Sunday, May 31, 2015

Here’s the Data to Prove School Choice Is Working

Private school choice initiatives have become increasingly common across the United States. Far from being rare and untested, private school choice policies are an integral part of the fabric of American education policy.

In the United States today, 56 different school choice policies exist in 28 states plus the District of Columbia, and the number of choice policies has approximately doubled every four years from 2000 to 2012.

The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program remains the nation’s only federally sponsored private school choice initiative. It provides scholarships worth up to $8,000 in grades K-8 and $12,000 in high school to low-income children in D.C. to attend any of more than 50 participating private schools.

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When the Opportunity Scholarship Program was launched in 2004, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences selected me to lead the initial government evaluation of this pilot program in parental school choice. Demand for scholarships exceeded supply, so most applicants faced a lottery to determine if they would receive an Opportunity Scholarship, permitting us to use a “gold standard” experimental research design to determine what impact the program had on participants.

Students in our pioneering study graduated from high school at a rate 21 percentage points higher than they otherwise would have as a result of using an Opportunity Scholarship. In scientific terms, we are more than 99 percent confident that access to school choice through the Opportunity Scholarship Program was the reason students in the program graduated at these much higher rates.

“Graduating from high school is an economic imperative.” Those are not my words, but those of President Obama, in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2010.

Each additional high school graduate saves the nation an average of $260,000 thanks to increased taxes on higher lifetime earnings and lower law-enforcement and welfare costs.

Thus, the 449 additional high school graduates obtained through operation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program during its pilot produced a return on investment of $2.62 for every dollar spent.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is not the only private school choice program to demonstrate a clear and dramatic impact on boosting educational attainment.

My research team similarly found the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program significantly increased the rates of high school graduation, college enrollment and persistence in college for the low-income students participating in our nation’s oldest urban private school choice program.

Researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution determined that a privately funded K-12 scholarship program in New York City significantly increased the rate at which black and immigrant students enrolled in college. Increasingly and consistently, researchers are finding that private school choice programs like the Opportunity Scholarship Program enable students to go farther in school.

Private school choice policies are an integral part of the fabric of American education policy.

Evidence that students achieved higher test scores because of the Opportunity Scholarship Program was only consistently conclusive in reading and for three subgroups of students: females, students with relatively higher performance at baseline and students transferring from better-performing public schools. Our study uncovered no program impacts on student math scores. Parents were more satisfied with their child’s school as a result of the Opportunity Scholarship Program and rated the schools safer.

When a previous Congress closed the Opportunity Scholarship Program to new students and reduced its funding, parents in the program put actions behind their words of praise for the program.

Parents rose up in peaceful protest, participating in rallies, writing letters to Congress and testifying at congressional hearings, to save the program. Ultimately, they triumphed, as the Opportunity Scholarship Program was reauthorized and expanded in 2011 with passage of the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results, or SOAR, Act. That entire amazing story is captured in a book I recently co-authored with Dr. Thomas Stewart called “The School Choice Journey: School Vouchers and the Empowerment of Urban Families.” 

The research record from the carefully studied pilot period of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is filled with good news.

Students graduated from high school at much higher rates because they used a scholarship. The program appears to have had a positive effect on student reading test scores, though we can only have a high level of confidence about that impact for certain subgroups of students. Parents have been empowered and report their children are in better and safer schools.

Importantly, D.C. parents view the program as one worth fighting for. Policymakers should give all of these facts careful consideration when they plan the future of District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program.


Top $40,000-a-year Manhattan school racially segregates children in controversial program that's meant to teach kids about race

A top private school in New York City has a number of parents in uproar with cries of segregation after launching a program to tackle racism which divides eight-year-olds into groups by the color of their skin.

The Fieldston Lower School, a $40,000-a-year liberal institution on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has adopted the controversial approach to addressing prejudice by putting third to fifth-graders in 'affinity groups' - of other students of the same race or ethnic background, according to an article in New York Magazine.

The intention is that students will openly discuss race among others in their ethnic groups then return to the full, racially-diverse classroom to share their feelings.

The program, which is mandatory for all students, takes place one class a week over five weeks.

According to Fieldston's school website, students of color make up about 34 per cent of the student body. Faculty and staff of color are about 15 per cent.

