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.


Lawsuit Losers’ Ostrich Act

August 17, 2016
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Anti-school choice plaintiffs pretending that the court didn’t reject their arguments on the merits.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As I reported on Tuesday, a Florida appellate court threw out a challenge to the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. In response, one of the plaintiff groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), published a disingenuous and factually challenged blog post whining about the case being dismissed and pretending that the court didn’t actually address the merits of the case. I’ll address their assertions in order:

A Florida court just threw out an appeal brought by Americans United and its allies challenging a school-voucher-like program that provides taxpayer support for religious organizations. As disappointing as that outcome is, it’s doubly frustrating to see a second Sunshine State court fail to even consider the merits of the case.

The program provides tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations that help students attend any private school, religious or secular, so that’s not quite an accurate description of the program.

Moreover, as I will explain below, the court did consider the merits of the case. Although courts often avoid addressing the merits of a case when rejecting the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the case, here the court directly addressed the central issues in the process of dismissing the case on standing.

In case you’re not familiar with tuition tax credits, they are a type of voucher scheme that allows individuals or corporations to donate money to a middle-man “scholarship” organization in exchange for a generous tax credit. The “scholarship” group then writes a check for tuition at a private school. It’s essentially a way to launder government funds through a private entity.

What an odd use of scare quotes. Are these somehow not scholarships? Let’s consult the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines a “scholarship” as “an amount of money that is given by a school, an organization, etc., to a student to help pay for the student’s education.” So yes, AU scare quotes notwithstanding, these are bona fide scholarships.

But are they “laundered government funds”? According to the unanimous Florida appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court, and every state supreme court to address the question, the answer is a resounding “No.” The courts all held that a private individual or corporation’s money is their own, and not the government’s, until the government has actually collected it. When people keep their own money through tax deductions, tax credits, or tax exemptions, it remains exactly that: their own money.

Does the AU believe that all churches run on “laundered government money” because their donors receive tax deductions or because they receive 100% property tax exemptions? No? Interesting.

The overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the tax credit program are religious, which goes against the Florida Constitution’s “no-aid” clause, which says: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Again, as the court ruled, it’s not government money, so the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment (“no-aid” clause) is not implicated. Moreover, the percentage of schools that are religious versus secular is constitutionally irrelevant. The law is religiously neutral. What matters is only that families may choose either religious or secular schools. It makes no constitutional difference whether the majority select one type or the other, or whether the market (responding to demand) supplies more of one type or another.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected AU’s religious bean counting, including in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision more than a decade ago:

Respondents and Justice Souter claim that even if we do not focus on the number of participating schools that are religious schools, we should attach constitutional significance to the fact that 96% of scholarship recipients have enrolled in religious schools. They claim that this alone proves parents lack genuine choice, even if no parent has ever said so. We need not consider this argument in detail, since it was flatly rejected in Mueller, where we found it irrelevant that 96% of parents taking deductions for tuition expenses paid tuition at religious schools. Indeed, we have recently found it irrelevant even to the constitutionality of a direct aid program that a vast majority of program benefits went to religious schools. See Agostini, 521 U.S., at 229 (“Nor are we willing to conclude that the constitutionality of an aid program depends on the number of sectarian school students who happen to receive the otherwise neutral aid” (citing Mueller, 463 U.S., at 401)); see also Mitchell, 530 U.S., at 812, n. 6 (plurality opinion) (“[Agostini] held that the proportion of aid benefiting students at religious schools pursuant to a neutral program involving private choices was irrelevant to the constitutional inquiry”); id., at 848 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (same) (quoting Agostini, supra, at 229). The constitutionality of a neutral educational aid program simply does not turn on whether and why, in a particular area, at a particular time, most private schools are run by religious organizations, or most recipients choose to use the aid at a religious school. As we said in Mueller, “[s]uch an approach would scarcely provide the certainty that this field stands in need of, nor can we perceive principled standards by which such statistical evidence might be evaluated.” 463 U.S., at 401. [emphasis added]

The SCOTUS majority goes on to note that the other side’s obsession over how many private schools have a religious affiliation ignores that they are but a tiny slice of all the available school choices, including the secular district schools that the vast majority of students attend. Students do not lack secular options.

Returning to the AU blog post, the author claims:

The program also violates the state constitution by taking money away from public schools.

No, the appellate court specifically and repeatedly rejected this argument, noting that any reduction in aid to the district schools is entirely speculative. As the appellate court detailed at length, the AU and their allies proved unable time and time again to demonstrate any harm that the district schools incur from the scholarship program.

