Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Post-Espinoza, It’s Time to Embrace More Pluralism

The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.

Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.

Schools from McKinley and Cibola Counties in NM gathered at the Cathedral for a Mass celebrated by Bishop James Wall.

Catholic school mass via Flickr user dioceseofgallup

The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.

Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area.  Continue reading

All States Need to Shore Up Literacy Instruction After the Detroit Decision

There has been a lot written about the 6th Circuit’s decision in Detroit’s right-to-literacy case, the latest in a long line of lawsuits bringing state and federal constitutional challenges to the quality of education opportunities provided to public school students. The court held that the Constitution protects a right to a minimal education opportunity: the right to literacy. This decision is an unmistakable signal to schools and districts about the importance of meaningful literacy instruction. 

And although the facts in this case are specific to Detroit’s unique relationship with Michigan’s state government, that will not excuse another state or district from falling short in their obligation to provide an education that offers a genuine opportunity for literacy.

three young black girls and one black adult looking at a table of books, Knight Arts Challenge Detroit: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History The Charles H. Wright will use the arts to foster an interest in reading by weaving interactive cultural experiences throughout the museum’s Children’s Book Fair.

Photo of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History via Knight Foundation on Flickr

The path to good literacy instruction isn’t a mystery. There is relevant science and resources to help schools, districts, and states. Good instruction is described in a set of practice guides produced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which are based on reviews of research, the experiences of practitioners, and the expert opinions of a panel of nationally recognized experts. States and districts can encourage the use of these resources by administrators, teachers, school specialists, and families.

To identify which specific programs and interventions have been effective at improving student outcomes, state and district leaders can search the What Works Clearinghouse, with particular attention to programs that have been independently evaluated. Reading interventions may impact a variety of outcomes, including alphabetics, reading fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. Since some interventions may be more effective than others for certain types of literacy skills, states might encourage the use of needs assessments to better understand which interventions are the best fit for a school or district. Continue reading

COVID-19 Sheds Light on Existing Weaknesses in Early Childhood Systems

COVID-19 highlights the foundational weaknesses in our nation’s approach to early care and education. Unlike K-12 public schools, which are funded primarily by state and local government and operated by government entities or under their oversight, early childhood care and education in the United States is funded primarily through parent tuition payments and delivered through a patchwork of providers. These include center-based child care operated by for- and nonprofit entities ranging from small businesses to national chains, home-based childcare, Head Start, and school-based pre-K programs, all of which operate under different regulations and resources depending on the type of program they are, the age of children they serve, and where their funding comes from. 

It’s a complicated system given these underlying financing, structural, and policy factors, which COVID-19 has only underscored. The existing fragmentation has complicated efforts to protect children’s health and safety during the virus, ensure care for children of essential workers, or even collect accurate data to understand what is going on. And the system’s underfunding and reliance on parent payments has made early childhood providers and workers incredibly vulnerable in the current situation. 

As state and local governments began to close schools and nonessential businesses in mid-March, early childhood providers and state system leaders faced several urgent needs. These included making decisions about whether to close child care programs to protect child and staff safety, ensuring continuing access to child care for essential frontline workers, and providing early intervention and development support to children at home. As the chart below shows, these immediate needs cut across interrelated dimensions of health, economics, and child development — as does the early childhood field itself.

chart: "COVID-19 is creating new early childhood sector needs, and exacerbating others"

As early childhood leaders and policymakers begin to look around the corner — to think about economic recovery as the public health crisis begins to subside — new questions and challenges are emerging. Many early childhood providers have lost substantial revenues as a result of COVID-related closures and reduced demand for childcare, and are at risk of going out of business. Getting America back to work will require stabilizing the child care sector to enable workers across the economy to return to their jobs, or find new ones. Continue reading

New National Data on Preschool Programs Particularly Important Due to COVID-19

Most state-funded pre-K programs, like most schools, are closed due to the coronavirus. But most states do not have the same state constitutional obligation to provide pre-K as they do for K-12 students, so pre-K programs can be particularly vulnerable to state budget cuts when tough economic times reduce state revenues. 

As states begin to face the fiscal and economic consequences of COVID-19, the National Institute for Early Education Research released its State Preschool Yearbook, which provides the most comprehensive and accurate information available on enrollment in, funding for, and features of state-funded pre-K programs.

Cover of the National Institute for Early Education Research 2019 State Preschool YearbookNIEER’s current report looks at data from the 2018-19 school year and finds that: 

  • State pre-K programs enrolled 1.63 million children in 2018-19. Most of these children (about 85%) are 4, with far fewer 3-year-olds served.  
  • The number of children served in state-funded pre-K increased slightly (by about 3%) from the 2017-18 to 2018-18 school year, with most of that increase for 4-year-olds. 
  • Taking into account Head Start and special education preschool, about 44% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-olds attend some type of publicly funded program.* This has stayed largely level even as state pre-K enrollment has increased, in part because some Head Start slots have shifted to serve infants and toddlers, particularly in places with high pre-K enrollment. 
  • Access to state pre-K varies widely by state: Only 10 states serve more than 50% of 4-year-olds and 5 serve 70% or more. Twelve states with preschool programs serve 10% or less of 4-year-olds, and six states have no state-funded pre-K. Only 7 states and the District of Columbia serve more than 10% of 3-year-olds. 

During and in the wake of the 2008 Recession, states cut spending on pre-K and other early childhood programs. While pre-K enrollment levels continued to grow, per-child funding decreased, as states sought to stretch less funding across more kids, with detrimental impacts on program quality.  Continue reading

Evaluators Bring Superpowers to Your Federal Grant Application

Yesterday, my colleague Lina Bankert wrote about three new federal grant competitions that have just been posted. Those who are new to federal grant competitions may find the evaluation requirements and research-design options (explained below) overwhelming. Federal grant applications typically require:

  • An evidence-based rationale for the proposed project’s approach, such as a logic model
  • Citations of prior research that support key components of a project’s design and meet specific thresholds for rigor specified by the What Works Clearinghouse
  • Expected outcomes and how applicants will measure those with valid and reliable instruments
  • Explanation of how the proposed project will be studied to understand its impact

Proposals may be scored by two kinds of individuals: reviewers with programmatic expertise and reviewers with evaluation expertise. Sections of the grant are allocated a certain number of points, all of which total to a final score that drives which proposals receive awards. The evaluation section of these proposals can represent up to 25% of the total points awarded to applicants, so having a strong one can make or break an application. 

red letters that say "KAPOW" coming out of a blue and yellow comic-style explosion

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Writing these sections requires a sophisticated understanding of research methodology and analytical techniques in order to tie the application together with a consistent and compelling evidence base. Our evaluation team at Bellwether has partnered with a number of organizations to help them design programmatic logic models, shore up their evidence base, and write evaluation plans that have contributed to winning applications to the tune of about $60 million. This includes three recent partnerships with Chicago International Charter School, Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and Grimmway Schools — all winners in the latest round of Charter School Program (CSP) funding for replication and expansion of successful charter networks.

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