Trying to Sort Out All the Concerns about Charters and Vouchers

After today, this blog will take a two week summer break.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 11.

I recently spent far too much time slogging through the over 80 pages of the new report on Charter Management Organizations from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Stanford CREDO is affiliated with the Hoover Institution. The study compares test score gains in four types of charter schools—the independent, stand-alone, charters; the charters run by Charter Management Organizations (that operate “at least three separate charter schools and the CMO is the charter holder for each school”); what CREDO calls Vendor Operated Schools (organizations which operate “at least three separate charter schools, but do not hold the charter for any school they serve”); and finally what CREDO calls hybrids (that “have aspects of both a CMO and a VOS).  After trying to sort through all these definitions plus the over 70 pages of data, I was underwhelmed by the conclusions: that students in independent charters have lower achievement, overall, than those that are part of a network; that charter quality varies by networks; that even though there is a range of CMO quality, “larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students”; that CMOs which directly operate their schools seem to do better than VOSs that bring in a vendor to manage the charters; that there is a need for better oversight by authorizers; that there is huge variation by state based on the kind of oversight the state provides; and that virtual-online charters don’t work for most students.

Although I certainly don’t recommend that you look at CREDO’s new report, you will likely find Jeff Bryant’s response to it as refreshing as I did.  While CREDO seeks to distinguish CMOs from VOSs from Hybrids from Independents, Bryant begins with a different distinction, necessary because he believes there is a lot of confusion about charter schools: “Quick,” he asks, “is this school a nonprofit or for-profit?”  His question is followed by this profile of a chain of charter schools:

“In the most recent financial filings available, the couple who run the chain of 18 schools pay themselves $315,000 a year plus $39,000 in benefits. The school also employs their daughters, their son, and even a sister living in the Czech Republic. Families who enroll their children in the schools are asked to contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. They also must pay a $300 security deposit, purchase some books, and pay for school activities that would normally be provided free at a public school. The school chain contracts its operations to a management company, also owned by the same couple.  In the most recent financial accounting available, the management firm received $4,711,699 for leased employee costs and $1,766,000 for management. Nearly $60 million total was charged to the management corporation to provide services to the schools.  After 2009, the owners made a legal change that made it possible to hide from the public much of the school’s financials, including their salaries and expenses. But what we do know is that between 2012 and 2015 administrative costs of the schools were some of the highest in Arizona, where most of the schools are located….”

Bryant continues: “If you guessed that the school in question… is a for-profit charter, you’re wrong.  The charter described is the BASIS charter chain….  Although BASIS is technically a nonprofit, and the CREDO study labels it as such, this organization operates as ruthlessly and (is as) self-serving as any profit-hungry private enterprise….”  Bryant goes on to examine some other chains of charter schools to make his point that slicing and dicing and analyzing the operation of various types of charter schools isn’t really very helpful. In all kinds of privately managed schools there is self-serving and fraud that nobody seems to be able to get under control.

How to sort out the claims about school choice—Betsy DeVos’s one favorite subject?  This blog will take a two-week summer break after today, but if you want to clarify your thinking about school choice—charter schools and the various forms of vouchers—here is some important material to read or review.