Despite those problems, two Florida courts have now kicked the case on standing – that is, the right to sue – saying that the plaintiffs, which include interfaith religious leaders as well as educators, don’t even have the right to bring this case. As a result, neither court weighed in on the actual facts of the case.

Incorrect. As noted above, like the district court before it, the appellate court addressed the main issues that plaintiffs raised:

  1. Does the scholarship program violate the Blaine Amendment? A: No, it relies on private funds so the Blaine Amendment is not implicated.
  2. Does the scholarship program unconstitutionally create a parallel system of public schools? A: No, this is a privately funded and privately administered program, not a separate government school system.
  3. Does the scholarship program harm the district school system? A: No, there is no evidence of any harm to the district schools.

The AU and their union allies don’t like the answers that the appellate and district court gave, so they simply pretend that they didn’t give them.

Since the court didn’t weigh in on the facts, here are some other things to consider: Sometimes “school choice” advocates claim low-income students need government assistance to escape “failing” schools. But here, some parents openly admitted that the public school options available to them are actually good.

Here we have a straw man argument. The question isn’t whether the district schools are “good” but rather whether they’re the best fit for all the kids who happen to live nearby. Even a school that performs very well on average can’t be all things to all students, which is why the system should empower parents to choose the schools that align with their values and work best for their children.

So why do they want help paying private school tuition? The short answer is that many of them want education infused with their faith. […] That’s perfectly fine. But Florida taxpayers should not be forced to contribute to the religious education of any child.

Again, as the court ruled, these are private funds. No taxpayer is forced to contribute to a scholarship organization. If a taxpayer doesn’t want to support religious education, they need only refrain from donating to the scholarship organizations, which is certainly their right.

By contrast, all taxpayers are forced to pay into the district school system, even if they have moral objections to what is taught there. If the AU really cared so much about coercion, they should support entirely privatizing education so that no one is forced to subsidize an education with which they disagree.


Case Dismissed Again: Another Victory for School Choice in Florida

August 16, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

It seems Friday’s update on pending school choice lawsuits came a few days too soon. Today, a three-judge panel of appellate court judges in Florida has unanimously dismissed the teachers’ union’s lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were unable to prove that they were harmed by the program and because the program is privately (not publicly) funded.

No doubt the thousands of parents and students who rallied earlier this year, calling on the union to #dropthesuit, are smiling today.

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Three out of three appellate judges agree with these scholarship kids: #dropthesuit.

I expanded upon the decision at Cato-at-Liberty, but I’ll leave you with the the judges’ conclusion:

Appellants failed to allege that they suffered any special injury as a result of the operation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and failed to establish that the Legislature exceeded any constitutional limitation on its taxing and spending authority when it authorized the program. At most, Appellants quarrel with the Legislature’s policy judgments regarding school choice and funding of Florida’s public schools. This is precisely the type of dispute into which the courts must decline to intervene under the separation of powers doctrine.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!

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[h/t Travis Pillow at RedefinED.]

UPDATE (Aug. 17, 2016): See here for my discussion of one plaintiff group’s response to the ruling.

 


Case Dismissed: Victory for School Choice in Florida

May 24, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The legal attacks on school choice programs are dropping like characters in a George R.R. Martin novel. Last week, a Nevada judge dismissed a case against the state’s education savings account program. Today, a Florida judge dismissed a case against several of the state’s school choice programs.

The Florida lawsuit originally concerned whether the state was adequately funding public education, but in 2014 the plaintiffs amended their suit to challenge a wide range of policies, including state accountability statutes, charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. Last year, a judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the private school choice programs, but this ruling also rejects their substantive claims that the choice programs somehow harm the traditional district school system:

[T]he Court finds no negative effect on the uniformity or efficiency of the State system of public schools due to these choice programs, and indeed, evidence was presented that these school-choice programs are reasonably likely to improve the quality and efficiency of the entire system. […]

Plaintiffs’ specific allegations regarding the constitutional implications of three of Florida’s choice programs- charter schools, the FTC Program, and the McKay Program- are similarly unsupported by the weight of the evidence. […]

The Court has already held that Plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the FTC Program, and the Court further concludes that the weight of the evidence does not support their speculative allegations that the FTC Program diverts state funding or has any material, detrimental effect on Florida’s system of public schools.

The weight of the evidence similarly does not support Plaintiffs’ allegations about the McKay Program, which is limited to “Students with Disabilities” and requires eligible students to have an individual educational or accommodation plan under federal law. […] As indicated by the Florida Supreme Court, parental decisions to send individual children with special needs to private school do not implicate the uniformity of the broader public school system- regardless of whether some of those parents accept scholarship funds from the State.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!

