WSJ on ESA and Jordan Visser

April 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Wall Street Journal has a news story on the Arizona Empowerment Accounts program today. Notice especially the intellectual incoherence of the Scottsdale official trying to explain how it hurts the finances of the district to lose special needs students:

School districts say that even though state funding doesn’t cover the costs of special-needs students, they don’t necessarily save that money if a student leaves the district. The Scottsdale district says it pays about $10 million to $12 million more than it gets from the state and federal government to educate its special-needs students.

“If every student with special needs left, then maybe we would save that $12 million, but at the same time, it’s pretty implausible,” said Daniel O’Brien, chief financial officer of the Scottsdale district. He added that the schools would still have students with all kinds of other needs who may not qualify for ESAs, and they would still need to educate those students.

Did you follow that?  Scottsdale says that they use $10m to $12m in general education funds above and beyond what it receives in state and federal funding for special needs children.  I certainly agree that it is utterly implausible that all special needs students will choose to leave the Scottsdale district, but that whole line of thought misses the most important point: if a child leaves with their “inadequate funding” then you have no cause to cry about it.  You still have the $10m to $12m in the bank- now you just have more options with what to do with some of it- you might want to spend more on your remaining special needs kids, you may want to do a slightly smaller transfer from general ed to special ed, but either way the district wins.

Notice also that 90% of what the Scottsdale Unified would have received for Jordan Visser seems to be serving his needs quite well.

For the past three years, Ms. Visser has educated her son, Jordan, who has cerebral palsy, at their Scottsdale, Ariz., home. He has a packed schedule of one-on-one instructional sessions with a specialist, physical-education classes, music lessons, horse-riding therapy and other programs—all of which she pays for through a state-funded program informally known as the “education debit card.”


The Disaggregation Era of K-12

February 10, 2014

Pay attention 007, and do try to keep up!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mike McShane hosted an event last week at the American Enterprise Institute, and I had the opportunity to serve on a panel with Mike, Andy Smarick and Kara Kerwin.  During the discussion, Andy confessed that what he found the “disaggregation” of K-12 unsettling. This came up in the context of a discussion of Arizona’s ESA program and students like Jordan Visser:

“How do you assign a teacher of record?” I recall Andy asking.  For Jordan, such a question is already antiquated. Should his tutor be classified as the teacher of record? Or the physical therapists? Mr. or Mrs. Visser?  What if Jordan is taking a MOOC from Stanford is a few years? Should the state of Arizona attempt to hold Stanford “accountable” for what Jordan learns?

Personally I choose “none of the above.”

The trend towards disaggregation in K-12 predates Arizona’s still tiny ESA program.  The ESA program can in fact simply be viewed as the best vehicle for managing a customization trend as a quasi-market mechanism that gets us as close as possible to realizing the benefits of markets while preserving the public funding of K-12. The disaggregation trend however has been moving out into the bloodstream for decades. Consider the following program data from Florida:

Florida disagregation

This is a snapshot of traditional “school choice as you knew it at the end of the 20th Century.”  Most but not all of these choices are mutually exclusive such that they are something any one student does to the exclusion of others. You don’t expect to find many students for instance enrolled in a private school full-time and doing full-time virtual instruction, for instance. Most of these options are either/or propositions you are either sitting in this type of seat, or that type of seat. Major avenues of part-time education, such as dual college enrollment and virtual education, are not included, so we are just getting warmed up.

Let’s take virtual education on next:

FLVS Credits

The Florida Virtual School is not the only supplier of accredited virtual courses in Florida, so the 148,000 or so courses they provided in 2011-12 underestimates the strength of the trend. Nevertheless FLVS long ago begged the question: if a child takes an online Mandarin course from an approved online provider, just what, if anything, does this have to do with the results on the host schools’ accountability scores?

“I’ll take ‘Absolutely Nothing at All’ for a Thousand, Trebek!

Needless to say, FLVS found it necessary to develop alternative methods for measuring student achievement related directly to course content.  High-school students have been taking classes at community colleges for decades with what appears to be an entirely understandable disinterest in sorting through just how much responsibility, if any, the Community College holds for what happens on the high-school students minimal skills accountability exam.

So what happens when we mix dual enrollment with virtual education?


Since we live in an age of wonders, we have over a thousand Massive Open Online Courses provided by some of the finest universities in the world available for free. Oh and the number of courses keeps growing. Did I mention that it has already been worked out for MOOC students to take third-party proctored final exams and receive college credit for them? Yes, right, that too.  Has anyone thought through the fact that the $89 cost for a third-party end of course exam may prove incredibly attractive for both families but also to schools who don’t enjoy having a portion of their budget sent off to an online provider?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves Trebek! I’ll take ‘Months that begin with Oct’ for five hundred…

So, let us imagine a 15-year-old taking a Calculus class from, say, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He or she successfully completes a third-party end of course exam, he or she either is or in the near future will be eligible for college credit from a large number of universities around the world. Obviously provision for this student to receive high-school calculus credit will need to be made as well if we are to maintain any semblance of sanity.  Should authorities in Arizona disallow this because MIT’s Calculus course doesn’t precisely fit the state of Arizona’s state standards?

I’ll take “Seriously, you have got to be kidding me!” for a thousand Alex.

In short, the disaggregation genie is out of the bottle, and the trend looks set to accelerate in the coming years. As our system of education evolves it will be necessary to update our thinking regarding transparency and accountability: they are already out of date and will be increasingly so moving forward.  It would be absurd to require Jordan Visser to take the AIMS test. The AIMS has nearly played itself out for the 19th Century factory model school system in Jordan’s home state and has nothing to do with Jordan.  Regarding the ESA program, the public’s interest in transparency would be better served by collecting national norm reference exam data and having them analyzed by a qualified academic researcher.  Regarding the broader education system, Texas has already moved to replace minimal skills tests with subject specific end of course exams at the high school level. If a student takes a Physics class, shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not they learned any “Physics”?

Creative destruction usually kills outdated ideas before outdated organizations. Our notions about how to provide transparency in a changing K-12 world have been running behind schedule.

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