Turning a New Page on Education Policy
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Tuesday 9 November 2010 10:25 AM

From The Heritage Foundation

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The results of Tuesday’s election sent a clear message about the direction voters want the federal government to take. The recently released 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll What Americans Said about the Public Schools is illustrative.

Whether it’s paying the bills, setting standards, deciding what should be taught, or holding schools accountable, Americans believe state government is the responsible agency for public education in the United States.

With a new batch of conservative leaders heading to Washington, the time is ripe to promote federalism in education, reduce spending, and empower parents with school choice. Incoming Members of Congress, including Senators Marco Rubio (R–FL) and Rand Paul (R–KY)—both of whom have vowed to limit the federal government’s role in education—will likely look toward more conservative solutions to reforming education.

Americans made it clear that they want their problems solved locally, not by a distant and expensive Washington bureaucracy. Education is no exception. If Congress decides to undertake a reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act next year, that will provide an opportunity to significantly reduce bureaucracy and put more power in the hands of local leaders and parents.

Jennifer Marshall, Director of Domestic Policy Studies at Heritage, pointed out on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal last week that Washington’s overreach into local education over the years has created “an accountability chain that is misdirected. So it politicizes the whole education project [and] directs everyone’s attention up to Washington, where it shouldn’t be. Because when that attention is taken off the local level, the student and the primary customers—the parents and taxpayers—it breaks down the whole incentive and accountability chain that once made American education great.” The bottom line is that solutions for local education will not be found in Washington.

As a new Congress comes to Washington:

First, expect efforts to rein in education spending. U.S. Department of Education funding has increased nearly fivefold in the 30 years since its creation, real per-pupil federal education expenditures have more than tripled since the 1960s, and the Obama Administration just inflated the DOE’s coffers by $100 billion through the “stimulus”—on top of the agency’s regular appropriations. As if that weren’t enough, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the entire House of Representatives back to Washington during their August recess to pass a $10 billion public education bailout.

But more spending is not the answer. Massive increases over decades have failed to improve student outcomes. With conservative leaders pledging to cut spending in Washington, watch for new consideration of proposals to grant states flexibility and the freedom to target resources to their most vital education needs.

Second, look for legislative efforts to restore federalism in education. The conservative alternative to No Child Left Behind—called the A-PLUS Act—will likely find more champions in the new Congress. The approach would allow a state to consolidate funding from among dozens of individual federal programs and spend it on state priorities in education. Allowing states freedom from federal red tape would likely produce more examples of policies that are successful in increasing academic achievement, like those seen in innovative states such as Florida.

Florida is narrowing the achievement gap in a way federal education policy has failed to do for decades. Public school choice, private school choice, charter schools, virtual education, performance pay, alternative teacher certification, grading schools on an A–F scale, and putting an end to social promotion are all part of the Florida reform package that has contributed to important gains for students in the Sunshine State.

Third, watch for renewed interest in the school choice solution. Congress can begin by restoring and expanding school choice options for children in the nation’s capital. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers of up to $7,500 for low-income children in the nation’s capital to attend a private school of their choice, has been a lifeline for local families. It has drawn strong support from current and new Members of Congress.

The election results could mean big opportunities for genuine education reform that cuts bureaucracy, better targets and reduces spending, and empowers parents.

D.C. School Choice Coalition Vows Aggressive Fight to Save Voucher Program after Congressional Gains
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Wednesday 3 November 2010 3:16 PM

From The Washington Business Wire

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WASHINGTON–(EON: Enhanced Online News)–Efforts to reauthorize the endangered D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—the highly effective initiative that allows low-income D.C. schoolchildren to attend the schools of their parents’ choice—will intensify after yesterday’s historic election results, D.C. education activists promised today. The program was slated for elimination by President Obama and his Congressional allies last year.

