Special Ed Vouchers Restrain Growth in Disabilities

August 18, 2009

Marcus Winters and I have a super-awesome study released today by the Manhattan Institute.  It shows that offering disabled students special education vouchers reduces the likelihood that public schools will identify students as disabled.

This isn’t what Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead expected.  They claimed in a 2003 report for the Progress Policy Institute that: “special education vouchers may actually exacerbate the over-identification problem by creating a new incentive for parents to have children diagnosed with a disability in order to obtain a voucher.”

It didn’t. The reason special education vouchers restrained growth in disabilities, rather than exacerbate it, is that the vouchers check public schools’ financial incentives to identify more students as disabled.  Public schools may get additional subsidies when they shift more students into special education, but if they then make students eligible for special education vouchers, they risk having those students walk out the door with all of their funding.  It makes the public schools think twice before over-identifying disabilities for financial reasons.

And outside of the DC bubble, schools control the process of whether students are identified as disabled — not parents.  So, if we can check the positive financial incentives that public schools have for over-identifying disabilities, we can significantly slow growth in special education.

Nearly 1 in 7 students nationwide is now classified as having a disability.  That’s 63% more than three decades ago.  It’s clear that this huge increase in disabilities was not caused by a true increase in the incidence of disabilities in the population.  No plague has afflicted our children over the last three decades to disable two-thirds more of them.

Instead, non-medical factors have been driving special education enrollments higher.  Chief among these is the financial incentives we offer schools in most states to shift more students into special education by providing additional subsidies for each student classified as disabled.

Some states have reformed their special education funding formulas to end these financial rewards for higher special education rolls.  Greg and I reported in a 2002 study that states that continued to pay schools per student identified as disabled had much higher rates of growth in special education than states that had reformed their funding formulas.  Elizabeth Dhuey of the University of Toronto and Stephen Lipscomb of the Public Policy Institute of California have confirmed these findings.

Julie Cullen of UC San Diego has found that “fiscal incentives can explain over 35 percent of the recent growth in student disability rates in Texas.”  And Sally Kwak, a student of David Card at UC Berkeley and now a professor at U of Hawaii, finds a significant slow-down in special education enrollments when California reformed its funding system.

The new study Marcus and I released today builds upon this growing research by showing yet again that public schools strongly consider non-medical factors when deciding whether to classify students as disabled.  I don’t mean to suggest that all school officials are conscious of these incentives or acting with evil intention.  But it is clear that the system in which they operate and their actions are shaped by these financial incentives.

If we discovered that hospitals were filling their beds with healthy people who just felt a little tired in order to obtain additional government subsidies, we would be outraged and demand dramatic reforms.  Public schools are doing the same and it is time we get outraged and demand reforms.

New DC Voucher Bill Introduced

July 30, 2009

According to an Alliance for School Choice press release:

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) today unveiled a bipartisan reauthorization bill for the D.C. school voucher program.  Lieberman, along with Susan Collins (R-ME) and four other senators, introduced legislation this morning to reauthorize and strengthen the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for five years…

 Under Senator Lieberman’s bill, the program would be preserved and strengthened significantly. The Lieberman bill would increase scholarship amounts to $9,000 for K-8 students and $11,000 for high school students­indexing the scholarship amounts to inflation. While these amounts remain significantly below the amounts for the D.C. Public Schools, they provide the necessary increases to account for inflation over the past five years.

The bill would also:

–Give scholarship priority to siblings of students who currently participate in the program
–Require participating schools to have a valid certificate of occupancy
–Require teachers of core subject matters to have bachelor’s degrees
–Require an Institute of Education Sciences annual evaluation of the program
–Require students to take nationally norm-referenced tests

I hear that this bill addresses all of the issues raised by Senator Durbin’s bill without any of the program-killing provisions.  If Durbin is really motivated by the concerns he has expressed, such as teachers having bachelors degrees and schools reporting test results, we may be getting close to a compromise.  Of course, that is a big IF.

JPG in CJ on SEV

July 29, 2009

Translation:  I have an article in the special summer issue of City Journal on special education vouchers.

Here is a taste:

Rather than compelling families with disabled children to contend with obstinate public school systems, we should give them the option of purchasing the services they need for their children from a private provider. That is, we should give them special-ed vouchers—good for the same amount of money that we already spend on them in the public school system—that they could then use to pay for private school. Not only would this bring better services to disabled New York students; it could also save the public money.

Many parents of disabled students have a lot of trouble ensuring that public schools give their kids an appropriate education. The parents have to know what they’re entitled to, and most do not. They must negotiate services from the local schools—but the schools are experienced in these negotiations, while the parents generally aren’t, so the schools often get away with minimizing their responsibilities. And even if parents win at the negotiating table, getting the schools actually to deliver on their promises is enormously difficult.

