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.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.