With the Republican takeover in the House and a narrower margin between the parties in the Senate, the potential for saving the program has increased, according to D.C. Parents for School Choice, the leading advocacy organization promoting the program’s expansion and protection.

The program, which has allowed children from D.C.’s lowest-income families to attend the private schools of their parents’ choice, has benefited more than 3,500 children. According to studies commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, the OSP has dramatically increased student graduation rates and is one of the most effective federally-funded education efforts in history.

“Our representatives have the opportunity to right one of the most severe wrongs of the past two years—the elimination of the OSP” said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice. “The time has come for our new Congress to send a clear message to D.C. parents—that their needs will no longer fall on deaf ears in the highest corridors of power.”

In fact, Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio), who will likely be elected by his colleagues as the next Speaker of the House, is the primary House sponsor of the bill to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program, which has received support by a significant majority of D.C. residents and by a majority of the D.C. City Council, has been backed by a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Senate, with supporters including primary sponsor Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida). The late Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) was also a Democratic supporter.

“All Democrats need to take a new look at this program and see that it should not only be saved, but strengthened,” said former D.C. Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). “If our goal as Democrats is to advance the key social justice arguments of our time, we cannot ignore the plight of low-income children in the District of Columbia. All Democrats should join their courageous colleagues in the Senate and embrace this program.”

D.C. Parents for School Choice said that it would be mailing packets of information about the OSP to newly-elected Members of Congress and Senators this week.

‘Waiting for Superman’ a wake-up call for education reform
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Friday 29 October 2010 11:49 AM

From the Orlando Sentinel

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“Waiting for ‘ Superman’ ” certainly won’t top “Toy Story 3″ at the box office. There were five people in the theater when I saw it.

But hopefully it’ll do for the school reform movement what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for the global warming movement.

Both were directed by Davis Guggenheim.

He becomes the latest liberal defector to the conservative cause of overhauling public education.

And he does it well, introducing bleeding-heart liberalism into a battle that has been mired in the wonky, tangled weeds of test scores, learning gains, performance pay and school choice.

Guggenheim shows us the children whose futures are pegged to failing public schools. We see desperate parents trying to get them out. We see their fate riding on the whims of lottery balls rolling out of a turning cage.

Beat the 5 percent odds and you win a first-class education in a top-performing charter school. You get the inside track on a college degree and a ticket out of the inner city.

Lose and you go to the dilapidated blockhouse down the street, a prep academy for a state prison more than a state university.

It is an emotional appeal with victims, villains and heroes.

The villains are unwieldy bureaucracies and teachers unions, which bargain for contracts that stifle excellence and protect incompetence. The priority is job protection, not education. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, comes across as Cruella de Vil, with poor kids the helpless Dalmatian puppies.

One hero is Michelle Rhee, the former public schools chancellor of the District of Columbia who closed failing schools and waged a campaign against incompetent administrators and teachers. Another is Geoffrey Canada, a Harlem educator so frustrated by the system he formed his own charter schools as an alternative.

The reformists’ message boils down to this: Given the right setting and the right teacher, every child can succeed. Good teachers work miracles; bad teachers can ruin lives. Yet there is no recognition of the difference between them.

The film also brings in Bill Gates to make a broader argument. It is that America’s future security depends on our ability to compete with the rest of the world. It is an economic battle for growth and prosperity, with winners and losers determined by who best educates their youth.

International science and math scores show us falling behind at an accelerating pace. Even top-rated suburban schools are failing to keep pace.

The Truth Behind Superman
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Tuesday 26 October 2010 4:27 PM

From The Heritage Foundation

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The documentary film Waiting for Superman follows five children and their families as they struggle to find educational opportunities. Fed up with the ineffective public schools in their communities, but unable to freely transfer their tax dollars to a school of their choice, the families enter lotteries for the few available slots in private and charter schools. As an unapologetic denunciation of the American educational system, the film features families openly weeping at the prospect of losing the lottery and returning to the public schools.