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This decision constitutes one more legal stake in the heart of the canard that educational choice programs harm students attending traditional district schools. As Jon East pointed out at RedefinED yesterday, judges presiding over a separate anti-choice lawsuit in Florida cast a gimlet eye on similar claims during oral arguments last week:

[Florida Education Association] attorney Lynn Hearn: “The loss of $300 million at a minimum to the Florida public school system … is absolutely a fact.”

Presiding Judge Lori S. Rowe: “In your complaint, you haven’t actually alleged that there is a $300 million loss to the Florida education budget, have you?… In fact, the $300 million you’re referring to are the funds that flow into the scholarship program, correct?”

Attorney Hearn: “Well, that’s where the number arrives from, your honor. But we absolutely do allege that that amount has left the public schools in favor of the scholarship program. That’s because of the way the Florida schools are funded. They are funded on a per-student basis. So, during that year, 2013-14, there were 60,000 students who left the Florida public school system.”

Judge Ross L. Bilbrey: “But doesn’t that mean there are 60,000 fewer students that the state has to pay to educate?”

Attorney Hearn: “It does your honor. But the funding of students in our public schools is, uh, we’re not funding widgets, the funding formula for students is not a perfect correlation to the variable cost of funding that student.”

Judge Rowe: “But exactly what is the special injury you are articulating here? You haven’t alleged that any individual student is suffering. You haven’t alleged that per-student funding has been reduced. You haven’t even alleged that the education budget has been reduced.”

Essentially, the union wants to argue the district school system has some special claim on students–and therefore the public funds attached to those students–without openly making that claim. After all, the district school system can’t suffer a “loss” unless they somehow owned those funds to begin with, but parents have no such obligation to enroll their children at their zoned district school, or any district school for that matter. They feel entitled to those children and the corresponding funding, but they know they can’t make that claim explicitly because, well, it’s ludicrous. That’s why the union is having such a hard time articulating any special injury–and why they’re likely to lose that lawsuit as well.

For more information on today’s decision, see Travis Pillow’s write up at RedefinED.

*****

UPDATE: Supplementing his opinion, the judge issued a 179-page Appendix for Findings of Fact which, among many other things, explains that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program relies on private (not public) funding and explains that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any injury resulting from the program:

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (the ―FTC Program‖) allows Florida taxpayers to apply for tax credits ―to make private, voluntary contributions‖ to fund scholarships for children attending eligible K–12 private schools.767 Plaintiffs allege that the FTC Program violates the uniformity and efficiency requirements of Article IX, Section 1(a) by diverting public funds to private schools that are not subject to the same requirements as schools within the State‘s system of free public schools.

The Court has previously found that the FTC Program, which allows third parties to obtain tax credits for making private donations, does not involve public funds, legislative appropriations, or the State‘s ―provision‖ for a ―system of free public schools‖ under Article IX. Because the private donations that fund the FTC Program are not legislative appropriations, the Court has previously determined that Plaintiffs lack taxpayer standing to assert a challenge to this program under Florida law.

Plaintiffs have also failed to prove any special injury that would allow them to challenge the FTC Program. […]

[A]ny connection between the FTC Program and appropriations to support Florida‘s system of free public schools—not to mention the overall quality of that system—is purely speculative. There was no persuasive evidence presented that the FTC Program has any direct or indirect impact on public-school funding or on the uniformity, efficiency, safety, security, or quality of Florida‘s public schools. […]

Even if tax credits resulted in a decrease in the number of students attending the public schools, local school districts are not responsible for educating students who attend private schools.

The appendix is also is chock-full of citations of some dude named Jay Greene. Here’s a taste:

3rd Grade Retention Policy

Florida‘s third-grade retention policy also is supported by academic research. Dr. Jay Greene, a professor of education and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, has extensively studied the effect of Florida‘s policy. Dr. Greene‘s studies, which are published in a peer-reviewed journal, concluded that Florida‘s test-based retention policy significantly improves the academic achievement of students who are retained.239 Plaintiffs did not present any evidence countering Dr. Greene‘s findings.

Resources & Results

Plaintiffs allege that the overall level of funding in Florida is not sufficient to provide a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of public education.784 Plaintiffs assert that the performance outcomes for certain groups of students indicate that school funding is insufficient.

