Future of Schools

School vouchers make a comeback

NEW ORLEANS — As Louisiana debuts one of the nation’s most extensive private-school voucher programs, deep divides persist over who should be accountable for ferreting out academic failure and financial abuse: the government or parents.

File photo courtesy Hechinger Report

Across the country, vouchers have resurged in a big way over the last two years — both as a form of school choice and a political lightning rod. Republican governors in Louisiana, Indiana, New Jersey and other states have championed them as a solution to the challenges besetting public education. More recently, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined the chorus, saying he hopes to turn an eight-year-old voucher program in Washington, D.C. into a “national showcase.”

About 5,600 students and 119 private schools will participate in Louisiana’s new statewide voucher program this fall.

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Much of the debate over vouchers centers on whether they should exist at all – partly because the term is so combustible, many politicians have opted for the milder term “scholarship” to describe new programs. But in states like Louisiana and Wisconsin, where vouchers are already a fait accompli, policymakers are just as divided over how much government regulation participating private schools should face.

On one side are the free-market purists who argue that parents provide the best form of oversight. Under this mindset, families receiving school vouchers can and should be counted on to decide what constitutes a quality education for their children—even if that includes sending their kids to schools teaching that dragons are real, or that the Ku Klux Klan worked in the service of justice.

On the other side are those who argue that the government provides the best form of accountability, particularly when public tax dollars are involved. Under this mindset, only substantial advance vetting of participating voucher schools can prevent widespread fraud and abuse.

“Unfortunately, the political debate is still on ideological grounds: ‘I believe in government,’ or ‘I believe in the market,’ ” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

But Henig and others see more consensus in research and academic circles. There, even some of the most vociferous champions of vouchers now believe a free-market approach to schooling needs limits.

Howard Fuller, the founder and director of Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning and a long-time voucher supporter, says he continues to believe in the importance of school choice for low-income families. But he no longer believes a free-market approach to accountability will safeguard taxpayer dollars and the well-being of children.

“Parent choice alone will not guarantee quality,” he said.

‘Tactical’ privatization

Vouchers never completely died: Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin all created or significantly expanded programs between 2006 and 2011. However, the debate was far more muted in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the early years of the Obama administration.

During that period, a group of moderate Democrats and Republicans coalesced around a vision of education reform that featured greater parental choice – usually in the form of charter schools – and stricter accountability provisions – usually in the form of testing – for public-school teachers and students.

That coalition still exists, and charters continue to dwarf vouchers in both growth and overall size. But over the last two years, several ambitious Republican politicians trying to make a name for themselves — and distinguish themselves from Democrats on education — have gravitated back to vouchers. In 2011, more than 30 states introduced school voucher bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That was an increase of more than 300 percent from the previous year, when nine voucher bills were introduced.

Henig has identified three types of privatization: “pragmatic” privatization aims to force government to do a better job; “systemic” privatization represents a broad weakening or erosion in the government’s role; and “tactical” privatization is designed to advance the political interest of a party or candidate. While voucher advocates may be motivated by all three goals, tactical privatization appears to be fueling at least some of the current efforts, he says.

“Because of broader battles, there’s pressure on Republicans to more sharply differentiate themselves by aligning with pro-market, anti-government positions,” said Henig. “It makes for a clearer, sharper story line.”

Indeed, while the political confederacies surrounding vouchers have historically been complex—allying Democrats who view it as a social-justice issue with extreme right-wing politicians in some cases — recent debates have fallen along more traditional party lines.

Concerns about fraud

Accountability has long been an Achilles’ heel for voucher advocates.

For years, schools in a Milwaukee program could receive hundreds of thousands in public funds each year if they met a few very minimal standards. Up until 2005, the primary requirements were that schools have a building occupancy permit from the city and enrolled students. They also had to meet the state’s definition of a non-public school, but that was “very nominal, and purposefully so,” said Tony Evers, the Wisconsin state superintendent.

Many participants in the program were established Catholic and Lutheran schools, but a significant number emerged only after the voucher program started. “You had these well-intended operators who had absolutely no idea about running a school,” said Evers.

In at least a few cases, the problems extended beyond naiveté. A convicted rapist founded one school, Alex’s Academics of Excellence. Despite the founder’s criminal record, Alex’s managed to attract families for several years, continuing to do so even after numerous evictions and allegations of illegal drug use on campus. At a second school, Mandella School of Science and Math, the principal — who also founded the school — used proceeds from state voucher payments to buy two Mercedes-Benz automobiles.

