all vouchers all the time

Today in school vouchers: One Supreme Court case and two new studies you should know about

Monday was a busy news day for school vouchers.

First, two big studies on statewide voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana dropped. The results provide ammunition for both sides on the long-running debate. More on that in moment.

Then, later that morning, the Supreme Court handed down a major decision regarding whether public funds can go to religious institutions. This won’t have immediate implications for voucher programs, but it may down the line.

Here’s what you need to know.

New research on vouchers necessitates more research

First, the new studies. One comes from Indiana, and examines the first four years of the largest voucher program in the country. Chalkbeat obtained the study and planned to publish it, leading to a wider release by the authors.

Soon after, a study on Louisiana’s voucher initiative also came out.

The studies point to similar results: Vouchers have some negative impacts on student achievement in early years, improving over time for those who remain in the program.

In Indiana, students who stayed in private school for four years at first fell behind public school students, but eventually caught up in math and seemed to score higher in English.

In Louisiana, students who took a voucher were basically on par with public school kids in math and language arts after three years, though they lagged behind in social studies. Crucially, when the researchers included a sample of younger students, the results turned decisively negative, suggesting the program was still reducing achievement for many kids.

The studies add to a body of evidence that private school choice programs improve over time and tend look better in reading than in math.

Advocates pounced on the results, prompting dueling statements from the American Federation of Teachers and EdChoice, a pro-voucher group. (EdChoice is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

In other words: Research can inform — but won’t end — the debate on school choice. Meanwhile, researchers recommend more research.

States might not be able to constitutionally bar vouchers

More news that is in the eye of the beholder: In the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the nation’s highest court ruled that Missouri could not prohibit a church from participating in a program that provided public resources to refurbish playgrounds.

Why does that matter for school choice? Because Missouri, like many states, has what’s known as a Blaine Amendment in its state constitution, barring religious organizations from getting public money. In some states that has been interpreted to include religious schools participating in a voucher program.

The implications of the decision are not yet clear, though.

Although the court’s ruling was narrow and applied to the specific Missouri program, the logic of the decision suggests that Blaine Amendments may violate the federal constitution — meaning in a future case, the court might say that states can’t stop religious schools from getting money under a voucher program.

On the other hand, nothing in the decision suggests the Supreme Court would or could require any state to adopt a choice program. Moreover, advocates have already created workarounds in the form of tax credit programs that, like vouchers, redirect tax dollars to private, often religious schools — without the money ever entering government coffers.

State courts have generally ruled this approach permissible. In fact, just Monday (yes, more news) a Georgia court rejected a constitutional challenge to the state’s tax credit program. About half of all states already have some form of publicly funded private school choice program.

Once again, individuals and groups on both sides of the issue weighed in — including the U.S. Department of Education.

“This decision marks a great day for the Constitution and sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form cannot be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. “We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation.”

Try again

State education officials question another batch of Success Academy charter renewals

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

This July, New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up for next year — with a little charter school drama brewing on the side.

Reigniting a debate that flared in April, the board is poised to send a set of Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, the network’s authorizer, rather than approving them.

The state also plans to release a revised draft of its plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act on Monday, according to state officials. The Regents are not planning to vote on the state’s revised learning standards, though they are scheduled to discuss them.

The majority of July’s meeting will be devoted to a public “retreat,” which includes discussions about school integration, graduation requirements and principal standards. These conversations will likely provide insights into what policymakers are interested in tackling next school year.

Success Academy renewals (again)

In April, the state’s Board of Regents sent a slate of Success Academy charter renewals back to SUNY, arguing the authorizer had renewed them too soon.

The same appears poised to happen at July’s meeting. There are eight Success Academy schools tentatively approved for full, five-year renewals by SUNY along with one other city charter, the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning. State officials recommend sending the renewals back to SUNY with comments.

The move is largely symbolic, since SUNY has the final word, but it caused some debate last spring. After the Regents meeting in April, the decision to send the renewals back to SUNY gave rise to dueling op-eds written by Robert Pondiscio and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

The board is not scheduled to discuss SUNY’s recent proposal to allow some of its charter schools to certify their own teachers, though that announcement drew criticism from State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa earlier this month.

A whole new law

New York state education officials are also in the final stages of completing their plan to evaluate and improve schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal law.

The state released its draft plan in May and state officials said they will present revisions at Monday’s meeting. The final vote is expected in September and state officials said they will submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education later that month.

The revisions are not yet public, but questions have already been raised about how the state will assess transfer schools, which are geared toward students who have fallen behind in high school, and how it will display information about schools to the public.

