January 26, 2022

School Choice or Option-Enabling Policies Must Center Equity

National School Choice Week is taking on particular importance this year, as more families seek options beyond the traditional K-12 public school system. During the 2020-21 school year, charter schools saw a 7% increase in enrollment compared to the previous school year, while traditional public school enrollment declined by at least 1.4 million students. Additionally, many families, including significant numbers of families of color, turned to home-schooling and emerging choice options such as microschools or learning pods. As more parents demand choice and flexibility in their children’s schooling, and more states accommodate them, equity must be at the heart of any school choice or option-enabling policy. 

In Expanding Educational Options: Emergent Policy Trends, Alex Spurrier, Lynne Graziano, Juliet Squire and I document the current state of choice or option-enabling education policies across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, there has been a push in Republican-led states to create or expand already-established private school choice voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs. Beyond the programs that typically come to mind when thinking of “school choice,” many states have been investing in and expanding flexible learning options to meet the varying needs and preferences of students, including career and technical education (CTE), concurrent or dual enrollment, work-based learning, and extended learning. 

When implemented with equity at its core, school choice and other option-enabling policies have the potential to level the playing field for students from historically marginalized communities. Students who are economically disadvantaged, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, are more likely to be assigned to low-performing, high-poverty schools. For example, nearly half of Black students attend high-poverty schools compared to just 8% of white students. When considering academic achievement, Black students performed about three to four times worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading, math, and science assessments than white students. The persistent gaps in academic achievement can often be traced back to historic underinvestment in those schools and communities, still impacted by a legacy of segregation and redlining

Despite this potential, not enough school choice or option-enabling policies are designed or implemented with equity at the center. For starters, school choice policies typically don’t provide real access to opportunities for all families. Take private school vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs, which do not always cover the cost of the average private school tuition. As a result, eligible low-income families are less able to benefit from the program. 

For example, the Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship Program awards private school vouchers up to $7,403 (95% of the state’s unweighted full-time equivalent funding). Yet, according to the website Private School Review, the average private school tuition in Florida is $9,595 per year. In these circumstances, parents are left to pay the difference out of pocket or rely on philanthropic support. If the state is going to provide families with options, it should fully fund those options or require participating schools to accept vouchers as full payment. Louisiana is one state that requires participating private schools to accept the voucher as full payment of tuition and any other fees associated with attending the school.

Admission requirements can be an additional barrier to otherwise eligible voucher families. Participating private schools can require students to meet entry requirements, limiting access to otherwise eligible students. Wisconsin is one of the few states where participating private schools can only deny admission to students for capacity reasons. When demand exceeds capacity, a lottery is held to determine admission. Furthermore, state policies often fail to provide adequate protection from discrimination on the basis of religion or LGBTQ+ identity. Maryland’s law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Some private school choice options also lack accountability for academic performance. In several states with voucher programs, students attending private schools using taxpayer dollars aren’t required to sit for assessments or otherwise demonstrate academic progress. In states where students are required to test, there’s often little in the law holding them accountable if and when students don’t make progress. Indiana is an exception. It requires participating private schools to test voucher recipients, assigns an accountability rating, and disqualifies schools from participating in the program if they have a D or F rating for two or more consecutive years. 

When it comes to enrollment, inter-district open-enrollment policies and charter school laws theoretically open opportunities for all students. However, across the country, seats in highly desirable schools or districts are typically limited. In Philadelphia, more than 29,000 seats are available in schools identified as low-achieving, while high-achieving schools have no seats available and are often over-enrolled. When there are more applicants than seats available, a randomized lottery is held to determine students’ admission. State policies allow for preferences in the lottery, such as whether an applicant has a sibling already attending the school, but rarely are at-risk students given priority for admission, potentially closing opportunities to students who may need them most. Additionally, in some states open enrollment is voluntary, meaning school districts can choose not to participate — and in many cases, highly desired suburban and more affluent districts don’t participate.

Lastly, access to data and information families want or need is often difficult to come by, despite significant investments by states, local school districts, and philanthropy. Families, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, often have difficulty navigating choice and have less access to information about their options, enrollment processes, and transportation processes. 

