These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


School Choice for What?

By Van Schoales

Betsy DeVos at her January 17 hearing
Photo taken from Washington Post

It is National School Choice Week, a time that A+ Colorado celebrates the opportunities school choice provides to families and students across the state of Colorado. President Trump’s Education Secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos has a reputation as a champion of school choice, but we have to ask: is she a champion of research-backed, equity-driven school choice, or choice for choice’s sake?

Betsy DeVos has experienced reasonable pushback for her lack of understanding or experience with federal education law. If she is confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education, she is likely to lead a fairly radical change in the US Department of Education’s priorities after sixteen years of similar education agendas coming from the Obama and Bush administrations.

Presidents Obama, Bush, and their respective education secretaries believed the federal government had an important role in improving the quality of public education for our country’s least advantaged children. Obama and Bush supported strong data-based accountability for schools and districts, charter schools, meaningful teacher evaluation, school choice and the redesign of most of the education department’s programs for greater impact.  

A+ Colorado believes the federal government must support and leverage educational improvement in all 50 states and 16 territories for all students regardless of their family income, special education status, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, documentation status, home language, and sexual orientation.  We believe this is not only a civil right for all American children but an economic necessity for the future of our nation. We can no longer afford to have so many low-income students being shut out of twenty first century jobs.

Expectations for graduates have shifted dramatically since we designed our public schools over a century ago.  Most jobsover 70% by 2020 here in Colorado will require students to have some form of postsecondary education. Fewer than 30% of Colorado’s graduates (and only a small percentage of them are low-income or students of color) are currently prepared for these jobs.

Our students have diverse learning styles, interests, needs, and dreams. Families deserve to choose a school that best suits their student. In order for a school choice system to drive educational equity, families have to know that they are choosing among quality options. It is the obligation of the states to provide information on the quality of public schools to families as it is the obligation of the federal government to provide standard labels for food or car safety information to consumers. School choice combined with quality school options should be a fundamental right for all families.   

The big question for Betsy DeVos and President Trump is not whether they will support the expansion of school choice which includes charters and private school vouchers or tax credits. They will. The question is, will the Trump administration will use school choice to further fracture Americans from one another (and have no impact on student achievement) or use school choice so that more families have greater access to quality schools that can improve achievement for all students? School choice can be used to improve or dismantle public education depending on the policies that govern it.

Private school choice programs could do much to accelerate the growing political, racial, and economic tribalism in our country. Poorly designed choice programs could increase the current levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation. A federal or state voucher program, for example, could give a several thousand-dollar tax credit to families wishing to send their child to private schools. This sort of policy would be of greatest benefit for those families that already have have the resources necessary to send their kids to private schools. As has happened in Indiana and other similar programs, there seems to be little or no impact on student achievement. Though there may be some small number of low-income families that have been given some financial support to escape a failing neighborhood public school, these voucher programs have disproportionately benefited wealthy families.  

School choice, however, can be a powerful tool to improve education when it is tied to strong school accountability policies for student achievement. The work in New Orleans, DC, New York, Boston and here in Denver are powerful examples of how school choice practices tied to strong accountability to school quality yet agnostic to governance type whether district, charter or even private in the case of DC.  

When school choice programs are not designed to focus on quality school options, student achievement will not improve and may even regress as has been documented in Louisiana with their voucher program. In states without quality charter school authorizing, like Arizona, Ohio, and Michigan, we see choice programs that don’t actually increase student’s access to high-quality educational options.

The federal government can play a powerful role in encouraging innovation at the local level while ensuring that all students have a safe, effective space to learn throughout the country. The federal charter school program has been instrumental in seeding the development of many of the nation’s highest achieving urban schools. Given what we know, it is imperative that the DeVos administration do everything possible to design school choice initiatives that drive achievement upward and support a variety of quality school designs and governance models.

The design and oversight of any voucher, tax credit, charter, magnet or cross-district choice program will be critical in determining the likelihood of educational improvement. We ask that the US Department of Education require that all states that participate in any of these choice programs include detailed plans for the following:

  1. Target most needy: allow access to all students that fall below a targeted income level such as qualifying for the federal “Free and Reduced Lunch Program” and allow for lotteries if there are more applicants than slots in the program or school.
  2. Public Access: ensure that any student regardless of religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, special education status, native language, or gender be allowed to attend any qualified voucher program school.
  3. Open lottery admission: participating schools commit to open, lottery-based admission and guarantee that admitted students can decide whether or not to participate in any religious programing if offered by the qualified participating school. There is a need for some schools to hold back seats for low-income students to ensure that the most popular schools are still accessible to the most impoverished family.
  4. Accountable for Achievement: qualified schools must participate in the state’s required K-12 assessments and be part of a state accountability system the same as any publicly funded schools. Student achievement data must be disaggregated by student groups.
  5. Quality oversight and authorization: establish a state or district authorizing body (could be an existing body like the state board of education or state charter authorizing body) that has the authority to allow or deny schools to participate in the program.    These should follow the principles and practices of the National Association of Charter Authorizers.
  6. Adequate and weighted student-based funding: funding be allocated that would be equal or greater than the current state average funding in the state with weights for student need such as low income, special education, English Language Learning, etc. Funding should follow students to the school of their choice
  7. Open to all private and public schools: any school whether private, publicly operated by district, or public charter be allowed to participate in the program.
  8. Annual program evaluation: all participating schools be subject to an annual evaluation that will focus on the educational outcomes of students (which would include disaggregated discipline data, state test scores, college course pass, college success, etc.) and the program impact.
  9. Transparency: data that is reported on schools, even when not included in the accountability system per se, should be available for all schools (e.g. discipline rates, AP access and success).

The research on vouchers, tax credits and charter schools is mixed. Those choice programs or cities and states with charter authorizing practices have strong accountability, along with data transparency, have had the largest positive impact on student achievement.

States, cities or school districts that allow for a great deal of flexibility on school programs, schedules, calendar, staffing, and funding and have a laser focus on improving student learning are the programs that have the greatest positive impact on achievement. Allowing for greater deregulation with more flexibility and freedom at the school level without oversight for student outcomes will lead to no better and probably worse outcomes for students.    

We hope that the Department of Education will consult with the nation’s leading researchers, advocates, and educators before embarking on any new federal choice programs. We have learned a lot from 30 years of choice, voucher, tax credit, and charter school efforts. Adopting our nine principles for school choice programs will ensure that schools are truly public and that schools are held accountable for student results which will improve the educational opportunities we offer to our students. Our children, economy and democracy require that the federal government do everything possible to do more, not less to improve our public schools.