  • Start with yesterday’s analysis by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a critique of charter schools that appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column. Burris reminds readers that a year ago the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights group, passed a national resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held accountable like other public schools, until funds stop being diverted from the public schools that serve the majority of our children, until expulsions from charters are stopped because publicly funded schools are supposed to serve all children, and until charters stop increasing segregation. Burris concludes that the charter sector has not even made a pretense of trying to address any of these very legitimate concerns. Charters remain unaccountable—more like businesses than public institutions, but, “Unlike businesses that start up with personal investment, in the case of charters, the risk is assumed by the taxpayers… (P)romised accountability is often st aside.”  Burris examines the other concerns in the NAACP’s resolution and concludes: “It has been nearly a year since the NAACP passed its resolution… There is little evidence, however, that the charter sector has taken the NAACP’s concerns to heart.”
  • You might want to read Erica Green’s recent NY Times piece on the charter school Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, founded in Grand Rapids—the West Michigan Aviation Academy. This school equips at least some of its students with pilots’ licenses at graduation. But there’s a catch: Dick DeVos’s Aviation Academy depends on enormous financial support and fund raising by Dick and Betsy DeVos in addition to the public school dollars it receives from the state of Michigan: “Like the neighborhood public schools of Grand Rapids, the academy, on the grounds of Gerald Ford Airport, receives $7,500 per student in state funding… But… (the public funds do) not pay for the school’s two airplanes; many of its science, engineering and mathematics facilities; or its distinction as the only school in the country that offers flight instruction as part of the curriculum… The DeVoses alone have given more than $4 million to the school. Mr. DeVos donated an airplane from his private collection. Delta Air Lines donated another.”
  • Or consider Mikhail Zinshteyn’s report for California’s EdSource, Oakland Charters More Likely to Enroll Higher-Performing Students than District Schools. How is it that, while charter schools are always prohibited from using admissions tests or other screens to select their students, they somehow end up enrolling students who arrive at the school door already better prepared than the students who attend traditional public schools in the district in which in which they are located?  Zinshteyn explains that Oakland’s charters actually do enroll similar levels of low-income students and English learners, but they also enroll far fewer students who arrive after the school year has begun and significantly fewer students with disabilities.  Both groups of students are more likely to be academically behind.
  • While the CREDO study and the Oakland study review charter school quality based on the comparison of test scores between traditional public schools and charter schools, there have been several important studies in the past year that examine the impact of school choice on the entire educational ecosystem in particular metropolitan areas where the majority of students, with very few exceptions, attend traditional public schools: Gordon Lafer’s study on Los Angeles (see this blog’s coverage here), Roosevelt University’s study on Chicago (see this blog’s coverage here), and Bruce Baker’s in depth study of parasitic charter schools published by the Economic Policy Institute (see this blog’s coverage here).  All of this in-depth research points to collateral damage for big-city public schools and school districts—including school closures, the under-supply of schools in some neighborhoods and the over-supply of schools in others, for example—- when charter schools are rapidly expanded.
  • It’s also worth re-reading the resources in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 toolkit on privatization. Two of the short issue briefs explore the concerns covered in this post today: Are Charter Schools Truly Public Schools? and Do Charter Schools Profit from Educating Students?

Of course Betsy DeVos’s definition of school choice features a two part expansion of school privatizaton: more charters and more vouchers (and neo-vouchers like tuition tax credits and education savings accounts). You might want to check out the resources here for more on vouchers:

  • Be reminded that the Network for Public Education ‘s 2017 toolkit on privatization also contains important updates on vouchers and neo-vouchers here, here, here and here.
  • Consider Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski’s new Education Week commentary on vouchers: Student Vouchers Aren’t Working. Here’s Why. The Lubienskis—academic researchers on the effects of school privatization and authors of The Public School Advantage—examine new research on voucher programs in Washington, D.C, Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana.  They note that, “While vouchers appear to be enjoying a higher profile with Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education, the research on outcomes from these programs has taken a dramatic turn, one at odds with the direction DeVos and other policymakers are pursuing.”  Why do the new studies track lower achievement in voucher programs than traditional public schools?  A likely explanation “has to do with the actual students and schools themselves, including how students were grouped in private and public schools.  Prior to the recent batch of research that has cast doubt on vouchers, studies lauding vouchers tended to be based on local and more targeted programs involving relatively small, non representative sets of students and schools. Yet overall, private schools are actually no more effective, and often less so than public schools… Research as far back as the Coleman Report in 1966 indicates that private school students enjoy the beneficial ‘peer effect’ of being around affluent classmates who have abundant educational resources at home and parents who have firsthand experience with school success… This peer effect is a significant factor in student learning, but frankly, there are only a limited number of academically advantaged peers to go around.  And so as choice programs expand, the private-school peer effect is diluted.”
  • Finally, this week there is important news: the Education Law Center is launching a new Voucher Watch website, “an initiative to inform and assist advocates as they oppose the establishment and expansion of vouchers in their states. Voucher Watch… will track voucher proposals in state legislatures and from the federal government, provide details on existing state voucher programs, and compile research on the impact of vouchers on student outcomes.”  The Education Law Center, which has for many years been a national leader in legal challenges aiming to increase school funding equity and adequacy, recently provided pro bono legal assistance in a Nevada voucher case—  Lopez v. Schwartz—“which resulted in a Nevada Supreme Court decision finding ESA (education savings account) vouchers unconstitutional because they diverted funding allocated for the public schools to private education expenditures.”  The site is brand new, with only one page of background about vouchers so far, but the new website will grow.  What’s wrong with vouchers? The Voucher Watch website declares: “(V)ouchers drain critical resources from public education, thereby undermining the capacity of the public schools to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those at-risk or with special needs. Vouchers also lead to increased segregation within our communities, and private schools accepting vouchers do not have to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Even with this compelling evidence, states continue to propose laws to create or expand vouchers, and Congress is considering using federal education funds to incentivize states to do so.”

