The Choice Genie Continues to Flow out of the Florida Bottle

January 25, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

RedefinED has published their sixth look at the changing landscape of Florida education, reporting over 88,000 new choice students over the last two years.

Florida choice


I Love It when a (Decentralized) Plan Comes Together…

January 14, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jason and John White have been having a public dispute over the interpretation of the NBER Louisiana study. I await Jason’s response, and given the importance of the subject I hope both sides of this debate will take pains to avoid vitriol as it unfolds. A reasoned examination of the evidence will best serve us, and everyone should acknowledge in advance that we bring a variety of assumptions to the table with us in this debate.

There is one point in John’s response that I would like to address presently. Early on the Superintendent says:

More important, however, is the larger implication I take from Mr. Bedrick’s thesis: that private school choice advocates in America, Mr. Bedrick among them, have failed to establish a coherent, prevailing belief system about the role of private schools in providing an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth.

Towards the end he says:

Absent better systemic answers than those offered by ideologues, publicly funded private school choice for all children will continue to be more of a factor in legislative debates and scholarly conferences than in the homes and neighborhoods of America’s youth.

The use of the word “measured” in the first statement brings up the observer effect from physics: the act of observing can in itself change what you attempt to measure. People can have honest disagreements over how much private school participation we are willing to sacrifice for what type of measurement, but let’s not start with the premise that the answer is “whatever it takes no matter what.” For almost going on two decades now for instance the McKay Scholarship program has reigned as the largest voucher program in the country. Would I prefer having an evaluation component of some sort? Yes-I’m pretty confident that we would learn valuable information. Would I be willing to do it if a large portion of participating schools were likely to pass on participating? No- I would be content to let parents work out testing on an individual basis with their schools.

In other words I want to prioritize the needs of parents over my needs as an advocate.

On the issue of scale and having a plan, I think we could have a long debate about this, but ultimately I don’t think it is necessary. I think that the sort of effort that Superintendent White is referencing may relate to the sort of private philanthropic efforts we see going on in the New Orleans charter school space. An unexplored possibility to consider by the way, is that the Herculean private human capital efforts we see going on in the charter space may have eclipsed the private school sector. How many rational actors would open a private as opposed to a charter school in New Orleans given the totality of policy and private philanthropic efforts? But I digress…

The reason I don’t think we need to spend too much time debating the sort of genuinely heroic efforts we see going on in the New Orleans charter space: I don’t think we can afford to scale them. You don’t see it discussed often, but ah, well, the cost per teacher placement from sources like Teach for America has not been going down. Quite the opposite from what I understand. Don’t get me wrong- I love TFA kids and I fully support the efforts of philanthropists in rebuilding the New Orleans education system. I simply have my doubts that our collective philanthropic efforts could have handled a district the size of Houston had Katrina veered that way, much less the rest of the country.

This raises the question- can we achieve “an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth” without these sort of efforts? If you care about the disadvantaged, the answer had better be “yes” because otherwise they will be remain holding the short end of the stick in life. To answer the question, I decided to examine the NAEP results and trends for low-income kids in the relatively regulated and highly philanthropic supported charter sector in Louisiana with similar kids in the Wild West and (relatively) lightly supported Arizona charter sector.

To get as close to apples to apples as possible, I compared the results for Free and Reduced lunch eligible students in general education programs attending charter schools in both states. The general education focus is due to possible differences in participation among ELL and SPED students in the two states. Louisiana has a comprehensive effort to support charters and to shut them down when they under-perform. If you see race as a proxy for other unmeasured factors etc. the average low-income charter child in Arizona is likely to be Hispanic, whereas I’m guessing in Louisiana they are more likely to be Black. Every state has their story about how their poor kids are the toughest to educate in the world (here is AZ it is “they come up North and they don’t even read Spanish!”) but I view all such claims as suspect-poor kids are tough to educate everywhere.

In terms of charter sectors, Arizona has an almost entirely decentralized process of school creation, and the only people making plans are those opening schools and parents seeking places for their child- no common app, the state rarely shuts a school down. etc. We have some TFA kids but I met more of them in a visit to the French Quarter than in 13 years of living here in AZ. The West in short doesn’t get any wilder.

The NAEP will only provide data for this comparison between 2013 and 2015, and I make no claims regarding this being a definitive comparison, merely suggestive. So with those caveats: here is what the gains look like across all four NAEP exams for FRL general ed charter students:

AZLA

So both sectors did well in generating gains overall for low-income kids- so bully for them. Louisiana charters enjoyed larger gains in 4th grade gains, but Arizona charters enjoyed a still larger advantage at the 8th grade level. If we look at the overall scores for these students rather than the gains, we see no decisive advantage for either state.