“We’re going to be looking at the dashboard and what represents a [good] set of indicators,” said Regent Judith Johnson. “What indicators do we need as measures of professionalism, measures of assessment, measures of success?”

The board could also discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s comments on other states’ plans that have already been submitted. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s team surprised states by taking a hard line in initial feedback.

New learning standards?

There is no vote scheduled on new learning standards at this meeting, but the board will hear an update on the process.

The state has received 238 comments on the Next Generation math standards and 252 responses about English, according to a Regents document. The document suggests they are still working on early-grade reading standards and clarifying how they will apply to students with disabilities and to English learners.

This work is part of the lengthy process of revising the Common Core learning standards and unveiling them as the Next Generation Learning Standards. So far, state officials have released a draft set of revised standards, revised them again and given them a new name.

When they unveiled the revisions (to the earlier proposals) in May, state officials said they expected to officially approve new standards in June. But they have yet to come to a consensus and now expect the final version to go before the board in September.

Integration

At the Regents’ last meeting, state officials planted a stake in the ground on the topic of integration, calling New York schools the most segregated in the country and kicking off a preliminary discussion on how to integrate schools. The conversation came soon after the city unveiled its own diversity plan, which some critics found disappointing.

But the state’s discussion left many questions unanswered. During Monday’s discussion, it’s possible some of the Regents’ positions will become clearer.

Graduation

The Regents have been working to reform graduation requirements for years. Last year, the board took some steps in that direction when it allowed students to earn a work-readiness credential in place of a final Regents exam and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate.

At July’s meeting, the topic is slated for a broader discussion, prompting the question: Could a more substantial rethinking of what it means to earn a New York state diploma be on the way?

Regent Roger Tilles, who has been active in discussions of changes to graduation requirements, suggested that anything could be on the table, including an end to using Regents exams as graduation requirements.

“I’m not sure I know exactly where we’ll end up,” Tilles said. “I know where I don’t want to end up: where we are now.”

new chapter

Frosty relationship thaws between parents group Memphis Lift and Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Leaders of Memphis Lift take literally Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's call to "lock arms and work together" following Hopson's presentation to the parent advocacy group on Monday evening.

When Memphis Lift launched two years ago, leaders of Shelby County Schools questioned the motives and methods behind the group’s parent advocacy, including its early paid work to canvass neighborhoods about the district’s low-performing schools.

But this week, the two entities appeared to turn a page in their often contentious relationship. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson paid a visit on Monday night as part of the group’s monthly speaker series, and the organization welcomed him warmly.

“When you have the challenges we have here in Memphis, we have to lock arms and work together,” Hopson told about 100 people in attendance. “At the end of day, there’s an undeniable correlation between parental involvement and achievement.” 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hopson talks about the need for equitable funding and parental involvement.

Hopson’s decision to engage Memphis Lifters stands in stark contrast to late 2015 when he questioned whether the parent group was truly independent — or just a mouthpiece for the state-run Achievement School District, a turnaround program that takes control of struggling schools and usually converts them to charter schools. Those suspicions prompted Shelby County Schools to deny the ASD’s request for student information out of concern that the material would be given to Memphis Lift, whose orange-shirted members were going door-to-door to talk with families about local schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

But things have changed a lot. Tennessee’s Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings this year while adding new tools for turnaround work. Memphis Lift, which launched in mid-2015 amid questions about its legitimacy, has demonstrated staying power by developing its grassroots base and leadership. And the need to increase parental involvement was cited as a priority at community meetings held last fall across the district.

“When we first started, (SCS leaders) were saying we worked for the ASD, then charters,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director for Memphis Lift. “Now, I think they get we’re here for all children. … Dorsey coming to speak is a very exciting moment for us.”

Carpenter said a turning point came this spring when Hopson visited their offices in north Memphis, where the group hosts programs to educate parents about policy and how to get involved in their children’s schools.

“I think Dorsey was surprised by what we were doing here,” Carpenter said. “He asked what he needed to do to reach more parents, and I told him he needed to be more accessible. We only saw him at school board meetings.” 

Hopson made himself available Monday night by speaking about Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan to raise reading levels and graduation rates and develop career readiness for students. During the two-hour exchange, he also took questions from the crowd.

The superintendent emphasized the need for more pre-K seats and for third-graders to read on grade level. He said the district can’t do its job without parental involvement and encouraged Memphis Lift to advocate for more dollars for Memphis schools and for high-needs students.

“All parents and advocacy groups should be aligned on a few things — number one being equitable funding for kids,” Hopson said. “This is a powerful group, if you show up and say here’s what we want, (elected leaders are) not going to ignore it.”