Opinions will vary about the movie’s dramatic style and presentation. Some viewers are themselves moved to tears, while others chafe at the what they see as an overly emotional message too high on idealism. Put Ross Douthat of the New York Times in the latter category. The film is “manipulative, simplistic and more than a little bit utopian,” he wrote in a recent column. He was quick to add, however, that the director’s “prescription—more accountability for teachers and bureaucrats, and more choices for parents and kids—deserves all the support his film promises to win for it.”

Douthat’s point is well taken. No educational intervention can magically make every student above average, and people who leave the theater in search of a panacea will inevitably be disappointed. But utopianism aside, school choice programs have led to significant positive outcomes that justify the public’s strong support.

Take charter schools. They receive public funding but are allowed to operate without the regulatory burden faced by ordinary public schools. The U.S. Department of Education recently published a rigorous evaluation of charter schools nationwide. The report’s authors found that parents are by large margins more satisfied with charter schools—and with the academic and social development of their children who attend—than are public school parents. For example, charter schools were rated “excellent” by 85 percent of parents, while non-charter schools received the “excellent” rating by just 37 percent of parents.

The overall impact of charter school attendance on test scores was insignificant. In other words, students of similar ability scored about the same on tests whether they went to a charter school or to a regular public school. This is the dose of realism that Douthat has referenced—test scores are notoriously hard to raise through intervention.

But given the higher levels of parental satisfaction produced by charter schools, test scores are clearly only one factor parents consider when deciding which schools are best for their children. In fact, parents probably understand the limitations of social policy better than most academics and policymakers. Rather than obsessing over elusive test score gains, parents seem to have a more nuanced and child-specific set of criteria: They want schools that are safe, cultivate a positive attitude about learning, and best fit their children’s abilities and interests. Only school choice programs can satisfy these diverse preferences and expectations.

Whether a viewer’s reaction to Waiting for Superman is one of passion or skepticism, the real take-away from the film should be that school choice programs benefit both students and their families, and that expanding the programs will expand the benefits.

‘Superman’ debate: Waiting for the teachers’ unions
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Friday 22 October 2010 11:11 AM

From Sign on San Diego

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Among the recent rash of education reform movies to hit our nation’s Cineplexes – “The Cartel,” “The Lottery” and most recently “Waiting for Superman” – a common thread has been the demonization of the teachers’ unions. They have been portrayed as the key stumbling block to badly needed education reform.

The unions seem to be shocked and furious that they are portrayed in such a dismal way and have issued statements and news releases that the films are inaccurate, unfair and out of touch with what really goes on in schools and that the filmmakers are engaging in “teacher bashing” and should “talk to real teachers.”

None of the above is true. It is also worth noting that the unions have proposed no real constructive reforms of their own except for the tired old “We need more money” mantra. In fact, the public is no longer buying into the brand of reform that the unions are selling and have come to see that the reformers are on to something.

For example, the public is very much in favor of charter schools – by more than 2-1, according to a survey by the Education Next Program on Education Policy and Governance. Charter schools, which are public schools but without so much of the district and union red tape, are the stars of “Waiting for Superman.” Not panaceas, they can be shut down after a few years if the students aren’t learning. But most are successful, according to a decade-long study in New York by Carolyn Hoxby, an economic researcher at Stanford. Only about 100 of the nation’s 5,000 charter schools are unionized. Hence, teachers’ unions don’t like them and do their best to make sure there are caps on the number allowed in each state.

While the public has repeatedly shown overwhelming support for charter schools, with other forms of school choice it depends on who and how you ask the question. Vouchers – cash payments to defray the cost of a private school – have become less popular in the last few years, but “tax credits” and “scholarship programs” are looked on with favor. However, African-Americans and Hispanics are much more likely to be in favor of school choice no matter how the question is asked.

