July | August 2017







State Leaders Ponder School Choice Policies

By Leah Byers, CSG Graduate Fellow, and Elizabeth Whitehouse, CSG director of education and workforce development
From yellow school buses to high school football games, many people view traditional public schools as a common American experience. One goal of public education is to provide students with an equal opportunity for success, regardless of where they live, their race or socioeconomic status.
Some people believe the current model of public education is not achieving that goal. No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, brought to light the disparities that exist among students of different demographic groups. NCLB required states to test students in reading and math every year from grades three through eight and once in high school, and to collect the test results for all public school students as well as subgroups, including racial minorities, children from low-income families, special education students and English-language learners.
The results were often not what parents or policymakers hoped that they would be, giving momentum to the modern school choice movement, which advocates for the availability of quality educational alternatives to traditional public schools.
The national conversation around school choice is sure to continue under newly confirmed U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has been a vocal supporter for school choice alternatives such as charter schools and voucher programs.
“Step back from education and look at any industry where you have a monopoly,” said Indiana House Education Committee Chair Robert Behning. “The monopoly never welcomes competition. But with a monopoly, there is limited innovation and very few options. The biggest barrier faced by the school choice movement today is changing systems that have never been set up to work in a competitive environment.”
But Massachusetts state Senate Pro Tem Marc R. Pacheco believes the presence of competition does not necessarily help every school to be successful.
“Does school choice increase competition?” Pacheco said. “Maybe, but it is also setting up a system that ends up bankrupting public schools in terms of their ability to compete because in most situations they’re dealing with the economically challenged areas of the state—areas with more diversity, numerous languages, significant economic disadvantages.”
States and localities vary in the types of school choice alternatives they have implemented. One option that has been gaining popularity is open enrollment districts, which allow students to attend public school in a district other than the one in which they live. At least 46 states allow for districts to participate in open enrollment practices, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Vouchers, tax credits and education saving accounts are school choice policies that provide financial support for students to attend private schools. While these policies vary from state to state, vouchers generally provide state-funded tuition scholarships to attend private schools, and tax credits provide a similar financial support for private education. Education saving accounts are usually broader in scope and provide families with a sum of state money for use on student educational needs, such as tuition, transportation and materials.
Advocates of these private school choice policies say that they save the state money because the supplement is less than the amount of per-pupil spending the state would provide to a public school for that child.
This savings, Behning said, can then be distributed to the students who remain in traditional public schools. Under Indiana’s voucher program, the amount of funding provided to families is income-dependent but is capped at 90 percent of the amount per pupil that a traditional public school receives in general fund support from the state. That means each child who uses a voucher saves the state a minimum of 10 percent.
Behning said one of the most important elements of voucher programs—and school choice policies, in general—is that they not be limited to students who are assigned to failing schools.
“Parents make decisions about which school their child should attend based on many factors—school performance is only one of those,” Behning said.
Opponents point out, however, that when public schools lose per-pupil funding to private schools, it can be difficult for them to proportionately lower spending due to overhead costs such as facilities and teacher salaries.  
And not all school choice options involve private education.
Since their creation in 1992, charter schools have been authorized by 43 states, which the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, defines as “public schools that are given a fixed-term contract with wider operating discretion than typical public schools and more definite performance review at the end of their term.” According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, or NAPCS, there were 6,633 charter schools serving more than 2.68 million students in the U.S. in the 2014-15 school year.
Charter schools across the United States are funded at 64 percent of their district counterparts, according to CREDO, which amounts to $7,131 per pupil, on average, compared to $11,184 per pupil at conventional public schools.
Proponents of charter schools point to their cost savings, as well as charter schools’ ability to balance the freedom to innovate with accountability through the charter renewal process, as benefits of the model.
But Pacheco said charter school expansion could lead to larger discrepancies between groups of students.
“We need to not create two-tiered school systems but take best practices and apply those statewide for all students—so that all students can take advantage of what works, not just some of the students,” said Pacheco. “It is no longer a secret in education research as to what is needed to have the most success possible in a K-12 system: qualified teachers and support systems to wrap around the child, such as before- and after-school programs, adequate nutrition and follow up with families.”
Pacheco said that while some charter schools are doing well, their success comes at a high cost to public schools.
”We have countless numbers of successful and outstanding economically disadvantaged public schools (in Massachusetts),” said Pacheco. “Commonwealth students continue to outperform the rest of the country on their testing scores … so you’re taking what is a world-class education system statewide and taking money away from the schools that need the additional resources. …. It’s a time to be investing in what works. That’s what we’re doing in Massachusetts—investing in what works in terms of driving educational outcomes.”
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