Three Things Not to Miss in Wolf’s Post

May 16, 2013

Tyson-Spinks SI cover

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay has already linked to Pat Wolf’s devastating knockout of the special ed smear campaign against Milwaukee vouchers. However, it’s such a long piece (there’s so much falsehood to debunk!) that I want to make sure the most important points don’t get overlooked:

  1. Pat catches the Department of Public Instruction lying about how many disabled students are in the voucher program. “Lying” is a strong word, but that is what happened here.
  2. USDOJ faults DPI for not requiring schools to report how many voucher students are disabled, so they can monitor discrimination against disabled students – but the reason is that state law gives them no power to do so, and regulations forbid them from doing so. The purpose of the regulation is to protect against schools using the information to discriminate against disabled students!
  3. “A statistical analysis that my research team conducted during our five-year evaluation of the program confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage – not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race – was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.  Our evidence is consistent with the expectation that private schools are admitting voucher students at random during that critical transition, as the law requires.”

Pat also points out, against the USDOJ’s claim that private schools in the voucher program are covered by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice reviewed and let stand Wisconsin court rulings finding that voucher schools are not government contractors, and students in the program are “parentally placed” not “government placed” in their schools, so the schools are not within reach of laws that apply to government services. In my (non-lawyer) opinion that does not make it a slam dunk that the voucher schools aren’t covered by ADA, because the ADA is such a badly crafted law. But it’s still worth remembering.

Update: This post has been modified because the original version didn’t state point #2 quite right. My apologies!

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ACLU Applauds as USDOJ Orders Wisconsin Public Schools to . . . Stop Blocking Kids from Using Vouchers?

May 3, 2013

Wile falling

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, this is interesting. Someone just sent me a hyperventilating press release from the ACLU bragging about how they got the USDOJ to issue a letter to Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction. The letter declares that the Milwaukee voucher program is a “public entity” under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is therefore subject to ADA prohibitions on discrimination. USDOJ orders Wisconsin to undertake several actions designed to allow USDOJ to determine whether such discrimination is taking place, and to deter it. You can read the letter here.

I doubt this will be a big deal. There is certainly some minor bad news for school choice here. Assuming this letter stands up to any challenges brought against it, private schools may lose a small degree of autonomy over admissions and services. Private schools ought to be free to say to some parents “we are not able to accommodate your needs”; I know some people think that’s bad, but not every school can be the right school for every child. The failure to realize this basic fact is at the very heart of our dysfunctional government school monopoly. Turning from admissions to services, one reason private schools are able to provide better services to disabled students is because they aren’t tied down to the rigid IDEA bureaucracy that public schools are required to use. This letter will not impose the IDEA monster on voucher schools, thankfully, but it could lead to steps in the wrong direction. The letter also orders Wisconsin to conduct ADA training for staff in voucher schools; that’s a hassle they don’t need, but not likely to impact education in a major way. Still, things like this are a good example of why ADA is a very badly crafted law – it basically empowers USDOJ to issue arbitrary orders based on ambiguous definitions (what exactly is a “reasonable accommodation”?).

On the other hand, I wonder if the ACLU has rushed to brag about something that, upon further reflection, it may live to regret. The USDOJ letter begins by listing the allegations made against Wisconsin public schools, which justify its investigation. The very first allegation is that “students with disabilities in the Milwaukee Public Schools are deterred by DPI and participating voucher schools from participating in the school choice program.” That’s “DPI” as in “Department of Public Instruction.”

So the U.S. Department of Justice is now officially investigating whether Milwaukee public schools are blocking students from using vouchers . . . thanks to the ACLU!

One thing the letter orders Wisconsin to do is conduct “public outreach about the school choice program to students with disabilities.” By all means – make sure they know their options!

Thanks, ACLU geniuses!

PS Do you think anyone at the ACLU asked themselves why public schools would seek to prevent students from using the voucher program, if (as we are constantly told by voucher opponents) the imperative to serve those students is a terrible drain on the public school system?


Ed Week on Distorted Special Ed Counts

March 15, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Ed Week dives into details on the difficult issue of how special education counts get distorted by a variety of factors. The article gets into a lot of interesting issues that make it difficult to get a clear picture of how many disabled students are served by the program. See also here for the researchers’ take on the issue.

One factor not canvassed in the Ed Week story – unsurprisingly – is the role of financial incentives in public school special education programs. Public schools are incentivized to label studnets as disabled in order to access additional funding. Study after study after study after study has confirmed the empirical relationship between the presence and strength of these incentives and rising rates of special education diagnosis in public schools. Private schools have no such distorting incentive and will thus report lower numbers of disabled students. (All this is true regardless of whether you think the true rate of disabilities is higher, as in the public system, or somewhat lower, as in the private system.)


More on Milwaukee School Choice Research Results

March 5, 2012

I wrote last week about the release of the final research results from Milwaukee’s school choice program.  On Sunday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel devoted its entire editorial page to a discussion of those results.  Check out the succinct summary of the findings by Patrick Wolf and John Witte.

Also be sure to check out the response from the head of the teachers union, Bob Peterson.  His rebuttal consists of noting that many students switch sectors, moving from choice to traditional public schools as well as in the opposite direction.  He thinks that this undermines the validity of Wolf and Witte’s graduation rate analysis, but he fails to understand that the researchers used an intention to treat approach that attributes outcomes to students’ original selection of sector regardless of their switching.  And on the special education claim he simply reiterates the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) faulty effort to equate the percentage of students who are entitled to accommodations on the state test with the percentage of students who have disabilities.

