Sunday, April 10, 2011

School Choice Will Not Close the Achievement Gap

Private education performs a vital role in our society. And, it has been a pillar of central Minnesota throughout the twentieth century. Products of private education, parochial and secular, have made major contributions to our community to the nation and the world. My own masters in teaching and law degree come from two Catholic institutions in Washington, D.C. Parochial schools afford families the choice to send their children to schools which integrate religious and secular education in ways that the US Constitution would not allow in public schools. They offer the choice to found schools and fund them with private resources, organized on educational and philosophical choices determined by the founders. A group can found a Catholic, Baptist, Quaker, Hasidic, Conservative Jewish, Amish, Islamic and many have.

But school choice, and especially voucher credits, is not a solution to the achievement gap. School choice can be a solution for a small select fortunate students who escape a dysfunctional school in their neighborhood (instead of demanding that their school do its job). But school choice, as a strategy to attack the achievement gap has been an unmitigated failure and proposals to increase the amount of school choice are likely to make things worse, not better.

After an intensive review of the performance of Minnesota charter schools, the Legislative Auditor found:

As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions, compared with 32 percent of district-run schools.

The Auditor's report squares with a number of other studies across the country that strongly suggest that the school choice movement is not proving to be a large scale solution to closing the achievement gap. Notwithstanding this evidence, spurred by the advocates for private and parochial schools, school choice has attracted a huge fan-club at the legislature. Many of these legislators believe, based on ideology, that school choice certainly must be a solution to the achievement gap, because certainly open competition always produces positive results. But actual results prove otherwise. School choice is destined to fail as a gap-closing experiment for several reasons:
  • Students cost vastly different amounts to educate. The students who we want to target when closing the achievement gap are typically among the highest cost students to educate. Don't take my word for this. This is the conclusion of the Thomas Fordham Institute -- a leading voucher advocate. The Fordham Institute, with Catholic roots, has authored an important study "Fund the Child" which makes this clear. Voucher and school choice initiatives typically allow private schools to cherry-pick transferees, accepting only the children who need help the least, leaving the rest behind. Often the transfer students are already doing quite well in their public schools, and the result of the transfer is simply to leave the public school with a larger percentage of students who are costly to educate.
  • In Minnesota, special education, on the average, costs over one-half billion dollars statewide more than the legislature pays for these students. School choice does not share this deficit: it merely increases the proportion of students in the public school who produce the deficit, and increases the deficit load carried by the remaining students. Our funding system does not reimburse public schools based on the number of special education students they serve, but rather on the number of students, disabled and non-disabled, that they serve. That means that the more students who transfer out, the higher the percentage of high cost students with disabilities left behind, and the greater the deficit in public school operations. If a costly special education student transfers to a private school, the public school still pays for that education, and pays for the deficit in reimbursement out of regular education funds. As a result, the more students who transfer out of a public school, the greater the deficit. In Minnesota, school choice is a cherry picking operation, in which the transferee school gets full funding for the student transferred, but the public school is left with an increasingly large number of students who must be educated at a cost greater than state reimbursement. School choice is not based on fair competition or fair funding.
  • School choice has simply not proven effective in closing the achievement gap. While there are many good charter and private schools, the overwhelming evidence across the country is that state funded school choice has simply not proven effective.
  • School choice affords policy makers an excuse for not doing their job -- to demand that ineffective public schools follow best practices. If a school is not measuring up, we have a public responsibility to make the changes that need to be made. But the last several decades under Minnesota's school choice system has shown that charter choice has served as a safety valve for parents and community leaders who otherwise would have demanded reform in their own public schools. The result has been that instead of forcing public school change, they have delivered school choice, and the result has not benefited students at large. Measures of performance in the metro area have instead shown that charter schools are doing no better, and often vastly worse, than their public school competitors. When the charter school fails, the public is left with a mess, and the former charter operator retains the profits. At the same time, the transfer out through a cherry picking process has impoverished the remaining public schools, vastly increased their average costs of operation, and made school reform significantly more difficult to accomplish.
The choice movement in Minnesota has been a major factor in the destruction of public schools in the twin-cities. The two major metro school districts share much of the blame for their problems, of course, but the choice movement has significantly limited their ability to recover and overcome their challenges. That might be worth the price, were it not for the fact that the choice movement has made no discernible impact on the achievement gap, and has probably made it worse.

One understands the reason why folks who operate private schools support a voucher system. It allows them to increase their enrollment at public expense. They can accept public money without accepting the public responsibilities and costs that go along with it. It's a great business deal for them. They can hire teachers at non-union rates; deny admission to students who they judge more costly than the state funded tuition justifies, and expel them if they discover that their cost margin expectations do not prove correct. If the advocates for vouchers were truly interested in closing the achievement gap, they would advocating that private schools must accept all students eligible at the same cost, but amendments at the legislature to do just that were defeated by voucher advocates.

In this connection, I want to distinguish the choice movement as a device to help a few lucky students as compared to a device systemically to close the achievement gap. I taught in the District of Columbia school system. That system has a long history of dysfunctionality; it has been so dysfunctional for so long, that it is difficult I think for Minnesotans even to envision the depth of the systemic failures in that system. The parochial system in Washington DC provided a safety value for those students who were fortunate to escape deeply dysfunctional schools. No one can deny the benefits to those individual students.

But we are talking here of closing the achievement gap, which means creating a system that works for all students. If we are not going to make the reforms and provide the funding necessary to assure quality educations for all students, then I suppose providing an escape for some students -- the lucky ones, the cherry picked students -- is better than nothing. But actually, the result of the voucher system is exactly the opposite. It removes pressure for reform, inflicts growing financial penalties on the publics, and allows legislators to rationalize their failure to provide funding and demand reform. They can throw up their hands and claim that they fixed the problem with choice.

The claim that privates and parochials are trying to help us close the achievement gap is a well-intentioned rationalization. Their proposal will make gap closing more difficult; will cripple our ability to do that by transferring out the lowest cost students and leaving us with the most expensive. God bless parochial education. I owe my professional career to a great Catholic institution of learning. But the voucher proposal would destroy public school efforts to make progress on the achievement gap and should be defeated.


  1. Not only does school choice not solve the problem, as you note, it also serves to support religious schools in a way that I believe violates church/state separation.

  2. Vouchers or tuition tax credits for low income students may possibly be constitutional under the current United States Supreme Court and Minnesota Supreme Court. Undoubtedly, it will lead to significant growth in the number of private schools in ways which will possibly surprise advocates for vouchers. Look for establishment of a number of islamic parochial schools. Look for the creation of a high priced tuition tax credit lobby that seek to drive down support for public schools and shift money to parochials. Look for increased religious and ethnic segregation. Look for decreased support generally for education funding as the number of families connected to public education further falls. Look for creative financial arrangements for these school establishments that are designed primarily to create wealth for its founders. Look for creative financing, real estate investment devices, and high priced foundation lawyers and accountants. Federal Title I requires school districts to pay a percentage of federal money to private tutoring operations. The hourly rates for some of these operations is scandalous and the cost effectiveness and results are virtually unmonitored. The federal financing of for-profit post secondary institutions through loans has resulted in exploitation of low income students and financial exploitation.


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