January 27, 2017

Should Public Charter Schools Be Allowed to Opt Out of State-run Teacher Pension Plans?

This post originally appeared on our sister site, TeacherPensions.org.

Should public charter schools be allowed to opt out of state-run teacher pension plans?

question-mark-1924516_1280There are strong arguments in favor of letting charter schools opt out. Most charter school teachers would be better off in more portable retirement plans. And charter schools tend to be new, so it might be unfair to ask them to pay off the debts of the old system.

Still, if charters are allowed to opt out, that puts added pressure on traditional school district budgets as they’re forced to take on proportionately larger shares of state pension legacy costs. As the charter sector has grown over time, and as pension debts eat up a larger and larger share of school spending, the charter school pension question has been bubbling up. It’s even played a small role in the debate over the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

As my colleagues Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, and Sara Mead noted earlier this week in their slide deck analyzing the education landscape in Michigan, DeVos’ home state of Michigan has one of the nation’s largest charter sectors, with more than 40 charter school authorizers and 10 percent of its students attending charter schools. Michigan’s charter school sector is also unique in that 71 percent of its charters are run by an Education Management Organization (EMO), which is a for-profit operator of public schools.

Although DeVos has been personally maligned for Michigan’s large for-profit charter sector, one thing that’s been missing from the debate is that Michigan’s EMOs are exempt from the state teacher pension fund. That means Michigan’s EMOs get to avoid paying a share of the state’s pension legacy costs, and in the process, they’re playing a small part in exacerbating the pension debt problem for all other Michigan public schools.

How big of a problem is this? In order to separate fact from fiction, here are six things to know about charter schools and teacher pensions nationwide, with Michigan as an example: Continue reading


January 26, 2017

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.


January 25, 2017

School Choice Alone Won’t Solve Educational Inequities Tied to Zip Code

Betsy DeVos advocates for school choice, at least in part, because she sees it as a strategy to address inequities in the public education system and expand access to quality schools for low-income students. But in contrast to many education reformers who speak explicitly about the role race plays in issues of educational inequity, DeVos talks in terms of geography. Her common catchphrase is that “every child, no matter their zip code, deserves access to a quality education.”

This raises two important questions: First, is talking about geography a reasonable proxy for educational inequiScreen Shot 2017-01-23 at 5.16.25 PMties that affect poor and minority students? And if so, are choice programs that enable students to attend schools outside their zip codes enough to disrupt the racial and income-based inequities that are tied to geography?

Here’s what we know about the relationship between income, race, and geography:

  • Growing up in a poor neighborhood is correlated with a host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of depression and obesity, poor academic outcomes, and lower future earnings.
  • Poor black people are five times as likely and poor Hispanics are three times as likely to live in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty compared to poor whites.
  • Children who attend high-poverty schools score lower on standardized tests than children attending more affluent schools.
  • Black and Hispanic children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools.
  • When low-income students are able to attend wealthier schools (where fewer than 20 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program), the achievement gap closes between those students and their peers.

As these data demonstrate, neighborhoods, zip codes, census tracts, and other geographic boundaries are a reasonable proxy for much of the racial and income inequity that policymakers and politicians are seeking to upend.

But does that mean that allowing students to access educational options outside their neighborhoods will ensure equitable access to quality education for low-income and minority students? Continue reading


January 24, 2017

New Bellwether Analysis on Michigan Education Provides Facts for DeVos Debate

When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as his Secretary of Education, she was not well known on a national scale: her behind-the-scenes advocacy and philanthropic work has concentrated on her home state of Michigan. But DeVos’ nomination put a national spotlight on education in Michigan, and her critics and boosters alike have been making a variety of claims about Michigan that are confusing and contradictory.

Slide1To address this, Bellwether just released a fact base on education in Michigan to inform the conversation about DeVos’ work there and what it might mean for the Department of Education if she is confirmed.