Plaintiffs, however, have not met their burden of proving a causal relationship between the level of resources available to schools in Florida and student outcomes. Indeed, as described below, the weight of the evidence presented on that issue establishes a lack of any causal relationship between additional financial resources and improved student outcomes. […]

In addition to Dr. Hanushek, Defendants presented findings of Dr. Jay Greene, a professor of education and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Greene statistically analyzed school district-level variables throughout the state of Florida, including per-pupil spending, teacher characteristics, and discipline rates, and found no relationship between these variables and student outcomes.

Specifically, Dr. Greene examined school district per-pupil expenditures and percentages of students proficient on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (―FCAT‖)797 for grades 3 through 10 in reading and math; grades 5, 8, and 11 in science; as well as highschool graduation rates, for school years 2007–08 to 2012–13. The analysis revealed no connection between higher amounts of funding available in school districts and better student performance.

Dr. Greene also conducted regression analyses of spending and performance data, controlling for student demographic differences and prior levels of achievement across school districts. The demographic characteristics that were controlled included the proportion of minority students, proportion of students receiving free or reduced price lunch, the proportion of students classified as English language learners (―ELL‖), and the proportion of students with a disability who had an individual educational plan (―IEP‖), as well as academic outcomes in the prior year. The purpose of these analyses was to examine whether school districts would have better student outcomes if they had more resources, assuming school districts had the same demographic composition and prior year‘s academic outcomes. Dr. Greene‘s regression analyses revealed that there is no pattern between the level of spending in Florida school districts and student performance on the FCAT or high school graduation rates.

Teacher Experience

In addition, Dr. Greene evaluated the assertion by Plaintiffs that teacher qualifications and experience characteristics impact student performance, and that districts with high-minority and low-income student populations have a lower percentage of qualified, experienced teachers. Consistent with his other findings, Dr. Greene found no statistical relationship between the proportion of novice (first-year teachers) or ―highly qualified teachers, as defined by the Florida Department of Education, and student performance on the FCAT or high school graduation rates. Likewise, Dr. Greene found no statistical relationship between the percentage of minority and low-income students in a district and the proportion of novice or highly qualified teachers.

Suspension Rates

Dr. Greene also addressed Plaintiffs‘ assertion that high suspension rates are attributable to a lack of school district resources and lead to lower student performance outcomes. As above, Dr. Greene conducted regression analyses that controlled for student demographic characteristics and prior student outcomes. Dr. Greene found no relationship between the rate at which students are given out-of-school suspensions in Florida school districts and FCAT reading, math, or science proficiency, or graduation rates.

Court’s Conclusion re: the Evidence

The Court accepts Dr. Greene‘s conclusions and finds that they corroborate other evidence in the case showing the lack of causal relationship between the level of resources available in Florida schools and student outcomes, as well as evidence showing that the level of resources available is sufficient for a high quality system.

Although Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof in this case, neither Plaintiffs‘ expert witnesses nor their school-district witnesses presented analyses or studies rebutting the work of Drs. Hanushek and Greene. In fact, the weight of the evidence shows that despite budget cutbacks associated with the Great Recession, student performance continued to improve in the period 2007–08 to 2014–15.

 


Does Parent Trigger Cut the Gordian Knot?

December 8, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The editorial in yesterday’s Journal covering the “parent trigger” earthquake in Los Angeles – at McKinley Elementary in Compton – argues that this could be a revolutionary new mechanism for advancing parental control of schools:

The biggest obstacle to education reform has long been overcoming the inertial forces of unionized bureaucracy. Parent trigger is a revolutionary shortcut, and bravo to the parents in Compton for making the leap.

The model is set to spread, argue the editors:

Parent trigger has support from Democrats including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee and even Rahm Emanuel now that he’s running for mayor of Chicago. Legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, West Virginia and Maryland tell us they will introduce versions of parent trigger in the coming months.

Last time I looked in on the state of school governance reform in LA, I was skeptical. But that was more than a year ago, when the parent trigger mechanism wasn’t yet a part of the reform package. Last fall they were setting themselves up to have the public system hire private managers – which hasn’t worked in the past.

The parent trigger model is different. At a school that hasn’t made Adequate Yearly Progress ™ four years running, get a majority of parents to sign a petition and you can close the school, change administrators, or turn over the school to charter operators. The key difference is that the parents signing the petition decide what happens.

The district will fight them in court, of course, and they may win on a bogus technicality. As we learned in Florida in 2006, when the unions demand obeisance from their slaves you can’t count on a court to follow even the most tranparently clear meaning of the letter and spirit of the law.