There were deep concerns about dividing children by racial group with some parents mentioning the Holocaust, a pre-Civil Rights American society and Japanese internment in emails.

According to NY Magazine, a parents' meeting at the school in January to discuss the program led to heated outbursts from parents over the new program.

One Jewish parent who was raised in the South said the Ku Klux Klan had burned down his synagogue when he was a child and so to have Jewish children join the 'white affinity group' was to deny the prejudices that exist against Jews.

Some parents at the school have taken up a petition online to have the racial and ethnic affinity groups-program removed from Fieldston Lower's curriculum.

Cristina Melendez, who identifies as 'ethnically Dominican and racially black', and has a daughter in the second-grade at Fieldston, was among a large group of parents who support the classes.

She told New York Magazine:  'I understand that parents say, ''I don’t want my kid to pick a box''. But the boxes are already being picked for her left and right...

'I want to tell you that I’m black. I’m a Latina black woman. I am going to pick, and this empowers my kid to pick. And she’s going to be perceived from that moment on, hopefully, as the person she wants to be. That’s not limiting. That’s not putting my kid in a box. That’s empowering.'

Fieldston is not alone in its attempt among educators to address race with children at a younger age, at a time when the U.S. has experienced widespread protests and riots over the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers.

A project of The Southern Poverty Law Center launched a program called 'Teaching Tolerance' last year which 16,000 teachers have since downloaded.

The Anti-Defamation League provides training for kids and teachers in schools.

The Ethical Culture Fieldston School was founded in 1878 to educate the city's working class children. It is a progressive establishment which includes courses in ethics and philosophy in the curriculum and puts a strong focus on community service.

The school no longer offers AP coursework, in an effort to go above and beyond teaching-to-the-test, and chooses to implement more innovative and challenging classes instead.


Parental Choice Could Help Curb Willful Defiance in School

Students attending Oakland Unified Public Schools will no longer be suspended for willful defiance, a broad category of misbehaviors such as swearing at teachers, texting in class, or refusing to take off hats in the classroom. A number of other California schools districts, including those in San Francisco and Los Angeles, are also dropping willful defiance from their lists of suspendable offenses, according to published reports.

The decision is being hailed by some civil rights groups, who note that African-American students are disproportionately suspended from school for such offenses. These groups and others also argue that alternative discipline policies that do not interrupt students’ learning time should be explored instead.

To be sure, discriminatory discipline policies should never be tolerated in school; however, the discipline struggles confronting government-run schools are largely a problem of their own making—particularly in California where parents’ choices over where their children attend school is sorely constrained.

Ideally, all parents—regardless of income or address—should be free to choose the education provider they believe is best for their child. Parents choose schools based on academics, an educational approach that reflects their beliefs, and safety, which includes school climate and discipline.

By artificially constraining parents’ choices over where their children attend school, assigned schools lose one of the leading supports to schools’ and students’ success: parental support.

We value what we choose more than what’s foisted upon us. When parents can’t (or don’t have to) actively choose their children’s schools, many of them may simply start believing that education—and the good behavior required for children to learn—is somebody else’s problem.

In a competitive education climate, schools feel powerful pressure to distinguish themselves. Not only does such pressure include promoting their particular curricula and teaching approaches, it also includes their disciplinary policies.

Some parents may prefer stricter disciplinary policies, which could include school uniforms and signed codes of conduct. Other parents may prefer a more relaxed disciplinary approach, which involves more meetings with counselors or school staff.

Regardless of the preferred approach, were parents freer to choose their children’s schools, if and when student behavioral problems arose, then parents, teachers, and school officials would be more likely to be on the same side, all working together for the benefit of the student.

That scenario, far more than recurring drastic shifts between zero-tolerance and kumbaya, let’s-all-just-get-along approaches, would prevail—to the benefit of everyone involved, students first and foremost.

As public school districts struggle to adapt to shifting mores about appropriate student discipline policies, officials should be advocating for greater parental choice in their children’s education.

At a time when public school civil rights complaints are at an all-time high, it’s worth considering the contribution that parental choice in education can make toward equitable, actionable, school disciplinary policies in California and nationwide.


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