For more on how DPI under-stated the rate of disabilities in the Milwaukee choice program by between 400% and 900%, check out the new article Wolf, Fleming, and Witte just published in Education Next.  It’s not only an excellent piece of research detective work on how DPI arrived at such an erroneous claim, but it is also a useful warning to anyone who thinks that government issued claims provide the authoritative answer on research questions.  Government agencies, like DPI, can lie and distort as much or more than any special interest group.  They just do it with your tax dollars and in your name.


New Milwaukee Choice Results

February 27, 2012

My colleague at the University of Arkansas, Patrick Wolf, along with John Witte at the University of Wisconsin and a team of researchers have released their final round of reports on the Milwaukee school choice program.  You can read the press release here and find the full set of reports here.

They find that access to a private school with a voucher in Milwaukee significantly increases the probability that students will graduate from high school:

“Our clearest positive finding is that the Choice Program boosts the rates at which students graduate from high school, enroll in a four-year college, and persist in college,” said John Witte, professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Since educational attainment is linked to positive life outcomes such as higher lifetime earnings and lower rates of incarceration, this is a very encouraging result of the program.”

They also find that “when similar students in the voucher program and in Milwaukee Public Schools were compared, the achievement growth of students in the voucher program was higher in reading but similar in math.”  Unfortunately, the testing conditions changed during the study because the private school testing went from being low stakes to high stakes, making it difficult to draw strong conclusions about the effects of the program on test scores.

In addition, it should be remembered that the design of the Milwaukee study is a matched comparison, which is less rigorous than random-assignment.  The more convincing random-assignment analyses are significant and positive in 9 of the 10 that have been conducted, with the tenth having null effects.  You can find a summary and links to all of them here.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the new Milwaukee results is the report on special education rates in the choice program.  As it turns out, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction grossly under-stated the percentage of students in the choice program who have disabilities.  Some reporters and policymakers act as if the Department of Public Instruction’s reports are reliable and insightful because they are a government agency, while the reports of university professors are distorted and misleading.  Read this report on special education rates and I think you’ll learn a lot about how politically biased government agencies like the Department of Public Instruction can be.


MPS Takes “Standing in the Schoolhouse Door” to a Whole New Level

May 31, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend, John Witte and Pat Wolf had a compelling article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel summarizing the real (as opposed to media-reported) results of the Milwaukee voucher program research being conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project.

And then they dropped a bomb:

Recently, our research team conducted site visits to high schools in Milwaukee to examine any innovative things they are doing to educate disadvantaged children. The private high schools of the choice program graciously opened their doors to us and allowed us full access to their schools. Although several MPS principals urged us to come see their schools as well, the central administration at MPS prohibited us having any further contact with those schools as they considered our request for visits. We have not heard from them in weeks.

Our report on the private schools we visited, which will offer a series of best practices regarding student dropout prevention, will be released this fall. Should MPS choose to open the doors of their high schools to us, we will be able to learn from their approaches as well. [ea]

MPS opposition to vouchers takes standing in the schoolhouse door to a whole new level.


Verdict in the WSJ: “School Vouchers Work”

May 3, 2011

Wall Street Journal columnist, Jason Riley has a must-read piece in the WSJ today.  The piece features the work of my University of Arkansas colleague, Patrick Wolf, JPGB’s very own Greg Forster, as well as a reference to the competitive effects study that Ryan Marsh and I conducted in Milwaukee.  There are too many highlights, but here is a (big) taste:

‘Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement,” said the White House in a statement on March 29. “The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students.” But less than three weeks later, President Obama signed a budget deal with Republicans that includes a renewal and expansion of the popular D.C. program, which finances tuition vouchers for low-income kids to attend private schools.

School reformers cheered the administration’s about-face though fully aware that it was motivated by political expediency rather than any acknowledgment that vouchers work.

When Mr. Obama first moved to phase out the D.C. voucher program in 2009, his Education Department was in possession of a federal study showing that voucher recipients, who number more than 3,300, made gains in reading scores and didn’t decline in math. The administration claims that the reading gains were not large enough to be significant. Yet even smaller positive effects were championed by the administration as justification for expanding Head Start….

The positive effects of the D.C. voucher program are not unique. A recent study of Milwaukee’s older and larger voucher program found that 94% of students who stayed in the program throughout high school graduated, versus just 75% of students in Milwaukee’s traditional public schools. And contrary to the claim that vouchers hurt public schools, the report found that students at Milwaukee public schools “are performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” Thus can vouchers benefit even the children that don’t receive them.

Research gathered by Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice also calls into question the White House assertion that vouchers are ineffective. In a paper released in March, he says that “every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public schools.” Mr. Forster surveyed 10 empirical studies that use “random assignment, the gold standard of social science,” to assure that the groups being compared are as similar as possible. “Nine [of the 10] studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected,” he writes. “One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.”

Such results might influence the thinking of an objective observer primarily interested in doing right by the nation’s poor children. But they are unlikely to sway a politician focused on getting re-elected with the help of teachers unions.

“I think Obama and Duncan really care about school reform,” says Terry Moe, who teaches at Stanford and is the author of a timely new book, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools.” “On the other hand they have to be sensitive to their Democratic coalition, which includes teachers unions. And one way they do that is by opposing school vouchers.”

The reality is that Mr. Obama’s opposition to school vouchers has to do with Democratic politics, not the available evidence on whether they improve outcomes for disadvantaged kids. They do—and he knows it.