Author Archives: Sara Mead

Michigan’s Other, Often Overlooked, School Choice Program

In the weeks following Betsy DeVos’ nomination for Secretary of Education, Michigan’s charter schools have become a topic of heated debate. Our recent report seeks to shed light on this debate, but it also highlights that charter schools aren’t the only form of public school choice in Michigan. The state is home to a robust set of inter-district choice policies which allow students to attend schools outside their home school district. In fact, more Michigan students attend schools of choice through inter-district choice policies than attend charter schools. A total of six percent of Detroit children attend schools in other districts.

Michigan isn’t the only state with inter-district choice options. The Education Commission of the States identifies numerous states with formal inter-district choice policies on the books, although the purposes, features, and extent to which they are used vary. Yet these policies draw far less attention — and controversy — than charter schools, perhaps in part because students who exercise these options are still served by district-run public schools.

There’s also much less research on the impact of inter-district choice than there is on charter schools or private school choice programs. Researchers at Michigan State University have used state data to track patterns in the flow of students through inter-district choice programs in Michigan, and have found that historically underserved students are more likely to take advantage of inter-district choice options — but also more likely to opt out of them. Less is known about the impact of participation in these programs on students’ achievement, how inter-district choice programs affect the behaviors and performance of both sending and receiving districts, or the implications for future policy design.

Inter-district choice could offer one way to expand options for some students in rural areas where other forms of choice are less accessible. Some progressive education analysts who oppose charters do support inter-district choice models that seek to increase diversity or enable racial/ethnic minority students from predominantly minority districts to attend more diverse schools outside their home district. But voucher and private school choice supporters have often shown little interest in these programs: the choice advocacy group Ed Choice, for example, lists inter-district and intra-district choice as a form of school choice on its website, but its reports tracking the presence of choice options in states focuses only on private school choice options.

Given the prominence of inter-district choice in Michigan — not to mention DeVos’ standard line that a student’s ZIP code shouldn’t determine her educational options — it’s worth asking whether incentives for inter-district choice are likely to or should play a role in a future Trump administration school choice agenda. At a minimum, existing inter-district choice programs deserve more attention, analysis, and research.

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.

Five Takeaways for Education Reform From Tuesday’s Election

Over the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of discussion of “what the election means for X.” As my colleague Kaitlin has written about previously, given the very limited attention to education policy issues during question-1332054_640this campaign, and the fact that Donald Trump has released few specific policy details on any issue, it’s hard to say right now in a practical sense what Trump’s election is likely to “mean for education,” though Chad highlighted some potential implications earlier. More broadly, I think that the election as a whole, and Tuesday night’s results specifically, offer a few broad themes that those seeking to improve education policies and options for low-income kids should heed as they think about how to move forward in the current political climate:

1. The center-left consensus no longer defines the parameters of political debate. The parameters of our national policy debates over the past quarter century have been largely defined by a center-left consensus that valued globalism over tribal and national identity politics; viewed economic growth as a driving force for progress; saw free markets, innovation, and use of data and evidence as key to enabling that growth; viewed meritocracy as a positive goal; and saw education as a crucial tool for advancing inequity and helping buffer the rough edges and disruption created by market and innovation forces. The education reform movement of the past two decades largely emerged from and was shaped by that consensus, and its arguments reflect many of the same assumptions and values. It’s been clear for some time now that that center-left consensus was fraying — last night’s results, however, make it impossible to ignore. If education reformers are going to continue to make progress towards their goals for kids and schools, they are going to need to find ways to frame arguments for a new political dynamic.

2. The ascendancy of tribalism. One of the biggest ways in which this election breaks with the 90s-era consensus is in the elevation of tribal and national identity politics as driving political features. This quote from political journalist Molly Ball is particularly compelling:

This is not an election about policy. Possibly none of them have been, and we’ve all been fooling ourselves our whole lives. I feel like that’s been one of my learning experiences — that elections were, maybe, never about ideas. Maybe they were always about issues of identity and tribe and people’s sense of where the interests of their group lie and who they identify with.

George Packer makes similar points in a recent New Yorker article. The education reform movement has historically given short shrift to the power of tribal identities in driving behavior. The movement argued that privileged Americans should look against their narrow interests to support policies and investments that improve the educational and life outcomes for poor children from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds. There’s been a lot of attention lately to the ways that education reformers have at times been tone deaf or worse on issues of racial and class identity.

More broadly, however, the education reform movement has sought to build its case on appeals to logic, evidence, data, and abstract ideals while paying too little attention to the role that a much broader array of identities and allegiances play in shaping how most citizens actually judge issues and agendas. Consider Diane Ravitch: both her past academic historical work and her most recent blogging and advocacy reveal an approach to the world that is fundamentally grounded in and driven by issues of identity, allegiance, and personal loyalties. She’s certainly no Donald Trump. But they share a common rhetorical strategy of dividing the world into good people who agree with them and bad people who don’t. Labeling opponents “corporate reformers” isn’t about criticizing their ideas — it’s about guilt-by-association tied to allegiance and identity. And the huge following Ravitch has built illustrates the power of that framework for driving how people judge education issues. Unless education reformers pay more attention to the power of tribe, allegiance, and identity — in all its various forms — they’re forever going to struggle to win minds while losing hearts.

