policy choices

Do vouchers actually expand school choice? Not necessarily — it depends on how they’re designed

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Who benefits most from private school voucher programs: families with few options or the schools themselves?

This is a hotly debated question among supporters and critics of school vouchers, and is especially relevant as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has vowed to allow more families to use public dollars to pay for private school tuition.

A 2016 study considers this question and comes back with an answer: It depends. Programs targeted at certain students, like low-income ones, lead to an increase in private school enrollment; but universal choice programs with few if any eligibility requirements don’t cause more students to enter private schools, with schools instead raising tuition.

That’s the conclusion of the research, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Economics, which examined eight private school choice initiatives, including both voucher programs and tax credit subsidies, which offer generous tax breaks for private school fees.

The researchers, Daniel Hungerman of Notre Dame and Kevin Rinz then at the National Bureau of Economic Research, divide the programs into two categories: what they refer to as restricted and unrestricted. Restricted programs limit availability to certain students, such as those who are low-income or have a disability; unrestricted programs are open to everyone.

An example of a restricted program is Florida’s tax-credit program, which incentivizes donations to nonprofit groups that offer tuition scholarships to low- and middle-income families. Arizona’s tax-credit initiative is similar in structure, but is classified as unrestricted because it is open to all students. (Arizona also has tax credit programs targeted at low-income students and those with disabilities.)

The study then looks at how the two types of programs affect school enrollment and finances, using data from tax returns of thousands of private schools.

Restricted-choice programs cause large increases in the number of students attending private school. But “programs that offer unrestricted subsidies lead to price increases but no change in enrollment,” the authors conclude.

In other words, under the universal programs studied, private schools did not admit additional students, but did raise tuition — by an amount the researchers estimated to be roughly the same as the public subsidy. (It’s possible that different — just not more — students enrolled as a result of the choice program.)

This gives credence to concerns that untargeted programs fail to create additional access to private schools, but are a revenue boon for schools.

At the same time, targeted programs seem to have their intended effect of allowing more families to choose private school. (Of course, whether that ends up helping students academically remains the subject of much debate.)

This suggests that school choice advocates who want to expand enrollment in private schools — as opposed to simply allowing them to raise tuition — should favor targeted programs. Some choice supporters have recognized this concern, recommending the creation of education savings accounts, which give families a pot of money to spend on any combination of educational expenses. Anna Egalite, a professor at North Carolina State University, argues that this approach, unlike traditional vouchers or tax credits, puts “downward pressure” on prices by “encourag[ing] parents to be cost conscious.”

DeVos and the Trump administration have not released any details on their promised school choice plan, but some past federal proposals have been focused on low-income student, and most existing state voucher and tax credit programs have restrictions of some sort. However, key school choice groups, including EdChoice and the American Federation for Children, which DeVos used to lead, have supported universal choice policies.

The study is one of the only analyses of how choice programs affect private school enrollment, but it comes with a number of caveats.

The research examined unrestricted programs that offer fairly small subsidies, often significantly less than in voucher initiatives. It’s unclear if the finding — that programs open to all don’t increase private school enrollment — would hold in cases where there were more generous subsidies.

Another caveat: it might be hard to categorize programs with eligibility requirements that most families can meet.

Take Indiana’s voucher program, the largest in the country. The state initially had tight income requirements, limiting the program to poor families; when those rules were in place, private school enrollment rose.

But after the state raised the income threshold to provide partial vouchers to some middle-income families, private school enrollment has essentially flatlined, raising the possibility the school choice initiative hasn’t actually given parents new choices — but simply subsidized existing ones. Since then, the number of students using the program has increased, while the number attending private school without a voucher has dropped precipitously.

It’s impossible to know the effects of Indiana’s voucher program on private school enrollment without a more careful analysis, and the recent study would have categorized it as a restricted program. In recent years many states have seen private school enrollment fall, so the fact that it remained steady in Indiana could be the result of the voucher system.

However, the income requirements in Indiana were more lenient than many of the other programs studied, and over half of students in the state are eligible to receive a voucher.

“At some point the [income] threshold gets so high that the breakdown we offered would not be useful,” said Hungerman, one of the study’s authors.

middle management

On the eve of the nation’s next teacher strike, Oakland principals balance loyalties to students and teachers

PHOTO: Sara Stillman / Oakland International High School
A student at Oakland International High School works on a strike-related art project, part of a lesson in the February 2019 run-up to a planned teachers strike in the Oakland Unified School District.

Eyana Spencer, the child of a union activist and a former Black Panther organizer, grew up with a mantra: Never cross a picket line, no matter whose it is.

Now the principal of Manzanita Community School in Oakland, Spencer is mapping out how she and one assistant principal can keep the elementary campus running when Oakland Unified teachers strike on Thursday. She’s dreading having to walk past her picketing staff.

“It’s very hard,” she said. “It makes me feel nervous and uncomfortable in my heart. It’s something we don’t do in my family.”

