choice research

Florida’s tax credit voucher program helps get students to — but not necessarily through — college, study finds

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Students in the country’s largest private school choice program were more likely to attend college than similar students who remained in public school, according to a study released Wednesday. But the Florida program didn’t seem to help many students actually complete a degree.

It’s the latest volley in a long-running debate over the effectiveness of school vouchers and tax credits for private school tuition, policies that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has championed.

The study may bolster claims that these programs help students in the long run, and shouldn’t be judged only by test scores. In recent years, those short-term results have been middling at best and dreadful at worst.

Critics will likely seize on the fact that Florida’s program had only a small impact on degree attainment, and that the bump in attendance was concentrated in community colleges.

“An increase in college enrollment, even if it’s in the community college sector — in part because that’s where most kids in Florida, especially from low-income families, go to college — I do view it as a positive finding for the program,” said Matthew Chingos, who conducted the research with Daniel Kuehn, both of the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank.

“Do we have to temper that with a little bit of caution given the attainment result? Sure.”

Attending private school with a voucher may increase college attendance, but not completion

The paper focuses on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which was enacted in 2001 and now serves nearly 100,000 students. The program encourages donations to nonprofits that issue vouchers to low-income families to pay for private school.

(The study was funded by a number of organizations that support school vouchers, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Oberndorf Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The Walton Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Chingos and Kuehn looked at 10,000 students who used a tax credit to transfer out of a public school between 2004 and 2010. They then compared them to students with similar test scores at the same public school who didn’t use a credit to leave the school.

The paper estimates that participating in the tax credit program raised enrollment in Florida public colleges by about 6 percentage points, with virtually of all of the increase coming from community colleges. Students who used the tax credit in an earlier grade were half a percentage point more likely to enroll in a public four-year college.

FTC = Florida Tax Credit

But the program had little effect on whether students received an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, though using a tax credit in earlier grades may have slightly increased a student’s chance of earning a two-year degree.

The authors note that only a small number of students had been out of school long enough to complete a four-year degree.

Most of the students studied only used the tax credit for one or two years, though those who stayed longer were more likely to enroll in and complete college. It’s not clear whether that’s because the benefits of the program accumulated over time, or because kids for whom the program was working stayed in it longer, or because those who continued to use the tax credit were simply more likely to attend college to begin with.

Researchers say study has limits, highlights larger debate on how to evaluate voucher programs

The key limit of the study is the difficulty in ensuring that the kids who take a scholarship are similar to those who do not.

Doug Harris, a Tulane economist who reviewed the study at Chalkbeat’s request, said it had both strengths — its focus on long-term outcomes — and limitations.

“Two students who have the same measureable characteristics … but make different schooling choices, are clearly different in unmeasurable ways that the analysis cannot address,” said Harris, pointing out that this might make the program look better than it really is.

Chingos agreed that this is a limitation, but said it could affect the results in either direction.

Another concern is that the long-run data is limited to public colleges and universities in Florida. If private high schools are more likely to get kids to enroll in private or out-of-state colleges, that might affect the results, and Chingos notes that data shows this appears to be true at the national level.

Meanwhile, the study highlights the complications in evaluating education programs.

Short-run test score measures are more available but widely seen as limited; long-run outcomes may be preferable but they are more difficult to obtain, and, by their nature, can only be used for established programs. School voucher programs have generally looked better when examining longer-term metrics.

But Florida’s tax credit program seems to have a comparable effect — none or a small positive one — on test scores and long-term measures.

“Both outcomes seem to suggest the same general pattern,” said Harris.

The jury is still out on whether voucher programs that lead to declines in test scores are likely to benefit students in the long run. A recent study found that charter schools in Texas with low test scores also tended to hurt four-year college attendance rates and adult income.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.