Archive | August, 2011

Report: Florida’s low-income tax credit students making academic gains

A new report on the academic performance of low-income students receiving Tax Credit Scholarships in Florida finds they are making modestly larger gains in reading and math than their counterparts in public school.

That conclusion from 2009-10 test data is encouraging for those of us who work to provide these learning options, which served 34,550 low-income students statewide last year. But the report, released today and written by respected Northwestern University researcher David Figlio, is also a reminder of the inherent complexities of judging whether these programs work.

Figlio has both a brilliant mind and 13,829 test scores with which to work, and yet his report is filled with qualifiers and provisos and cautionary notes. That’s largely because the scholarship program is so different from the typical public education option. In this case, students are attending more than 1,000 private schools where, on average, four of every five students pay their own tuition. The average scholarship enrollment in each school, for 2009-10, was only 28 students.

That kind of school profile tends to serve as an asset to the economically disadvantaged students, but not necessarily for the standard approach to academic oversight. Since these are mostly private-market schools, the state won’t allow them to administer the state test, known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). But the law does appropriately require every scholarship student to take a nationally norm-referenced approved by the state Department of Education, and most students take the well-regarded Stanford Achievement Test.

These tests do allow Figlio to make direct national comparisons, so we know without qualification that the typical scholarship student scored at the 45th percentile in reading and the 46th percentile in math. We also know that their year-to-year gain from 2008-09 to 2009-10 was the same as students of all income levels nationally, which is a solid piece of academic evidence

Where things get more muddled is in trying to compare to low-income students in Florida public schools. As odd as this may sound, the two groups are substantially different. And they are different in ways that tend to be counterintuitive. Continue Reading →

Indiana students flocking to Catholic schools

The Associated Press reports that Indiana’s new school voucher program has caused a spike in enrollment at the state’s Catholic schools:

Weeks after Indiana began the nation’s broadest school voucher program, thousands of students have transferred from public to private schools, causing a spike in enrollment at some Catholic institutions that were only recently on the brink of closing for lack of pupils …

… Nearly 70 percent of the vouchers approved statewide are for students opting to attend Catholic schools, according to figures provided by the dioceses in Indiana. The majority are in the urban areas of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, South Bend and Gary, where many public schools have long struggled …

… Our Lady of Hungary Catholic School in South Bend is among those institutions reaping the benefits of the vouchers. Just two years ago, it was threatened with closure by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Now enrollment at Our Lady of Hungary has jumped nearly 60 percent over last year, largely because of an influx of voucher students.

A faith-based pioneer for urban school options

Detroit Free Press editor and columnist Stephen Henderson gives us a look today into a collection of schools that showcases how the Motor City’s school system was innovative long before it reached meltdown status and long before it was forced to compete with a proliferation of charter schools.

Cornerstone schools, Henderson writes, was the 1991 work product of a coalition of Catholic Church leaders and public officials who sought to create low-cost and high-quality educational options outside the Detroit school district. “This was well before most people were even open to the idea that urban education might best be structured through many alternatives and options,” Henderson writes.

Adam Maida, the archbishop of Detroit, and Michigan school board member Clark Durant spearheaded the effort, focusing their energies on Christian, but not explicitly Catholic, schools for the poor in Detroit, though Cornerstone would eventually establish charter schools as well. The Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based think tank, noted in a 1997 report that Cornerstone’s faith-based efforts got the support of the Big Three automakers and Blue Cross and Blue Sheild. Most notably, however, Cornerstone won an award from the Clinton Administration’s National Education Commission on Time and Learning. It’s faith-based schools alone enroll 1,400 students and can boast a 95-percent graduation rate and 91-percent college-bound rate.

So, in that sense, Henderson writes:

… Cornerstone and Durant, in particular, were the spark for a lot of the educational innovation we’re seeing in Detroit today. In the 20 years since, Durant’s relentless advocacy for educational options has helped inspire several large-scale initiatives that give city parents quality choices outside of DPS. The charter movement, the number of independent schools cropping up around the city — it all really started with Durant and Cornerstone.

It’s hard, even frightening, to imagine what education in the city would look like today if Cornerstone hadn’t set the pattern it did in 1991.

Michigan considers enhanced school choice

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s newest education reform package could be released this week and is expected to include Snyder’s plan to turn all of Michigan’s public schools into schools of choice, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Under this proposal, a system of choice would mean exactly that: Though schools could give preference to those living in their attendance zones, Michigan would otherwise recognize no artificial district boundaries. Schools would have to open their doors to any students if they had the space.

As the Free Press notes, the proposal is likely to bring together strange bedfellows in opposition. The Detroit school district is warning that Snyder’s plan would exacerbate the current exodus of students trying to get out of the troubled urban system. Meanwhile, officials in affluent school districts, such as Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills, are fighting as aggressively.

