From black power to school reform

In Back to School Book Report, Jeanne Allen reviews two new books on the history of education reform.

Mary C. Bounds’ A Light Shines in Harlem begins in New York in 1999 as the state’s charter school law is being debated.

The “light” is the Sisulu-Walker Charter School, New York City’s first charter.  Wyatt T. Walker, former chief of staff to Martin Luther King, co-founded the school with help from Steve Klinsky, a “Wall Street investor-turned charter school crusader who recognized that without educational excellence, civil rights is a hollow term,” writes Allen.

The book “tracks the tenacity and heroism of a few of the reform movement’s earliest and lesser known pioneers.”

In No Struggle, No Progress, Howard Fuller reminds us “what it really means to be in a country that offers opportunity — but not without struggle,” writes Allen.

Raised in a strong, though fatherless, family in Milwaukee, Fuller attended Catholic schools that held him to high expectations.

As a student activist, he crusaded for black power. He led “a new movement of real equity and justice for kids that unites people across all the traditional dividing lines,” writes Allen.

A critic of Milwaukee Public Schools, Fuller became the superintendent in 1991-1995 and a leading advocate of charter schools and voucher programs, writes Alan Borsuk in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“What has been constant for Fuller has been burning desire, especially when it comes to African-American kids, to see a lot more students succeed.”

Fuller runs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette, where he’s also an education professor.

Voucher advocates can learn from charters

Voucher advocates can learn from the charter sector’s experience argues The Chartered Course, a Friedman Foundation report.

Private school choice advocates should look at school network structure, the incubation of high-potential schools and authorizer-based accountability, the report recommends. Collaboration would benefit both private schools and charters.

Let’s hope state legislators don’t read the report, writes Jason Bedrick. A government entity to regulate private “choice” schools is a bad idea. “The power to regulate is the power to destroy, and that’s a power that opponents of educational choice greatly desire.”

Who’s using Indiana vouchers and why

Eighty-one percent of Indiana’s voucher students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, reports the Friedman Foundation. Two-thirds live in urban areas, half are minority and 11 percent have special needs. 

A parent survey found:

92.2 percent found it easy to access private schools.
57.2 percent were dissatisfied with their previous public schools.
62.1 percent left their previous public/charter school because of “academic quality.”
78 percent chose their private school because of “better academics.”

Nearly every parent — 99.1 percent — was satisfied with the private school their child now attends. 

The statewide voucher program, which started three years ago, is doubling in size every year: 19,809 students used vouchers to attend private schools this school year. The School Scholarship Tax Credit adds 2,890 students.

Milwaukee pays to keep schools empty

Milwaukee Public Schools is spending more than $1.5 million a year on 20 empty buildings, while refusing to rent or sell space to choice schools, charges Bad Faith. As students leave district schools, voucher-accepting private schools and public charters are trying to expand. 

St. Marcus Lutheran School, a high-performing school that takes voucher students, tried to buy the empty Malcolm X Academy building for six years, offering $8 million. Instead the district sold the building to a developer for $2.1 million, but will pay $1 million a year to rent half the space for use as a middle school

Who should drive reform?

Americans rank small class size and technology as more effective than vouchers on the pro-choice Friedman Foundation’s new survey.  That must have produced “surprise (and, no doubt, embarrassment)” at the foundation, writes Diane Ravitch on her blog.

The foundation was “quite encouraged,” writes Robert Enlow, the foundation president.
Survey respondents ranked vouchers in the middle among seven offered education reforms. Not bad for a measure that currently affects just 0.9 percent of our country’s total student population.
As for the other reforms that ranked above vouchers, who doesn’t want smaller classrooms for students? And, in the 21st century, we certainly could use more technology in our schools along with accountability.

The critical question is: Who should drive those changes? writes Enlow. Should it be “lawmakers and bureaucrats, or parents free to choose, using vouchers, and educators free to teach, not being dictated by standardized tests?”

New Orleans is #1 choice city

The Ticket is a new documentary on school choice.

New Orleans and New York City are the friendliest places for school choice and competition, according to Brookings’ new school choice index.

“School choice is under attack in the very places that top this year’s rankings,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House Majority Leader, at a Brookings conference. 

Cantor criticized the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Louisiana’s voucher program, which Cantor said has “brought hope and opportunity to thousands of students.”