In the end, the only way to compel schools to keep their promises is for parents to engage in ongoing legal battles with the same people who take care of their kids each school day. Most parents have neither the resources nor the stomach to do that. Schools, on the other hand, see little downside in promising few services and delivering fewer. The worst that can happen is that courts will step in and order them to do what they were originally supposed to do; there are no punitive damages in special ed. Research by Perry Zirkel at Lehigh University also shows that courts tend to sympathize with school districts and that schools win most legal challenges from parents. And since children age, delays work to the schools’ advantage.

For all these reasons, most parents of disabled kids simply resign themselves to whatever the schools deliver—or fail to deliver.

The Heathers Think-Tanks

July 15, 2009

DC-based think tanks run the risk of being obsessed with the latest policy fashion rather than searching for the best long-term solutions.  In the DC bubble, sticking to one’s principles and the evidence is difficult when there are no near-term prospects for advancing policies that are supported by those principles and evidence.  It’s tempting instead to switch one’s policy focus so that it is line with the the current administration and congressional majority.

I was reminded of these hazards of DC think tanks when I received an invitation to the latest Thomas B. Fordham Institute event: “With charter schools ascendant, is there still a future for vouchers?” 

There’s nothing wrong with organizing a panel to consider the relative policy merits of charters and vouchers.  What’s weird is the suggestion that if one policy is currently popular, another might not have a future.  It’s like having a panel that addresses the question:  With Democrats ascendant, is there still a future for the Republican Party? 

Things change.  The current dominance of the Democratic Party won’t last forever.  It may not even last more than a few years.  Similarly, the current popularity of charters relative to vouchers may not last very long.  Rather than assessing the future of policies based on their current popularity, shouldn’t we assess their substantive merits so that we can advocate for the policies that are the most effective?

And if we must obsess on the political prospects of policies rather than their substantive merits, it’s weird to pit the two policies against each other.  Wouldn’t it seem more reasonable to think that as school choice becomes more common, whether with charters or with vouchers, all forms of choice will become more politically palatable?  As I’ve argued before, vouchers have helped make the world safe for charters, so the two policies may work well together. 

Just because the current congressional majority is hostile to vouchers doesn’t mean that the idea has no future or that we have to pit it against other, similar policies that are currently more in fashion.  Dismissing policies because they aren’t on the agenda of the current majority is like the type of argument heard in the 1988 film, Heathers:  “Grow up Heather, bulimia’s so ’87.”

UK Tories Propose Vouchers for Developing Countries

July 6, 2009

This is great news forwarded from Pauline Dixon, who with James Tooley, have done amazing work on the breadth and quality of private schooling in developing countries.  Here is part of the article in the Guardian:

Aid vouchers will be given to millions of people in the poorest parts of the world so they can shop around for the best schools and services, under Tory plans to inject free-market thinking into development policy.

A Conservative government would also spend part of the £9.1bn overseas aid budget on funding for private schools across the developing world, which it believes would achieve better results than state schools and drive up standards overall. The controversial plans are in a draft Tory policy document leaked to the Observer before publication this week of the government’s white paper on development.

Andrew Mitchell, the shadow international development secretary, confirmed last night that the Tories were “investigating” using aid vouchers “to empower people in developing countries”. He also said his party had no objection to supporting the growth of the private education and health sectors in the developing world.

“Governments have a responsibility to guarantee access to health and education for everyone, particularly the poorest,” Mitchell said. “We stand ready to work with public, private and not-for-profit sectors to help make that happen. I don’t have any ideological hang-ups about whether it’s private provision or public provision: I’m interested in what works.”

In his bid to promote compassionate Conservatism, David Cameron pledges to match Labour’s plans to increase development spending to 0.7% of GDP by 2013. The budget in 2010-11 will be £9.1bn. But the policy has not proved universally popular in the party, particularly on the right, where many believe too much aid money is wasted. A survey of Tory candidates found only 4% thought international development should be the policy most protected from cuts.

Cameron’s critics believe he is promoting Thatcherite policies for aid to appease the right and reassure them the money will be well spent. The draft document suggests planning for a voucher scheme is well advanced.

“The vouchers would be redeemable for development services of any kind with an aid agency or supplier of their choice,” it states. The paper also says that a Conservative government would “embrace the potential of the private sector, not treat it with suspicion” when administering the aid budget.

As a result it makes clear the Tories would support private education in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, India and China, where it claims it has delivered better results than state-run schools “even adjusting for children’s backgrounds”.

