Category Archives: Politics of Education

The Logic Behind School Choice — And Three Ways To Strengthen It

In recent weeks, Democratic presidential candidates’ views on education, specifically on school choice and charters, have come under scrutiny. And a recent EdNext poll indicates that Democrats are deeply divided on school choice topics. 

The usual debate on school choice asks “does it work,” but rarely do I hear discussion about how it’s intended to work in the first place.

Some people view school choice as a public good in and of itself, in that it provides options for families. For this group, evidence of student achievement, educational attainment, and other outcomes is secondary. It is the availability of and access to educational options — on their own — which validate the need for and merit of school choice.  

Others, myself included, view school choice as a potential means to an end: a way to improve educational opportunities not just for the students whose families are willing and able to choose, but for those students who remain in their traditional public schools as well. In theory, competition pressures schools to improve quality in order to retain their “customers,” i.e., students.

In order to get from point A (offering school choice) to point B (improved outcomes), what has to happen? The logic model below outlines the theory behind my perspective:  Continue reading

GreatSchools Ratings Have a Lot in Common with State and Local Ratings — for Better or Worse

Last Thursday the education world was all a-twitter about an article and analysis on GreatSchools, a widely used nonprofit school rating organization whose 1-10 ratings often show up at the top of search results and on popular real estate websites. Their ratings are known to sway families’ decisions on where to live and send their kids to school.

Photo via Justine Warrington on Flickr

The main thrust of Matt Barnum and Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee’s piece in Chalkbeat is that GreatSchools’ substantial reliance on test score proficiency as a measure of school quality favors schools whose students enter already performing at a higher level. Since these students are more likely to be white and high-income, they argue the GreatSchools ratings may end up exacerbating segregation by influencing families’ housing and school decisions. 

These very same criticisms often come up in debates about local or state school ratings and how best to use test scores in general. In the conversation below, the authors of Bellwether’s recent report and website on school performance frameworks (SPFs) discuss the findings of the GreatSchools report, and how the strengths and weaknesses of GreatSchools’ approach compares to state and local school ratings.

Bonnie O’Keefe:

GreatSchools’ data comes from states, and their metrics and methods aren’t too dissimilar from what we see in many local school performance frameworks, state ESSA ratings, and the No Child Left Behind ratings that came before. Much like many states and districts, GreatSchools has changed their rating system over time as more, better data became available. So the idea that ratings based even in part on proficiency disadvantage schools serving higher-need students isn’t unique to GreatSchools. In fact, a nearly identical critique sunk Los Angeles’ proposed school ratings before they were even created. What is unique is how widely used, influential, and maybe misunderstood GreatSchools’ ratings are among families. 

Brandon Lewis:

The biggest difference I see between the GreatSchools’ school rating system and the local school performance frameworks (SPFs) we profiled for our project is that they have different goals and purposes. GreatSchools is a widely viewed public-facing tool designed to communicate that organization’s particular perspective on school quality. Unlike local SPFs, GreatSchools’ ratings are not tied to any specific goals for students or schools and cannot be used to make any district-level decisions. 

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#DemDebates: Another Nothingburger on Education?

Two members of Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team, Cara Jackson and Beth Tek, watched Wednesday’s debates for any mention of education. They didn’t get what they were looking for, but there’s still plenty to discuss. 

Beth Tek: I have to say, while I was disappointed about the lack of education-related talk during the Democratic debate last night, I’m also not surprised.

Cara Jackson: Yup, I’m guessing no one got education bingo. But several candidates did discuss social supports that impact children, such as child care, paid maternity leave, and housing.

stack of empty burger buns, photo by Marco Verch

Photo by Marco Verch

Beth: That’s true. Elizabeth Warren talked about childcare, universal pre-K, and the exploitative wages of childcare workers. And Andrew Yang mentioned the fact that close to 75% of school outcomes are determined by what happens to children at home.

Cara: Yes, we know that out-of-school factors explain much of the variation in student achievement. This has been demonstrated since the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity report by James Coleman and colleagues, and by more recent work too. 

And candidates rightly addressed housing policy, which directly impacts education policy! Tom Steyer commented that housing determines where your kids go to school. Warren noted that her housing plan includes 3.2 million new housing units for lower-income families and middle-class renters in communities with severe housing supply shortages. She aims to mitigate the long-term impacts of redlining, the segregation created by refusing loans to black families, which continues to impact neighborhoods, and by extension schools, to this day.  