3. The decline of data, evidence, and evaluation. As noted above, education reformers have set a lot of stock in data, evidence, and evaluation — both as tools to inform decisions about educational practice and policy, and to make the case for their proposed policies. Tuesday’s results illustrate the declining efficacy of data-based arguments to inform voters, however. A huge number of Americans voted for a candidate whose blatant disregard for facts and data earned him a historically unprecedented number of PolitiFact “Pants On Fire” ratings and the first ever “King of Whoppers” title from FactCheck.org. The defeat of Massachusetts’ charter school referendum — preventing expansion of charter schools in a state where there is powerful evidence that they produce phenomenal results for kids — shows the declining power of evidence to sway voters’ views on education issues.

4. Fear of loss is a more powerful driver than hope for the future. When people write the post-mortem on this election, they’re likely going to talk about an enthusiasm gap between Clinton supporters and Trump supporters, or between Democrats and Republicans who held their noses as they voted for their parties’ candidates. I was particularly struck by last night’s data showing high levels of turnout in rural counties that went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.  I’m not an expert, but part of what I think we’re seeing here is that Clinton supporters were motivated by both fear of Trump and excitement about electing the first woman president — but they weren’t existentially convinced that their way of life was under attack. That’s part of why so many Clinton supporters were shocked when Trump won. Many Trump voters, on the other hand, do believe that their way of life and the America they know is fundamentally under attack by feminists, immigrants, and others who hold different values than they do — and that came through in the results.

There’s much economics and psychology literature on how the prospect of losing what you currently have is more motivating to people than the prospect of future gain. People who believe that their way of life and deeply held values are under existential attack are always going to be more motivated than people who are driven primarily by hope for future progress. That’s always going to be a challenge for progressives. But it’s also a challenge for education reform: People who fear that proposed changes are going to cause loss — whether it’s through job loss, closures of schools that have historically served their communities, or loss of privileges that come with being able to buy into a wealthy school zone — are going to be very motivated. Whereas the people with the most to benefit from those changes are often diffuse, not well organized, and may not be confident the changes will actually produce promised results. And there’s some reason to believe that this dynamic–specifically suburban voters’ fears that charters would threaten their privileged local schools–contributed to opposition to the Massachusetts charter referendum. More broadly, education reforms are inherently facing an asymmetric fight and need to plan accordingly.

5. Pay more attention to rural communities. I’m as sick as anyone of the endless articles attributing Trump’s success to the economic woes of white working class men harmed by trade. Data during the campaign clearly showed that Trump supporters had higher incomes than the national average or than Clinton supporters, and were not disproportionately from areas affected by trade or immigration. Trump’s margin among college-educated white voters Tuesday should also put that to rest. That said, we shouldn’t write an important topic off just because people are paying attention to it for the wrong reasons. This election has brought much-needed attention to the very real challenges facing the rural, white, working class in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Many of those issues are deeply embedded in education — both in the sense that economic and family instability create challenges for schools educating students, and in the sense that schools have at times contributed to and must play a role in addressing some of the challenges these communities currently face. As research by my Bellwether colleagues notes, there are significant gaps in educational attainment and aspirations for rural students, and rural schools face unique issues. But rural education has been largely ignored by education reform efforts and in debates over education policies. As a result, many recent policy strategies are largely designed with assumptions of an urban or suburban context. Going forward, I hope that this increased recognition of the challenges facing rural, white working class families can also translate into new, smart thinking about how to best help rural schools meet the needs of these children and families.

Bright Spots in Ohio Election Light Future Path for Early Childhood Education

Ohio map via Wikimedia

Early childhood advocates are understandably disappointed by Tuesday’s presidential election results. Many had high hopes that Hillary Clinton, who has made advocacy for children and families a signature of her long political career, would pursue bold plans to expand pre-k and help families pay for quality childcare — as her campaign proposed. With Donald Trump’s election, the prospects for significant new funding or federal action to expand access to quality early childhood education are much dimmer.

There is some good news about early childhood in last night’s election results, however. Even as Ohio voters selected Trump as President, voters in Dayton (see Issue 9, here) and Cincinnati (see Issue 44, here) approved new tax measures to expand access to preschool for those cities’ youngsters. Dayton’s Issue 9 increases the earnings tax to fund infrastructure investments and preschool for 4-year-olds. Cincinnati’s Issue 44 increases property taxes to generate $48 million in new revenue for public education, $15 million of which would go to subsidize preschool for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds.

