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Let’s make this (high-quality) School Choice Year

February 06, 2013 posted by Eric Lerum

School ChoiceWhat do we take away from National School Choice Week? Those who believe parents deserve to have options when it comes to their kids' education celebrated it across the country last week, with rallies from Los Angeles to Kansas City. At StudentsFirst, we were excited to see so many folks enthusiastically supporting that common-sense ideal.

Mostly, what we learned, however, is that a week is not enough. We could use a School Choice Year. As demonstrated by the StudentsFirst State Policy Report Card, a lot of states have a long way to go when it comes to increasing quality choices.

Eight states still don’t even allow for public charter schools. And many states that do allow them place restrictions on their growth or undermine their chances of success by not funding them comparably to traditional public schools. Currently, only 12 states have voucher programs that appropriately limit eligibility to low-income families, leaving far too many students in the rest of the country trapped in low-performing schools without a viable way out.

Focusing on growing the number of quality school choices should remain high on the agenda of any policymaker in 2013.

The word "quality" is key here. State leaders must make progress toward quality, both in terms of expanding the capacity of high-performing charter schools and also pushing hard for greater accountability. According to our State Policy Report Cards, nearly every state needs to do more to hold charters accountable for their students’ performance in a meaningful way.

Voucher program accountability is even scarcer. While we must encourage great private schools to participate in voucher programs, participating private schools should comply with reasonable regulations that ensure students accepting a voucher are learning, and that tax dollars are spent wisely. Not only will this help protect student interests by ensuring they’re making academic progress, but -- like with other choice options -- accountability serves to drive home an important truth: additional, new educational options for families must also be better options. Without accountability, who's to say we're not simply shifting the ills and failures of one school over another?

I'm encouraged by recent work in Indiana and Louisiana.

Last week in Louisiana, the Department of Education released a new application process for charter schools that will enable experienced operators to apply through an expedited process so they can open schools sooner in targeted, high-need areas. The state has set up a really cool dashboard that provides all kinds of information about the students and regions to be served to ensure that school operators come in ready and able to meet community-specific needs. Applicants will also be able to determine:

  • Potential number of students needing to be served, broken down by district and school, and by student subgroups
  • Academic needs of a given area, based on past academic performance, AP exam participation & success rates, etc.
  • Facilities availability
  • Workforce demand statistics

This kind of innovation, coupled with strong oversight for schools once they're open, is a great approach states can take to strengthen their school portfolios.

When it comes to voucher programs, finding the right balance of regulation that enables robust private school participation limited to high-performing schools is an important policy question. A recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called "School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring?," provides some data to guide decision-making. Among its findings, the report concluded that:

  • Regulations concerning student learning or high standards are not prioritized on the list of considerations for private school participation, where just a quarter of private schools cite state assessment requirements as very important in their decision about whether to opt into participation. Private schools tend to be more concerned about government regulations that deal with admission requirements or the schools’ religious activities.
  • According to Fordham, "only 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as the most important reason to opt out."
  • Rather than state-imposed accountability requirements, about one third of private schools opt out of voucher programs because of the lack of eligible voucher students in their area.

Which brings me back to Indiana and Louisiana. Both states -- with two of the largest voucher programs in the country -- are addressing the question of accountability for student results in slightly different ways. Indiana requires every participating private school, even those with just one voucher student, to administer the state assessment, while Louisiana has created a sliding scale of accountability based on the number of students enrolled in a given school. Neither program appears to be suffering from lack of school participation.

Most importantly, both states are focused on whether participating schools are getting results in terms of student outcomes.

Policymakers in other states should take note. The promise inherent in school choice is that parents won't just have other options, but that they -- and their children -- will have better schools from which to choose.

Topics: School Choice