Category Archives: School Choice

ICYMI: Is There or Isn’t There a Looming Fiscal Cliff for Education?

Throughout the past month, Bellwether has weighed in on the financial health of schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with different reactions, resources, and recommendations from across our team. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: 

You can read all the posts in the series here, and we welcome your reactions! Thanks for following along.

Considerations For Private Schools and Their Allies Amid Budget Cuts

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

In August, I wrote for Education Next about how the pandemic was affecting private schools — especially those dedicated to serving high-need students — and the factors that can influence whether a school is able to pivot during uncertain and disruptive times. 

But as state budgets tighten, private schools that rely on vouchers or tax-credit scholarship programs to serve high-need students are not wholly in control of their own destiny. Rather, just as school responses have varied widely, policymaker responses will vary as well. 

After the 2008 recession, for instance, state school choice policies sometimes lost — and sometimes gained — significant funding. For example, funding for Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program dropped 20% after 2008 before rebounding a couple of years later. Meanwhile, funding for Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Parental Choice Program increased by 12%, and policymakers in the Sunshine State increased the ceiling on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program nearly 50%. 

There are limitations on what school choice proponents can predict in uncertain times. Here are three questions they should continue to revisit as the pandemic evolves this fall and new state legislatures prepare to convene in January:

What are the projections for your state’s economy?

The more constrained the resources, the harder it will be for policymakers to preserve and expand private school choice programs. First, it will be important to understand the state tax revenues that fund state voucher programs. State revenues often come from a combination of income and sales taxes, and, as Jennifer Schiess explained, these can be hard to predict. They could be less vulnerable to downturns, since the pandemic hit low-wage workers hardest and low-wage workers make up a smaller share of income tax revenue. Internet shopping could also offset declines in sales tax revenue from brick-and-mortar retail.  Continue reading

“I Wanted Their Education to Be as Strong as it Could Be”: Q&A With Antoneia (Toni) Jackson, Foster Parent In Washington, D.C.

Antoneia (Toni) Jackson has been a foster parent for five kids in Washington, DC, and has navigated between charter schools, traditional district schools, and different daycare options for her foster and adopted children.

How has she navigated school choice options with children in foster care? We recently published a first-of-its-kind report on the obstacles that youth in foster care and their families experience in accessing school choice options, so we spoke with Toni about her experiences and lessons.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How did you choose the school your children are currently enrolled in?

I knew I didn’t know everything. I wanted to make sure I had all the help I needed in getting information for my kids’ education. I wanted their education to be as strong as it could be, so I talked with other parents at the daycare where my kids attended. I admired the other parents: we come from similar social, economic, and educational backgrounds, and we just connected. For example, I found that other parents were parents of adopted children. Everyone was in search of information. I was able to get a variety of perspectives from a diverse population of folks from people whose opinions I valued. Continue reading

5 Recommendations to Make “Learning Pods” More Equitable

Born out of desperation, families across the country are looking outside the school system for safe educational options for their children this fall, often partnering with other families to privately finance small-group learning. These “learning pods,” also referred to as “pandemic pods,” have fomented concerns about equity, since only a fraction of Americans can afford to pay a teacher out-of-pocket. 

But “learning pods” need not be inequitable. With the right blend of volunteerism, leadership, and innovation, learning pods can be a tool for increasing equity while traditional school campuses remain closed to students.

Here’s how:

Ask community spaces to donate meeting facilities

The requirements of social distancing demand more space if all students are to get a full education. Meanwhile, there are churches, temples, community centers, office buildings, and storefronts across the country currently sitting empty, as large gatherings are discouraged, adults work from home, and retailers close up shop. Many of those entities would probably be willing to donate their space to small learning communities at no cost, or in exchange for financial relief on their rent or mortgage payments. 

Expand the pool of potential teachers to enable lower student-teacher ratios

Student-to-teacher ratios are lower today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but still higher than the number of students we might want to share a learning pod in order to minimize public health risks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average number of students per teacher in 2017 was 16. Including the total number of instructional staff brings that ratio down significantly to 11.7. Add in teachers who have retired or left the profession, substitute teachers, students studying to become teachers, Americorps volunteers, and others and there may just be enough to create learning pods of 10 students or fewer. This could create the conditions for personalized instruction on a scale that’s often been dreamed of but never fully realized.

Continue reading

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