May 22, 2017

School Voucher Programs for Students with Disabilities Are Deeply Misguided

The Trump administration’s newly proposed education budget directs $400 million dollars to expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has repeatedly touted state voucher policies, including Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities, as a way to increase parental choice and improve the U.S. education system. DeVos cited high parent satisfaction with the McKay program during her Senate confirmation hearing, leading to national press coverage of parents who were in fact unsatisfied with the program.

But the reality is parent satisfaction is an inappropriate metric for examining the effectiveness of programs like the McKay Scholarship. A voucher program for students with disabilities presumes that providing choice will ultimately result in helping students with disabilities receive an education that will best meet their needs. But this is unlikely because private schools do not have to abide by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law, and few private schools are well equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

In a recent op-ed, Former Governor Jeb Bush writes: “Too many parents hit frustrating dead ends in trying to get the right services for their children in their assigned public schools.” While it is certainly true that parents struggle to make changes when they are unhappy with their child’s placement or his/her individualized education plan (IEP), there is little reason to believe school choice is the answer. Currently, many parents do not understand their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents also may feel uncomfortable bringing due process claims and/or lack access to legal assistance. Moreover, even for those with legal assistance, due process claims can be time consuming and costly. As a result, researchers have found that IDEA’s reliance on private enforcement leads to disparities in enforcement which ultimately favor the affluent.

Voucher programs do little to change this reality.

Currently, under the Florida program, parents receive an average of $8,000 for their child with a disability. This is not enough funding for students to attend private schools specifically designed to serve special needs students without extra outlays from parents. Instead, many students enroll in parochial schools, which make up the majority of private schools in Florida. There is little reason to believe these schools are a better placement for students with disabilities. Most do not employ school psychologists, related service providers, or teachers experienced with meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Since these schools are not required to comply with IDEA, they do not provide occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, or counseling. Moreover, these schools are not required to use any specialized curriculum to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. So using a voucher means a student with a disability will still not receive the services they need to be successful in school. Continue reading


May 18, 2017

What DeVos Could Be Saying About Education Innovation (But Isn’t)

Last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed the attendees of the ASU-GSV Summit, an education technology conference attended by many system leaders, funders, and entrepreneurs. By most accounts, the pre-written remarks were tightly controlled, and the session didn’t allow for real questions about her vision for education innovation. (Here’s the video of her session and a rundown of the scene via EdSurge.)

This week, education leaders from across the country convene at the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit. DeVos isn’t slated to speak. And as Matt Barnum notes, “Notably, there’s not much about Trump, DeVos, or private school vouchers on the NSVF agenda, suggesting that the conference may steer clear of the topic — at least officially.”

These two major events could have been DeVos’ best opportunity to chart a course for the federal government’s role in education innovation in front of forward-thinking education professionals.

Not only does it seem that her ship has sailed, DeVos has confirmed that her view of K-12 innovation consists mainly of charters, vouchers, ed-tech, and deregulation. Reasonable people can debate whether these policies have merit, but they certainly don’t qualify as a serious education innovation agenda.

As I’ve written before, a serious education innovation agenda would invest federal funds in rigorous research and development (R&D), incentivize states to spur activities that accelerate innovation, and use the federal bully pulpit to spotlight achievement gaps and chronically failing systems. Without innovation-specific conditions and activities that drive continuous creation, the sector won’t be able to improve at a rate of change commensurate to the challenges it faces.

Here are some things DeVos can implement at the federal level to make the U.S. Department of Education an innovation machine: Continue reading


May 17, 2017

This 40-Year-Old Supreme Court Case Allows States to Fund Schools Inequitably

People sue the government for discriminating against them all the time. The Trump Administration was recently sued by a handful of states after the attempted travel ban, claiming religious discrimination. The owners of Hobby Lobby sued the Obama Administration arguing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) violated their religious freedom by requiring the company’s insurance to pay for contraception.

