Patrick Wolf Testifies on DC Vouchers

February 16, 2011

Watch my colleague, Patrick Wolf, tell it like it is on DC vouchers to the U.S. Senate.

And you can read his testimony here.


Look Who’s Standing in the Schoolhouse Door Now

October 18, 2010

The Oklahoma legislature and its Democratic Governor adopted a law allowing disabled students to use public funds to attend a private school if they wished to do so.  Similar laws have been passed in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Utah, and Arizona.

Disabled students have had to fight for decades to receive an adequate education from the public school system.  Federal legislation, now called IDEA, was adopted in the mid-1970s to ensure an appropriate eduction for disabled students.  Unfortunately, having a legal right to something and actually receiving it are two very different things and many disabled students continue to be denied appropriate services despite their legal entitlements.

That’s why several states have decided to empower families with disabled children with an additional mechanism by which they could ensure receiving an appropriate education — special education vouchers that would allow them to transfer to private schools if they believe that the public schools are not serving them adequately.  Oklahoma is the latest state to offer these vouchers but it almost certainly won’t be the last as several other states are considering the idea.  And there is good evidence that special education vouchers are significantly improving outcomes.

But, according to Education Week, four Oklahoma school districts have decided not to offer these vouchers that are required by state law.  The reasons given for willfully disobeying the state law are varied.  One district, Broken Arrow, has suggested that the voucher laws violate the state’s constitution because funds would go to religious schools.

Besides the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court and several states have ruled that these vouchers would not pose this type of constitutional threat, apparently public school district officials in Oklahoma think they know better.  And they’ve discovered some new constitutional process by which school officials interpret the constitution rather than the courts.

Actually, it’s not really a new method of deciding who should interpret the constitution, since it was a method well-established by segregationist school officials and governors who believed that they had the power to block black students from exercising their civil rights no matter what the law or courts said.  Now it is disabled students who are being blocked at the schoolhouse door.

The willingness of public school officials to publicly flaunt their disobedience of the law is not even very unique in current times.  Just two years ago school officials in Georgia decided to disobey the state’s duly enacted social promotion policy simply because they disagreed with the policy. Some of the Oklahoma public school officials similarly believe that they have standing as educators to decide what is best for kids and formulate the policy regardless of what the law and the people who pay them say.

Public school officials get away with this kind of willful violation of the law far too easily.  No one will go to jail.  No one will lose their job.  No one will be sanctioned in any way.  And they wonder why having a law to ensure appropriate services for disabled students isn’t sufficient.  Maybe it’s because public school officials apparently don’t have to follow the law.


The Little Voucher Engine Keeps Chugging Along

September 7, 2010

Despite various reports of the death of vouchers, mostly from people wishing that the idea were in fact dead, voucher programs and supporters keep gaining steam.

Today in the WSJ we learn about how both Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in Pennsylvania are voucher supporters.   As the piece concludes:

The Obama Administration, which is phasing out a popular and successful school voucher program in Washington, D.C., at the insistence of teachers unions, refuses to acknowledge that vouchers can play a role in reforming K-12 education. But states and cities are the real engines of reform, and the Pennsylvania developments are another sign that the school choice movement is alive and well.


Greg in PJM Keeps ‘Em Honest With Choice

February 14, 2010

Greg has a great post today on Pajama’s Media about how school choice is the secret sauce that keeps all other reforms honest.  Think of it as a love letter to education reform. : )

Here’s a highlight:

… the biggest political winner in education by far in the past year has been charter schools. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but the Obama administration’s pro-charter rhetoric has been more than just talk. Charter caps are being lifted because the administration really does support charters.

Why? I think it’s mainly because a critical mass of their political base on the left has embraced the principle that parents should be put in charge through choice, and I think that has happened precisely because they want a reform that will keep the system honest. More and more people on the left are sick and tired of the empty promises they’ve been peddled for decades: that this time, throwing another huge chunk of money at the blob will fix the schools — and this time, we really, really, really mean it, cross our hearts and hope to die.

The social justice folks on the left just don’t buy it anymore. They now see that the blob has been pulling the wool over their eyes for generations. You can imagine how they’re feeling about that right now. And woe betide you if the wrath of the social justice folks falls upon you; they’re not known for being gentle with those whom they perceive as enemies of social justice.

Case in point: Did you know that the same team of scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, scruple-at-nothing propagandists who produced An Inconvenient Truth has now made a hard-hitting documentary bashing teachers’ unions and advocating charter schools? And it was the very first film picked up for distribution at the Sundance Film Festival?

… The recent surge in the political fortunes of charter schools has been fueled by the less dramatic but steadily growing success of private school choice: school vouchers and similar policies that allow students to attend private schools using public funds. There are now 24 private school choice programs serving 190,000 students nationwide, up from just five programs in 1996. And private school choice is continuing to gain ground every year with the creation of new programs and expansion of existing programs, even in tough years like 2009.

