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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.

Confused by your child’s state assessment results? You’re not alone.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As trained psychometricians, my husband and I study how to design student achievement tests and interpret the scores. And if that work wasn’t complicated enough, our son took his first statewide standardized assessment last spring. We thought we were well prepared to review his results, but we were wrong. When we received an email in mid-October from our school district on how to access his results, my husband said to me, “Now I understand why people complain about standardized tests.” 

The process to get our son’s test scores was not at all user friendly, and I can’t imagine that we’re the only parents experiencing this level of confusion as families like ours receive spring 2021 student assessment results.  

First, we had to log into the school’s student information system (e.g., Infinite Campus, PowerSchool) where we could view his scores, proficiency levels (e.g., advanced, proficient, and not proficient), and the number of questions answered correctly for different portions of the test. Because our son had tested in person, there was also a claim code so we could create a separate “Parent Portal” account from the test vendor. If he had tested remotely, the only information that we would have received would have been his scores in the district system. We were instructed to take the scores, open a technical manual that had been linked in the email, and use the manual to find our son’s percentile rank. There was no information provided on how to interpret any of the scores.*  

Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a likely factor causing confusion, our experience highlights problems with assessment information and transparency. Given calls to eliminate annual testing in schools, it’s increasingly important for states and districts to facilitate the appropriate use and understanding of the test scores so families can understand what these tests do and do not tell us about student learning. The first step is providing parents with information that’s not only timely, but also accessible. Here are a few common issues. 

Achievement Levels 

To help with score interpretation, states are required to create at least three achievement levels. These achievement levels provide a rough indicator of whether or not a student is meeting grade level requirements. However, not much information is given to parents about what these levels actually mean. The descriptions within the score report often use jargon that is likely unfamiliar to parents. For instance, an advanced student in mathematics has “a thorough understanding of Operations and Algebraic Thinking.” To understand the meaning, parents would need to read the detailed performance level descriptors that are in a different manual or read their state’s standards. Another issue is that proficiency can vary from assessment to assessment, and parents are left trying to figure out why their child was designated “Some Risk” on one assessment versus “Proficient” on another. 

Raw Scores 

Raw scores are the number of items that a student answered correctly. Sometimes assessments will report raw scores as a “subscore.” However, these numbers can be misleading without more context. For instance, if there were only four items for a particular subscore and a student missed two of the four, it could look like they were particularly weak in that area when the discrepancy may be an artifact of the test length.  

Changes in the Assessment 

Depending on the testing program, the interpretation of this year’s test scores may be different than previous years and it’s important to communicate the what and why about those differences. For example, percentile ranks are typically based on students who took the assessment during the first test administration. They’re referred to as the norm group, which provides a relatively stable comparison over time. When interpreting the percentile rank, it’s essentially saying that a student at the 50th percentile scored better than 50% of the students in the norm group. Changes to the norm group can make a big difference in terms of the interpretation as we’re changing our reference point. In my state, the first administration of the test was in 2019 but the norm group was updated to students who tested in 2021.   

On the surface, this could be reasonable. Given disruptions in learning, families, teachers, and school leaders may want know how students compare to others who have had similar disruptions to their schooling. But, if a parent wants to know how much learning loss may have occurred and compare their child’s score to peers’ scores pre-pandemic, they’d need to either use the proficiency standards (advanced, proficient, not proficient, which are a fairly rough indicator given the range of scores), or break out the 2019 technical manual and look up their child’s percentile rank. 

These issues may sound minor, but they’re not. And, when poorly communicated, they reinforce the narrative that test scores aren’t useful or important and contribute to increased skepticism about testing. Although some of the shifts are unique to COVID-19, states also change tests, norm groups, and cut scores in non-pandemic times.  

Moving forward, increased transparency is needed to ensure that parents like my husband and me, districts, and policymakers better understand how to interpret and use the scores to track student growth. 

 

(*Our school district has a one-to-one device initiative and provides hotspots to families that don’t have internet access. In other districts, there may be substantial equity issues in distributing student scores through online platforms, as not all families have access to technology.)

 

Unpacking Education Finance Equity for State-Level Advocates: A Q&A with EdAllies’ Krista Kaput

Bellwether Education Partners’ series Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity gives advocates a crash course in the fundamentals of education finance and in key questions to ask in their states and communities. This series of short briefs is part of Bellwether’s ongoing examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. For a look at how equity-minded policymakers and advocates can take a deep dive into the wonky details of school finance policy, click here.

Krista Kaput is research director at EdAllies in Minnesota, where she uses research and data to amplify asset- and equity-based stories from the state’s education landscape. She has held a variety of roles at the intersection of education policy and practice, and began her career in the classroom as a Teach For America corps member in Chicago.