Lawsuits against state governments for school funding inequities are commonplace. In February Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sued Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner claiming that the state school funding system and its teacher pension system discriminate by underfunding low-income students and students of color. They have a point: a recent study found that Illinois operates the most inequitable school funding system in the country. CPS educates around 20 percent of the children in the state, yet it receives roughly 15 percent of state funding. While the judge recognized that Illinois’s school finance system is obviously broken, he nevertheless threw out the case.

Photo by Andy Blackledge

So what can affected children and families do now?

The short answer is nothing. Although Judge Franklin Valderamma is allowing the plaintiffs to refile their case, the efficacy of school finance litigation, regardless of a court’s ruling, depends entirely on the state’s willingness to right a wrong of its own creation. In other words, those treated unjustly by a state school finance system must hope that their abusers change their ways without any way for the state to be held accountable.

This latest case in Chicago raises the specter of San Antonio v. Rodriguez from 1973, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is no Constitutional right to education. The court also ruled that wealth (economic status) is not a protected class, unlike race or religion, and therefore is not subject to the strict scrutiny test, the most demanding form of judicial review. This means that the constitutional rights’ of low-income people are not afforded the highest level of protections when weighed against the government’s interest.

There are several serious consequences of Rodriguez. First, state courts are more likely to rule in the state’s favor even if the system discriminates against low-income students. Second, the hands of the federal government are basically tied when it comes to inequitable state school finance systems. Thus, if a state ignores a court order to improve its school finance system, families have no recourse. They are stuck. Third, school funding systems based on local property taxes, which comprise virtually every system in the country, are constitutional, even though they produce class-based disparities.

Due in large part to Rodriguez, there have been over 40 years of school finance litigation that struggle to produce sustained results increasing equity. Texas has been in and out of court since Rodriguez was decided. The state took action in response to a court order, and then rolled back those policies. The pattern continues to this day.

For a more recent example, consider the victory of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in New York. The plaintiffs won a strong pro-equity ruling, and the state of New York responded positively. Good news. The problem, however, was that shortly thereafter, the state’s commitment wavered and eventually buckled. Now students are back in the same situation they were in previously.

The problem is similar in Washington State, where the state supreme court held the legislature in contempt of court for failing to comply with their order. And when the legislature has proposed changes, the court has continuously rejected them as far too insufficient to repair their broken education finance system. The court is doing the right thing here, but the buck stops with the legislature.

And although there is no silver bullet that could suddenly end disparities in school funding, overturning Rodriguez would provide a significant boost for equity. The federal government would then be able, as it does with voting rights, to ensure that all students have equitable access to the necessary resources for a high-quality education.


May 16, 2017

This Financing Model Could Make School Buses Cheaper and Greener, But No One Is Using It

Every day, nearly 500,000 school buses transport students to and from school in districts across the country. Many of these buses are older diesel models that release dangerous emissions, harming both the environment and student health. While cleaner and cheaper alternative fuels like propane, compressed natural gas (CNG), and electric exist, higher upfront costs prevent most districts from transitioning.

The good news: there’s an increasingly popular financial tool out there that could solve this problem.

Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are typically used to finance programs that can generate both societal benefits and cost savings, particularly programs administered by nonprofit organizations and government entities. Under the SIB model, private investors provide initial capital in exchange for a return funded from eventual cost savings. Those investors, and not taxpayers, absorb the financial losses if these programs do not achieve projected savings. SIBs have been used to fund programs related to prisoner recidivism, high-quality preschool, and reducing common health hazards, with varying levels of success. As of 2016, nine SIBs operate in the United States, with 50 more in development, representing over $90 million in private investment.

As we describe in our recent report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” the benefits of switching to buses that run on alternative fuels are well-documented. And they cost less to run, benefiting district budgets. However, in contrast to the public transit sector, where more than one in three buses runs on alternative fuels or hybrid technology, uptake in the school transportation sector has been limited. Of all buses sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2014, only six percent were alternatively fueled. In 2012, that figure was less than three percent.