As my friend Jay Greene likes to put it, vouchers make the world safe for charters. That is, it’s because of the more modest success of vouchers that charters have exploded. As long as vouchers are on the march and are thus a credible threat, triangulating legislators who need the blob’s support can embrace charters without paying too high a price for doing so. If the blob cuts off its support for legislators who back charters, it won’t have anyone on its side when vouchers are on the agenda. Because vouchers are out there, the blob has no choice but to suck it up and pretend to be OK with charters.

The next question, though, is whether charters alone are going to be sufficient to keep the system honest. Charters have ridden to success with the help of a lot of new supporters, but those supporters are a demanding constituency. The social justice folks expect results.


Op-Ed on Head Start and DC Vouchers

February 3, 2010

I have an op-ed in today’s Washington Examiner that will also be on City Journal’s web site on how the Obama administration has betrayed its pledge to do what the evidence says works in education.  It starts:


Milwaukee Voucher Students Have Higher Grad Rate

February 2, 2010

In a new analysis released today by School Choice Wisconsin, University of Minnesota sociologist Rob Warren finds that voucher students in Milwaukee graduate high school at a higher rate than students in Milwaukee Public Schools.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s coverage this morning:

For 2007-’08, Warren estimated the graduation rate in voucher schools to be 77%, and the graduation rate in MPS to be 65%, a difference of 12 percentage points. The information includes comparisons between seven choice schools and 23 public high schools that could provide complete data for all six years studied, and adjusted to account for an expected 5% ninth-grade retention rate in choice schools and an expected 25% ninth-grade retention rate in MPS.

And from the report’s summary we get an idea of how big that difference in graduation rate is:

As Professor Warren illustrates here, had MPS attained the same graduation rate achieved in the MPCP, an additional 3,352 students would have received diplomas between 2003 and 2008. According to the research cited in the Journal Sentinel, the annual impact from an additional 3,352 MPS graduates would include an additional $21.2 million in personal income and about $3.6 million in extra tax revenue.

Warren is careful to note that his analysis does not determine whether vouchers caused the higher graduation rate or attracted students who were more likely to graduate, but he is pretty confident that the voucher students do graduate at higher rates.  the public school officials are not so convinced: “You have to take into account things like mortality, and the number of students who move to another school,” St. Aubin said.

Mortality?  Is that a plausible explanation for the difference?  Warren’s method is similar to earlier work that Greg, Marcus, and I have done in estimating graduation rates and while not absolutely precise is likely to be reasonably accurate.  A forthcoming analysis by the School Choice Demonstration Project led by my colleague at the University of Arkansas, Pat Wolf, and with which I am involved will be able to examine this issue tracking individual students over time.


The Argument Clinic

January 5, 2010

Stuart Buck and I have a post over on the Education Next Blog addressing a letter that Sara Mead of the New America Foundation wrote in response to our article on special education vouchers.

Here’s a taste of our response:

Sara Mead’s letter almost feels like the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic.” She’s just contradicting us, not providing an actual argument with contrary evidence.

Of course, she could just say that she isn’t.


Tampa Tribune Op-Ed

September 3, 2009

Marcus Winters and I have an op-ed in this morning’s Tampa Tribune on how Florida’s McKay voucher program for special education students has restrained the spiraling growth in special education enrollments in public schools.  We write:

In Florida, as in most other states, schools receive additional funding for each student identified as disabled. Often, these additional resources are greater than the actual cost of providing special-education services, giving schools a financial incentive to increase their diagnoses.

The financial incentive to misdiagnose is particularly apparent when classifying students as having a specific learning disability (SLD). That’s because SLD is the most common, the most ambiguous, and the least costly category of special education. In many cases, school officials might simply be trying to get extra resources to help struggling students. But the net effect is the misclassification of a huge number of students as having an SLD.

The McKay program reduces the financial incentive for Florida’s schools to misdiagnose learning disabilities by placing revenue at risk whenever a student is placed into special education…

In our new study, we found as the number of nearby, McKay-accepting private schools increases, the probability that a public school will identify a student as having an SLD decreases significantly. The program reduced the probability that a fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-grader in a school facing the average number of nearby private options was diagnosed as SLD by about 15 percent.


The Special Ed DC Bubble

August 23, 2009

One of the (many) problems with education policy analysts is that a large number of them live in or around Washington, D.C. 

D.C. is a remarkably abnormal place.  Because of the giant distortions of the presence and subsidies from the federal government as well as the atypical set of people who live in that area, policy experiences in DC are very often quite different from the experiences in the rest of the country. 

The problem is that people tend to generalize from their immediate experiences.  If something happens to you, you hear about it from people you know, or you read about it in your local paper, you tend to think that’s the way it is for everyone.  So, DC education analysts are always at-risk of drawing policy conclusions based on incredibly atypical experiences.