Policymakers must prioritize equity, transparency, and accountability when debating and enacting choice or option-enabling policies, including:

  • Ensuring equitable access and opportunity is at the core of any state school choice or option-enabling policy, including investing in supports for students from historically marginalized communities to ensure their success. 
  • Making information easily accessible to all families so they are aware of their choices and how to exercise them.
  • Holding all education service providers accountable for learning outcomes. 
  • Collecting and making public disaggregated data on the number of students exercising choices, the types of choices students make, and student learning outcomes. 

Failure to prioritize equity and provide real options to students from historically marginalized communities risk exacerbating existing and historical inequities and opportunity gaps. As we celebrate National School Choice Week and continue expanding education options for families, it’s imperative that equity remains front and center. 

 


January 25, 2022

Three Ways Policymakers Can Expand Educational Options for Students

Children across the country are living through a tumultuous two years that have had an undeniable impact on their education and development. But the effects haven’t been felt evenly by all students. Declines in K-12 reading and math performance have been more pronounced in schools that serve lower-income communities and in schools that largely serve Black and Latino students. 

These inequities predate 2020, but it’s clear that the range and severity of student learning needs amid the pandemic are significantly more complex than they were before COVID-19. America’s K-12 education system needs to respond with options that are diverse, flexible, and accessible to meet the varied educational needs of students and families moving forward. 

As described in Expanding Educational Options: Emergent Policy Trends by co-authors Lynne Graziano, Brian Robinson, Juliet Squire, and me, policymakers in states across the country have made meaningful progress to create and expand learning options for students on three fronts, but more must be done to make those opportunities equitable and accessible to all.

1. Expand Traditional School Choice Options

The first and most traditional front for expanding educational options is through expanded access to school choice options. This includes policies that increase opportunities within the public school system through charter schools and open enrollment. It could also take the form of policies that provide access to full-time learning options outside of the public sector through vouchers, tax credit scholarships, or policies to support home-schooling.

Recent legislation expanding access to school choice options tends to focus on increasing funding for private school choice programs and/or expanding student eligibility criteria for those programs. One example of this is Florida’s HB 7045, which both increased funding and expanded student eligibility for private school choice programs.

2. Provide Equitable Access for All Students

Second, policymakers are enacting legislation to reduce barriers that stand between students and already-available educational opportunities beyond their residentially assigned public school. 

States like Tennessee and West Virginia passed bills to reduce administrative barriers to improve the transparency and accessibility of open enrollment opportunities. Other states, like Arizona and Texas, passed legislation to reduce transportation barriers to improve student access to educational options. 

3. Enact More Flexible Learning Options

Finally, there is increasing policy support for more flexible learning options that provide students with opportunities to replace or supplement full-time schooling. Most recently, this has taken the form of states passing or expanding Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that provide families with flexible funding to support tuition, tutoring, or other educational services for their children, like West Virginia’s HB 2013

Other states, like Georgia, have passed legislation to protect a pandemic-era innovation: learning pods. And Montana’s HB 246 creates opportunities for students to participate in and earn credit for work-based learning.

These policy innovations are welcome developments for families and students looking for more flexible and customized learning options, but much more needs to be done to ensure that these opportunities are available to all families. For instance, families need accurate and accessible information on the array of schooling options available for their children, and how to take advantage of them. Transportation and other logistical barriers still serve as insurmountable barriers for far too many families. And as more students are educated by an increasing number of providers, policymakers must consider how the ecosystem of K-12 educational entities can securely share data with one another to support a child’s success. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the complex and urgent needs students face; families deserve access to a wider range of educational opportunities to meet the specific needs of their children. Policymakers must act to better serve students’ needs moving forward.


January 13, 2022

An “Abundance Agenda” Must Include K-12 Schooling

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Scarcity is a familiar concept to economists, but most Americans don’t need to crack open a textbook to understand its impact right now. Walking through my local grocery store, there are barren produce displays and freezers with only a fraction of the products they typically stock. And I’ve had to scour the greater Louisville, Kentucky region to find at-home COVID-19 tests for sale.

In a thought-provoking new piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues that the problem of scarcity isn’t just limited to grocery stores and pharmacies it’s a societywide challenge that we ought to address.

“Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change — but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right — but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care — but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.”

But there’s a significant sector missing from Thompson’s analysis of our scarcity challenge: K-12 education.