But that’s not really relevant to the real policy question. All school reform policies are exposed to the naked assertion of thuggish power from union-bootlicking judges, and I don’t see much reason to think this one is more exposed (at least in principle) than any others.

So, that aside, is the Journal right that parent trigger is a way to cut the Gordian knot? Here are the advantages and disadvantages as I see them.

Advantages:

  1. School choice as a consequence of school failure is a proven way to improve public school performance. Even where the threat is never actualized, the mere threat produces clear gains.
  2. The parent trigger system may overcome the serious procedural obstacles that have dogged other “failing schools” models. The system for activating choice is (with an exception I’ll discuss below) simple, clear and not under the control of the government bureaucracy – and informing parents about their choices is easier because the system for creating choices involves getting parents informed and involved.
  3. The system is politically attractive, and partly for the right reasons. If a majority of the actual parents in the school want the school handed over, it’s really hard to be the people who say it shouldn’t be handed over.

Disadvantages:

  1. For the moment, the system is only promoting management change, at best involving charter operators, which is an improvement but is inadequate. But that’s less important because you could always use a parent trigger to activate vouchers.
  2. Petitions carry some problematic issues as a vehicle. Phrasing can be unclear, and/or people may not understand what they’re signing. Worse, the blob could organize its own counter-petitions to create confusion. It’s unlikely they could actually seize control of a school this way, but they could disrupt the process.
  3. More seriously, the system is only available at a small number of schools (those that don’t make AYP four years running). You could always fight to expand that, but the question is how far you could expand it. In theory you could do a parent trigger everywhere, but it’s not clear whether that would be politically viable. Maybe it would be if you did it in the right state. The larger question here is how wedded we are to a “failing schools” model that assumes schools are only failing if they’re populated by kids who are poor and dark-skinned. It’s an important question whether the parent trigger could be used to transition to a “failing schools” model that says any school repudiated by its parents is a failing school, or if it only reinforces the worst of our existing prejudices about what constitutes educational failure.
  4. Along a smiliar line, in its current form the parent trigger (like all previous “failing schools” models) reinforces government’s right to decide what constitutes a good education, because it relies on state testing as a parent-choice gatekeeper. In addition to my recent movement toward stronger critique of accountability testing for what are essentially pedagogical reasons, on an even more basic level it’s imperative that we not validate the idea that a good education is what government says it is. This, and #3 above, are what I meant when I said that parent trigger is politically attractive “partly” for the right reason. 
  5. Carrying on the theme of #3 and #4, most Americans wrongly believe there’s nothing wrong with their own schools; after all, the kids are middle-class whites and the schools are run by the government – nice, clean suburban government, not those icky urban machines – so how bad could they be? So suppose you give everyone a parent trigger and don’t get enough schools where you overcome all the obstacles of perception (to say nothing of the logistics) and get a majority to sign off. That would only validate the illusion that the status quo in the great suburban Middle America is A-OK.

So color me ambivalent. Parent trigger is certainly an improvement over Florida’s A+ model, where near-insuperable bureaucratic obstacles stood between parents and the actual excercise of choice. And I see some potential to use this as a path to making parents’ judgments the standard for what counts as a good school. But there are serious dangers here as well, if we don’t take seriously the omnipresent temptation to slide back toward liberal paternalism.


New Florida Study Makes It 18-0

June 3, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

David Figlio’s study (with Cassandra Hart) on how the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship program impacts public schools is finally out. Guess what? His detailed statistical analysis finds that competition from school choice improves public schools. (Here’s some local news coverage.)

But that was no surprise to anyone who’s been following the research. Early last year I counted up the studies and here’s what I got:

Removing the double-count for studies that had findings in multiple locations, that made it 16 studies finding school choice improves public schools to zero finding they hurt public schools. (The one null finding was in DC, where the program pays enormous cash bribes to the public system – apparently on the princple that children are the chattel property of the government school system – in order to deliberately neutralize its effect on public schools.)

After that, Jay came out with yet another study finding that Milwaukee vouchers have improved public schools. That brought it up to 17-0.

Now Figlio and Hart in Florida, adding the first study that looks at tax-credit scholarships rather than vouchers, have made it 18-0.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Florida tax-credit program also dramatically improves education for the students who are using it.

As always, critics are trying to make hay out of the fact that in the Figlio/Hart study, a tiny, population-limited, regulation-cramped choice program produces only moderate-sized benefits. Well, geniuses, if the benefits of a tiny, population-limited, regulation-cramped program are too small for you, can you think of any way you might make the program’s impact bigger?