For a prime example see Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead’s thoughts on special education vouchers:

In fact, if special education identification led to funding for private school attendance, it would be unusual if this did not create an incentive to participate in special education in many communities, particularly those with low-performing public schools. For example, Washington, D.C., and New York City currently contend with substantial abuse of special education by affluent parents. In addition, there are reports of parents seeking to have their students diagnosed with learning disabilities in order to gain accommodations on the SAT or for other reasons. [fn 27] 

For another example, listen to Amber Winkler, Mike Petrilli, and Rick Hess discuss our most recent study on special education vouchers (it starts around minute 11:00).  They generally do a good job of describing the study but they express doubts about our findings because they believe that parents, especially affluent parents, have considerable influence over special education placements.

On what basis do these D.C. education analysts believe that a significant number of parents, especially affluent parents, are gaming the special education diagnostic system to get access to advantageous accommodations or expensive private placements?  The evidence Andy and Sara provide in footnote 27 consists largely of newspaper accounts from Washington, D.C..  Mike and Rick provide no source and we can only assume that they are drawing upon their immediate experiences.

Of course, the antidote to mistaken generalizations from our limited and potentially distorted set of immediate experiences is the reliance on systematic data.  If we step back and look at the broad evidence, we can avoid some of the easy mistakes that result from assuming that everyone’s experience is like ours.  As it turns out, DC is a gigantic outlier.

School officials, not parents, make the determination of whether a student has a particular disability and what accommodations are necessary.  Parents are entitled to challenge the decisions of school officials, but they rarely do and even more rarely win those challenges. 

In the fall of 2007 there were 6,718,203 students receiving special education services between the ages of 3 and 21.  And that year there was a grand total of 14,834 disputes from parents resolved by a hearing or agreement prior to completion of a hearing (see Table 7-3).  That’s about .2% of special education cases that are disputed by parents or 1 in 500.

And as Marcus Winters and I described in our new study, schools prevail in most of these disputes:

According to Mayes and Zirkel’s (2001) review of the literature, “schools prevailed in 63% of the due process hearings in which placement was the predominant issue.” In cases where the matter went beyond an administrative hearing and was actually brought to court, one study cited in Mayes and Zirkel’s review found that “schools prevailed in 54.3% of special education court cases,” which the authors say is in line with the findings of other studies. In suits seeking reimbursement for private school expenses (because a special-education voucher program is unavailable), Mayes and Zirkel found that “school districts won the clear majority (62.5%) of the decisions.

In addition, as Marcus Winters and I documented in a 2007 Education Next article, private placement is amazingly rare.  Using updated national numbers from the federal government, as of fall 2007 there were 67,729 disabled students ages 6 through 21 who were being educated in private schools at parental request and public expense.  That’s only 1.13% of the 6,007,832 disabled students ages 6 through 21 and barely one tenth of one percent of all public school students.  If private placement supports Andy and Sara’s claim of “substantial abuse of special education” we’d have to redefine “substantial” to include minuscule proportions of students.

The systematic evidence clearly shows that school officials dominate special education, parents rarely challenge school officials’ decisions, schools win most of those challenges from parents, and parents very rarely get their children placed in private schools at public expense. 

So, why do Andy, Sara, Rick, and Mike ( as well as all of those DC reporters who Andy and Sara cite) believe that parents, especially affluent parents, control special education decisions?  Well, perhaps it is because in D.C. parents do have much more control than in the rest of the country. 

Remember how there were 14,384 students nationwide who resolved a dispute with their school over special education in a hearing or by agreement prior to the completion of a hearing?  DC contained 2,689 of those 14,384, or about 18% (see Table 7-3).  But DC represents only .15% of total student enrollment nationwide.  That means parents in DC are about 120 times more likely to lodge these challenges than the typical parent nationwide.

And while private placement is very rare, it is somewhat less rare in DC.  Out of 67,729 students privately placed at parental request, 1,864 of them were in DC, or about 2.75% of the total.  Again, given that DC student enrollment represents only .15% of national enrollment, DC students are about 18 times more likely to receive a private placement than students nationwide.

It’s clear that DC is just different — very different.  Making generalizations from DC experiences or newspaper articles is like saying that Seattle is a sunny place if you happen to arrive there on a day when the sun was shining.

D.C. isn’t the only outlier.  New York is also pretty atypical when it comes to special education.  Dispute resolution hearings in New York state are about 7 times more common than in the rest of the country.  And private placements are almost 3 times more common in the state of New York than they are nationwide.

It’s too bad that so many of our media and policy elites live in these two atypical places because they are giving us a very distorted picture of special education.  They need to get outside of their bubbles and rely on systematic data rather than immediate experiences.


Great Minds Think Alike

August 19, 2009

Just as we released our new study on special education vouchers in Florida, Marc Thiessen and Michael O’Hanlon have a piece in USA Today advocating for the policy, specifically to help students with autism. 

Thiessen is a Republican and fellow at the Hoover Institution and O’Hanlon is a Democrat and fellow at the Brookings Institution.  Special education vouchers clearly appeal across party lines.  And since disabilities are distributed roughly evenly across all racial and economic groups, the programs can have a broad base of political support to be adopted and protected from destructive regulation or roll-back efforts.  One thing we are learning from urban voucher programs targeted at disadvantaged populations is that they are very hard to sustain politically.  The targeted groups are also the most politically powerless.