Double Standards on Special Ed Placements v. Vouchers

July 25, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In today’s Examiner, AEI’s Michael McShane (an official JPGB super best friend) wants to know why none of the people fighting to kill the DC voucher program seem to have any objections to DC’s high rate of outplacement for special education students. Could it be because there are a lot more rich white special ed parents? McShane is here to chew gum and kick the cans of edu-hypocrites, and he’s all out of gum.

McShane doesn’t make the mistakes others have made in characterizing DC’s high rate of outplacement. Still, the stats are eye-popping, and will no doubt have many readers asking questions. McShane really doesn’t have the opportunity in a short piece like this to provide the necessary background. Thankfully, Jay wrote this a while back to bring people up to speed.

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.


April 9, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

You’re all clear, kids!

Now let’s blow this thing and go home!

Weekend PJM Column

June 25, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was out of town earlier this week and didn’t get a chance to post a link to my Pajamas Media column on the D.C. voucher evaluation, which ran over the weekend. It’s here.

What Does the Red Pill Do If I Don’t Take It?

June 19, 2008


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The hidden highlight from the Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Two Years report is buried in the Appendix, pp. E-1 to E-2:

Applying IV analytic methods to the experimental data from the evaluation, we find a statistically significant relationship between enrollment in a private school in year 2 and the following outcomes for groups of students and parents (table E-1):

• Reading achievement for students who applied from non-SINI schools; that is, among students from non-SINI schools, those who were enrolled in private school in year 2 scored 10.73 scale score points higher (ES = .30)^2 than those who were not in private school in year 2.

• Reading achievement for students who applied with relatively higher academic performance; the difference between those who were and were not attending private schools in year 2 was 8.36 scale score points (ES = .24).

• Parents’ perceptions of danger at their child’s school, with those whose children were enrolled in private schools in year 2 reporting 1.53 fewer areas of concern (ES = -.45) than those with children in the public schools.

• Parental satisfaction with schooling, such that, for example, parents are 20 percentage points more likely to give their child’s school a grade of A or B if the child was in a private school in year 2.

• Satisfaction with school for students who applied to the OSP from a SINI school; for example, they were 23 percentage points more likely to give their current school a grade of A or B if it was a private school.

I’m trying to figure out why the impact of actually using the voucher program isn’t actually the focus of this study, and in fact is presented in an appendix. Instead all the “mixed” results are studying the impact of having been offered a scholarship whether the student actually used it or not.

I’m going to walk way out on a limb here and predict that the impact on test scores of being offered but not using a voucher will be indistinguishable from zero. If this were a medical study, we would have a group of patients in a control and experimental group offered a drug, some of them choose not to take it, but we ignore that fact and measure the impact of the drug based on the results of both those who took it and those who didn’t. Holding the pill bottle can’t be presumed to have the same impact as taking the pills.

We’ve all been told that exercise is good for our health. Should we judge the effectiveness of exercise on health outcomes by what happens to those who actually exercise, or by the results for everyone that has been told that it is good for you?

This shortcoming has been corrected in the Appendix, but that is getting very little attention. On page 24 the evaluation reads:

Children in the treatment group who never used the OSP scholarship offered to them, or who did not use the scholarship consistently, could have remained in or transferred to a public charter school or traditional DC public school, or enrolled in a non-OSP-participating private school.

So in the report’s main discussion, the kids actually attending private schools have to make gains big enough to make up for the fact that many “treatment” kids are actually back in DCPS. As it turns out, several subsets of students do make such gains, but that’s not the point. The point is we ought to be primarily concerned with whether actual utilization of the program improves education outcomes and with systemic effects of the program. We should indeed study who actually uses this program, and who chooses not to and the reasons why (very important information), but this sort of analysis seems to belong in the appendix rather than the other way around.

Receiving an offer of a school voucher doesn’t constitute much of an education intervention, and it seems painfully obvious that the discussion around this report is conflating the impact of voucher offers with that of voucher use. The impact of voucher use is clear and positive.

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.

Marion Barry endorses D.C. Opportunity Scholarships

May 13, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Former mayor and current D.C. Councilman Marion Barry endorsed the school voucher program today in the Washington Post:

I was fortunate that I could afford the right school for my son. As I have been in years past, I am focused today on those who most need help. We need to give the same opportunity to the District’s low-income parents, and this package would help ensure that all parents in our city have choices about where their children attend school.

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