The New York Times published a semi-balanced story today on the growth of the private school–choice movement—and attention is always welcome—but it also helped perpetuate two nagging myths about vouchers and tax-credit scholarships:
1. Reporters Fernanda Santos and Motoko Rich wrote, “Research tracking students in voucher programs has also not shown clear improvements in performance.” Not true. As nine scholars and analysts noted in an Education Week essay published last year, results from gold-standard voucher research have consistently shown (among other positive effects) modest academic gains and outsize graduation rates among voucher recipients when compared to their public school–district peers.
2. The story also repeated the fable that vouchers are accompanied by no accountability for academic results. Wrong. Choice advocate Dick Komer of the firm Institute for Justice told the Times that the only real accountability that matters is parental choice. Voucher opponent and union chief Randi Weingarten railed, “There’s absolutely no accountability with vouchers.” Both are wrong.
In fact, the two newest voucher programs, both of which have captured much attention (Indiana and Lousiana), as well as the proposed initiative in Tennessee, make clear that underperforming private schools won’t be welcome in these programs, for these (and many other) choice programs require participating private schools to administer the same assessments as are given in public schools and bar schools from continuing in the program if their assessment results are weak and stay that way.
It turns out that the
When the charter school movement started twenty-plus years ago, charters represented a radical innovation in governance: School districts would no longer enjoy an “exclusive franchise” on local public schools; they would compete with public, independent, autonomous (but accountable) charter schools too.
In the last twenty years, American education and its charter sector have evolved in important ways.
Much has happened in the charter sector since then—in fact, what began as a community-led, mom-and-pop movement has evolved to include a burgeoning assemblage of charter school networks, as well. But the laws ruling charter school governance remain largely the same. It’s time for a reboot in order to address three critical problems.
First, state laws and authorizer policies often require a full-fledged governing board for every charter school, and these policies make no exception for high-performing charter networks (such as KIPP and Rocketship Education). Thus, replicating at scale is difficult. In fact, only ten states explicitly allow for networks to operate multiple schools under the oversight of one governing board* and three states (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Iowa) explicitly prohibit the practice.
Second, management organizations—especially for-profits—often control their schools’ governing boards, leading to serious questions about accountability and conflicts of interest. The Fordham Institute, both as an education think tank and a charter school authorizer in Ohio,
Ordinarily, states that measure the academic performance of public school students assess students with disabilities no differently than students in general education. But exceptions are made, primarily for children with severe cognitive disabilities. And testing accommodations frequently are part of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (such as extending the time it takes to take a test).
Those exceptions partly explain why the Thomas B. Fordham Institute excluded special-education voucher programs from a study of how private schools view the regulations that come with various voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs. Traditional testing tools aren’t always the best measure for students with special needs, but that doesn’t mean no accountability measures should follow special-needs students who leave a public school for a private school with a publicly funded voucher.
Virtually no accountability measures, however, exist in most of the nation’s special-education voucher programs, including the largest such program in the United States, Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. And the coalition of schools that oversees the McKay program appears to want to keep it that way—and it’s wrong to do so.
The McKay Coalition surveyed its own Florida schools after Fordham published School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring, which surveyed private schools in communities served by four prominent voucher programs in Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Fordham report found that only 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as the most important reason to opt out. Regulations that restrict student admissions
The Georgia Senate recently took an incremental step toward responsible and accountable private school choice by unanimously passing a bill that shines more sunlight upon the Peach State’s embattled tax-credit-scholarship program. If the House concurs, then parents and taxpayers will have more information about the students and the scholarship groups that participate—a good thing, to be sure.
Picture by Santa Catalina School
But Senate Bill 243 doesn’t go far enough. Yes, it requires the nonprofit groups that administer the scholarships to disclose the number of students they serve and the amount of tax-credited donations that they receive. Well worth making public—but it reveals nothing about the program’s educational value.
Why not also pull back the curtain on student performance? Most of the school-voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs that exist in other states are designed to show the public at least how they’re performing overall in terms of student achievement. For example, private schools participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administer a standardized test to their scholarship students and report the results to an independent analyst, who then studies the program’s effectiveness and reports to the legislature.
For a quartet of reasons, Georgia should at least do something similar.
1. Parents, policymakers, educators, and the taxpaying public deserve to compare the gains that students
About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
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