AZLA2

Those who care about the interests of poor children should celebrate the ability of Arizona charter schools to deliver big gains for low-income kids. They did it without direction from the state and without massive support from philanthropists. This is to be celebrated in large part because we don’t have enough philanthropy to do New Orleans everywhere even if we wanted to.

So- as one of the school choice Jeffersonian types, I’ll address Superintendent White’s point about a plan squarely. What is my plan? On charter schools, my plan is to let ‘er rip. It’s working out a splendid fashion and I love it when a plan comes together…

On private choice, I’d like to see a system that gives a meaningfully higher level of public subsidy to disadvantaged children (low-income, ELL, SPED) with some light touch academic transparency measures (NNR testing required by students rather than schools, academic studies, parent surveys) and then let that rip too. The great virtue of this plan in my view is that it doesn’t require me or anyone else to manage or direct it.

In other words, I think school choice technocrats should aspire to be in control of as little as possible. The NBER study reinforces my view of its desirability.

UPDATE: Jason’s response to Superintendent White is up at Ed Next


The Folly of Overregulating School Choice: A Response to Critics

January 8, 2016

84c

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Earlier this week, NBER released the first random-assignment study ever to find a negative impact from a school voucher program. Previous gold standard studies had almost unanimously found modest positive effects from school choice, which raises the obvious question: what makes the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) so different?

In an article for Education Next, I argued that, “although not conclusive, there is considerable evidence that the problem stemmed from poor program design.” The LSP is one of the most heavily regulated school choice programs in the nation, and that burden has led to a very low rate of private school participation.  Only about one-third of Louisiana private schools accept voucher students, a considerably lower rate than in most other states. From a survey of private school leaders conducted by Brian Kisida, Patrick J. Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith for the American Enterprise Institute, we know that the primary reason private schools opted out of the voucher program was their concerns over the regulatory burden, particularly those regulations that threatened their character and identity. For example, voucher-accepting schools in Louisiana may not set their own admissions criteria, cannot charge families more than the value of the voucher (a meager $5,311 on average in 2012), and must administer the state test.

We also know from the NBER study that the participating and non-participating private schools differ in at least one important respect. Whereas the non-participating schools experienced modest growth over the decade before the voucher program was expanded statewide (about 3 percent, on average), the participating schools had been experiencing a significant decline in enrollment (about 13 percent, on average). In other words, schools that were able to attract students tended to reject the vouchers while voucher schools tended to be those where enrollment had been dropping.*

The difference in enrollment trends suggests that the LSP’s regulatory burden had the opposite of its intended effect: discouraging higher-performing schools from participating, leaving only the lower-performing schools that were so desperate to reverse their declining enrollment and increase their funding that they were willing to do whatever the voucher program required.

Several other researchers and education reform advocates reached similar conclusions, including Matthew Ladner, Adam Peshek, Michael McShane, Lindsey Burke, and Jonathan Butcher. However, others expressed skepticism about what I shall call the Overregulation Theory, and proposed alternative explanations for the LSP’s poor results.

Writing at Education Week, Douglas Harris of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans concedes that “regulation probably does reduce the number of private schools, especially the number of higher-performing private schools,” but he still believes the Overregulation Theory is “premature.” Harris instead offers two potential alternatives: 1) the improved public/charter school performance in New Orleans made the performance of the private sector look relatively worse; and 2) the curriculum at most private schools may not have been aligned to the state test, so the poor performance merely reflects that lack of alignment rather than poor performance.

Harris’s first theory is explicitly rejected by the NBER study. On the third page of the study, the authors write: “Negative voucher effects are not explained by the quality of public fallback options for LSP applicants: achievement levels at public schools attended by students lotteried out of the program are below the Louisiana average and comparable to scores in low- performing districts like New Orleans.” In other words, the public school alternatives are not so great and the performance of the participating private schools is considerably worse.

That said, Harris’s second theory, which Jason Richwine also suggested, is plausible as a contributing factor. However, it is no more plausible than the Overregulation Theory. Indeed, whereas the differences in enrollment trends between voucher and non-voucher private schools provide some suggestive evidence for the Overregulation Theory, Harris provides no evidence to support the Nonaligned Test Theory. How many voucher schools were already aligned with the state curriculum and/or administered the state test? At this point, we do not know. Moreover, to the extent that testing nonalignment explains some of the very large 0.4 standard deviation difference in math scores, it is unlikely that it explains all or even most of that difference. Then again, Harris stated that he will be releasing the results of his own research on the LSP, so it’s likely he knows something that I do not.