As Spencer and dozens of fellow principals in the Oakland Unified School District plan for the unknown — How many students and staff will show up at school? How do we teach without teachers? How do we preserve our school’s camaraderie? — they’re also grappling with their own convictions, mixed feelings, and myriad worries. Before they became principals, several were teachers union leaders themselves. All sympathize with teachers, who are demanding higher salaries, smaller classes, and more specialists like counselors and librarians.

Teacher salaries in Oakland range from $46,600 to $83,700, some of the lowest in the area, at a time when a tech-fueled real estate boom has priced out even middle-income workers. The district has offered a retroactive 5 percent raise over three years; the Oakland Education Association wants 12 percent over the same period.

Oakland also faces financial challenges confronting many school districts in California and beyond. School enrollment is shrinking, largely because of competition from charter schools, as pension obligations grow. The district underwent a state takeover and financial bailout, but it now faces a $22 million deficit. Another state bailout requires school closures and other cuts, sparking more opposition from educators and families.

Energized by recent strikes from Los Angeles to Denver, the union has drummed up support with rallies and its signature “Red for Ed” T-shirts. The labor-friendly East Bay community has responded enthusiastically.

All of that has conspired to place new demands on the district’s more than 80 principals. As middle managers, principals are used to scrambling to fill the gap between what district administrators want and what parents, students, and teachers expect — a sometimes huge chasm in Oakland. The impending strike has ratcheted up pressure from all sides, multiplied principals’ duties, and positioned them in the unwelcome role of adversary to the people they still work to support.

“Everybody is trying to figure it out. It’s a tricky space to be in,” said Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International High School.

The district plans to keep schools open, according to a spokesman. But many parents have pledged to keep their children home, as the union wants. Meanwhile, principals have strategized about how to teach those who show up on campus.

“I feel very strongly that if a parent sends a child to school, our doors need to be open for that child,” said Reyes, in her 12th year as principal. She’s planning for contingencies.

“I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D,” she said.

While the school’s 25 teachers will likely walk out, it’s unclear what another 25 support staffers — custodians, food service workers, aides — plus others like coaches, tutors, and parent educators will do.

Supervision and attention to detail are paramount in the school of 400 students, all refugees and new immigrants. Many of them have endured trauma, are medically fragile, or are tenuously settling into this country. For a large number, Oakland International serves as family, providing critical mooring and support.

In the run-up to the strike, Reyes has been convening groups and putting details into shared Google documents, charting what people plan, and what they know, and what they fear. She’s held more than 50 one-on-one chats.

“I haven’t done my normal job for two weeks,” she said.

To an already burdened corps of managers, the potential conflicts and the uncertainty can feel overwhelming.

“The only way to make it through something like this is to have close relationships with other principals,” said Amie Lamontagne, principal of Korematsu Discovery Academy, a K-5 school in East Oakland. “We’re leaning heavily on each other.”

They’re sharing information and lesson plans, some seizing on a teachable moment to focus on unions, strikes, and advocacy. They’re making lesson packets for reading, math, and art.

But they don’t know how many students will attend, especially if the strike stretches beyond this week. Attendance will likely vary by neighborhood.

Parents at Crocker Highlands Elementary — where just 1 percent of the students are English learners — in the Oakland Hills are busy arranging to share care and transportation, and are likely to keep their children out of school.

In contrast, families at the International Community Elementary School, where 91 percent live in poverty in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, have less leeway to arrange impromptu childcare. Principal Eleanor Alderman has reached out to parents of the 300 students — about 80 percent of whom speak Spanish, while 15 percent speak Mam, a Guatemalan Mayan language, and another 5 percent Arabic, Dari, Farsi, or Tagalog.

While she doesn’t know how many children she’ll have to teach, she does know she can count on only a few adults Thursday: “Just me, the custodian, security guard, nutrition aide, and two from central office.”

In terms of concerns, managing school logistics pales in comparison to the potential fallout from a strike.

“My biggest concern is the impact on the community afterward,” Lamontagne of Korematsu said. She doesn’t know what students will feel crossing a picket line. And, she said, “I don’t know how adults are going to feel about each other.”

The aftermath could bring more tension — as schools in Denver, where teachers struck for three days last week, are now addressing. The district has indicated it will fund teacher raises in part by cutting central office staff, which will trigger “bumping” by senior employees displacing junior workers. The practice could stir anger and resentment among lower-paid support staff toward higher-paid teachers.

District veterans recall the bitterness that festered for years after a five-week strike in 1996. Even a one-day strike a decade later took a toll.

“I was on the picket line in 2010,” said Alderman, who was a teacher at the time. “My relationship with my principal was ruined that year. And it never recovered.”

Now a principal, she’s made a point of telling her staff that she’s been in their shoes, and will do everything she can to support them on strike. She plans to bring coffee and donuts, and let picketers use the school restrooms.