The unions fight choice wherever the legislation comes up because private schools are not unionized and, as more and more students leave public education, the union loses money because of a dwindling dues-paying base. The most blatant case of a union wielding its political power was in Washington, D.C., when last year, Congress, after receiving a threat from National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, dutifully killed off the extremely popular D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, in which some poor kids could escape their failing public schools and go to a private school. This was no backroom threat; it was posted on the NEA website.

Pay for performance? The unions are hidebound by the archaic factory model whereby teachers’ salaries are pegged to the number of years they have taught. Teacher quality is of little interest to union bosses. However, the public thinks differently. In a recent poll conducted by Time magazine, 71 percent of the responders said better teachers should make more than mediocre counterparts.

Perhaps the most egregious thing that teachers’ unions do is to make it almost impossible to get rid of a bad teacher once that teacher has gained tenure. According to the Time poll, only 28 percent of people agree with teacher tenure. Bad or inadequate teachers, appropriately called lemons, instead of being fired are simply moved from school to school in a practice known as “the dance of the lemons.”

At the same time, every state has some kind of automobile “lemon law.” These laws provide a remedy for purchasers of cars in order to compensate for vehicles that repeatedly fail to meet standards of quality and performance. Hence, it would seem that the unions care more about the quality of a car than the quality of our children’s education.

In issue after reform issue, the public has come around to the reform side. In fact, reform, which used to be the dominion of conservatives and libertarians, has crossed over and liberals and progressive are now embracing reform – one of the rare issues that has become truly bipartisan.

Kevin Chavous, an Obama-voting Democrat, leads a group of determined pro-choicers called the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Joe Williams, a former newspaper reporter in New York, heads up the Democrats for Education reform. Davis Guggenheim , the director of “Waiting for Superman,” is an admitted “unrepentant liberal.” And even Oprah Winfrey has gotten into the act, featuring a couple of shows dedicated to educational reform the week “Waiting for Superman” was released in New York and Los Angeles.

What does all this portend for the unions? They have been exposed. Having lost the war of ideas, but flush with money, they will keep flailing away trying to sell the public their tired old “more money will fix things” canard. As for their claims of teacher-bashing in the movies – nonsense. Good teachers were praised constantly.

“Superman” and the other films unflinchingly tell the story of why public education in America is failing. The unfortunate reality is that teachers’ unions protect not the good teachers but the bad teachers. Teachers’ unions are clearly losing the battle because they are out of ideas and the public is finally realizing that the unions are not about the kids or the quality of education at all. In time, the unions will be marginalized and education will be freed to educate children and allow excellence to return to classrooms across America.

Sand taught in public schools in Los Angeles and New York for more than 28 years. He is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

Film’s D.C. student succeeding in charter school
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Tuesday 5 October 2010 4:13 PM

From The Washington Examiner

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Anthony Black is reading at grade level after less than three semesters at the SEED School in Southeast.

Anthony, now in the seventh grade, is one of five students featured in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary film “Waiting for Superman” about failing public schools.

‘Waiting for Superman:’ Can a documentary save our schools?

Although Anthony concedes in the film that enrollment at SEED would be “bittersweet” — he would have to cut back on video games and wake up early — he is doing well at the school, said Head of School Charles Adams.

“He’s enjoying himself. He was playing Ultimate Frisbee yesterday when I saw him,” said Adams, noting that Anthony is reading at grade level and making progress in math. “He needs to push himself a bit in mathematics, but he’s a seventh-grade boy — I think we all could have done that.”

SEED is a public college prep boarding school that accepts 80 students for its sixth and seventh grade each year for a sixth-to-12th-grade student body of 330. Last year, 94 percent of SEED graduates — 32 of 34 — went on to four-year universities.

About 75 percent of SEED students are on free or reduced-price lunch. “We want students who need another educational option,” Adams said.

Because of high demand, SEED has used a lottery system since it opened in 1997. Currently, 125 students are on the waiting list. Adams said about 10 to 20 students are admitted off the waiting list each year; Anthony landed on the list’s fifth spot in spring 2009.