And he hit Bill de Blasio, a Democrat and New York’s new mayor, for considering a change to school-facility regulations that allow charter schools to share space with regular public schools, saving them big cash in the city’s pricey real-estate market.

“School choice is a threat to the status quo,” Cantor said. “School choice protects families and children, not bureaucracies.”

How parents choose schools

Georgia parents don’t choose private schools for their test scores, concludes More Than Scores, a study of the the state’s tax-credit scholarship program by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Parents who chose to use the scholarships at private schools cared most about disciplinary policies, learning climate, class sizes, safety and individual attention for their children.

Since 2008, Georgia students have been able to receive scholarships to private schools through nonprofits, which are funded by individual and corporate contributions. Donors get an offsetting state income tax credit.

Only 10.2 percent rated “higher standardized test scores” as one of their top five reasons for choosing a private school. Parents were most concerned about finding a safe, orderly school.

Most popular among respondents were:

“better student discipline” (50.9 percent),

“better learning environment” (50.8 percent),

“smaller class sizes” (48.9 percent),

“improved student safety” (46.8 percent), and

“more individual attention for my child” (39.3 percent).

Low-income parents give top priority to graduation rates and college acceptance rates in deciding on a school.

Do vouchers help students succeed?

Vouchers don’t do much for students, argues Stephanie Simon on Politico. Voucher programs now cost $1 billion nationwide.

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

Vouchers improve student outcomes, according to high-quality research studies, responds Adam Emerson in Education Gadfly.

Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New YorkDayton and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results).

But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other.

Research supports voucher benefits, agrees Rick Hess. He quotes himself, and eight others, in an Education Week commentary last year:

Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact. . . . Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.

That $1 billion for vouchers “amounts to less than one-fifth of one percent of K–12 spending,” Hess points out.  “We spend north of $600 billion a year on K–12 schooling in the U.S., including tens of billions on employee health care and retirement benefits.”

Louisiana vouchers aid integration

The U.S. Justice Department is trying to block vouchers for low-income Louisiana students on the grounds transfers will increase segregation in 13 of the 34 districts under long-standing desegregation orders.

However, voucher transfers decrease segregation “in the very districts that are the subject of the Department of Justice litigation,” according to a new study, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Louisiana Scholarship Program allow low-income students in C-, D- or F-graded public schools to enroll in participating private schools at taxpayer expense. Ninety percent of transfer students are black.

Looking at the state as a whole, voucher transfers did not affect the racial balance of the receiving private school, the study says. And in the districts under desegregation orders, voucher transfers improved integration both in the public schools the students left and in the private schools they entered.

“The statewide school voucher program appears to have brought greater integration to Louisiana’s public schools,” write Anna Egalite (great name!) and Jonathan Mills in Education Next.

Fix schools by not fixing schools

Fix Schools by Not Fixing Schools advises Jay P. Greene. Instead of trying to reform traditional public schools, go around them.

We can expand access to other educational options, including charter schools, voucher schools, tax-credit schools. ESAs, digital schooling, home-schooling, and hybrid schools.  We can also expand access to enriching non-school activities, like museums, theaters, historical sites, summer camps, and after-school programs.  Reformers should concentrate their energy on all of these non-traditional-school efforts and stop trying so hard to fix traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools don’t want to be fixed, writes Greene.

The people who make their living off of those schools have reasons for wanting schools to be as they are and have enormous political resources to fend off efforts to fundamentally change things.  Trying to impose reforms like merit pay, centralized systems of teacher evaluation, new standards, new curriculum, new pedagogy, etc… on unwilling schools is largely a futile exercise.  They have the political resources to block, dilute, or co-opt these efforts in most instances.

“Second, attempting to impose reforms on traditional public schools requires a significant increase in centralized political control,” Greene writes.  When traditionalists subvert “most reforms through poor implementation,” the centralization remains.

 Centralized reforms that can be adopted and implemented have to be watered-down enough to gain broad support for passage and implementation, rendering them mostly impotent.

. . . even if by some miracle an effective and appropriate centralized reform with bite is adopted and properly implemented, there is no natural political constituency to preserve the integrity of that reform over time.

Traditional public schools don’t resist the creation of alternatives “with the same ferocity that they oppose reforms that directly effect their daily working life,” Greene writes. Creating alternatives doesn’t require centralization or pleasing everyone. Successful alternatives build their own constituency.