Public schooling is supposed to be a public good that provides equitable access to educational opportunities for all children, in the same way that public parks provide everyone with an opportunity to enjoy natural beauty in our communities.

For many families, however, access to a quality public education is an unfulfilled promise.

Scarcity in K-12 schooling is a much more opaque phenomenon than in higher education. We can easily monitor the ever-rising cost of college tuition, but most parents don’t pay tuition for K-12 schools. Instead, the “price” of attending public schools is embedded in rent or mortgage payments.

Affluent families have an abundance of educational options: they can afford to pay for tuition at private schools, buy a home in sought-after school districts, and provide their children with supplementary learning opportunities like tutoring, music lessons, and athletic programs.

Lower-income families face many more barriers to educational opportunity. Public schools are often their only educational option. As my colleagues and I showed in Priced Out of Public Schools, they also face scarcity in public schooling opportunities due to a combination of where affordable rental housing is located and how school district boundaries are drawn.

Thompson argues for a national “abundance agenda” to address problems created by scarcity. In K-12 education, that could mean an expansion of educational opportunities, particularly for lower-income families.

There are systemic ways to achieve abundance in educational opportunities. We could tackle reforms to update district boundaries more frequently — similar to how we engage in redistricting for legislative seats — to provide better, more equitable access to public K-12 schooling opportunities. Other efforts could expand access to nonpublic education options, as 18 states did in 2021.

Reformers can also expand educational opportunities within the public school system more incrementally through public charter schools. A recently-announced $750 million grant-making effort to support the expansion of public charter schools could serve as a catalyst for a broader reinvigoration of the charter sector, as my colleague Andy Rotherham notes in his latest for The 74.

For too long, families have not had access to the schooling options their children deserve. An “abundance agenda” for educational opportunity has the potential to garner support from the left, right, and center of our increasingly polarized nation and, more importantly, to provide children with equitable access to the public schools they deserve.


December 14, 2021

ICYMI: 2020-21 Notable Field Research Roundup

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Aside from the requisite holiday gatherings and family time (be it virtual or in person), the end of any year is often a time to tie up loose ends and, if you’re lucky, to catch up on things you might have missed. As we close the books on 2021 — yet another year marred by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — Bellwether did some of that work for you. 

If, like many of us, you could barely keep up with your own inbox, you might have missed some thought-provoking research in the education sector. Bellwether assembled five of the most insightful, interesting, and notable third-party research reports of 2020-21. (Think of it as an “envy list” from folks on the Bellwether team. This is work we really thought was important and kind of wish we’d done!) 

Tag this email, bookmark the page, and save it for a (snowy) day this holiday season: Here, in no particular order, are five notable research reports from 2020-21 authored by external researchers and organizations, covering everything from the impact of COVID-19 on Black students to voter trends and more. 

Black Education in the Wake of COVID-19 & Systemic Racism: Toward a Theory of Change & Action

Black Education Research Collective (BERC) | July 2021
Guided by two key questions — 1) what is the impact of COVID-19 on the education of Black children and youth in the U.S.?, and 2) how should educators and community leaders respond to calls for change and action? — BERC researchers synthesized nationwide qualitative and quantitative data collected from January to May 2021. Key findings of the mixed-method study amplify the impact of the pandemic and systemic racism on Black education, including increased racial trauma and mental health issues. Click here to learn more.

The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) | October 2021
Is college ‘worth it’? Georgetown’s CEW conducted an analysis exploring how career earnings vary by education attained, degrees pursued, occupation, industry, gender, race and ethnicity, and location. A key finding: more education doesn’t always equate to higher earnings. Click here to find out why.

Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology

Pew Research Center (Pew) | November 2021
Nonpartisan Pew examined the current political landscape and where voters are at. Although partisanship is a dominant factor in politics, Pew created a political typology — classifying the public into nine groups based on ideological and political values and attitudes — to do a deeper-dive analysis within partisan coalitions. The results carry interesting implications for our current political environment as well as the upcoming fall 2022 midterm elections. Click here to examine Pew’s political typology.