As a participant in Bellwether’s ongoing school finance equity trainings, Kaput is currently analyzing and visualizing Minnesota’s state school funding formula using data tools like R and Shiny. I connected with her over Zoom recently to discuss her work on behalf of Minnesota students and the role school finance plays in educational equity. To learn more about key education finance concepts within this Q&A, click here.

Bonnie O’Keefe:
Tell me about your role and the mission behind EdAllies.

Krista Kaput:
I’m the research director at EdAllies, a Minnesota-based advocacy and policy nonprofit that partners with schools, families, and communities to ensure that every young Minnesotan — particularly those from underserved communities — has access to a rigorous and engaging education. I manage research projects and am the lead writer for EdAllies’ policy work.

Our work follows a three-pronged approach:

  • Advance equity: We advocate for policies that put underserved students first. In particular, we focus on teacher preparation and licensure, school discipline, college and career readiness, school finance, data transparency, and parent choice. 
  • Remove barriers: We work with families, teachers, and school leaders to find the most promising strategies for success and to remove policy barriers. 
  • Elevating historically excluded voices: We strive to change the conversation by elevating the voices of those who have been excluded from decision-making through storytelling efforts such as our blogs, op-eds, projects, surveys, and also through outreach at the Minnesota State Capitol.

All of this work relies upon collaborative partnerships among EdAllies and schools, coalitions, associations, and parent groups. 

BOK:
How does education finance equity relate to your advocacy agenda in Minnesota?

KK:
Equity is at the core of our work and education finance — where and how money is allocated and spent in Minnesota — is central to achieving a level playing field. We see the complexity and inequities of our education finance system as a barrier to the general public being able to understand and advocate for change that puts underserved students at the center. Minnesota has a reputation of being a very progressive and generous state when it comes to education funding. $10.5 billion in state dollars goes to public education, about 42% of the state’s general fund. We also have several dedicated funding streams for low-income students, English language learners, and other student groups that need extra educational resources. But that isn’t the whole story. Minnesota consistently puts equality over equity in school finance, and shortchanges the groups of students who need resources the most.  

Our overly complicated education finance system deters people from digging in and learning about systemwide nuances that are actually quite inequitable. We see it as our job to deeply understand the finance system and translate that knowledge to the general public. 

BOK:
Tell me more. What are education finance equity challenges facing Minnesota, and how do they affect students and schools?

KK:
Every state education finance system should start with an adequate base amount of funding per student and allocate additional resources to underserved student populations in an equitable, transparent, and efficient way. Minnesota doesn’t do this to the best of its ability. 

While we have a generous base amount of state funding per pupil, we use several disconnected, complicated formulas to allocate additional funds for low-income students, ELLs, students in rural areas, and students with disabilities. These separate formulas have many technical loopholes and quirks that undermine equity, which make it more difficult to put money in the hands of districts and schools serving students with the greatest needs.  

For example, I’ve recently been analyzing Minnesota’s “compensatory revenue” formula, which is meant to provide additional funds to schools and districts serving low-income students. This formula has an 80% cap, which means that schools don’t see a per-pupil increase in funding if they have a low-income student concentration above 80%. If compensatory revenue is meant to acknowledge that schools serving more low-income students need extra resources and supports, why would a school serving 99% low-income students get the same amount as a school serving 80% low-income students? Furthermore, while the money is generated at the school level, statutory language allows the district to retain up to 50% of the funds.

In another example, we’re one of six states that don’t have an expected local share in our state formula, which fuels district-level inequities. The state distributes money without anticipating how much local districts can raise on their own, giving already wealthy districts a larger share of state funds than they need. 

We would prefer a weighted, student-based funding formula, which could clarify how state and local funds get distributed to districts, and embed funding for students with additional needs within one consistent, transparent, and equitable formula.

BOK:
What work do you have underway this year around finance equity in Minnesota? How have you dug into the data and policies, and what are you planning to do next?

KK:
Although school finance is a newer issue area for EdAllies, we’ve been doing a lot with it this year, and have been collaborating with several national organizations in the process. 

Our team has been partnering with finance experts at The Education Trust to identify areas of strength and improvement in Minnesota’s school finance system and learn from other states’ best practices. Through this partnership, I’ve learned just how inequitable and “faux-gressive” Minnesota’s education finance system is, particularly for how we fund ELLs and students with disabilities. And through Bellwether’s school finance equity trainings, I’ve built up my data analysis and visualization skills so that I can model and demonstrate the impact of the policies we’re proposing to change using real education finance data from Minnesota.

During the 2021 legislative session, EdAllies was part of a coalition that advanced a bill that would have lifted the cap on compensatory revenue for low-income students and kept more of those funds at the school level. The bill made it into the final education omnibus bill in the Minnesota State House, but unfortunately didn’t make it through the Conference Committee. We plan to advocate for it again in the upcoming 2022 legislative session. 

