Category Archives: School Choice

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. 

 

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.

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.

From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Bellwether briefs set long-term visions for education policy and practice

Today, we and several of our Bellwether colleagues released From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Education Pathways for COVID-19 Recovery, making the case for the the education sector to recenter and rebuild after the disruptions caused by COVID-19. At some point — hopefully soon — vaccines will become broadly available and students and teachers everywhere will return to full-time, in-person learning. School, system, and sector leaders will pause and take a breath. Then they quickly will turn their attention back to many of the questions that have simmered in the background for the past year, but that are quickly coming back to a boil.

In the wake of COVID-19, leaders and policymakers will need ambitious but achievable pathways to re-engage in complex policy questions and rebuild education. From Pandemic to Progress draws on the breadth of Bellwether’s expertise and a diversity of viewpoints across our team in a series of briefs — each with a take on what we will need in the years ahead to create a sector that can provide students with the high-quality education and supports they need and deserve to be successful.

Here are the issues and areas where we believe the sector should not go back to normal:

Redesigning Accountability: Bonnie O’Keefe grounds the debates on assessment and accountability back in core principles and practicalities. She doubles down on the need for transparent data and subgroup reporting, but also challenges policymakers to create systems that are aligned to the realities of classroom instruction and school-based decision making.

Supporting a Diverse Choice Ecosystem From the Bottom Up: Alex Spurrier lays out a vision for fostering choice and enabling a diversity of educational approaches, by seeding consortia of assessments, similar to Advanced Placement, that ensure the quality but not the homogeneity of options.

Prioritizing Equity in School Funding: Jennifer O’Neal Schiess pinpoints the inequities in school funding and explains why it should be decoupled from the real estate market, with local property taxes playing a minimal or vastly different role in the funding of schools.

Establishing Coherent Systems for Vulnerable Students: Hailly T.N. Korman and Melissa Steel King stay laser-focused on students who have experienced homelessness, foster care, pregnancy, or other disruptions to their education and call on public agencies to address the confusing fragmentation of social services so students can receive comprehensive and streamlined support.

Creating an Institute for Education Improvement: Allison Crean Davis makes a case for changing the way we change, calling for a standalone entity that can champion and support the education sector in rigorous, data-driven approaches to continuous improvement.

Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Indira Dammu reminds us of the research that links a diverse teacher workforce to improved student outcomes, and makes recommendations for how policymakers can support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color.

Building on the Charter Sector’s Many Paths to Impact: Juliet Squire acknowledges headwinds facing charter school growth, but reminds policymakers and practitioners of the many ways — beyond increasing enrollment — that charter schools can expand their impact.

Bringing Home-Based Child Care Providers Into the Fold: Ashley LiBetti shines a spotlight on the critical role that home-based child care providers play in caring for the country’s youngest children, a role that the pandemic further dramatized; she makes the case for policies that address the important role that home-based child care plays in the early childhood ecosystem.

Whether addressing a long-standing issue that has shaped the education reform debates for decades, or an issue that has yet to garner the attention it deserves, each brief lays out a long-term vision for success and pathways to get there.

The education sector is far too familiar with the cycle of faddish policies and knee-jerk reactions when reforms don’t immediately produce increases in student proficiency. And certainly the last year has rightfully concentrated attention and resources on addressing the most urgent and basic student needs. But when the crisis subsides, education policymakers and practitioners will need a point on the horizon to aim for. We hope these briefs inspire and inform long-term visions for serving America’s kids.

 

 

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.