As the plan wends its way through the Michigan Legislature, newspapers will likely uncover more disturbing comments than even this observation from Bloomfield Hills superintendent Rob Glass, who told reporters late last spring that his residents pay “extra taxes to provide extra levels of education to their local community. To make that same option available to others who have not made that sacrifice or that choice to invest doesn’t seem fair.”

An old Democratic voice for a truly public school system

When an Indiana judge refused to halt the nation’s most sweeping state voucher law this week, he partly relied on precedent that refuses to accept that only “public” schools make up the education system in the Hoosier State. As Judge Michael Keele’s ruling states

A review of the historical record is instructive. When the State constitution was revised in 1851, the delegates considered an amendment to prohibit the establishment ‘at the public charge, [of] any schools or institutions of learning other than district or township schools,’ but did not adopt it … Then, shortly after the adoption of the 1851 Indiana Constitution, the General Assembly created the Indiana public school system, but did not reverse the longstanding policy of financing private schools … In fact, the School Law of 1855 permitted cities and town to ‘recognize any school, seminary, or other institution of learning, which has been or may be erected by private enterprise, as a part of their system’ … Yet, such action would not ‘supersede the common schools established under the authority of this State and supported by the public funds.’

That kind of argument reached across party lines not long ago. In 1977, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Bob Packwood jointly addressed The New York Times after the paper editorially opposed the tuition tax credit measure the pair had proposed and for which they had gained bipartisan support. In their letter to the Times, Moynihan and Packwood wrote:

We seek to reduce the artificial distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ schools and colleges, if not in governance then at least in the minds of prospective students and their families. Not until the mid-19th century did that distinction even come into existence. For many years, funds raised through public means were channeled directly into schools and colleges administered under private auspices … We believe that the tuition tax credit approach as represented by our bill provides simple, direct and effective financial aid to students of all levels of education without the further expansion of an already massive bureaucracy.

Moynihan’s tone grew more aggressive the following year when the New York Democrat wrote in Phi Delta Kappan:

The issue is not the future of the public schools. They now enroll more than 90% of all primary and secondary students and more than 75% of all postsecondary students. Although they do not lack for problems, their future is secure and is not the least threatened by our proposal …

… Far the more important policy question before the Senate is whether nonpublic schools are to have a future or whether the national government is to aid and abet those who would not mind in the least if they were to shut down entirely … Let there be no mistake about this either: In the field of education, the public sector is slowly but steadily vanquishing the private.

Thirty-three years separate Keele’s ruling and Moynihan’s argument, and there are too few Democratic leaders today who would take up the senator’s old cause of “Diversity. Pluralism. Variety” in public education.  Whatever the outcome in Indiana, here’s hoping this look in history can help to change that political dynamic.

It’s all in how you ask the question …

Phi Delta Kappan today released its annual poll on public school attitudes, and it found mixed results for the support of school choice. The poll found increased support for charter schools and choice generally, but Kappan found that only one in three Americans likes vouchers.

That’s little surprise, given the way the voucher question was asked:

Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?

Earlier this month, Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University released the results from a similar poll and found record levels of support for vouchers. That disparity might be attributed to the way Education Next-PEPG addressed the issue.

When it came to private options, the poll sought answers through several different questions. It first randomly assigned respondents a “voucher-friendly” question:

A proposal has been made that would give families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition. Would you favor or oppose this proposal?

It then randomly assigned a “voucher-unfriendly” question:

A proposal has been made that would use government funds to help pay the tuition of low-income students whose families would like them to attend private schools. Would you favor or oppose this proposal?

Not surprisingly, more people say they like vouchers if asked the friendly question (47 percent) than if they were asked the unfriendly question (39 percent). Support also increases across the board if the private option takes the form of a tax credit scholarship. Additionally, Education Next breaks down support by race and shows that black and Hispanic groups overwhelmingly support private options compared with affluent respondents or with teachers. 

This is not meant to discount the sweep and significance of the Kappan poll. I flirt with these comparisons only with the hope that headline writers heed these subtleties before we read that “Charters are in, vouchers are out.”

One industry’s lesson on choice for another

Does the challenged newspaper industry hold lessons for public schools? At least one newspaper columnist believes so. Orlando Sentinel scribe Mike Thomas writes that newspapers responded to the competitive threat of the Internet too late. School districts, he writes, are repeating similar errors:

There was this fledgling enterprise called the Internet, but we were oblivious to the threat, even disdainful of it. Then, suddenly, our customers had unlimited choices for picking their news sources and advertising their used boats.

This created chaos in an industry that built massive printing presses and huge newsrooms based on a monopoly model.

Now, far too late, we are adapting.

I see the same dynamic in education with school choice …

… Fighting school choice ultimately will be as fruitless as dinosaurs whining about mammals. Public schools need to compete for every student, fill niches that aren’t being met and market their product. That is what their competitors are doing. The only way to survive is to become the choice in school choice.