Category Archives: School Choice

Media: “Private Schools Are Ready to Serve Low- and Middle-Income Students” in ExcelinEd

I have a post up on the ExcelinEd blog today (co-authored with Victoria Bell), applying the takeaways from the report Bellwether released last week, “Working Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students.” The post explores how Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program improves access to private school education and how financial aid from private schools helps fill the gap between average scholarship amounts and average tuition. Here’s an excerpt: 

As highlighted in the Bellwether report, participation in private school choice programs is one strategy to improve private school affordability. Florida’s choice programs make the state a strong example of how the private schooling sector can serve students from low- and middle-income families. 

[…] Relatively low rates of tuition, combined with the support of private school choice programs, increase the likelihood that middle- and low-income families in Florida can afford a private school education if that is what they choose for their child. The average scholarship amount of $6,300 covers 84 percent of tuition at half of the private schools in Florida.

Read more at ExcelinEd here, and read our posts connected to the new report here.

Media: “Three Win-Win Opportunities for Middle- and Low-Income Students” in Education Next

Last week, I had a post on the Education Next blog about why we shouldn’t forget the needs of middle class students. The post was inspired by a new report from Melissa Steel King, Justin Trinidad, and me about how private schools seek to remain affordable for middle- and low-income families. An excerpt of my post:

Many education reformers focus their talents and attention on the most vulnerable children: low-income students stuck in the lowest performing schools. This focus reflects a dismay at persistent differences between students of different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds, a dedication to equity, and a belief in opportunity through education.

Alongside this focus on high-need students, however, we must not forget middle class students. In fact, there are at least three win-win opportunities for policymakers, advocates, and practitioners to support middle class students while also advancing the needs of low-income kids.

Read the rest of this piece at Education Next, and dive into the report here.

Media: “As Tuition Rises, How Private Schools and Microschools Are Working to Increase Access for Low- and Middle-Income Families” in The 74

Yesterday in The 74, writer Mikhail Zinshteyn summarized key findings from our recent report, “Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students.” Here’s an excerpt of his piece:

A new report from Bellwether Education Partners, a research and consulting nonprofit, seeks to offer a fresh look at how private K-12 schools are keeping their costs down, even as the share of students from middle-income families attending private schools has dropped by nearly 50 percent since the 1960s.

“Private school choice is probably not a 100 percent solution for providing high-quality schools to middle- and low-income families,” Squire said. “But they can help, and I think it’s worth studying them for that reason.”

Read the rest of his piece in The 74, and dive into the full report, which I co-authored with Julie Squire and Melissa King.

Affordable Private Schools? There’s a Will — and a Way

Surveys show that 40% of Americans would like to send their children to a private school, yet only 10% actually do so. With an average tuition of $11,450, it’s no surprise that low- and middle-income families are unable to afford private schools.

Many schools try to be more affordable to families by subsidizing costs with public funds, such as vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, or by securing private donations and endowments to provide financial aid. While these revenue sources certainly help, they are limited.

Over the past several years, a number of private schools have come up with alternative and creative ways to fund their schools without passing the buck to parents. In a new report, we’ve profiled schools and networks such as Cristo Rey and Build UP that use work-study models to make private school education more affordable while also providing skills development and asset-building opportunities for students.

Cristo Rey Network

Founded in 1996, the Cristo Rey Network* has provided low-income students with a college preparatory education complemented by their Corporate Work Study Program experience. For five days a month, students complete a full day of work in a corporate environment such as a law firm, bank, or consulting firm, doing anything from general office work to translation services.

Partnerships with local businesses not only provide students with early exposure to important professional development skills, but also significantly subsidize tuition costs. Rather than paying students wages, students’ earnings go directly to the school to supplement tuition. Half of Cristo Rey Schools’ revenue comes from the Corporate Work Study Program, and families only have to pay a small tuition ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 depending on family income. Family contributions make up 10% of Cristo Rey’s revenues, and the remaining 40% comes from fundraising or publicly funded school choice programs.