There’s also evidence of long-term academic benefits for children from low-income families who attend universal pre-kindergarten programs, so the debate certainly had implications for education.

Beth: And it’s not like these candidates don’t have education plans! I would have liked to hear Warren talk about her proposed infusion of Title I funding. Schools could use that money to provide more wraparound supports for America’s students, which would go a long way to educate the “whole child.” We know that Millennials (approximately ages 24 to 38) and Generation Zers (currently in K-12 and early adulthood) are reporting the highest percentages of anxiety and depression of any age group. And schools are trying to do more to address and support mental health.

Cara: Yes! I’d love to see some of that additional funding used to ensure students have access to supportive, high-quality school counselors. We know that these supports could improve high school graduation and college attendance. Or we could provide incentives to push back high school start times, in keeping with research that suggests doing so would improve academic outcomes.

Beth: Exactly Cara! Let’s take what we know works and provide the resources needed to implement it. In addition to later start times for high schoolers, how about free breakfast and lunch for all students? Students who come from food insecure homes have a hard time focusing in school, and this leads to poor behavioral and academic outcomes. Free breakfast and lunch would remove this obstacle from their education.

Cara: I hope we’ll hear more about education in the December debate. Stay tuned!

Cory Booker’s Move on Charter Schools is Both Political — and Good

A prodigal son of the charter school sector returned home on Monday, when Senator Cory Booker voiced support for charter schools in the New York Times, a notable shift from his criticism of charter schools back in May.

It was a bold move in some ways, especially given the precariousness of his presidential bid and the inevitable price he will pay with the teachers unions. It was also a strategic move to the middle as centrist Michael Bloomberg joins the race and underdog Pete Buttigieg builds steam.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, photo by Gage Skidmore

It’s not hard to see the politics at play, but Booker deserves credit for calling out the Democratic party for being unresponsive to many constituents who support charter schooling. Booker takes fellow Democrats to task for not listening to the families who face “impossible choices” in favor of the more “privileged voices” in the party, a veiled reference to the omnipotent teachers unions, whose favor Senator Elizabeth Warren courted with her anti-charter education plan a few weeks ago.

Recent survey data on charter schools illustrates the misalignment between Democratic Party leadership and many of its key constituent groups, with higher levels of charter school support from African American and Hispanic subgroups than from Democrats and teachers.

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Kentucky Has a New Governor. We Hope He’s Not a Jerk About Education Policy.

Although he took more than a week to concede, Kentucky’s 62nd governor, Republican Matt Bevin, will not serve a second term. Experts agree that his provocative and insulting style, particularly his comments about teachers, attributed to his loss. Most notoriously, Bevin called teachers “thugs” and blamed them for the sexual assault of children and the shooting of a seven-year-old girl, after teachers protested the legislature’s sneaky efforts to reform the state’s pension systems. 

We are both Kentucky-based Bellwarians, and in the short conversation below, we discuss why Governor Bevin failed to advance education reforms in the state — and what Governor-elect and Democrat Andy Beshear might be able to accomplish given Kentucky’s Republican-dominated legislature. 

Katrina: I think you and I have some diverging ideas and perspectives about politics in general, and even about some education policies. But is it safe to say that we both think Matt Bevin is, well, a bit of a jerk?

Alex: I think we definitely have some common ground there, although I’d be careful about calling him a jerk — he might label you with a nickname like “Kooky Katrina.” More seriously though, I think a big part of his legacy will be the policy wins he left on the table, due in large part to his incredibly abrasive approach to governing.

Katrina: You’re not wrong about that. I was a fan of some of his policy positions, especially much-needed pension reform and increased school choice. If he had a bit more goodwill and emotional intelligence, he might have been able to demonstrate how those policies could actually help teachers and students.

Alex: Yep, but because of his style, pension reform and school choice are likely off the table for the next four years. And while some may be satisfied with the status quo on those issues, there are a lot of teachers and thousands of students who could benefit from reform to teacher pensions and school choice policies. 

Katrina: So where do you think Beshear has the opportunity to move the ball forward on education policy? 

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