How the Nation’s Two Oldest School Voucher Programs Are Working: Part II—Ohio

School voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are now over twenty-five years old.  Now Wisconsin and Ohio have expanded statewide what began as stand-alone, big-city programs, and last week, local newspapers in Milwaukee and Cleveland examined these programs.  Today’s post will look at Patrick O’Donnell’s recent Plain Dealer report on vouchers in Cleveland and Ohio. Yesterday’s post covered last week’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s report on Wisconsin vouchers.

While Erin Richards’ piece on Wisconsin explores the fiscal problems for a state that has begun to divert state and local tax dollars to pay for the education of students at private schools, Patrick O’Donnell in Cleveland emphasizes the problem of figuring out whether students at religious schools accepting vouchers receive a superior—or even adequate—education: “The school voucher programs that some federal and state officials want to expand have had mixed test results in Ohio that make it unclear how much more students learn than if they had stayed in their local public schools. Ohio’s voucher programs, which give families grants to help pay tuition at private schools, have a low bar to clear to look successful. Neither the state’s main voucher program, EdChoice, nor a Cleveland-only program is competing with high-scoring suburban districts. Both were created to let families avoid schools the state considered to be failing, so they only have to best the lowest-rated schools. But the private schools receiving voucher dollars have had mixed results, even when compared to these ‘failing’ public schools.”

Here is a caution: As O’Donnell compares the schools, he is using Ohio’s school ratings, based primarily on standardized test scores.  Any comprehensive school rating system would consider myriad other factors.  And, of course, test scores, in the aggregate reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.)

O’Donnell compares voucher students’ standardized test scores in third and eighth grade and reports that students who have carried vouchers to religious schools score higher in reading and lower in math, “scoring lower—sometimes by a hair, sometimes by a lot—on four of the six state math tests for the same grade. It’s a trend that has held for several years.”

O’Donnell also examines a technical academic paper by David Figlio of the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research, a study in which Figlio controls for all sorts of factors that may affect scores apart from the quality of the education schools provide: “Figlio found that while voucher students were typically better off financially and stronger academically than students they left behind, they did worse after going to private schools than comparable students who stayed in public schools.”  O’Donnell adds that Figlio’s study “was commissioned by the Fordham Institute, a leading advocate for school choice in Ohio and nationally.”

O’Donnell reports that 97 percent of Ohio school vouchers pay for tuition at religious schools, with Catholic schools dominating the recipients. Comparing the experience of students at public and the religious schools where students are carrying tuition vouchers is difficult according to O’Donnell’s report because religious schools are not required to accept all students even among students who may have qualified for a voucher  Some schools, for example,  accept the vouchers only if students pass admissions tests.  Also O’Donnell notes, “socioeconomic challenges like poverty and income… have a strong relationship to test scores across Ohio and nationally.”  He also lists other factors that contribute to school quality and are not measured by Ohio’s mandated tests—the number of English learners and special education students who are admitted to private schools, attendance and graduation rates.

While his primary analysis compares test scores in grades 3-8, in a companion article O’Donnell examines high schools, comparing public high schools in Cleveland and the religious high schools where students are carrying their tuition vouchers: “Ohio’s school voucher and testing system does not give a good comparison between public high schools and the private high schools that take the vouchers. The private (high) schools don’t want to take the same tests, and usually don’t. And since most voucher high schools have selective admissions with special tests and interviews that most public schools don’t have, test scores are often skewed.”  While in general, high school test scores where comparable, are higher in the religious than the public high schools, O’Donnell notes: “Those gaps, though, don’t take into account how selectively a private school selects its students or how much a school truly helped a student learn. The state doesn’t even track that.” “(C)omparing scores of selective schools to neighborhood schools that accept anyone won’t tell you which school is doing a better job.”

However, Cleveland has established three selective, magnet public specialty high schools. O’Donnell reports that test scores at Cleveland’s selective magnet high schools compare with scores at the city’s most selective Catholic high school: “While private schools that cherry-pick their students often have better-looking test scores, so do public magnet schools with competitive admissions.  In Cleveland, those schools even scored better than schools like St. Ignatius.”  “Cleveland’s Early College High School, the School of Architecture and Design and the School of Science and Medicine all had at least 97.8 percent of their students score as proficient on the reading and math OGT (Ohio Graduation Test)…. While St. Ignatius, Benedictine and St. Joseph high schools all scored as well as those district schools in reading, all three private schools had worse math results—still strong but below those of the district magnets.”

O’Donnell’s reporting of higher math performance scores in the public high schools reflects a broad research study of private vs. public schools, reported by University of Illinois professors, Chris and Sarah Lubienski, in their book, The Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home… But after further investigation and more targeted analyses, the results held up. And they held up… even when we used different models and variables in the analyses…  (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, pp. xvii-xviii)

Research Summarizes the Public School Advantage

A book like Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms from the National Education Policy Center—a compendium of two decades’ of academic research on today’s public school ideology, policy, and trends—is invaluable even for a non-expert, citizen-reader who just wants to get informed. After all, most academic research is published in the paywalled academic journals, and more specialized books are unlikely to appear in smaller, regional libraries.  There is a lot that I miss, even though I do a lot of searching around in books about education.