The paper states: “We will stand ready to work with the public, not-for-profit and private sectors. We will consider funding insurance schemes, bursaries or targeted vouchers for the poorest children to attend a school of their choice.”

Why Random Assignment is Important

July 2, 2009

Bill Evers has an excellent post over on his Ed Policy blog about how unreliable observational studies can be and how important it is to test claims with random-assignment research designs. 

Observational studies (sometimes called epidemiological or quasi-experimental studies) do not randomly assign subjects to treatment or control conditions or use a technique that approximates random-assignment (like regression discontinuity).  Instead they simply compare people who have self-selected or otherwise been assigned to receive a treatment to people who haven’t received that treatment, controlling statistically for observed differences between the two groups.  The problem is that unobserved factors may really be causing any differences between the two groups, not the treatment.  This is especially a problem when these unobserved factors are strongly related to whatever led to some people getting the treatment and others not. 

The solution to this problem is random assignment.  If subjects are assigned by lottery to receive a treatment or not, then the only difference between the two groups, on average, is whether they received the treatment.  The two groups should otherwise be identical because only chance distinguishes them.  Any differences between the two groups over time can be attributed to the treatment with high confidence.

If you don’t believe that research design makes a big difference, consider this table that Bill Evers provides on how much results change in the field of nutrition when random assignment (or clinical) studies are done to check on claims made by observational studies:

If we want to avoid the educational equivalent of quack medicine, we really need more random-assignment studies and we need to give the random-assignment studies we already have significantly greater weight when forming policy conclusions.

As I’ve written before, we have 10 random-assignment studies on the effects of vouchers on students who participate in those programs. Six of those ten studies show significant academic benefits for the average student receiving a vouchers and three studies show significant academic benefits for at least one major sub-group of students.  One study finds no significant effects.  

I believe that there are more random-assignment studies on vouchers than on any other educational policy and there are certainly more studies with positive results.  The depth of positive, rigorous studies on voucher participant effects is worth keeping in mind each time some new observational or (even descriptive) study comes out on school choice, including the most recent report from Florida.  Our opinion shouldn’t be based entirely on the latest study, especially if it lacks the rigorous design of several earlier studies.

No News — NEA Lies

June 20, 2009

You read it here on JPGB first.  The NEA sent a letter to members of Congress containing bald-faced lies about the DC voucher program.  Now the WSJ has picked up the story.  The WSJ wrote:

Public school teachers are supposed to teach kids to read, so it would be nice if their unions could master the same skill. In a recent letter to Senators, the National Education Association claims Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarships aren’t working, ignoring a recent evaluation showing the opposite.

“The DC voucher pilot program, which is set to expire this year, has been a failure,” the NEA’s letter fibs. “Over its five year span, the pilot program has yielded no evidence of positive impact on student achievement.”

That must be news to the voucher students who are reading almost a half-grade level ahead of their peers. Or to the study’s earliest participants, who are 19 months ahead after three years. Parents were also more satisfied with their children’s schools and more confident about their safety. Those were among the findings of the Department of Education’s own Institute of Education Sciences, which used rigorous standards to measure statistically significant improvement.

It should be no news that the NEA lies.  They do not have a commitment to the truth; their only commitment is to the interests of their members and leadership.  If that requires lying, they show no restraint.

The only news is that people, including the news media, public intellectuals, and policymakers, continue to treat the teacher unions as if they were credible actors in education policy discussions.  It is a mystery to me why they are ever contacted for comment by reporters or invited to serve on panels.  People who feel obliged to lie should be shunned and their opinions should never be solicited because their opinion can never be trusted as serving the truth.

I understand that the teacher unions have a right to exist, to represent their members in negotiations, and to attempt to influence policy.  But I don’t know why anyone should help them influence policy since they have shown such a callous disregard for truth and obsessive concern with self-interest.

Now I know that Leo Casey or one of his sock puppets might accuse me of being untrustworthy.  Here’s the difference:  While I might be mistaken, I am unlike the union folks in that my continued employment is not dependent on my holding particular opinions.  If I woke up tomorrow and decided that vouchers made no sense, I would be perfectly free to do so without penalty.  My position as a tenured professor does not depend at all on my believing that something  is true.

The same cannot be said for Leo Casey or other unions flacks.  If they woke up one morning and decided that vouchers were the key to improving the education system, they could not say so and expect to continue to be employed.  If they cannot change their mind without severe penalty, why would we believe that they are telling us their honest opinion now?  And if we can’t be sure that they are telling us their honest opinions, why would we ever ask them for their opinions?

I also know that some might accuse Matt or Greg of lacking the freedom to change their minds since they don’t have tenure like I do.  Actually, there is a remarkable amount of latitude at think tanks for people to say what they really think.  If you don’t believe that, think about Sol Stern or Diane Ravtich.  Besides, if Matt or Greg suddenly changed their minds they could pretty easily find work at another think tank that held a different view.  Where would all of the union people work if they changed their minds?