These victories may be minor consolation for advocates who hoped that Clinton’s election would create the best opportunity since 1971 to build a more robust national system of early care and education. But they’re important on two fronts: First, they illustrate that progress on early childhood will continue regardless of what happens at the federal level. Second, they show that the core of action for improving learning opportunities and support for young children and their families over the coming years is going to be at the local level, when communities pool together diverse coalitions of early childhood, business, education, civic, and other leaders to support shared investments in kids. We’re going to see more of this progress in the coming years, in cities and communities across the country.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at “Child Care Deserts”

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) looks at “Child Care Deserts,” which CAP defines as communities with no licensed child care centers, or where the number of children under age five dramatically exceeds licensed child care center capacity. Looking acrossChildCareDeserts the eight states for which CAP was able to acquire data, the analysis finds that nearly half of children in these states live in child care deserts. Quality child care settings are even more scarce.

The analysis also illustrates significant geographic variation in how child care is distributed. Rural children are particularly likely to live in child care deserts: nearly 55 percent of rural children live in such communities, as opposed to about one-third of both urban and suburban kids. The percentage of children living in child care deserts varies across states: from less than one-third in Maryland, to roughly two-thirds of all children under five in Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois. Communities with high or low rates of poverty tend to have more childcare access, while those in the middle are more likely to be child care deserts. This suggests that public subsidies and publicly funded programs have been successful in improving access to childcare in communities with more poor families. Urban and higher-poverty communities also tended to have higher quality child care options.

It’s an interesting and important analysis, and CAP deserves credit for casting light on issues of child care supply, in addition to cost, and bringing an empirical light to these conversations. A few caveats are worth noting, however:

  • Demand for child care is a complicated thing. CAP’s analysis uses the number of children in a community under age 5 as a proxy for demand for child care, but it’s an imperfect proxy. Research from the census bureau indicates that more than half of families with children under age 5 do not pay for child care, including some families in which the mother works full time. In some communities, there may limited demand for child care because many families prefer to stay home with their children, use informal and family care arrangements, or because there are few attractive work opportunities for parents. Obviously, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg question here: Child care supply may be low in some communities because demand is also limited, but it’s also possible that more parents would work and demand childcare if more options were available. To really solve this problem at a local level, much better analysis on demand is required.
  • Growing capacity requires targeted investments in supply. CAP highlights their proposal for a High-Quality Child Care Tax Credit as a strategy to increase supply of quality child care, by providing parents with more resources to pay for care. But building the supply of quality care in communities with few existing options will likely require more direct supply-side strategies to incentivize new providers to open or existing quality operators to expand to these communities (as I wrote about in the first chapter of our recent release), and to help cover start-up costs. The investments that I’ve proposed to build the supply of quality schools could also help to grow the supply of quality child care in underserved communities.
  • Child care “swamps” are also a problem. CAP’s analysis focuses on communities with a lack of child care supply. This is clearly an issue in some rural communities. And if you live in a high-cost urban area like Washington, D.C., where families often face long wait lists for child care slots, it can be easy to think child care shortages are a national problem. But oversupply of child care in some communities is equally problematic. Many states’ regulatory policies create few barriers to entry into the market. This can lead to more seats than children who need them, resulting in under-enrollment that makes it hard for providers to be economically viable or to have the resources they need to invest in quality. This is exacerbated when operators open child care centers without fully assessing market need or developing strong business models. Improving access to quality child care in these communities may actually require increasing barriers to entry, reducing the number of child care slots, and developing concerted strategies to direct or match families with higher quality options.

Bringing Evidence to the Early Childhood Conversation: A Timely Issue

Behavioral Science & Policy AssociationImproving access to quality early childhood education is increasingly a priority for policymakers at all levels of government. But smart policies to expand early learning opportunities need to be based on research and evidence. A newly released feature in the Behavioral Science & Policy Journal seeks to provide an overview of relevant research, and includes a piece from me and my colleague Ashley LiBetti Mitchel.

The issue looks at what we’ve learned from recent policy developments and research on home visiting programs, state pre-k programs, and Head Start. Ron Haskins, who edited the series, provides an overview of the current landscape of early childhood education programs. Cynthia Osborne offers four lessons policymakers should take from research on home visiting. Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey and Christina Weiland offer differing takes on the potential to scale high-quality preschool. Ashley LiBetti Mitchel and I describe recent research and policy developments related to Head Start. And Ajay Chaudry and Jane Waldfogel outline a vision for a much more robust system of early care and education policies to improve results for American kids.

In our piece, Ashley and I argue that, while research demonstrates Head Start’s positive impacts on participating children, it also suggests that Head Start’s results vary widely across grantees and do not match those of the most successful early childhood programs. Given this evidence, we argue that the relevant question for policymakers is not whether Head Start works but how to increase the number of Head Start centers that work as well as the most effective Head Start centers and state-funded pre-K programs. We review the effect of recent policy initiatives that have sought to do this, and offer recommendations for future policies to further support improvements in Head Start quality and outcomes.

You can read our piece, as well as the entire issue, here.