Our slide deck report addresses a number of key questions: How are Michigan students performing, and what do achievement gaps look like for low-income students and students of color? Do charter schools in Michigan produce better results than district-run public schools, and if so, by how much? Why does Michigan have so many charter schools operated by for-profit companies?

Among the things we found:

  • Michigan typically ranks in the lowest third of states in terms of student proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessment results show wide achievement gaps by racial/ethnic group and income level.
  • Educational authority in Michigan is highly decentralized, with multiple state governing entities and over 40 charter school authorizers.
  • About 150,000 Michigan students attend public charter schools, making up 10 percent of the student population.
  • Another 200,000 students, or 13 percent, take advantage of inter-district choice options to attend schools outside of their home district.
  • On average, students attending charter schools learn more than comparable students attending district-run schools. However, producing greater learning gains compared to schools serving similar students is a low bar because most Michigan charters are in Detroit, one of the lowest-performing large, urban school districts in the country.
  • Repeated reform efforts to improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not produced academic improvements for students or solved the ongoing financial crisis in the school district. A new law reinstates local control over DPS, limits charter school expansion to nationally accredited authorizers, and creates an A-F accountability system for both charter schools and traditional public schools.

Through data analysis and a deeper dive into the context of the Michigan education landscape, we hope to inform the ongoing debate about DeVos and give new insight into education in Michigan. The state has been a laboratory for school choice and educational reform efforts, and demands a more complete context and deeper analysis than sound bytes can provide. Read the full report here and let us know what you think.


January 19, 2017

Choice is Coming – But for Pre-K, It’s Already Here

Betsy DeVos is top-of-mind right now, particularly after her tense confirmation hearing on Tuesday night. Front and center in most of these conversations is DeVos’ strong support for school choice. What’s getting little attention, however, is what DeVos could accomplish on early childhood issues.3969866244_b02e13b9fb_o

We don’t know much about DeVos’ views on early education, but I’m personally hopeful that she takes a lesson from her home state: Michigan has a strong state-funded pre-k program that utilizes “diverse delivery.” “Diverse delivery” is another way of saying “school choice for early childhood.” In this system, parents of young children pick from a range of early childhood providers — including for-profit centers, churches, nonprofit community-based organizations, and school districts — based on whatever factors they deem most important. And in Michigan, unlike many other states, charter schools are included in the pre-k program. That model is something DeVos should bring to the national stage.

Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), is a good example of diverse delivery in action. Funding for the program goes to intermediate school districts (ISDs); ISDs then contract with a variety of providers, all of which must meet a state-determined standard of quality, to actually serve preschool children. GSRP is targeted to families that make less than 250% of the federal poverty level, so if children are eligible to participate, their parents can send them to any GSRP center that has space for them.

And research suggests that Michigan’s program is effective. A 2005 study of five states, including Michigan, showed that children who participated in state-funded preschool had better vocabulary, early math skills, and understanding of print concepts than children who did not attend. GSRP is also growing. Between 2013 and 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder upped the investment in GSRP by $130 million. The program currently serves 32 percent of four-year-olds in the state, more than 35 other states.

And many of those children are served in charter school pre-k programs. Michigan is one of the more hospitable states for charter schools to serve preschoolers. In fact, Michigan has 76 charter schools that serve preschoolers, which is the fourth highest in the country behind California, Florida, and Texas.

This type of charter school/pre-k synergy is rare even though most states already have pre-k systems that incorporate a range of public providers. Diverse delivery may be old news in the early childhood world, but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to certain providers — specifically charter schools. States that have offered pre-k choice for decades struggle with how to best incorporate charter schools as an early childhood option for parents.

Even so, early childhood is already more supportive of choice in ways that are controversial in K-12 — as evidenced by Tuesday’s hearing . In a column for U.S. News earlier this month, Andy Rotherham astutely noted that with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the country’s education agenda, “More choice is coming to education — it’s a question of when and how rather than if.” DeVos should take a cue from Michigan and start by expanding choice in early childhood.

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