When “Tried and True” Advocacy Strategies Backfire: Narrative Messages Can Undermine State Legislator Support for Early Child Care Policies

Evidence for Action | July 2021
Researchers engaged more than 600 state legislators across the country to read different advocacy messages that were in favor of increasing investments in early child care and education. One message simply asked legislators to support these investments, while another message included a personal narrative about a young couple struggling to secure child care in their community. The findings demonstrate that legislators were more likely to support early child care policies when accompanied by a simple pro-policy message, over a personal narrative. Legislators who identified as conservative were less likely to support either type of message, especially messages that included a personal narrative. Findings point to the efficacy of message-testing among a broad audience in advocacy efforts. Click here to read the analysis.

Connecting Social-Emotional Development, Academic Achievement, and On-Track Outcomes 

City Year and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education | May 2020
Researchers examined the mounting statistically significant evidence that an integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development provides the best pathway for students to accelerate learning and graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary and adult success. As the pandemic continues, this research amplifies important, ongoing issues facing U.S. students. Click here to unpack the findings.

Are there other 2020-21 third-party studies and analyses we missed? Engage with us on Twitter @bellwethered to share your selections!


November 16, 2021

Unpacking Education Finance Equity for State-Level Advocates: A Q&A with TennesseeCAN’s Erika Berry

Bellwether Education Partners’ series Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity gives advocates a crash course in the fundamentals of education finance and in key questions to ask in their states and communities. This series of short briefs is part of Bellwether’s ongoing examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. For a look at how equity-minded policymakers and advocates can begin to understand school finance policy, click here.

Erika Berry is senior policy director for TennesseeCAN, an independent, state-based affiliate of 50CAN’s* national network. The organization’s mission is to empower local stakeholders — from community members to policymakers — to advocate for improved K-12 education policies that put Tennessee children first. Berry has spent her career focused on improving educational outcomes for students and breaking down inequitable barriers that prevent students from succeeding, beginning her career in education as a middle school math teacher.

As a participant in Bellwether’s ongoing school finance equity trainings, Berry is currently examining Tennessee’s state school funding formula using data tools like R and Shiny, in collaboration with other advocates. I caught up with her over Zoom to discuss her work and learn more about the education finance equity landscape in Tennessee. To learn more about key education finance concepts within this Q&A, click here.

Bonnie O’Keefe:
How does TennesseeCAN’s mission overlap with education finance equity?

Erika Berry:
Every day, my work is centered on ensuring that students across the state have access to high-quality schools, teachers, and resources. I focus a lot on how Tennessee’s schools can equitably prioritize the unique talents and needs of its teachers and students. 

Education finance in Tennessee treats students as ratios. Our system assumes that all schools are the same with the same needs. School and district leaders make decisions based on prescribed inputs for staffing and resources, instead of applying a strategic mindset grounded in students’ needs. It’s not their fault; the state’s resource-based student funding formula encourages this kind of thinking. Tennessee is one of only 17 states with this kind of funding formula. 

This means that in Tennessee, our Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula gives money to schools based on assumptions about schools’ costs and ratios of resources. This mostly revolves around staffing and student-teacher ratios. For example, in the BEP, for every 8.5 students with special needs, schools are allocated funding for a special education teacher, which means around an additional $48,000. But what if fewer than 8.5 students with special needs are enrolled in a given school — how will their needs be adequately met in this funding formula framework? And why are we counting “half” a student? 

To be clear, the resource-based formula doesn’t require that schools spend that exact dollar amount on those precise staffing ratios — it’s all based on averages. But it frames the way the whole state thinks about education funding. It’s an inherently inequitable system that is offensive to educators and students alike. Tennessee’s BEP system creates an incentive to hire less experienced teachers who make below-average salaries, and discourages schools from using their resources more creatively and strategically to best meet the needs of students. 

BOK:
Is there an alternative to this resource-based system?

EB:
Yes! At TennesseeCAN, we advocate for a weighted or student-based funding formula

BOK:
Tennessee’s governor recently announced a listening tour focused on potential changes to the state’s education finance system. What specific changes does TennesseeCAN most want to see, and why? 

EB:
Tennessee has done a great job in the past decade of implementing proven ed reforms. We have some of the best laws on the books to hold teacher preparation programs accountable. In recent teacher evaluations, something like 81% of educators in the state believed that the laws improved their teaching. I think our policymakers have held true to principles of accountability for high standards and it’s a good thing for students. But our resource-based funding formula just doesn’t match up.