Ed Schools Take the FCAT

November 25, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Good gravy! Never mind the debate on using test scores to evaluate teachers. Florida is actually using test scores to evaluate teacher colleges:

It determined what percentage of graduates from each program had 50 percent or more of their students make a year’s worth of progress [on the FCAT]. USF’s College of Education — a huge pipeline for teachers in the Tampa Bay area — had 76 percent of its graduates reach that bar, putting it ninth among the 10 state university programs. Florida International University in Miami topped the field at 85 percent. The University of West Florida in Pensacola was last at 70 percent.

The only problem I can see here is that this just compares education schools to one another. All education schools are part of the problem. Still, I can see a lot of value in knowing which ones are more a part of the problem or less – not least because if they start competing with one another on the basis of results, maybe someday one of them will actually produce a radical transformative revolutionary breakthrough and actually become a value-adding rather than value-subtracting part of the education system.

62% of a hat tip goes to Flypaper’s Andy Smarick. I’m penalizing Andy by withholding 38% of the hat tip because he claims, with no justification, that Arne Duncan must somehow deserve some credit for this move. First of all, as Andy sort of sheepishly admits, a move like this must have been in the works for a while before reaching fruition.

But more important is that Florida has been the nation’s leader in this field for a long time now. Florida doesn’t follow the USDOE on this issue, the USDOE follows Florida. The only effect the USDOE has ever had on Florida’s interest in using test scores for evaluation purposes is to prevent it from going further faster.


School Choice Wins in 2008; Unrestricted Eligibility in Georgia

June 18, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Washington Post is now reporting that the House Appropriations subcommittee will fund the DC voucher program for another year. People are saying that the future of the program doesn’t look good, because the subcommittee chairman is blustering about how much he doesn’t like it. But read that Post article carefully. He doesn’t say that the program will be killed next year. The Post reports that he says he’s funding the program for another year “to give District leaders a chance to restructure the program.” He is quoted as saying, “I expect that during the next year the District leaders will come forward with a firm plan for either rolling back the program or providing some alternative options.”

That sounds to me like a man who’s looking for a deal. The DC program is already loaded up with monster payoffs to the District’s patronage-bloated public school system. How hard is it to make those payoffs bigger? And maybe the program will have to accept some more politically motivated restrictions on participation, so that critics will have a trophy to hang on their wall.

Whether those tradeoffs are worth it for the school choice movement – there is a real cost, and not just in dollars, associated with them – is a question I leave for another day. And of course this is just the subcommittee; there could still be more trouble ahead. And maybe next year the critics will get a better offer from the unions than the deal they’re apparently angling to get on behalf of the DC patronage machine.

All I want to do is observe that the program’s chances of survival are now looking a lot better than they did yesterday.

As the political season winds to a close, let’s survey the results:

  • A new personal tax credit for private school tuition in Louisiana
  • A new tax-credit scholarship program in Georgia
  • A new voucher program in Louisiana
  • An expansion of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, including a $30 million increase in the cap; a bump up in the value of the scholarship and a linking of the scholarship value to state school spending (which always goes up); and a relaxation of the program’s unreasonably stringent accounting rules (which used to allow not one penny of carryover from year to year in the scholarship organizations’ accounts, and not one penny from eligible donations for administrative expenses).
  • A million-dollar funding increase and guaranteed future funding stream for Utah’s voucher program.
  • Preservation (tentatively) of the DC voucher program in a hostile Congress.

That’s three new programs, two expansions of existing programs and an upset victory in DC. Pretty good for a dead movement, wouldn’t you say?

By the way, how did accountability testing do this year? How many new programs? How many existing programs expanded?

How about instructional and curricular reforms? How’s the Massachussetts miracle holding up?

Anyone? . . . Anyone?

Some of these victories did come at a cost. The two programs in Louisiana are going to score poorly when measured against the gold standard of universal choice. The tax credit is limited to a very small amount of money, which means it offers a very small amount of choice. And the new voucher program is only offered to students who are in grades K-3, low-income, and enrolled in public schools (or entering kindergarten) in a chronically failing school district located in a highly populated parish – which currently means only New Orleans. Plus it’s limited by annual appropriations (currently $10 million). A new grade level will become eligible each year (4th grade next year, then 5th grade, etc.) and Baton Rouge may become eligible if its public schools continue to fail. But this is still an inadequate program. And we can also add the prospect of more restrictions in the DC program to the debit column.

But there was also a huge step forward for universal choice. Georgia’s new tax-credit scholarship program offers school choice for all students. It has no demographic restrictions at all. Any public school student can apply. The only limit is the $50 million program cap – and experience in other states pretty consistently shows that dollar caps rise as programs grow to meet them.

