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.)