This is largely due to the additional costs associated with shifting away from diesel. Propane buses cost about five percent more than their diesel counterparts; that figure is 25 percent for buses run on compressed natural gas. Electric buses, which offer the most cost savings and environmental benefit, are more expensive still — often costing an additional $100,000 to $120,000 more than diesel buses.

Transitioning to these buses may also require infrastructure expenditures in the form of fueling and charging stations. For example, case studies from the Department of Energy estimate that installing a propane fueling station costs between $55,000 and $250,000, depending on the station’s size and equipment.

This is where SIBs can help. For SIBs to work, projects have to attract investors by demonstrating the potential for a return on investment. A number of case studies have provided evidence of the potential cost savings of switching to alternatively fueled buses, savings sufficient to offset the higher upfront cost. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory found savings of between $400 and $3,000 per bus per year associated with replacing diesel with propane, with the incremental costs of the vehicles and related infrastructure being offset over a period of three to eight years. And researchers from the University of Delaware have shown that using an electric school bus instead of a diesel bus could save a district roughly $230,000 per bus over a 14-year lifespan, with the initial investment being recovered after five years.

Alternatively fueled buses are cheaper to fuel, operate, and maintain than diesel buses. Alternative fuels cost less than diesel, and their prices remain relatively stable compared to diesel, which varies with the fluctuation of crude oil prices. There are also a variety of savings from maintenance costs. These buses use less oil and cheaper filters, and unlike their diesel counterparts, they do not require additional treatment to meet federal vehicle emissions standards, potentially saving thousands of dollars in maintenance each year.

Electric buses that use vehicle-to-grid technology — which allows vehicles to communicate and interact with the overall power grid, rather than just draw a charge from it — can even become “prosumers,” meaning they return energy to the grid. The energy stored in the buses’ batteries can be tapped to lower a facility’s electricity bill.

A SIB model for bus replacement could work as follows:

Graphic by authors

SIBs are not without criticism: they may limit the savings that governments could reap from traditional means of public investment. This is the other side of the equation when privatizing potential risk: governments also privatize some of the reward.

However, to date, most districts have not been able to invest the initial capital needed to replace their diesel fleets. Implementing a SIB model could help speed up this process without further draining district budgets. Such a program would not only benefit the environment: districts could also reinvest the savings to improve other aspects of their school transportation systems, or funnel those dollars back into classrooms. It could be a win-win.

To learn more about the current state of the school transportation sector, including how it impacts the environment, read Bellwether’s new report: “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.”


May 12, 2017

California’s Revised Bid to Kill Income Tax for Teachers is Still a Bad Idea

A bill providing tax credits to teachers in California is making its way through the state’s legislature. Last month Andy Rotherham and I wrote that Senate Bill 807, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act, is a gimmicky way to pay teachers more and takes a one-size-fits-all approach to solving a targeted teacher shortage problem.

It looks like the authors of SB807 may have noticed our critique. Since its introduction, the legislation has been revised. Instead of exempting all teachers who remain in the profession for more than five years from paying state taxes, the revised legislation is focused on teachers in high-poverty communities. The new language gives teachers in high-poverty schools immediate state tax relief on half of their income in their sixth through tenth years of teaching.

Admittedly, the revised legislation is better than the original because it takes a more targeted approach to teacher shortage issues. But it’s still a bad idea. As Andy and I wrote, if California legislators want to pay teachers more, then they should just pay teachers more. Providing teachers with tax incentives is a confusing way to raise teacher compensation and doesn’t get at the foundational issues of under-resourced schools and misaligned, archaic state and district teacher compensation systems. This bill — in any form — tinkers at the edges of and distracts from larger issues in California.

This week the bill passed the California Senate Governance and Finance Committee with a unanimous vote, and it’s now headed to the Senate Education Committee. But California lawmakers would be better off if they stop trying to revive this bill and, instead, focus on the larger school finance problems in the state.