbs.

Now let’s compare Indiana to the open enrollment data available from Arizona.

Much larger numbers in these Arizona districts, but also a broader definition of open-enrollment being utilized for the Arizona data that includes students transferring within district boundaries. Nevertheless, we know from a separate source that Scottsdale Unified has 4,000 students from outside of district boundaries, which is more than twice the number of any of the Indiana districts in the Ed Choice map.

So here is my provisional take, subject to your challenge in the comments: Indiana’s combined choice programs have coaxed the state out of the Ohio-like geographic segregation. Private choice program design may have contributed to this- Ohio’s voucher programs focus almost exclusively on urban students, while Indiana’s are more inclusive. Indiana has had the nation’s fastest growing voucher program in recent years. Although means-tested, Indiana’s private choice programs create empty seats in suburban districts more than is the case in the Ohio programs, which reach only suburban special education students.

The open enrollment boulder has been rolling down hill for a longer period of time in Arizona. Open-enrollment students outnumber charter students 2-1, and charter students outnumber private choice participants by 3-1. In other words, in Arizona school choice is being done primarily by school districts themselves. This of course did not happen exclusively through a process of spontaneous enlightenment whereby Arizona school districts threw down the drawbridge over the moat to welcome in thousands of out of district transfers out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather it was the product of incentives- hundreds of charter schools opening in suburbs and towns and a couple of decades of geographically inclusive private choice programs.

Charters and private choice do not deserve all the credit, as some suburban districts relatively unaffected nevertheless chose to participate in open enrollment. Chandler Unified for instance watched their enrollment grow by a third despite a large increase in charter schools and has been rocking academic growth to boot. I’m told that there is not a non-district charter in the Vail Unified district south of Tucson, but there are a many students from Tucson Unified. I doubt they are sweating choice much, but they have nevertheless chosen to participate, and Arizona’s students are the richer for it. Nevertheless, it seems self-evident that a main reason that Scottsdale Unified took in 4,000 students is due to the 9,000 students that live in the district boundaries and do not attend school in the district.

It may be no accident that the state with the highest access has also been leading in NAEP gains…

The defection of early open-enrollment adopters increases the pressure on other districts to participate, creating a virtuous cycle. I’m thrilled to see evidence of this in Indiana. The School Choice 1.0 failed urban students insomuch as it failed to unlock the suburbs. It’s time for the movement to embrace an inclusive “Social Justice Plus” strategy that aims to give urban students access to private, charter and suburban schools.


But conscience asks the question,  ‘Is it right?’ 

January 15, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

JPGP reader Charles Miller, a great Texas education reformer that we lost in 2017, authored one of my favorite guest posts back in 2010, reprinted below. Miller rose to the defense of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program during the days in which the Obama administration was attempting to kill it. Miller quoted the great Martin Luther King Jr. in defense of the program, making it an opportunity to remember both men. Happy trails Charles, and thank you for taking time to share your wisdom to the next generation:

Early in the Obama administration I was surprised and deeply disappointed by their decision to kill the “DC Voucher” Program.  I wrote most of the piece below at that time and the decision brought me back into the public K-12 debate.  The U.S. Senate recently voted 55-42 to confirm that decision, essentially on a party line vote, so I am sending this to go on record about something I think is horrendously wrong. –Charles Miller
————————————————————————————————————————————————–
April 4, 2010

What Martin Luther King Said About Speaking Out

“Our Lives Begin to End the Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter”
(Martin Luther King)

The Obama administration, through stimulus funding, the Race to the Top program, its presentation of budgets and proposals for reauthorization of NCLB/ESEA , has moved fast and furiously in the public education policy arena.  It seems very unlikely to me that high aspirations—and hasty action— equate to effective public policy.  In fact, these efforts seem to amount quite clearly to an overreach–strategically, systemically, politically, and culturally

However, what bothers me the most personally is what I consider the most unprincipled action in public education policy since the existence of segregated schools:  The willful decision by the Obama administration, supported by the Democrats in Congress, to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, also called “D.C. Vouchers”

The Obama administration has tied its education policy declarations to a mantra of being non-political and non-partisan, choosing instead a policy focus only on “what works”.  This principle has been repeated incessantly.

However, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is a successful program.

The Department of Education’s official evaluation using rigorous “gold standard” experimental evaluations determined that the OSP has produced significant achievement gains.

The OSP is serving those families and children most in need in one of the worst school districts in America.  Average income of participating families  is less than $24,000 annually and more than 85% of participating students would otherwise be attending a failing school under NCLB guidelines.

D.C. residents polled by three unaffiliated firms in ’07, ’08, and ’09 showed between 66 and 75% support for the OSP.  The D.C. superintendent and the Mayor support the program.

The decision to kill the program is contradictory to anything the administration claims to be its guiding principle.   The cost of the successful OSP is financially very small by comparison to any K-12 standard while at the same time there has been a gigantic increase in education spending nationally— to support status quo systems which are widely considered failures. Strong evidence of success, academically and financially, clearly makes the decision to kill OSP unprincipled.

The reason for killing OSP is the intense opposition of national teachers unions to a voucher program of any kind, anywhere, anytime—even if it is academically successful, financially responsible and so popular with the community served that there are long waiting lists.

If this successful program had been able to be replicated—a fear obviously driving the decision to kill OSP—the number of students from the most disadvantaged families whose life prospects could have been enhanced could be quite large.  This consideration makes the decision to kill OSP even more egregious, although even helping a small set of students is the principled thing to do.

Notably, from the Washington Post, “Duncan had the temerity to admit that OSP students ‘were safe and learning and doing well…but we can’t be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down’.”

The effect of the decision to kill OSP on the lives of the students who could have benefited from its continuation is extremely negative.  There is no way to avoid this conclusion. If a social scientist extrapolated the trends of two sets of students, one in OSP and one in a typical DC school, the loss of life opportunities would be stark for the typical set of students.

The inescapable conclusion I reach is that killing OSP is a despicable and unconscionable decision made for political purposes and with cynical disregard for the lives of the children affected.  “Obama could have stood up for these children, who only want the same opportunities that he had and that his daughters now have.  Instead his education secretary, Arne Duncan, proffered an argument that would be funny if it weren’t so sad:  Scholarships for poor students aren’t worth supporting because not enough of them are given out” (Washington Post, 3/8/10)

This when joblessness for 16-to-24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions — 34.5 % last October and estimated to having exceeded 50% by last year end.

The other conclusion I reach is that policy advocates or officials who turn their face away or avoid taking a strong stand against the decision to kill OSP because it is not pleasant or not convenient to their own activities have a hand in the ignoble results of the decision.  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King)

So, for me personally, I can’t justify supporting such an administration or its policy makers even if some of their other policy choices are more productive, nor can I see believing anything they say or trusting anything they do.  It can no longer be acceptable to be principled just some of the time.   No Mas.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’  Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’  Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’  But conscience asks the question,  ‘Is it right?’  And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”  (Martin Luther King)

Charles Miller


In Memoriam for Parental Choice Irrational Exuberance

November 22, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I listened to the Federalist podcast this morning on my bike ride in which Megan McArdle debates Joy Pullman on school vouchers. In the discussion McArdle posits that parental choice programs allow parents to sort their kids for the purposes of being around other kids who are likely to want to go to college etc. She acknowledged that her instinct on this is informed by observation in the District of Columbia where she resides and that this has always been the case, it simply used to involve moving the suburbs. McArdle forsees a low-ceiling for choice as McArdle asserts that there are only so many good peer groups to go around, and large influxes of poor kids will lead to upper-middle class parents seeking to segregate their children elsewhere. Thus McArdle puts forward an air of jaded realism for choice as opposed to her optimistic days when she thought of parental choice as a cure for poverty. Worse still, her thesis would imply costs to choice for disadvantaged student groups.