Harris also notes that the NBER study only examined the results of one year of one program. He is certainly correct that we need more data over time to draw firmer conclusions, which is one reason I presented my interpretation as “not conclusive” and wrote that “the regulationsmay have had the opposite of their intended effect” (emphasis added). And, indeed, there is some evidence that voucher schools improved slightly in the third year since the statewide expansion (although if the voucher schools were their own district, they’d still be the fifth-worst of 76 in the state).

Nevertheless, such strongly negative results should give reform advocates great pause about the regulatory strategies employed in Louisiana. We know the regulatory burden chased away most private schools, and we have evidence that the voucher-accepting schools had been struggling with declining enrollment. If we want to better understand the LSP’s atypically disastrous performance, its program design is the logical place to start.

*UPDATE: Prof. Josh Goodman of Harvard University points out that the NBER study’s “estimates show consistent negative impacts irrespective of previous enrollment trends.” If there had been wide variation in enrollment trends among the participating schools, that would count as evidence against the Overregulation Theory. However, if the enrollment trends among participating schools were consistently negative, with the variation mostly limited to how fast the participating schools had been losing students, then it would still be consistent with the Overregulation Theory.

[Originally posted at Cato-at-Liberty.]


Over-regulation backfires on Voucher Supporters

January 4, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Almost a decade ago I posed a Moynihan Challenge to choice opponents: I could produce a pile of random assignment voucher studies with significant positive results, but if you could produce two random assignment studies with statistically significant and negative results I’d buy you a steak dinner. I started here with skeptics in Arizona and when I got cricket noises extended it nationwide and got more cricket noises. Before your gut gets too greedy, yes it had a time limit. If you keep doing these studies long enough you will eventually get false negatives by random chance.

What we have now does not look like a false negative but rather a very poorly designed program in Louisiana with the release of a new study on the first year results. They look **ahem** decidedly negative.

We’ve covered this ground before on JPGB so I will avoid beating the equine corpse, but over the years there have always been concerns that voucher programs would become overly regulated. The response has always been that if this were to occur, that private schools would choose not to participate. Well lo and behold Louisiana’s heavily regulated voucher program comes along, 70% of private schools choose to sit it out, including a large majority of Catholic schools in Orleans Parish. Catholic schools have a long history of putting up with a lot of red tape around the country and around the world, so their choice to pass on the Louisiana Scholarship Program speaks volumes about the program.

What do we know about the 30% of private schools who did participate? Well now we know that their students had a very rough first year and we also know from the study:

Survey data show that LSP-eligible private schools experience rapid enrollment declines prior to entering the program, indicating that the LSP may attract private schools struggling to maintain enrollment. These results suggest caution in the design of voucher systems aimed at expanding school choice for disadvantaged students.

So…..many of the desperate on their way to folding schools decided to grit their teeth and participate in the program. We can also infer from the contrast between this evaluation and all the others that a disproportionate number of stable and successful Louisiana private schools read over the red-tape of the program and decided “thanks but no thanks.”

The ironic dagger cutting deep here- this program was designed to help some of the most disadvantaged students in the country. If you are a low-income student attending low-rated schools in one of the lowest performing states, you got the short end of the stick in life. The very good people who designed this program had every intention of this program being a path out. Tragically in designing to keep bad schools out, they ironically kept the good schools out and invited the bad schools in. The road to this hell was built out of the cobblestones of good intentions, but it still led straight to this debacle.

Those students, among the lowest of the low academically, have been victimized by the design of this program. The high quality private schools among the non-participating schools stand every bit as out of their reach as they had been before the creation of the program. In theory it could have worked out differently, but now we must rid ourselves of all illusions: every system is perfectly designed to produce the results associated with it.

You live and learn. This is a very bitter lesson but one we choice supporters need to take to heart in order to correct our mistake and to prevent future missteps.


Policymakers are Doing their Part to Kill Private Education in DC

December 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been taking a close look at DC education, and I must say I’ve learned a lot- both good and bad. One of the bad things would be these charts from the Urban Institute showing that private schools are going the way of the Dodo in the District of Columbia. K-5 is above and grades 6-8 below:

 

A couple of notes: we’ve known for some time that charter schools hit private schools harder than districts- and well here you have it again. Also note that the collapse comes in spite of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program starting in 2004. DC’s charter school law effectively operates as a universal school choice program that reliably delivers more than $14k in funding to all comers, but limits the universe of schools to young and/or startup schools.

