Three Years In

Report: Most Denver families get first choice schools, but tension between proximity, school quality persists

A student at Ellis Elementary.

More than a quarter of Denver families who send their students to Denver Public Schools used the district’s SchoolChoice system to choose a school in 2013, and most of those who participated were placed in their first choice school.

But Denver families may struggle to balance often-competing priorities—a school’s proximity to home and its quality according to the district’s rating system—when choosing schools.

Those are some of the findings of a new report focused on Denver’s SchoolChoice system released by A+ Denver, a local education advocacy and research group, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, a national research organization with a focus on school choice.

The report, released today, includes data from the first three years of the SchoolChoice system, which was introduced in late 2011 to streamline the application process for families. At the time, there were more than 60 applications, each with its own timeline, for the Denver public schools. Now, all the city’s programs, including magnet and charter schools, are listed on a single application.

One aim of the new system was to increase the accessibility of the city’s best schools to families and students throughout Denver.

“I feel really confident that we now have three years of data that show the system works,” said Van Schoales, the chief executive officer of A+ Denver. “It does what it says it’s going to do.”

Some 27 percent of families in the entire district used SchoolChoice this year. That number has remained close-to-constant for each of the past three years. Most of those are families with students entering either Kindergarten, 6th, or 9th grade.

The report shows that most of the same schools have remained popular for each of the three years the system has been in place.

Families with special education students were more likely than families whose students are in general education programs to use the system. That’s a change from previous years, when general education students were more likely to choice into schools.

Families that are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch were slightly less likely to use SchoolChoice.

More than three-quarters of families receive their first-choice school—though the report shows that the percent of kindergarten families receiving their first choice dropped from just over 80 percent to 74 percent this year.

Schoales said low-income families were actually more likely to get their first-choice school than upper-income families. But, he said, those families were also choosing lower-ranked schools.

That is likely because those lower-rated schools are close to home. Citywide, most families still choose schools that are close to home. Just 19.9 percent choose schools out of their own region. But Schoales said that many schools, especially in the southwest and northeast parts of the city, still struggle academically.

Lack of public or district transportation paths to farther-away schools remains a barrier, especially for low-income families or families who live in parts of the city where there are fewer highly-ranked schools, according to the report. The report does note a steady increase in the percent of the city’s schools that earned high scores on the district’s School Performance Framework.

The report has a number of interesting details about who’s using the system and how. For instance, most families either list just one choice or include all five. (Schoales said he had heard of families trying to “game” the system by listing their first choice second; he said that was not likely to achieve the desired result.)

There are also differences among racial and ethnic groups: 84.7 percent of white students participated in the choice program, compared to 75 percent of bi- or multi-racial students, 71.1 percent of Hispanic students, 63.3 percent of black students, and 63 percent of students identified as “other” used the system.

More students who scored in the top quartile on standardized math tests used SchoolChoice than students in the bottom quartile—75.4 percent compared to 63.2 percent.

Denver was one of the first districts in the country to create a unified application system, but such systems are becoming increasingly common. An earlier report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that Denver parents felt more well-informed about the choice system then parents in other cities around the country. Denver’s sytem

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

In fact, EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

trumped up

DeVos said rejecting choice plan would be a ‘terrible mistake.’ New York education advocates have a different take

At a speech in Indianapolis Monday night, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised an “ambitious” expansion of school choice — and said it would be a “terrible mistake” if states refuse to participate.

Yet, at a discussion of school choice in New York City Tuesday morning, panelists invited by the Women’s City Club of New York, seemed unfazed by the secretary’s comments.

“None of us here at the table are persuaded that what’s happening in Washington is going to have a tremendous impact here in New York,” said Shawn Morehead, the moderator, a program director at The New York Community Trust.

In part, that is because the version of school choice advocated by DeVos is more radical than the existing choice system in New York state, panelists said. New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, argued that New York state charter schools represent a highly regulated version of school choice, whereas DeVos favors a deregulated, market-orientated approach.

“We took that fork in the road a long time ago,” Merriman said. “I don’t see that changing in any way, shape or form because of who the secretary of education is.”

New York City also has a high school choice system, where students can apply to any school in the city. But recent reporting has found that the admissions rules are hazy and the system has maintained racial, academic and socioeconomic segregation in city schools.

Panelists advocated for more regulation to help correct this problem. (Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said last week she is “reconsidering” some enrollment in high schools but did not provide any more details.)

DeVos offered few specifics on her school choice proposal during her Indianapolis speech, but President Donald Trump’s budget proposal includes a $1 billion increase for Title I, earmarked to allow funding to follow students to the public schools of their choice.

Later on Tuesday, a flurry of statements from New York’s education advocates denounced Trump’s budget for its deep cuts in many areas, including career and technical education and teacher preparation.

“The president’s outrageous education budget is yet another example of his administration putting the most vulnerable Americans at risk,” said Breakthrough New York Executive Director Rhea Wong. “At a time when our country should be making education great again, this plan kneecaps success and oppresses opportunity.”