My team is already strategizing how we can visualize the proposed changes in our advocacy agenda with legislators, educators, advocacy organizations, and other stakeholders. I’m creating a dashboard that will visualize the impact of potential policy changes for ELLs, students with disabilities, and students living in rural areas, as well as what a weighted student funding formula could look like in Minnesota. We’re also examining within-district finance inequity in how districts distribute funds to schools. With support through a NERD$ mini-grant from Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab I’ll also examine within-district per-pupil spending against a variety of metrics (e.g., attendance, academic proficiency, high school graduation rates, teacher diversity, and more). 

BOK:
What do you wish more state advocates for educational equity understood about school finance and state funding systems?

KK:
At least in Minnesota, I wish more people understood how much we could improve our way of funding schools. I run into a lot of Minnesotans who think that the way we do things currently is the best way, and that the only education finance change we need is more general funding. It’s a status-quo mindset that calcifies unnecessary barriers to people even trying to understand our finance system. And it perpetuates inequities and blocks progressive policies from passing. I wish more people understood that other states have transparent and clear weighted student funding formulas, and have figured out how to distribute local and state revenues more equitably. That’s what we’re working toward at EdAllies. 

If anyone reading this hasn’t already looked into how their state’s education funding system is structured, I highly encourage them to do so. I also want to encourage all readers to look at their state’s school finance data at the Edunomics Lab’s NERD$ database and, if and/or when it’s offered again, I encourage everyone to apply to take Bellwether’s school finance equity trainings.

BOK:
In closing, I’m curious about what drew you to a career in education policy and advocacy. Can you explain what led you to this work?

KK:
I grew up in a primarily single-parent household and attended Minnesota public schools for years. I wasn’t really challenged and started to make questionable choices. My mother worked two jobs and made many sacrifices to give me an opportunity to attend a private school that changed the entire trajectory of my life. No parent should ever have to do what my mom did to give their child a high-quality education. Every school should be high quality.

As an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I tutored fourth graders who could barely read. I was at a top-tier postsecondary education institution with limitless resources, neighboring woefully under-resourced schools. I decided to do Teach For America in Chicago and learned about toxic stress and the impact of neighborhood violence — I lost four students to violence while teaching there. My school had a purely discipline-based approach to teaching, that didn’t reward building trust and relationships with young people. 

These experiences drive my work and make me want to change the systems that schools operate in. 

Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity

School finance poses a unique challenge for policymakers and advocates alike. The consequences of school finance policy are monumental for students — it has a direct effect on the educational opportunities they will be able to access. At the same time, the complicated mechanics of how dollars move from taxpayers to classrooms can rival that of high-end Swiss watches.

Changing how dollars are raised and distributed to be more clearly aligned with student and community needs is essential to building a higher-performing, more equitable system of public education. But doing so requires a deep understanding of the policy gears and springs that power the movement of educational dollars. It’s critical that policymakers and advocates concerned with educational excellence and equity build fluency in the details of school finance systems.

Splitting the Bill, a new series of Bellwether education finance equity briefs, serves as a crash-course to demystify complexities embedded in school finance systems.

A good place to start? Understanding that where the money for public schools comes from creates challenges for policymakers. The vast majority of funding for K-12 schools comes from state and local governments (federal funding accounts for less than 10% of public school revenues), but the combination of state and local dollars often looks different from district to district. That variance is a product of two important variables: 1) the taxable property wealth per-pupil within a district, and 2) the level of student learning needs. Districts that have relatively less taxable property wealth and relatively higher student learning needs should receive more funding from the state to account for those differences.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how it plays out in practice. State school funding formulas take many different forms and attempt to account for the different wealth and student learning needs of school districts, but often fall short. These shortcomings can have many sources, from opaque formulas disconnected from student needs to inadequate “weights” to support students with particular learning needs (e.g., low-income students, English language learners, and special education students). In many states, problems in state school finance systems have led to litigation that can catalyze policy change.

Reading our Splitting the Bill series is a good way to better understand school finance generally, but true fluency in your state’s school funding system requires analyzing a lot of data and legislation. That technical work should start with collecting, cleaning, and exploring district demographic and finance data from state and federal sources, paired with building knowledge of your state’s funding policies and any relevant litigation.

Building this understanding isn’t easy — it requires a strong technical and analytical skill set. It’s why we’re developing these skills through a series of school finance equity training sessions with a cohort of state-level policy advocacy organizations. We’re building their capacity to use R to clean, analyze, and visualize school finance data from their states with the goal of pursuing reforms that create more equitable funding systems.

Developing a command of the details within school funding systems can reveal both the benign and malign impacts of different policy choices. Spending on K-12 education makes up the largest share of general fund expenditures for state governments, but there are relatively few people in each state that truly understand how those dollars currently move and, more importantly, how they should move to better serve students.

It’s time for more equity-minded policymakers and advocates to take a deep dive into the wonky details of school finance policy.