Now mind you, this is less than half the revenue per pupil in the District of Columbia Public Schools (traditional district-see Census Bureau second bullet Tab 11) and they get better academic results than the district at this lower cost. Bully for them. The law of unintended consequences however is a cruel mistress and she has been whipping DC private schools with a bloody cat o’nine tails.

No but you can have this…

The DC Opportunity Scholarship program meanwhile only offers a maximum of $8,381 per child for students in K-8, and unless it is both reauthorized and redesigned one cannot help but wonder if there will be many private schools for these students to attend in the years ahead. Please someone explain to me how it makes sense for a charter school law to operate as a defacto universal choice program at $14k per child, while the private choice program offers substantially less per child and only to poor children. The Urban Institute data clearly indicates that this is a recipe for extinction of the private school sector outside of elite institutions. To put matters bluntly- who in their right mind would seek to open a private school in preference to a charter school in DC under this system of finance? Did you miss the part where private schools have been dropping like flies while charter schools proliferate? The funding for charters is large, universally available and reliable. The funding for DC Opportunity Scholarships is small, restricted and uncertain.

It’s little wonder why a number of D.C. Catholic schools gave up the ghost a few years ago and converted into charter schools. The school financing system practically clubbed them over the head. I’d like to invite my friends from the pro-means testing wing of the private choice movement to reflect upon the viability of supporting DC style scholarship programs when those programs must compete with defacto universal choice programs with far greater funding. Who wins that battle? Sadly the universal program restricts eligibility to young/startup schools with limited curricular diversity- how does this make sense? If parents decide to extinguish private schools as a result of a remotely equitable competition, you won’t see me shedding any tears. Our currently policies however make it look like we are out to quash private schools kind of like, well, this:

 

 


Competition Is Healthy for Public Schools

December 9, 2015

Competition Benefits Public Schools

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

As more North Carolina families are using school vouchers, enrolling their children in charter schools, or homeschooling, some traditional district schools are experiencing slower growth in enrollment than anticipated. The News & Observer reports:

Preliminary numbers for this school year show that charter, private and home schools added more students over the past two years than the Wake school system did. Though the school system has added 3,880 students over the past two years, the growth has been 1,000 students fewer than projected for each of those years.

This growth at alternatives to traditional public schools has accelerated in the past few years since the General Assembly lifted a cap on the number of charter schools and provided vouchers under the Opportunity Scholarship program for families to attend private schools.

Opponents of school choice policies often claim that they harm traditional district schools. Earlier this year, the News & Observer ran an op-ed comparing choice policies to a “Trojan horse” and quoting a union official claiming that “public schools will be less able to provide a quality education than they have in the past” because they’re “going to be losing funds” and “going to be losing a great many of the students who are upper middle-class… [who] receive the most home support.”

Setting aside the benefits to the students who receive vouchers or scholarships (and the fact that North Carolina’s vouchers are limited to low-income students and students with special needs), proponents of school choice argue that the students who remain in their assigned district schools benefit from the increased competition. Monopolies don’t have to be responsive to a captive audience, but when parents have other alternatives, district schools must improve if they want to retain their students. But don’t take their word for it. Here’s what a North Carolina public school administrator had to say about the impact of increased competition:

New Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton said the district needs to be innovative to remain competitive in recruiting and keeping families in North Carolina’s largest school system. At a time when people like choice, he said Wake must provide options to families.

“In the past, public schools could assign students to wherever they wanted to because parents couldn’t make a choice to leave the public schools,” Benton said. “Now we’re trying to make every school a choice of high quality so that parents don’t want to leave

Wake County is not unique in this regard. As readers of this blog surely know (and as I’ve written elsewhere), there have been 23 empirical studies investigating the impact of school choice laws on the students at district schools. As shown in the chart below, 22 of those studies found that the performance of students at district schools improved after a school choice law was enacted. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found any harm.

Academic Outcomes of Public Schools in Response to Competition

Beating district schools over the head with more and more top-down regulations has done little to improve quality. A better approach is bottom-up: empower parents with alternatives and give district schools the freedom to figure out how to provide a quality education that will persuade parents to choose them.

[A version of this post was originally published at Cato-at-Liberty. Hat tip to Dr. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation for the story from New Wake County. Thanks to Bob Bowdon of Choice Media for the image.]


5th Circuit Court Rejects “Disingenuous” DOJ Anti-School Choice Lawsuit

November 10, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

For a few years, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice has been trying to shut down or at least seriously constrain Louisiana’s school voucher program. The DOJ unironically used anti-segregation laws to attack the school choice law, even though the DOJ’s “success” would mean keeping black kids in failing schools. After two studies showed that the voucher program actually improved integration, the DOJ backpedaled a bit but still went forward with its lawsuit to give the feds greater control over the voucher program.