Guggenheim said he found the students by attending the open houses of charter schools using lottery systems. “Immediately we found this amazing connection” with Anthony, Guggenheim said.

“In one sense we could tell he was very aggressive because his father had died of a drug overdose and his grandmother had been lost in the schools of D.C.,” Guggenheim said. “But he was also very hopeful, and his big dream was to make his grandma proud.”

In the documentary, Anthony sits on his bed in his grandparents’ home and says, “I want my kids to have better than what I had … I want to go to school.”

Anthony’s alternative was to attend Southeast’s John Philip Sousa Junior High School, where more than half of students do not have sufficient reading or math skills.

School Choice Missing In Obama’s Address
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Thursday 16 September 2010 9:16 AM

From Fox News

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Students and teachers at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School began the school year with the ultimate back-to-school pep rally on Tuesday. President Obama delivered a speech to students at the highly-ranked Philadelphia magnet school, which was named a 2010 national “Blue Ribbon School.”

Last year, the president delivered a back-to-school speech about the importance of staying in school and the merits of education, topics he reprised in this year’s address. Last year’s protocol included a letter from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to schools nationwide, complete with lesson plans for teachers. Of course, the lesson plans created a firestorm of backlash from critics, and we haven’t seen a repeat this year.
Even absent federally-crafted lesson plans, however, the Obama administration’s larger plans for reshaping the country’s education system are worrisome. In fact, if the administration has its way, schools across the country will soon be required to teach according to a set of national education standards and tests.

National standards and tests would be a significant federal overreach into states’ educational decision-making authority. But through the administration’s $4.35 million “Race to the Top” competitive grant program, which provided grants to 11 states and the District of Columbia to implement prescribed education reforms, states have already begun adopting national standards.

To be in contention for a Race to the Top grant, states had to indicate that they would move toward adopting national standards and tests. And with most states facing severe budget shortfalls, the chance to win hundreds of millions of dollars in new grant money was enough for many to sign on to the proposal.

But several states have refused to sign on to the standards, which were developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But for the states not enticed by a RTT grant, the administration has indicated that they will tie access to Title I money for low-income schools to adoption of the standards.

If they succeed, the administration will have orchestrated a significant federal overreach into what is taught in local schools. They will have done so without a single vote in Congress, bypassing normal legislative procedure, and without input from parents and taxpayers.

If national standards and tests become reality, parents will lose one of their most powerful tools when it comes to directing their children’s education: local and state control over academic content and standards. As if a distant bureaucrat in Washington knows what’s best for — or is significantly vested in — the educational well-being of individual students.

The kind of data national standards and tests will make available will be far more useful to bureaucrats than to parents. What parents need most is transparency about all the existent data that’s collected, and, most importantly, the power to act on it.

We won’t gain educational opportunity and accountability by further centralizing educational power in Washington. This has been the trend for the past four decades, with little if anything to show for it. Despite decades of increasing federal control over education and a tripling of per-pupil expenditures, reading achievement has flat-lined, and graduation rates are the same today as they were in 1970.

If the president were truly interested in raising academic achievement and providing educational opportunity, he would have told students today how he plans to empower their parents to make the educational decisions that will lead to a future full of opportunity.

Sadly, President Obama’s track record thus far on school choice is dismal. He is phasing out the most successful school voucher program in the country — the D.C. Opportunity scholarship Program — because powerful special-interest groups, such as teachers’ unions, oppose it. For scholarship students in Washington, D.C., listening to the president’s speech may well have been a painful reminder that in most parts of the country, school choice is still an option only for those who can afford it.

The administration certainly deserves credit this year for encouraging states to lift caps on charter schools and to have open discussions about merit pay and tenure reform. But for those students in Philadelphia, and across the country, not lucky enough to enroll in a Blue Ribbon school (such as the one where Mr. Obama made his speech), the best back-to-school message they could hear would be one that encourages equal opportunity through school choice.

Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

The real cost of public education
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Friday 10 September 2010 4:00 PM

From The Suffolk News-Herald

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We’ve been treated to hand wringing all year over the school budgets for this fall, which are supposedly inadequate, under funded, unacceptable. But what you think you know about K-12 education spending is wrong; we’re not spending too little, we’re wasting too much.

I’d like you to guess how much we spend per child in Suffolk public schools and then in the state of Virginia overall. Have the number?

How does it match with the real numbers? Suffolk spent about $11,800 per student in 2009. And across the state we spent on average over $13,000 to educate one child for the school year.

Don’t feel silly if you guessed far lower than the real figure. According to a December 2009 poll of Virginians by the Friedman Foundation, nearly half of the respondents thought we spend $6,000 or less to educate a child each year. About one in five people thought we spend less than $3,000. Only 6 percent of the public guessed in the right spending range.

It’s so simple as to seem trivial. To get control of a budget, you need to know how much you make, how much you spend, and what you’re spending it on. We know that K–12 education is the biggest single cost to state and local governments, eating up close to a third of their revenues. And yet most citizens and politicians have little or no idea how much we are spending on education at a per-pupil level.

American taxpayers spend around $600 billion a year on K-12 public education. A sobering 27 cents of every tax dollar collected at the state or local level is consumed by the government-run K–12 education system, compared to only 8 cents for Medicaid.

In Virginia, 29 cents out of every state or local tax dollar collected is spent on public K-12 education. In the seven years between 2002 and 2009, per-pupil spending in Virginia increased 44 percent, according to state data. When we account for inflation, it’s increased a 21 percent.

And these figures leave out a large but completely unknown amount of capital expenses and debt payments that cities and counties spend on behalf of public schools but which never make it onto the school district books or into the state’s accounting.

Education spending is the single most serious burden on state and local budgets. And since runaway education spending is a major cause of our state and local budget problems, it’s the best place to look for serious savings as this fiscal crisis continues to unfold.

But school district officials and many politicians aren’t upfront about the kinds of resources we devote to education. And without a clear idea of spending levels in public and private schools, it’s hard for the public and policymakers to know whether the current system is cost-effective or to assess the fiscal impact of expanding families’ options with private school choice programs.

Based on federal data we estimate the typical private school in Virginia charges just under $7,000, and many far less. Government schools, at $13,000, spend a whopping 88 percent more. Private school choice programs, in other words, aren’t just a proven way to increase student achievement; they are a great way to save a huge amount of money.

In Florida, for instance, the state’s education tax credit program that funds private school choice saves huge sums every year. The state gains $1.49 in savings for every $1 it loses in tax revenue according to a 2008 fiscal impact analysis by the government’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability. That’s one reason almost every Republican, 42 percent of Democrats, and more than half of the black caucus voted for a dramatic expansion of the education tax credit program.

We spend more than enough on K-12 education in Virginia. It’s just not being spent effectively. Virginia’s children, families and taxpayers deserve a better, more efficient system of education.

Adam B. Schaeffer, Ph.D., is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of the March 2010 Cato Institute paper, “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools.” Contact him at ASchaeffer@cato.org.

Morning Bell: Half-Billion Dollar Schools Can’t Fix American Education
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Friday 10 September 2010 2:21 PM

From The Heritage Foundation

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At $578 million, the Robert F. Kennedy School in Los Angeles is the most expensive public school ever built in America. It features a high-tech swimming pool, a chic auditorium, vaulted ceilings, luxury amenities and a design aesthetic worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest. ABC News reports that the school is more expensive than the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, China, built for the 2008 Olympics, and the Wall Street Journal notes that it cost more than L.A.’s Staples sports center.

And while a half-billion dollar public school complex would be jarring enough to taxpayers during plush budget times, this public school was constructed at a time when the district faces a $640 million deficit. It’s a red carpet reminder of why California – and so many other states – face severe budget shortfalls.

