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.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”

Family Hubs

Why the Detroit district is turning its adult ed centers into places where families can find helpful services

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Detroit Superintendent stops at one of the many community agencies that will be providing resources to the family hubs that will open in adult education centers in the district.

The Detroit school district is turning its two adult education centers into sites that will give parents access to a number of academic and community resources in one spot.

It’s a crucial part of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s rebuilding effort, because it goes beyond trying to fix curriculum and system failures, and instead works to connect with parents.

“It’s about breaking down walls and barriers and saying, ‘We don’t have all the answers, but we have access to resources that we want to give to you.’ You come in, you start to trust us, gain those resources and fill gaps in your own lives … So we can all do right by children.”

The family hubs, which will open in January, will be located at the district’s Adult Education Center East at 13840 Lappin and at the Adult Education Center West at 16164 Asbury Park. Both centers already offer a range of programming to help older students and adults earn high school diplomas or GEDs, while providing services such as tutoring and career exploration.

Now, those two sites will offer much more, including courses offered through the district’s Parent Academy that help parents learn how to help their children. And, thanks to partnerships with a number of community organizations, parents can also take advantage of other services, such as job training, home ownership classes, and mental health services. There will also be food and clothing donations.

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announces the creation of family hubs to connect parents with resources.

“By concentrating in one location, we eliminate that red tape and that bureaucracy,” Vitti said at an event announcing the family hubs this week.

“You come here thinking, ‘I’m just going to learn about literacy,’ and then you find out there’s an opportunity to pay a light bill or there’s an opportunity to get job development.”

Iesha Spencer was among the parents the district sought feedback from as the hubs were being developed. She’s a student at the Adult Education Center West.

The hubs, Spencer said, “will be a great opportunity for families to all come together and learn and grow.”

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
A representative of a community organization talks to those attending an event to announce the creation of family hubs in the Detroit school district.

Among the partners who are part of the hubs is the Detroit Training Center, which provides job training in a number of areas, including construction trades, building maintenance, and blight removal. The company will provide some of that training at the hubs.

“If you’re looking for a job, come on down,” Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, said at the event.

There also will be other activities, such as family dinner clubs, crochet clubs and book clubs, said Sharlonda Buckman, an assistant superintendent in the district.

“We also want to socialize and have fun together. This is about building a social network,” Buckman said.

These are the partners working with the district in the hubs:

 

  • Accounting Aids Society
  • Black Mothers Breast Feeding
  • Detroit Health Department
  • Detroit Land Bank
  • Detroit Parent Network
  • Detroit Training Center
  • Doors of Success
  • Dress for Success
  • Focus Hope
  • Forgotten Harvest
  • Western Michigan University

Want to take advantage of the hubs? You can visit the district’s web site here.