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.

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee is looking at new jobs

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district could have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.