I say what I say because I believe it is the truth.  The teacher unions say what they say because they want something.

Duncan Endorses Universal Vouchers (without knowing it)

June 1, 2009

Below is a portion of the transcript from a National Press Club event last week featuring Secretary of Ed, Arne Duncan.

If I am reading Duncan right, the problem with vouchers is that they only serve 1 to 2 percent of the population.  So, the obvious solution he endorses must be universal vouchers.  Right?

MODERATOR:  OK.  What is your position on a potential national education voucher program?   

DUNCAN:  I’ve been very, very clear that I don’t think vouchers work.  They’re not the answer.  Let me explain why.      

Vouchers usually serve 1 to 2 percent of the children in a community.  And I think we as the federal government, we as local governments, or we as school districts, we have to be more ambitious than that.  That’s an absolutely worthy or noble goal.  If a nonprofit or philanthropy wants to provide scholarship money to children, that’s a great, great use of the resources.       

But I don’t want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98, 99 percent drown.  We have to be much more ambitious than that.  We have to expect more.       

And this is why I would argue rather than taking one of these struggling schools, these thousands (inaudible) — rather than taking three kids out of there and putting them in a better school and feeling good and sleeping well at night, I want to turn that school around now and do that for those 400, 500, 800, 1,200 kids in that school and give every child in that school and that community something better, and do it with a real sense of urgency. 

Are You Asking for a Challenge?

April 17, 2009

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli found the opening paragraph of my WSJ op-ed unpersuasive:

“On education policy, appeasement is about as ineffective as it is in foreign affairs. Many proponents of school choice, especially Democrats, have tried to appease teachers unions by limiting their support to charter schools while opposing private school vouchers. They hope that by sacrificing vouchers, the unions will spare charter schools from political destruction.”

Has Mike become a fan of appeasement and declared that he has reached “education reform in our time”?  No, but he believes that his anti-voucher/pro-charter beltway buddies are principled in holding their views:

“I challenge Jay to name one person he knows who supports charter schools but opposes vouchers because he or she hopes to appease the unions. I hang out with a lot of these folks and it’s clear to me that most of them oppose vouchers either because of queasiness over church/state issues or because they don’t want public funds going to schools that don’t face any public transparency or accountability requirements. ”

Of course, there is no way to prove who’s right about this because it involves knowing people’s motivations.  If people are willing to let vouchers die because they are eager to protect charters, they won’t exactly go around telling people (or even themselves) that their views are based more on political calculation than principle.  They’ll invent reasons for their views, like being uneasy about church/state issues or having concerns about accountability, even if those are not their true motivations.

So why do I believe that the anti-voucher/pro-charter view is largely a political calculation rather than a principled position?  Well, because most people who hold this view are not consistent in their principles.  If church/state issues are the problem for the anti-voucher/pro-charter crowd, why don’t they oppose Pell Grants or the Day Care Tuition Tax Credit, both of which are vouchers that include religious schools?  If their objection is principled, then we would expect them to be consistent in applying that principle.

And if their objection is the lack of public transparency and accountability, why don’t they advocate for whatever regulations on vouchers they believe are necessary and desirable?  It is simply untrue to say that current voucher programs “don’t face any public transparency or accountability requirements.”  And if people thought even more regulations would be beneficial, the principled position would be to support vouchers with those regulations.  After all, there is nothing magical about the word “public” that makes schools accountable or transparent, so whatever regulations people prefer could be imposed on vouchers as easily as on district or charter schools. 

Of course, I think much of that regulation is unnecessary for accountability and undesirable for schools whether they are district, charter, or voucher schools, but there is nothing in principle that makes one type of school more impervious to accountability regulation than another.  A principled position for believers in choice and competition would be to support charters and vouchers and advocate for a particular regulatory regime, regardless of whether it applied to charters or vouchers.

So if the objections to vouchers among some charter supports are not based on principles, it is reasonable to suspect that they are based on political calculations.  We’ve already rehearsed this argument in an earlier post and I’m too polite to name names, but if you think hard it won’t be a challenge to come up with a the names of a bunch of people.

(edited for typos)

The Silence of the Unions

April 16, 2009

When a study comes out showing positive results for vouchers the teacher unions are normally quick to release a statement dissecting the results, highlighting any negative discoveries, and pointing out (mostly imaginary) flaws in research design.

Why the deafening silence from the unions on the new D.C. voucher study?  I guess you don’t even have to pretend to make the case for union policy positions if you already have the politicians reading from your cue cards.

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