The best outcome, said Joci Kelleher, principal of Crocker Highlands Elementary, will be if the district awards teachers a livable wage and also remains solvent.

Even that may not produce a net win for schools and students, principals privately fear.

“Principals know 100 percent if we do end up providing a raise, that that money is going to get taken out of the site budgets for next year,” Alderman said. That would slash social workers, teacher leaders and other critical support for students and staff.

With attention focused on their district, Oakland principals have seized the opportunity to write an op-ed piece, signed by 75 of them, pressing California to boost education spending.

“I worry about the fact that we can’t keep teachers in Oakland because the pay is abysmal,” Kelleher said. Annual teacher turnover is about 18 percent.

On Wednesday, more than 30 principals are traveling to Sacramento to lobby legislators to raise state funding for schools, and especially to forgive Oakland Unified’s $36 million debt left from a 2003 bailout.

“No current students were even in school in 2003 when the debt was incurred,” said Principal Clifford Hong of Roosevelt Middle School. “Most weren’t even born.”

At stake, some realize, not only are the independence of their district and the jobs of Oakland teachers, but also their own jobs.

“Our working conditions are not sustainable. I’m afraid we will see a big turnover in next year or two years,” said Spencer, now in her 13th year at Manzanita elementary. “We have people who deeply love and care about their school communities — but also have to care for their families.”

disunion

A competing group moves to decertify and replace the embattled IPS teachers union

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
LaMeca Perkins-Knight is one of two Indianapolis Public Schools teachers leading a campaign to replace the local teachers union.

A group of Indianapolis Public Schools teachers is petitioning the state to replace the existing union — a move that could result in a new union or no representation at all for teachers in the state’s largest district.

The Indianapolis Teachers Society filed a petition last week with the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board to decertify and replace the Indianapolis Education Association, the long-standing union representing teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The challenge is the latest setback for the troubled union, which has endured months of turmoil. It is the first step in a process that could eventually trigger an election where teachers vote on whether to keep the existing union, select the new group, or forgo union representation altogether.

Indianapolis Education Association president Ronald Swann said in a statement that the union has the “experience and resources to best represent IPS teachers.”

“Teachers in IPS want to keep moving forward, united and will not be deterred by disgruntled agitators who have aligned themselves with anti-union forces,” Swann added.

The movement to replace the Indianapolis Education Association is being led by LaMeca Perkins-Knight and Lora Elliott, two teachers who were former loyalists of the union they are now challenging. The pair have been increasingly frustrated by the local union’s management.

Perkins-Knight described the assertion that the effort was aligned with anti-union forces as “weird.” The group is not getting financial support from any “big money” and it is operating on a shoestring, she said. “We’re grassroots.”

The current union is insular and solely focused on negotiating teachers’ pay and benefits, Perkins-Knight said. The aim of the challenge is to create a union that incorporates voices from a broader group of Indianapolis Public Schools teachers and supports them with training and other efforts that help them to become better educators. Ultimately, she believes, a stronger union could help the whole district.

“If we can support the teacher and keep the teacher in IPS, then the kids of IPS are better off,” she said.

The move to oust the teachers union has precedent. After years of conflict over contracts with the district, the teachers union in Carmel Clay Schools was challenged by an upstart group representing teachers. In an election held in 2017, the new union won more than 60 percent of the vote.

It’s not clear how many teachers support the petition to replace the union because the Indianapolis Teachers Society has not filed signatures from teachers who support the challenge and Perkins-Knight could not provide an estimate. State law requires the group to show that 20 percent of educators who are covered by the district contract support the newly formed association. That would be about 380 teachers.

The bargaining unit represents just under 1,900 teachers, according to state data. That includes educators who are not union members but are covered by the contract negotiated by the union. As of last fall, about 800 teachers were dues-paying members of the Indianapolis Education Association, according to a draft budget for the existing union shared with Chalkbeat by Perkins-Knight.

The Indianapolis Education Association and Indianapolis Public Schools may file responses to the petition within 30 days of receiving notice from the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board. A spokeswoman for Indianapolis Public Schools said Tuesday the district had no position on the petition.

Critics of the weakened union say that it has not done enough to engage teachers in recent years. Just 3.9 percent of members voted in a recent union election. The number of teachers the Indianapolis Education Association represents has been rapidly shrinking as the district has handed schools to outside operators who employ teachers who are not represented by the union. And in November, the union’s president, Rhondalyn Cornett, resigned amid allegations that she had mishandled $100,000 in union funds over several years.

The Indianapolis Education Association has had some recent victories: It negotiated a significant pay raise for teachers after voters supported a measure to boost school funding, and two union-backed school board candidates defeated incumbent board members.

The Indianapolis Education Association is part of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and the National Education Association. If the Indianapolis Teachers Society prevails, the new union may not be associated with a state or national teachers union. That could save teachers money because they would not have to pay membership dues to state and national unions. But the local union would no longer have the backing of those larger groups.