Archive | February, 2011

What Congressional pressure can accomplish

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews today engaged his colleague, Valerie Strauss, on the merits of Congressional pressure and school reform. While today’s Class Struggle headline may lead the casual reader to wonder if Mathews has now come to advocate for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship — he has not — the more cogent argument is a response to Strauss’ charge that Sen. Joseph Lieberman is “making a mockery of thoughtful school reform” by threatening to cut funds for D.C. schools if Congress fails to revive the Opportunity Scholarship.

Mathews writes:

Strauss quotes a study saying the voucher program, as it is called, has not raised student achievement. But she ignores the fact that another program imposed on the District by Congress 15 years ago, public charter schools, has had marked benefits for D.C. students. Two separate studies by the Washington Post, and other studies by independent scholars, have shown that D.C. public school students with the same backgrounds have done better in charters than in regular public schools.

That is not the case nationally. The results throughout the country show charters and regular schools making similar progress after you average out the many studies of the subject. But we are talking about D.C. schools. If Congress had not pressured a very reluctant D.C. school board to allow charters, the city’s overall achievement level would likely be worse now than it is.

Legislative Watch: Pennsylvania, Indiana bills get marathon hearings; Virginia measure dies

While a Senate committee in Virginia killed a proposed tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students, legislatures in Pennsylvania and Indiana engaged in day-long hearings this week on their respective voucher plans.

Indiana’s HB 1003 cleared its first committee on Wednesday, but not before lowering the income eligibility requirements of prospective scholarship recipients. The Indianapolis Star reports that families with incomes that qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches could get 90 percent of each child’s public school funding to use for private tuition assistance. Families with 200 percent of that income level could get half of their child’s public school funding.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s SB 1 was the subject of a nine-hour hearing Wednesday. The measure would provide tuition assistance to low-income students who, in the first year of the program, attend the “persistently lowest-achieving schools.” But by the third year, low-income children anywhere in Pennsylvania would be eligible.

Tax credit and voucher plans in other states also saw some action this week. They include:

Arizona: SB 1312, SB 1553, HB 2581 and HB 2706 all passed their respective committees Monday;  SB 1553 and HB 2706 are the state’s proposed education empowerment accounts, which according to a senate fact sheet, “requires the State of Arizona to deposit monies to each Empowerment Account equal to ninety per cent of state aid that would otherwise be allocated for a student and computed using all state funding weights.”

Washington, D.C.: S.206, or the Opportunity Scholarship Program, sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, was the subject of a hearing Wednesday of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Among the testifiers was D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Kevin Chavous, board chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.

Other bills we’re watching, and which will be the subject of future updates, include Georgia’s HB 62, HB 1881 and SB 87, and Oklahoma’s HB 1029.

Rotherham on vouchers

In his latest column, Andy Rotherham provides a fair-minded appraisal of the school voucher debate as he attempts to disspell the common myths that are tossed around like rhetorical hand grenades. Vouchers don’t drain money from traditional public schools, Rotherham argues, nor do they skim the best students. On the flip side, he says, we need more evidence to support the contention from some that vouchers lead to higher academic achievement and that the resulting competition for students leads to greater results overall for public schools (although on this note, Rotherham does reference the results from a recent study of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship which found that the competitive effect boosted the academic performance of public schools faced with the threat of losing students).

Notably, Rotherham concludes his column with a statement that arguably should guide the debate over school choice, but too often does not:

Parents should worry a lot less about the legal status of a particular school than whether it’s the right school for their child. A good fit depends on a host of factors including a strong academic program, successful outcomes, a clear curriculum, areas of emphasis like arts or technology, and even lifestyle factors such as limiting time spent in transit or a year-round schedule.

One lawmaker’s change of heart, and his message in Virginia

Before a Virginia senate committee had a chance to kill a proposed tax credit scholarship for low-income students, legislators heard from a former Florida lawmaker who had his own change of heart about supporting private learning options for families who could least afford them.

Terry L. Fields, a former Democratic state representative from Jacksonville, Fla., traveled to Virginia this week to share with lawmakers skeptical of HB 2314 how a group of families once showed him that supporting a scholarship for low-income children helped fulfill the state’s commitment to equal educational opportunity.

