Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How Far School Choice Policies Have Come in Two Decades

It’s amazing how far school choice options have come in a little more than two decades. From Milwaukee’s first-in-the-nation school voucher option in 1990 and the first charter school opening its doors in Minnesota in 1992, parental choice in education has advanced considerably, and innovation in school choice policy has taken shape in ways that were inconceivable in those early years. Today, 39 private school choice programs operate in 18 states and Washington, D.C.

The past three years in particular have produced some of the most exciting advancements in school choice policy to date. In 2011, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the nation’s first education savings account program. ESAs are parent-controlled savings accounts that enable families to completely customize their children’s educational experiences.

Parents of eligible students can have 90 percent of the funding the state would have spent on their children in their assigned public school deposited directly into their ESAs. Funds are deposited onto a restricted-use debit card, which parents can use to pay for a wide variety of education-related services and products. ESA funds can be used to pay for private school tuition, online learning, textbooks, curricula, special education services and a host of other education-related expenses. Parents can even roll unused funds into a college savings account.

And because parents direct every dollar of their ESA funds to options that fit their child’s learning needs, providers must provide quality products and services at competitive rates, which puts downward pressure on prices not only for schools but for all eligible education products.

For instance, parents could pay for private school tuition for a half-day, then use the debit card for tutoring in the afternoon. They might even finance educational therapies one day a week, as Kym Wilber, mother of 8th grader Zach does. “I have a private tutor for Zach, and I can use [ESA] funds for that,” Wilber says. “With the ESA, I can actually go out and buy things for our home program, such as additional speech tools.”

The Wilbers’ experience mirrors that of many who take advantage of Arizona’s ESA option. Although many families use their ESAs in a manner similar to a traditional school voucher, more than one-third of parents use their funds to completely customize their children’s educational experience. Some, in fact, eschew traditional brick-and-mortar schools altogether and instead purchase curricula and textbooks and then hire private tutors to create a made-to-order learning experience for their children.

A parent-led Yahoo group—an Internet message board where families discuss their experiences with their ESAs—is an example of the extent to which parents want to be involved to the greatest extent possible with their children’s education. It is, as the parents describe, a place to “share ideas, questions and information with each other as we make exiting, individual educational decisions” for their children.

When it was enacted in 2011, the Arizona ESA option was available only to children with special needs. Every year since has brought expansions to the program. Today, children with special needs as well as children from active duty military families, children of fallen soldiers, children in Arizona’s foster care system and children from low-income families assigned to underperforming public schools are eligible for the accounts.

Just as parents have looked to one another in the ESA program for advice about what works well for their children, so too have states begun to take cues from one another, replicating the most promising policy innovations. Last week, the Florida legislature passed legislation to create the Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts—the Sunshine State’s version of ESAs. Florida would become the second state to embrace the most innovative option to date in school choice.

The combination of innovative education financing models such as ESAs, in conjunction with the growth of online learning, allows for education options that are truly customized and student-centered and are a far cry from the one-size-fits-all public education system. School choice policy has come a long way over the past two decades, and as Arizona’s experience has demonstrated, ESAs are the way of the future as states consider how to bring innovation, competition and choice into their education systems.


Oxford loses out to Cambridge for the fourth year in a row in a new league table of universities

Oxford has lost out to Cambridge for the fourth year running in a new league table of universities.  The prestigious institutions took the top two places in the latest annual Complete University Guide.

In third place, the same as last year, was the London School of Economics and Political Science, followed by St Andrews in Fife, Scotland, which moved up two places to fourth, and Durham, which holds on to fifth place.

The table uses available data to rank universities on nine areas - student satisfaction, research, entry standards, student to staff ratios, spending in academic services, spending facilities, the numbers of good honours degrees achieved, graduate prospects and completion rates.

The authors said that at many universities, student to staff ratios had improved this year due to institutions taking on more staff and falling student numbers, whilst more money is also being spent on student facilities and there has been a rise in entry standards.

David Jobbins, a spokesman for the Guide, said there had been a 6.4 per cent year-on-year fall in undergraduate numbers in 2012/13 according to their analysis.

'It is that fall in some institutions and programme areas, coupled with the opportunity taken by some institutions, of which the University for the Creative Arts and the Arts University Bournemouth are good examples, to reclassify technical staff as academic staff, thus improving the student: staff ratio,' he said.