Georgia’s new program is basically the same as the Arizona program funded by individual donations, except that Georgia’s program also allows corproate donations. And that makes a big difference, because it greatly expands the pool of available funds – and hence the size of the program.

Come to think of it, Georgia’s program is the first tax-credit scholarship program to include corporate donations and not place demographic restrictions on who can participate. That’s a potentially powerful combination. It will be exciting to see whether Georgia ends up taking school choice to a whole new level.


That “Wizardry” Teacher Firing – There’s More to the Story

May 15, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently, a lot of people linked to this story:

A substitute teacher in Pasco County has lost his job after being accused of wizardry. Teacher Jim Piculas does a magic trick where a toothpick disappears and then reappears. Piculas recently did the 30-second trick in front of a classroom at Rushe Middle School in Land ‘O Lakes. Piculas said he then got a call from the supervisor of teachers, saying he’d been accused of wizardry. “I get a call the middle of the day from head of supervisor of substitute teachers. He says, ‘Jim, we have a huge issue, you can’t take any more assignments you need to come in right away,'” he said. Piculas said he did not know of any other accusations that would have led to the action. The teacher said he is concerned that the incident may prevent him from getting future jobs.

Quite a few bloggers and (especially) their commenters used this as an opportunity to bash their favorite targets: Parents are stupid, conservatives are stupid, Christians are stupid, stupid people are stupid, etc. A handful of people even managed to ask whether maybe the school officials bear just a tiny fraction of the responsibility.

Unfortunately, when describing the story, most bloggers and even most media outlets failed to include this information:

Local education officials, however, deny that Piculas was sacked for wizardry, citing a number of other complaints made against the teacher, such as not sticking to lesson plans and allowing students to use school computers.

Oops.

His dismissal form and the formal letter informing him that he would not be hired again also state that he used inappropriate language in class and put a student in charge of the class. And that reference to letting students “use school computers” turns out to mean that he allegedly let kids wander away from class and use the computers when they were supposed to be at their desks working.

Always click through those links before posting!

Nor did many people mention that the same school district that allegedly fired a substitute teacher for performing one magic trick has been hiring a professional magician to come in and perform for the kids for years, and after this story broke, they’ve reassured him that they still want him to come do his show. That tends to discredit the storyline some are peddling that Pasco County has been taken over by crazy right-wing extremists.

It’s not even clear whether any parental complaint about wizardry was actually filed. Most media reports I’ve seen have reported as fact that a parent complained to the school about wizardry, but the only evidence for this “fact” seems to be the claims of the fired substitute himself.

Tampa Channel 10 initially reported that the district claimed that the reason for the firing wasn’t “just” wizardry. That’s better than most media outlets, which didn’t report the district’s side of the story at all. But the claim that the problem wasn’t “just” wizardry didn’t come from a quote; the reporter put that word into the district’s mouth. As noted above, other outlets reported simply that that district denied wizardry was an issue. All the direct quotes and documents from the district seem to back that interpretation rather than the characterization in the initial Channel 10 report. And when Channel 10 did a follow-up report, the district said performing magic tricks is not against school policy, and the teacher’s magic trick was “insignificant.”

It is, of course, theoretically possible that there really was a parental complaint about wizardry, and that a dim-witted local school official decided to fire a substitute based on one parent’s crazy complaint, and that the district made up a bunch of accusations against the substitute after the fact in order to cover up what had happened (all of which is alleged by the fired substitute).

If so, I can only say that the schools in Pasco County are amazingly responsive to their parents. Do you suppose they have a big phone bank to call every parent at home every night and get approval for the next day’s lesson plan and lunch menu?

Kudos to Tampa Channel 10, which seems to have done the most follow-up work on this story, and to the few other media outlets doing their jobs.


Surprise! What Researchers Don’t Know about Florida’s Vouchers

April 21, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

 

Florida’s A+ program, with its famous voucher component, has been studied to death. Everybody finds that the A+ program has produced major improvements in failing public schools, and among those who have tried to separate the effect of the vouchers from other possible impacts of the program, everybody finds that the vouchers have a positive impact. At this point our understanding of the impact of A+ vouchers ought to be pretty well-formed.