“It’s very personal with me,” Fields said in an interview with redefinED this morning. “When my son was in grade school, I realized as a parent that he didn’t do very well in that setting. So we made a decision to put him in a private school.” A few years later, a group of about 30 parents and 30 students came to his House office  and confronted Fields’ opposition to Florida’s own tax credit scholarship and asked for the chance to give their children what he had given his own son. Continue Reading →

Va. senate committee kills tax credit plan

The Virginia Senate Finance Committee voted 9-6 this afternoon to kill a bill that would have provided private school tuition assistance to low-income students.

House Bill 2314 passed the Virginia House of Delegates last week by a vote of 54-45, but senate opponents said the state had no business funding tax breaks to subsidize private schools while traditional public schools suffered budget cuts, according to a story on

It didn’t matter that the bill had bipartisan sponsorship and was crafted to benefit only students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch. Even Terry Fields, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and a strong supporter of the similarly designed Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, tried convincing the senate committee of the bill’s merits — which would have included a savings to the state — to no avail.

Too many school choices in one upstate N.Y. district?

Can a family have “too many school choice options?” One upstate New York school district seems to think so. The Greece Central School District, which fancies itself the largest school system in Monroe County, N.Y., is proposing to eliminate open enrollment and instead split the district into three attendance zones.

Its reason, according to a story today in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: “With no evidence that offering choice enhances academics and with school costs rising and enrollment waning, the Board of Education wanted to reexamine the status quo.” The status quo, in this case, includes policies that currently allow students at all grade levels to attend schools to which they aren’t zoned on a space-available basis.

A district committee met for months before determining that such open attendance was no longer feasible. So Interim Superintendent John O’Rourke wants to discontinue not only the liberal enrollment policies, but also draw tighter attendance zones around the remaining few “schools of choice.”

“I’m glad we finally had something done to look at this,” one board member said.

While a district fact sheet cautions that these are nothing more than proposals. The board president, Frank Oberg, bestowed his blessing on the plan during his interview with the Democrat and Chronicle:

I think [O’Rourke’s] recommendations are outstanding. He’s come up with a great compromise that addresses a lot of the issues that swirl about Greece — too much busing and too many school choice options. 

Very little to be afraid of

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer devotes considerable attention to the impact school vouchers have on public schools. At a time when opponents to publicly funded private learning options are lobbing rhetorical hand grenades in several states, particularly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Inquirer reporter Adrienne Lu offers this fair-minded assessment:

While studies are relatively scarce, the early opinion among researchers appears to be that vouchers have done little, if any, harm to student achievement in public schools and in some cases have spurred small improvements on standardized-exam scores in public schools.

As evidence, Lu cites Northwestern University researcher David Figlio, who recently found that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship boosted the academic performance of the public schools faced with the threat of losing students to the program.  Figlio and co-researcher Cassandra Hart had highlighted that, no matter what measure they used (the closer private schools are to a public school, the density of private schools within five-miles of a public school, etc.) the effect was generally the same:

Although these effects are relatively small, they consistently indicate a positive relationship between private school competition and student-performance in the public schools, even before any students leave for the private sector. That is, these results provide evidence that public schools responded to the increased threat of losing students to the private schools.

In an interview with the Inquirer, Figlio rightly cautioned against looking at vouchers as “the magical pill that’s going to turn the U.S. into Finland,” but he made clear that, for any state considering a voucher program, “there’s very little to be afraid of.”

Enrollment increasing in private options

Our friends at the Alliance for School Choice have released the newest version of their annual yearbook of choice data and trends, noting that about 190,000 students nationwide are benefitting from a publicly funded private learning option.

The yearbook includes a state-by-state analysis of 20 policies that award tax credit scholarships or school vouchers. Enrollment in these programs has doubled since the 2004-05 school year, according to the alliance, and increased nearly 5 percent this year, despite the souring economy.

Florida has the most enrollment with 54,000 students participating in either the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship or the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. Two states, Arizona and Ohio, have three publicly funded private options each with a combined enrollment of nearly 51,400.

Seven of the 20 policies examined are tailored to students with special needs. Enrollment in these programs total about 26,000 students.