One book that I have always felt I ought to read is The Public School Advantage, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois. Here in NEPC’s new compendium is a chapter from the Lubienskis’ book—“Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education,” (pp. 365-391 in NEPC’s compendium). The Lubienskis conducted an enormous study of the practices and student achievement in public, private and privatized schools. Their finding: “Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service compared to schools in the independent sector.” The Lubienskis continue: “(O)ur analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning.” One reason people turn away from the public schools, they write, is simply that many believe that if people are willing to pay for private schools, they must be the superior model.

Other reasons people desire school choice?  “Obviously, some parents will prioritize safety…. Many parents consider extracurricular options or perceived pedagogical fit…. (F)or many families, finding a school that reinforces their values may be more important (religious schools)…. Some children enroll in schools that their friends are attending or where other families look like they do.”

What about the belief that expanding charters and school vouchers is a good way to boost achievement for the children our society has left behind?  “Although marketists believe that choice will open up opportunities for disadvantaged children, the data show that private and independent schools under enroll such students… (D)isadvantaged and minority students who are in most such schools are on average, no better served then they are in public schools, diminishing hope that private sector-based strategies have much potential to reduce achievement gaps between groups… Once we account for the SES (socioeconomic status) differences between the populations of students served in the different sectors, it is clear that the variables that differ between sectors are not significant predictors of achievement… The extended infatuation with vouchers for private schools, for instance, or the nationwide effort to expand charter schools, regardless of the thin empirical basis for these policies, speaks to the power of… belief to guide policy.”

The Lubienskis summarize a half century of economic theory and the role of organizations representing economists’ ideas to normalize assumptions about the benefits of privatization—Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and their neoliberal philosophy, and free-enterprise organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute. “When the traditionally centrist Brookings Institution began producing pieces favorable to private/independent models, as with Chubb and Moe’s seminal 1990 work, the agenda really moved into the political mainstream.  Now advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and the Alliance for School Choice actively promote evidence that they see as favorable to private and independent models.”

Philanthropists—notably Gates, Broad, and Walton—“have been instrumental in shaping the policy climate around education issues by providing political and financial support for pilot programs, stipulating particular policies from grantee districts, and underwriting researchers and research organizations that are predisposed toward their agendas.”  These philanthropies are underwriting think tanks that mask themselves as academic departments at major universities: “(T)hese major funding agencies have also directed strategic support to individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles… The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-voucher scholars and public figures on its board. Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”

What are the assumptions underneath the movement to privatize public education?  First is the belief in public sector failure.  Second is the belief that consumer choice ought to be a right: “This recasts the beneficiaries of public education from the wider community to a focus on more immediate chosers…. Fundamental to the theory is that parents are wise and informed consumers acting on behalf of their children, and many are.  However, much evidence suggests that many parents do not have access to useful information on school options.. and that such information—and the tendency to use it—is unequally distributed, with children most in need of better quality options least likely to have parents willing or able to effectively advocate for their children.”  The third assumption is that competition spurs school improvement. In response to this third assumption, the Lubienskis recognize a reality that is neither acknowledged nor examined by proponents of school choice: precisely because of their public mandate, public schools cannot cut costs to be competitive or emphasize the mere elevation of overall test scores as their sole mission. “(M)arket theory misses the fact that the multiple responsibilities placed on public schools as institutions created to serve common, nonmarket goals often require that they be shielded from the competitive pressures of the market.”

For me, the Lubienskis’ most important critique of privatization is their attack on the privatizers’ contention that school choice will expand opportunity by offering power to families and children who have heretofore been left behind. The Lubienski’s remind us that research documents the impact of peer effects on children’s school achievement: “Regardless of school type, having a child in a school with students from more affluent families with higher academic aspirations can have a beneficial impact on that child. Yet, choices based on such criteria can also lead to greater social sorting… As policy makers increasingly seek to shift students en masse from public to private or independent schools, or to privatize public schools, our analyses and the analyses of others indicate that such efforts can create a less effective (and more socially segregated) system of schooling.” “Even when they are working well markets can lead to inequitable outcomes, since those with resources are better positioned to use markets to increase their advantages and pass them on to their children.”  This gets at the ethical dilemma in competition-based school choice, a problem pointedly described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

NEPC’s inclusion of this chapter from the Lubienskis’ book motivates me to locate and read The Public School Advantage.