The state tightened up on accountability, requiring participating schools to earn pre-accreditation, among other changes. Between 2009 and 2012, a board within Howard Fuller’s institute at Marquette vetted new applicants. The board set a high bar, with only 13 of 103 prospective school operators making it through the approval process over that time period, or about 13 percent.

The pre-accreditation process “kept out scores of schools that would have failed,” said Evers.

Fuller and Evers believe low-income parents want what is best for their children. But they might still be enticed to a severely sub-par school by a slick marketing campaign—or out of desperation.

“A lot of the mom-and-pop school operators were reaching out to friends and relatives,” said Evers. “The marketing is as local as it can get.”

The future of vouchers in Louisiana

Louisiana’s new voucher program relies more on back-end than front-end accountability, a source of contention for critics who argue that it has opened the door to financial abuse and academic failure.

Although most of the schools are run by established entities like local archdioceses, red flags have already been raised about a few operators: A blogger reported that a self-proclaimed prophet and apostle is in line to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in voucher payments for a school called Light City Christian Academy. The operator of another participating school, Conquering Word Christian Academy, is under investigation for FEMA fraud. And it’s unclear whether a third school, New Living Word, has enough teachers and space to serve the dozens of students it plans to accept through the voucher program.

Officials at Conquering Word and New Living Word did not return calls seeking comment for this story. And when a reporter visited Light City Christian Academy school last week, officials said they did not have time to talk and that no one would be available for a phone conversation.

State Superintendent John White said Conquering Word will not be allowed to accept any new students through the program this year. But students who attended in previous years through a New Orleans-specific voucher program will still be eligible for scholarships. Light City will enroll 80 students through the program, and New Living Word will enroll 165 – about half of the seats that school leaders requested. In the latter case, the school signed a memorandum of understanding addressing facilities concerns and authorizing quarterly site visits by state officials.

White said the accountability provisions impose a “moderate screen” on new school applicants and “extremely swift back-end consequences” for private schools that underperform.

However, White has refused to provide records on that screening process until after the school year is already under way. He said state officials rejected applications from 10 schools because they did not meet criteria laid down in the initial law. After developing additional regulations, they removed two others and reduced the number of seats available at several schools. With 119 private schools participating, that means the state approved about 90 percent of applicants — compared to 13 percent in Milwaukee, although in that city most participating schools were grandfathered in by the time the approval board was created.

Students receiving vouchers in Louisiana take the same standardized tests as public-school students. If a private school has at least 40 voucher students enrolled in tested grades (or at least 10 students per tested grade), the school’s overall performance must meet a certain threshold—the same threshold that public schools must meet to avoid closure or reconstitution—for it to continue accepting new voucher students.

This year, however, only about a quarter of participating schools will enroll more than 40 voucher students in tested grades; those schools encompass about 65 percent of the program’s enrollment. State officials say they anticipate the accountability provision will capture 85 percent of students by the program’s fourth year.

That’s too little, too late, some critics say. “The state needed to establish academic eligibility requirements [on] the front-end,” said Peter Reichard, projects manager at the Bureau of Governmental Research, an independent research organization in New Orleans. In a statement, BGR officials said, “Short of no accountability standards at all, it is difficult to imagine a lower standard of performance than what the proposed system offers.”

White argues that his oversight program relies on a healthy mixture of market forces and governmental oversight. “Responsible policy always tries to empower citizenry by not over-regulating, but at the same time by being unforgiving when it comes to failure,” he said, adding that the plan is to “regulate failure by not accepting failure.”

But in a sign that he might be bowing to pressure from skeptics, White said last week that he will likely seek to tighten requirements for prospective private-school operators in the state—regardless of whether they accept voucher students.

In the meantime, future voucher policy – as well as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education legacy – may well be shaped by what happens on the ground in Louisiana this school year.

Henig said the issue will become more volatile for Jindal if “what comes in over the transom makes broad support of market principles and choice look irresponsible.”

Sarah Carr, a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, is the author of Hope Against Hope, which tells the story of the New Orleans public schools post-Katrina. The book will be released by Bloomsbury Press in February 2013.

This story also appeared on NBCNews.com.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.