Rounding out this year's top 10 were Imperial College London, Warwick, Bath, University College London and Exeter.

The biggest climbers in this year's table were the University for the Creative Arts which has moved up 24 places to 62nd, Abertay in Dundee which has risen 20 places to joint 91st, the Arts University, Bournemouth, up 18 to 57th, Derby, up 16 to joint 87th and Manchester Metropolitan, up 15 places to joint 73rd.

Ten universities fell at least 10 places. These were: Royal Agricultural University, down 32 places, Aberystwyth, down 17, Birmingham City, down 16, St George's, University of London, down 12, Hull, Northampton, Buckinghamshire New University and Anglia Ruskin, all down 11 places and Bedfordshire and Ulster, down 10.

In total, 123 universities were included in this year's guide, which is published online.

Principal author Dr Bernard Kingston said: 'Many of the changes this year are attributable to changes in definitions and weighting.

'There was an official and fundamental review of the staff record data between the two years, while the old distinction between graduate and non-graduate employment has been replaced by one between professional and non-professional employment.'

He added that the rankings give would-be students 'an accurate and independent guide to the UK university system'.


University often 'wasted on teenagers', says UCAS chief

University is often "wasted" on school leavers because they fail to select the correct degree course, according to Britain’s higher education admissions chief.

Too many teenagers – particularly those from middle-class backgrounds – "sleepwalk" into university under pressure from their parents and peers without giving it proper thought, said Mary Curnock Cook.

In a speech, she said the penalties for students who choose the wrong course can be severe because many have a miserable time or drop out altogether – saddling them with large debts.

The introduction of higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 for the first time in 2012 had a positive effect as it forced more 18 and 19-year-olds to "pause for thought" before making applications, she said.

Mrs Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), said more school leavers should consider deferring a degree until their 20s or 30s to ensure they make the right decision.

Addressing an audience of head teachers, she told how she did not go to university until her 40s, adding: "I do sometimes think that higher education is wasted on the young."

UCAS figures show most students applying to university are in their teens.

Just over half – 295,000 – of those lodging applications by the main January deadline last year were 18 or under while another 20 per cent – 115,000 – were aged 19.

It emerged that 120,000 applicants were in their 20s, some 20,000 were in their 30s and another 10,000 were aged 40 or over.

Mrs Curnock Cook said young people “don't always make the right choices”.

“It's about the privilege of spending three years exercising your brain in something you are really interested in,” she said. “If you've made the wrong decision it might not give you the best outcome."

The comments – to a meeting of the International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association in London – follow the publication of figures showing that more than 26,000 students dropped out of university last year.

It emerged that around one-in-15 undergraduates – 6.7 per cent – failed to complete the first year of their degree, while many more were forced to transfer to another course or university.

Mrs Curnock Cook said the issue was particularly pressing among more affluent pupils from private or grammar schools who automatically take a degree at 18 because "their parents probably went to university and it's never been a real question for them about whether they should".

She added: "I kind of call these 'the sleepwalkers' – those who, just as A-levels and IB follow GCSE, so university follows your sixth-form studies."

Mrs Curnock Cook insisted university was a "big financial commitment".

There are significant "penalties for failure for young people who pick the wrong course, don't really enjoy it, don't get the most out of it or – worst of all – drop out because it's become three times more expensive”, she said.

Mrs Curnock Cook urged teenagers to carry out proper research on the UCAS website and understand that “lots and lots of people to go university in their 20s and 30s”.

"My message is that schools need to focus on helping students think about these decisions in a lot of detail and not to rush them based on what your parents think or what your mates are doing,” she said.

She said that the introduction of £9,000 fees had already convinced sixth-formers to think twice about a degree, added: “The positive of higher tuition fees is that people are not going to take this decision quite so lightly.

"If the higher fees actually cause some of these sleepwalkers pause for thought about this very important decision they are making then I think that's probably a good thing.”

*A fifth of students believe that teaching standards at their university are poor, according to research.

A survey of 3,400 undergraduates by the website Student Hut found that 19.6 per are unimpressed by lectures and seminars.

Some 20.8 per cent believe that levels of support available outside of timetables sessions was lacking, it emerged.

Dan Lever, founder of Student Hut, which is a Trip Advisor-style website enabling students to rate their degree, said many students “feel that their experiences are not living up to the expectations they were sold in brochures”.


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