But Joe Agron, the editor-in-chief of the school construction publication American School & University, said that “Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning.” When asked by the Wall Street Journal whether the school’s plush amenities and architectural flourishes were necessary, Thomas Rubin, a consultant for Los Angeles’ bond oversight committee, was blunt: “Did we have to do that? Hell no. But there’s no accounting for taste,” Rubin stated.

But it’s neither “impressive environments” nor good taste that will raise academic achievement, boost graduation rates or cultivate a thirst for learning. Nor is it half-billion dollar school complexes. In fact, many very low-performing school districts throughout the country spend tremendous amounts of taxpayer resources on public school facilities and have hefty per-pupil expenditures. In Los Angeles, conservative estimates put per-pupil spending in excess of $11,000; other estimates put the figure closer to $30,000 per-pupil. Yet just 15 percent of 8th grade students are proficient in reading and less than half of students graduate high school. The WSJ notes:

The K-12 complex isn’t merely an overwrought paean to the nation’s most celebrated liberal political family. It’s a jarring reminder that money doesn’t guarantee success—though it certainly beautifies failure.”

Unfortunately, the profligate spending on the Robert F. Kennedy public school isn’t an isolated case. Los Angeles taxpayers are also on the hook for a $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School as well as the $377 million Edward Roybal Learning Center.

While these schools were constructed in part using $20 billion in bonds approved by Los Angeles residents, the spend now, pay later mentality permeating a public education sector dominated by special interest groups has been bolstered by continual federal bailouts courtesy of the Obama administration.

These federal bailouts – $100 billion in new money given to the Department of Education through last year’s “stimulus” followed by another $10 billion teacher union bailout this August – prevent states from making the long-term budgetary decisions necessary to ease the burden on taxpayers and create systemic education reforms. What’s needed are meaningful reforms such as those spearheaded by Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who capped spending on school construction by placing a moratorium on new school bond measures. Governor Daniels explained his decision to the Weekly Standard:

When we were first campaigning, I started to notice, we’d drive through these rural counties, these very poor counties, and we’d drive up over a hill and on the other side you’d see a brand-new high school that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright had just been there. Enormous gold-plated buildings. It turned out we had higher capital expenditures for educational construction per square foot than any other state. There’d be a bond issue and then the architects and contractors would run amok, spending money on things that had nothing to do with academics. I understand why it happens. The school board likes it because they get to play designer for a year. But we couldn’t afford it.”

Expensive school buildings and staggering per-pupil spending won’t improve education in low-performing school districts such as Los Angeles. The district may have just spent $578 million on a public school, but if it produces the same poor results that have defined public education in many school districts across the country, would parents choose to send their children there?

It’s a safe bet to say that given the choice between luxury amenities and literacy, most parents would choose the latter. That is why students are far better served by policies that empower parents to choose a school that best meets their child’s needs, not policies that perpetuate the failed status quo of throwing more scarce taxpayer resources into the monolithic public school system.

Charter Schools: A Welcome Choice for Parents
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Tuesday 31 August 2010 4:30 PM

From The Heritage Foundation

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A study published by the Department of Education (DOE) in June, “The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts,” highlights the many benefits of charter schools. The results show unambiguously that parents are substantially more satisfied with charter schools and the academic and social development of their children who attend compared to public school parents.

What Are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are a controversial innovation in education policy—controversial in many circles, but not with parents. Typically founded and run by non-profit community organizations, charter schools receive public funding but are allowed to operate without the regulatory burden faced by ordinary public schools.

Charters have more leeway to experiment with different teaching methods, curriculum content, disciplinary procedures, and levels of parental involvement. Often overwhelmed with many more applicants than available places, many charter schools must use an annual lottery to select new students.