Build UP

Build UP in Birmingham, AL provides low-income students with a high school and postsecondary education along with job skills and home ownership, while also contributing to the renewal of blighted communities. Over the course of six years, Build UP students earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree while renovating abandoned homes through paid apprenticeships. Splitting time between coursework in financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and justice-based leadership, students receive an educational stipend of $15 an hour, half of which goes toward their tuition. Families are only obligated to contribute $1,500 in tuition annually.

Graduates take over the deed of an owner-occupied home and a rental property, and can earn passive income as a landlord after they meet one of the following conditions: Begin a high-wage job with a salary of at least $40,000 annually, enroll in a four-year college degree program, or launch their own business. So far, Build UP — which launched in 2018 — has grown to serve 70 students and has plans to expand even more. By gaining workforce skills and a guaranteed pathway to home ownership, Build UP seeks to create a social and economic safety net for the students and communities it serves. Continue reading

What This Washington Post Opinion Piece Got Wrong on Charter Schools

Over the weekend, the Washington Post Outlook section ran a frustrating cover story on charter schools that offered a narrow and biased picture of the charter sector and perpetuated a number of misconceptions.

Jack Schneider’s “School’s out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” argues that the charter sector as a whole isn’t living up to its promises, leading public support for the schools to shrink. Schneider is correct that the charter school hasn’t lived up to all of its most enthusiastic boosters’ promises, but his piece flatly misrepresents data about charter quality. For example, Schneider writes that “average charter performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools.” This is simply inaccurate, as my colleagues indicated in a recent analysis of charter data and research (slide 37 here). The full body of currently available, high-quality research finds that charters outperform traditional public schools on average, with especially positive effects for historically underserved student groups (a recent Post editorial acknowledged this as well).

slide from Bellwether's "State of the Charter Sector" resource, summarizing research on charter sector performance

To be clear, research also shows that charter performance varies widely across schools, cities, and states — and too many schools are low-performing. Yet Schneider cherry picks examples that illustrate low points in the sector. He cites Ohio, whose performance struggles — and the poorly designed policies that led to them — Bellwether has previously written about. He also (inexplicably, given where his piece ran) overlooks Washington, D.C., where charters not only significantly outperform comparable district-run schools, but have also helped spur improvement systemwide. Over the past decade, public schools in D.C. (including both charters and DC Public Schools, DCPS) have improved twice as fast as those in any other state in the country, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). DCPS was the nation’s fastest growing district in 4th grade math and among the fastest in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. These gains can be partially attributed to the city’s changing demographics, but are also the result of reforms within DCPS — which the growth of charters created the political will to implement. Over the past decade, Washington, DC has also increased the number of high-performing charter schools while systematically slashing the number of students in the lowest-performing charter schools. When I served on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board from 2009-2017, I had the chance to observe these exciting changes firsthand, so it was particularly disappointing to see a major feature in our city’s paper overlook them.

It’s frustrating that this biased and narrow picture drew prime real estate in one of the nation’s leading papers, because the charter sector does have real weaknesses and areas for improvement that would benefit from thoughtful dialogue. For example, as Schneider notes, transportation issues and lack of good information can prevent many families from accessing high-quality schools. In cities with high concentrations of charters, such as Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, there is a real need to better support parents in navigating what can feel like a very fragmented system. And despite progress in closing down low-performing charter schools, too many remain in operation. Schneider could have referenced the real work charter leaders are undertaking to address these lingering challenges (more on this in slide 112 of our deck).

Schneider is correct that public support for charters has waned in recent years, due in part to some of the challenges he references, but also because of orchestrated political opposition from established interests threatened by charter school growth. Given the increasingly polarized political environment around charter schools, the need for nuanced, balanced, and data-informed analysis and dialogue about them is greater than ever. Bellwether’s recent report on the state of the charter sector, and our past work on charter schools more broadly, seeks to provide that kind of analysis. Unfortunately, Schneider’s piece falls short on that score.