A weighted, or student-based funding formula would force Tennessee school districts to think first about the needs of students every time they sit down at a table to form a budget. It would also allow district leaders to be more strategic about how to spend and create greater transparency around funding allocations clearly based on enrollment and student learning needs.

BOK:
How do coalitions or partnerships play into your advocacy strategy?

EB:
They’re a fundamental part of TennesseeCAN’s approach. In 2017, we started taking funding reform seriously as an organization and adopted a vision we wanted to see happen. We pulled in Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE),* Tennesseans for Student Success, the Tennessee Charter School Center*, and The Education Trust — all of whom are members of the Team Kid coalition.

Together, we’re pushing for a statewide weighted, student-based funding formula not just as a short-term fix, but as one that will support schools in the longer term. Every year and with each new state legislative session, our coalition partners work to defend progress made on accountability and on policies that center students. Although Tennessee is in a strong fiscal position at the moment, we know our advocacy work is far from done. Once you dive into the BEP funding system, you realize it’s wholly unpredictable and inequitable. School leaders, teachers, students, and families deserve more.

BOK:
What have you learned analyzing and visualizing your state’s finance system as part of Bellwether’s School Finance Equity trainings? What have you learned from other participants in the cohort?

EB:
Bellwether’s trainings enabled me to better understand and visualize our state and local revenue and stress-test prior assumptions — many of which were wrong. 

For example, we used to think that Tennessee’s state revenues were being distributed inequitably in the BEP. When we dove into the data, we were surprised to see that state funding was fairly equitable, but it wasn’t enough to offset inequities in local tax revenue, based on local property wealth. It was the local piece where the bigger, systemic inequities existed. We essentially have a regressive local funding system that allows wealthy districts to generate as much funds as they can, and still get state funding on top, widening the financial gap with districts that have less property wealth. My work in Bellwether’s trainings led me to realize that the added state revenue for lower-wealth districts isn’t enough to cover the local revenue shortfalls. This insight affected my thinking about what a more equitable state formula and school finance system should look like.  

The cohort model has been fascinating. I have a better analytical toolkit now, thanks to the cohort members and the training on data visualization. I’ve learned a lot from peers in other states and it’s interesting to see areas of similarity in state funding formula structures and, importantly, areas of difference. Every state has something funky in its funding formula that can usually be traced back to a quick-fix policy solution that’s good for adults, but not for kids and schools.

BOK:
What are some of the common misconceptions about Tennessee’s school finance that you encounter in your work — from policymakers, or from community members? How do you help break those down?

EB:
A lot of people think the BEP is student-based, so we spend time clarifying that. Enrollment is a factor, but it’s mediated by these resource-based ratios and funding assumptions. If you ask folks to think about how the funding formula influences decision-making, it often serves as an epiphany moment. Our resource-based system envisions spending on prescribed resources (e.g., number of staff, textbooks to order) but a weighted, student-based approach leads districts to first know their students’ needs and then be strategic about how to deploy funds in a way that prioritizes students over a laundry list of resources.

At the end of the day, local districts are in a better position to know their students than the state. And the resource-based mindset leads to a variety of ongoing issues around budgets.

BOK:
What do you hope to accomplish in 2022 as it relates to education finance?

EB:
We hope that 2022 will bring a new, weighted, student-based funding formula to Tennessee. We want to have a discussion about how a new approach could shift thinking and behaviors at the state, local, and school district levels to meet students’ needs and reduce inequities. 

I worry when I talk about education funding inequity, that people might misunderstand and think that this is a “silver bullet” solution. It’s not. But, a more equitable school funding formula can help uncover those silver bullet solutions and better enable districts to really move the needle for students. I think greater funding equity has the potential to pave the way for other kinds of reforms that target and center students’ needs, first and foremost.

BOK:
One last question: How did you get started in education and what fuels your work now?

EB:
I grew up in Mississippi and always heard that our schools weren’t successful because they were underfunded — and I believed it. After college, I taught middle school in a well-funded Mississippi school district and was surprised to find that my students weren’t achieving despite all the resources we had. More money wasn’t the solution; my students were kept behind in a system that could have served them well. 

That stark realization fueled my graduate work and advocacy work — to understand what was going wrong and think about what students need versus how to make it easy for adults to run a school system. 

*(Editor’s note: Tennessee SCORE is a Bellwether client; 50CAN and the Tennessee Charter School Center are former clients.)