What the Study Found

Among the DOE report’s key findings:

  • Parental satisfaction with student development. Parents of charter students reported substantially greater satisfaction with their children’s academic and social development compared to parents of non-charter students.
  • Parental satisfaction with schools. Parents of charter students also reported much higher levels of satisfaction with their children’s schools. Charter schools were rated “excellent” by 85 percent of parents, while non-charter schools received the excellent rating from just 37 percent of parents.
  • Test scores. Attending a charter school caused no statistically significant[i] differences in overall math or reading test scores.

These results should be considered in light of the study’s quality of methodology and consistency with past findings.

Quality of Methodology

Because parents, teachers, or the students themselves must elect to attend charter schools, participants in charter school programs tend to be different from non-participants in terms of ability, motivation, family background, and many other variables. An essential part of any program evaluation is to avoid mistaking these initial differences for the effect of the program itself. To do this, evaluators need a control group that is as similar as possible to the students who participate in the program.

The DOE study used the best possible control group: one constructed from a random lottery. Among 2,330 eligible applicants to a representative sample of charter middle schools throughout the country, 1,400 were randomly offered admission. The evaluation then compared students who attended a charter school through the lottery to students who lost the lottery and were denied entrance.[ii]

A lottery is the “gold standard” method of evaluation, which produces results deserving the most attention. If statistically significant differences between participants and non-participants emerge from this strict comparison, policymakers can be sure that the program in question has had an impact.

Without a lottery, the next most desirable evaluation method is careful matching of participants and non-participants on as many background variables as possible. Ideally, these comparisons examine trends over time so that researchers can assess the educational “value added” by the charter school for each student. Since some confounding variables are unobserved, the value-added models are less reliable than the lottery method, but they can still be informative when performed carefully. Recent examples include a study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes[iii] and a Florida State University report by Tim Sass.[iv]

Less scholarly studies use raw comparisons or insufficient matching of participants and non-participants. These evaluations are rarely informative. One example is a 2004 study published by the American Federation of Teachers, which compares charter and non-charter students’ national test scores.[v] The study used very limited controls with no individual student tracking, making the results uninterpretable.

Consistency with Past Findings

Greater parental satisfaction with charter schools is almost always observed when researchers inquire about it. Studies of charter schools in Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and Arizona, for example, all find parental satisfaction substantially higher than in competing public schools.[vi] This led the authors of the RAND Corporation’s book-length review of school choice data to conclude: “Parental satisfaction levels are high in virtually all voucher and charter programs studied, indicating that parents are happy with the school choices made available by the programs.”[vii] As the most rigorous evaluation to date, the DOE study is confirmation of the greater parental satisfaction observed in other charter school studies.

On raising test scores, the authors noted small effects among various subgroups of students, but the overall impact of charter school attendance was insignificant. Test scores are notoriously hard to raise through intervention. Increasing funding for public schools—through class size reduction, teacher training, stricter certification requirements, etc.—also rarely results in significant test score improvement.[viii]

Policy Implications

The consistent finding of increased parental satisfaction should inform the continuing debates over charter schools. But if scholars and policymakers focus on the negligible test score effects reported by the evaluation, they may overlook the broader benefits of school choice.

Given the higher levels of parental satisfaction produced by charter schools, test scores are clearly only one factor parents consider in evaluating schools. In fact, parents probably understand the limitations of social policy better than most academics and policymakers. Rather than obsessing over elusive test score gains, parents seem to have a more nuanced and child-specific set of criteria: They want schools that are safe, cultivate a positive attitude about learning, and best fit their children’s abilities and interests. Only school choice programs can satisfy these diverse preferences and expectations.

The Big Picture

In summary, the DOE study uses the gold standard of scholarly rigor and reliability, and its findings corroborate past studies of charter schools. Parents want choice in education, and the overwhelming majority of parents who choose charter schools are happy with that choice. As the DOE’s evaluation makes clear, charter schools can offer real benefits to students and their families.

Jason Richwine is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation

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