That effort ended today.

According to our friends at the Goldwater Institute, which was defending the voucher program from the DOJ, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled against the DOJ. Here is their press release:

New Orleans—In a case with national implications for parental choice programs in hundreds of school districts that still are subject to federal desegregation decrees, today the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Department of Justice can’t limit enrollment in a state private school scholarship program.

The Department of Justice was attempting to use an unrelated, decades-old desegregation case to assert federal jurisdiction over the state program. When it initially filed the case, DOJ asked for an injunction to block students in school districts under desegregation orders from using vouchers. DOJ backed off its request for an injunction, but pressed ahead with its case, placing a cloud of uncertainty over the school options for Louisiana scholarship families.

In the 2-1 decision written by Judge Edith Jones, the court referred to the Department of Justice’s tactics as “disingenuous,” purporting merely to seek information and enforce desegregation while “imposing a vast and intrusive reporting regime on the State without any finding of unconstitutional conduct.” The decision also called the process as “burdensome, costly, and endless.”

“This is a victory for minority and low-income schoolchildren, not only in Louisiana but around the country,” said Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, which is representing the Black Alliance for Educational Options and voucher families. “The decision should put an end to efforts to use long-ago desegregation decrees to thwart educational opportunities for their intended beneficiaries, whether through vouchers or charter schools. The educational horizon just brightened.”

The Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program was created in 2012. The statewide program provides private school tuition vouchers to children from families with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty line and who otherwise would attend public schools that the state has graded C, D or F. In the 2013-14 school year, nearly 6,800 students were awarded scholarships, a 20 percent increase from the year before. More than 85 percent of the children receiving scholarships that year were African American, nearly twice their representation among the Louisiana public school population.

Bolick argued and won the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case before the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the constitutionality of school vouchers more than a decade ago. He now leads the litigation efforts at the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation. [emphasis added]

UPDATE: Here is the full decision (h/t Ze’ev Wurman). The challenge was actually an expansion of a 40-year-old desegregation lawsuit that the administration cynically used to attack Louisiana’s school voucher program. However, Judge Edith Jones wasn’t having it. Here she notes that there is no evidence that the voucher law impeded the desegregation effort:

Louisiana hired an expert to produce reports on the voucher program’s impact for the 2012–2013 and 2013–2014 school years. The expert, Christine Rossell, is a professor of political science at Boston University who has 26 years’ experience designing and analyzing school desegregation plans. For both school years facing scrutiny, she found that the program “had no negative effect on school desegregation in the 34 school districts under a desegregation court order.” The DOJ has produced no evidence to the contrary.

The circuit court overturned a lower court’s ruling on several grounds, including the lower court’s erroneous assumption that the voucher program is intended to aid private schools. In actuality, as the circuit court found, the vouchers aid students. Likewise, the point of SNAP is to aid poor people, not grocery stores, even though grocery stores benefit when people spend their SNAP funds there.

In the 1975 order, the district court retained continuing jurisdiction for the remedial purpose laid out in the order, which was to prevent future state aid to discriminatory private schools. For three reasons, the April 8 Order goes beyond correcting— and indeed has nothing to do with—the violation originally litigated in this case. First, the voucher program’s potential impact on desegregation orders for public schools in separate federal desegregation cases is distinct from eliminating public funding for discriminatory private schools. Second, the voucher program aid is for students rather than private schools. Finally, even if the voucher program aids private schools, it is not being given to discriminatory private schools. The district court’s order exceeded the constitutional infirmity on which this case was predicated and is therefore void. [emphasis added]

The court continues:

The state’s voucher program is also outside the scope of this case because it provides aid to students rather than to private schools. First, the voucher program allows students to state their preference for public or private schools on their applications. It is then the students’ choice to accept the state scholarship so no money is given to a school, public or private, without the approval of the students’ families. Second, the scholarship pays for the individual student’s education; it does not aid private school operations. That is made clear by the fact that the scholarship is capped at the amount the state would have spent on the child had the child attended a local public school. La. Rev. Stat. § 17:4016. The scholarship covers the marginal cost of educating an additional child.

Exactly so.

The court concludes that the DOJ was disingenuous:

DOJ’s attempt to shoehorn its regulation of the voucher program into an entirely unrelated forty-year-old case represents more than ineffective lawyering. Despite the district court’s contrary conclusion, it seems plain that DOJ’s expressed concern—how the voucher program affects statewide public schools racially—has nothing to do with the narrow issues considered in the Brumfield litigation. DOJ’s bold strategy, if upheld, would circumvent the ordinary litigation process…

 


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