Fortunatley, McArdle’s realism is not terribly realistic. Policy enthusiasts of all sorts and persuasions create problems for themselves when they sell their reform as a wonder drug that will cure the world’s pain and will do it today. People who buy in during the naive enthusiasm stage will invariably feel disappointed. This for instance is starting to happen with technology based personalized learning now.

The course of innovation does not run smoothly or in a predictable fashion. Technology enhanced learning may have a very bright future, but faces a messy process of sorting through things whether it ultimately proves out or not. The dot.com bubble provides a useful example. People of a certain age will recall the naive enthusiasm stage when any idiot who could mumble Silicon Valley lingo was able to get millions in venture capital funding for projects like Dogfood.com or whatever. When a great many of these dubious ventures went bust in the early aughts a fierce backlash mocked the broad notion that the internet was going to profoundly change business.

Give it some time however and no one is mocking now. The internet did profoundly change business and life and continues to do so- it just didn’t do it much by 2003, and not in the way we expected.

McArdle’s thesis combines elements of the disappointed naive early enthusiasm with a theory that those not exercising choice may be harmed by it. A large empirical literature on competitive effects however finds positive benefits from choice from students choosing to remain in district schools. The kids “left behind” in other words benefit academically from the fact that they have the possibility of leaving.

My home state of Arizona is a hot-bed for parental choice. We not only have the highest state percentage of students attending charter schools and private choice programs, recently data has come available showing that inter-and-intra district choice dwarfs both charter and private choice in the state. Arizona, a relatively low spending state (relative to other states not to its own past) that is in the midst of a border-state transition in student demographics (K-12 students ceased being majority Anglo years ago), is an odd state to be leading the nation in academic gains. Oh, well, we went and did it anyway.

Now McArdle’s thesis of tradeoffs and downsides should be visible in the academic trends for disadvantaged students. If the savvy parents are the ones exercising choice, and depriving disadvantaged kids of more ambitious peers, we might expect to see overall scores increasing but scores for disadvantaged kids sliding in Arizona’s results. Instead we see the opposite:

This of course does not prove that school choice lead to the larger than average gains, but good luck explaining how this happened if school choice were harmful to disadvantaged students.

At the 8th grade level, NAEP allows for tracking student achievement by the education status of their parents. This is what it looks like for students whose parents did not finish high school for the entire period we can track all three tests:

If these charts were reversed and we saw disadvantaged children showing less progress than the national average, but stupendous gains for already advantaged kids, that would be consistent with McArdle’s thesis. If I wanted to beat the horse into horse-burger I could put up similar charts by ethnicity and disability status. You have a very, very hard time finding supportive evidence of choice harming the disadvantaged in the academic trends of the nation’s most choice happy state, or in the broad empirical literature.

Improvement of schooling outcomes maybe a necessary but hardly a sufficient step in inter-generational poverty. Choice programs have triggered a process of opening up the suburbs to open enrollment in Arizona, and they seem to be doing something similar in Indiana. The choice movement made a grave error in fixating on a particular type of school in inner cities, and then became obsessed with “accountability” when the urban-only strategy floundered.

I’m confident that the evidence will prove out that broad, inclusive programs work out better for students by hugely broadening available options relative to the necessarily limited efforts to build new charters. If you want to help inner city kids, yes you give them access to private schools and charter schools. If you really want to help them you give them access to all of that and the leafy suburbs (see above charts). You can’t force the burbs to take out of district kids, but you can create the right incentives by subjecting their (all too often complacent and underperforming) schools competition as well. You create enough competition to allow parents to close schools they don’t like. Expect backlash from reactionaries along the way. It’s not quick, it’s not easy, it lacks magical powers. It can however deliver real benefits to students and taxpayers.

 

 

 


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.

 

 


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.