 

But guess what? None of the big empirical studies on the A+ program has looked at the program’s impact after 2002-03. That was the year in which large numbers of students became eligible for vouchers for the first time, so it’s natural that a lot of research would be done on the impact of the program in that year. Still, you would think somebody out there would be interested in finding out, say, whether the program continued to produce gains in subsequent years. In particular, you’d think people would be interested in finding out whether the program produced gains in 2006-07, the first school year after the Florida Supreme Court struck down the voucher program in a decision that quickly became notorious for its numerous false assumptions, internal inconsistencies, factually inaccurate assertions and logical fallacies.

 

Yet as far as I can tell, nobody has done any research on the impact of the A+ program after 2002-03. Oh, there’s a study that tracked the schools that were voucher-eligible in 2002-03 to see whether the gains made in those schools were sustained over time. But that gives us no information about whether the A+ program continued to produce improvements in other schools that were designated as failing in later years. For some reason, nobody seems to have looked at the crucial question of how vouchers impacted Florida public schools after 2002-03.

 

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That is, until now! I recently conducted a study that examines the impact of Florida’s A+ program separately in every school year from 2001-02 through 2006-07. I found that the program produced moderate gains in failing Florida public schools in 2001-02, before large numbers of students were eligible for vouchers; big gains in 2002-03, when large numbers of students first became eligible for vouchers; significantly smaller but still healthy gains from 2003-04 through 2005-06, when artificial obstacles to participation blocked many parents from using the vouchers; and only moderate gains (smaller even than the ones in 2001-02) after the vouchers were removed in 2006-07.

 

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It seems to me that this is even stronger evidence than was provided by previous studies that the public school gains from the A+ program were largely driven by the healthy competitive incentives provided by vouchers. The A+ program did not undergo significant changes from year to year between 2001-02 and 2006-07 that would explain the dramatic swings in the size of the effect – except for the vouchers. In each year, the positive effects of the A+ program track the status of vouchers in the program. If the improvements in failing public schools are not primarily from vouchers, what’s the alternative explanation for these results?

 

 

 

 

Obviously the most newsworthy finding is that the A+ program is producing much smaller gains now that the vouchers are gone. But we should also look more closely at the finding that the program produced smaller (though still quite substantial) gains in 2003-04 through 2005-06 than it did in 2002-03.

 

As I have indicated, I think the most plausible explanation is the reduced participation rates for vouchers during those years, attributable to the many unnecessary obstacles that were placed in the path of parents wishing to use the vouchers. (These obstacles are detailed in the study; I won’t summarize them here so that your curiosity will drive you to go read the study.) While the mere presence of a voucher program might be expected to produce at least some gains – except where voucher competition is undermined by perverse incentives arising from bribery built into the program, as in the D.C. voucher – it appears that public schools may be more responsive to programs with higher participation levels.

 

There’s a lot that could be said about this, but the thing that jumps to my mind is this: if participation rates do drive greater improvements in public schools, we can reasonably expect that once we have universal vouchers, the public school gains will be dramatically larger than anything we’re getting from the restricted voucher programs we have now.

 

One more question that deserves to be raised: how come nobody else bothered to look at the impact of the A+ program after 2002-03 until now? We should have known a long time ago that the huge improvements we saw in that year got smaller in subsequent years.

 

It might, for example, have caused Rajashri Chakrabarti to modify her conclusion in this study that failing-schools vouchers can be expected to produce bigger improvements in public schools than broader vouchers. In this context it is relevant to point out that many of the obstacles that blocked Florida parents from using the vouchers arose from the failing-schools design of the program. Chakrabarti does great work, but the failing-schools model introduces a lot of problems that will generally keep participation levels low even when the program isn’t being actively sabotaged by the state department of education. If participation levels do affect the magnitude of the public school benefit from vouchers, then the failing-schools model isn’t so promising after all.

 

So why didn’t we know this? I don’t know, but I’ll offer a plausible (and conveniently non-falsifiable) theory. The latest statistical fad is regression discontinuity, and if you’re going to do regression discontinuity in Florida, 2002-03 is the year to do it. And everybody wants to do regression discontinuity these days. It’s cutting-edge; it’s the avant-garde. It’s like smearing a picture of the virgin Mary with elephant dung – except with math.

 

You see the problem? It’s like the old joke about the guy who drops his keys in one place but looks for them in another place because the light is better there. I think the stats profession is constantly in danger of neglecting good research on urgent questions simply because it doesn’t use the latest popular technique.

 

I don’t want to overstate the case. Obviously the studies that look at the impact of the A+ program in 2002-03 are producing real and very valuable knowledge, unlike the guy looking for his keys under the street lamp (to say nothing of the elephant dung). But is that the only knowledge worth having?

 

(Edited to fix a typo and a link.)