Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Move, pay, or lie

If you want school choice, says Patrick McGuigan, those are your choices.

Through 'Special Care,' Henry Scholarships reach more children

Children and families with enormous challenges are finding help through the Special Care program, Patrick McGuigan reports.

Don't read their push cards, read their roll calls

An Oklahoma House committee’s failure to pass ESA legislation is an example of politicians acting as though "the public won’t notice contradictions between their campaign rhetoric and actual record," The Oklahoman notes today in an editorial. Votes against an ESA

contradict Republican stances on supporting the free market and opposing “one size fits all” government mandates. If the five dissident Republicans hope voters will ignore those contradictions, two words suggest otherwise: Melissa Abdo.

Abdo is a strident opponent of an existing state program that provides scholarships to children with special needs, such as autism. Abdo also was a candidate for a state House seat in the Jenks area last summer. Once her opposition to school choice was publicized, she quickly went from front-runner to losing a runoff. Her opponent, current Rep. Chuck Strohm, is among the authors of ESA legislation.

Abdo held other views outside the Republican mainstream, but then so do the Republicans who opposed ESAs in committee. Last year Reps. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, and Jadine Nollan, R-Sand Springs, all opposed income tax cuts; Casey and Nollan also supported dramatic increases in energy taxes.

Some politicians may succeed by campaigning as conservatives while voting otherwise. But that seems a poor strategy for a political career in Oklahoma.

Monday, March 2, 2015

'Ignoring the evidence doesn't make it disappear'

"If a study shows the benefits of school choice, but you don’t read it, does it really exist?" Jason Bedrick asks. "Apparently not, at least according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), an organization ideologically committed to opposing school choice."

A homeschool mom's view of government regulation

"Homeschooling challenges the public education bureaucracy in America that says children are better off with professional educators," Amanda Aucoin says. "The more it grows the more they believe it threatens public schools, education programs at colleges (which grant teaching certificates), thousands of bureaucrats, millions of paid teachers, and billions in state and federal dollars – especially when it is demonstrated how well homeschool students do academically, on a fraction of the yearly budget per student."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Accountability in education reporting, policy

I've written previously that I don’t believe media bias is always nefarious, or even intentional. Just as a fish doesn’t swim around all day wondering how he can manage to stay wet, reporters don’t wake up every day asking themselves how they can stick it to conservatives. A fish doesn’t realize he’s wet, and many journalists don’t realize that their J-school training and subsequent existence in a center-left newsroom bubble have conditioned them to construct narrative frameworks one way and not another.

In any case, conservatives are right to be wary of education reporting from the Tulsa World. (I refer you, for example, to my piece “Liberal newspapers and ‘controversial’ conservatives.”). Consider this recent reporting from Tulsa World staff writer Randy Krehbiel:

On a tie vote, the House Common Education Committee turned down a measure to require private schools receiving public money to comply with the same financial reporting mandates as public schools.

Author Katie Henke, R-Tulsa, said her bill would “level the playing field.”

“If you take public dollars, you have to play by the same rules (as public schools),” Henke said.

Currently, the bill would only apply to the approximately 400 recipients of the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program for children with special needs. In view of pending Senate legislation paving the way for school vouchers, however, the issue could have much broader implications.

School choice advocates attacked Henke’s bill, saying it would undercut private schools by making them comply with the same financial reporting as public schools.

“The reason private schools work so well, and they do work well; and the reason home schooling works so well, and it does work well, is that they are free,” said Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks. “They are living the American Dream free of the shackles public schools are required to operate under.”

Strohm, who received substantial support from a school choice group in last year’s election, said private schools should not be subject to requirements as public schools because private school parents are “more engaged” and “know what’s going on” in their schools.

Most of the parents in Rep. Strohm’s legislative district send their children to public schools. They were perhaps insulted to learn that their representative said private-school parents are more engaged than public-school parents.

State Rep. Chuck Strohm
As it turns out, Rep. Strohm didn't say that. “I can tell you private school parents are very engaged,” Rep. Strohm actually said. “I won’t say that they are more engaged than public school parents [emphasis added], but I would say that the parents in private schools are extremely engaged.”

The Tulsa World subsequently issued a correction.

Two more quick observations on the story. First, Mr. Krehbiel mentioned “pending Senate legislation paving the way for school vouchers.” In reality, the pending legislation creates education savings accounts (ESAs). Now granted, various private-school-choice policy mechanisms (vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, ESAs, individual tax credits, and so on) have much in common. And I do understand the challenge of writing for a general audience, especially on deadline. Sometimes it’s easier to use a shorthand term rather than to get bogged down in technicalities. Still, I think readers deserve more clarity. A reporter can certainly explain that ESAs are similar to vouchers, but he should call them ESAs.

Second, Mr. Krehbiel reports that Rep. Strohm “received substantial support from a school choice group in last year’s election.” True enough, and relevant to the story. But why no mention of where Rep. Henke or the bill’s other supporters received their support? Why is one relevant and not the other?

Even though the Tulsa World endorsed Rep. Strohm’s opponent, I am proceeding on the assumption that Mr. Krehbiel was doing his best to be fair. (That has been OCPA's experience with him in the past.) And if that’s not the case, it’s likely to backfire anyway. Just as lefty reporters’ ham-fisted gotcha journalism has helped propel Scott Walker to the top of the GOP presidential field, Rep. Strohm probably doesn’t mind being mentioned in the same story with vouchers, given that likely voters in the Tulsa metro favor them by a margin of 56 percent to 43 percent (according to the Tulsa World’s own pollster).


But enough about the journalism. Let’s look at the merits of the policy argument that private schools receiving public dollars need to be accountable just as public schools are accountable. Patrick McGuigan, who teaches at a public charter school in Oklahoma City, observes:

Eddie Evans of Youth Services of Tulsa recently remarked, “We’ve got kids in 11th and 12th grade who can't read at a third-grade level. How’d they get there?" Rev. Donald Tyler, an African-American preacher in Tulsa, is also on record saying “I have kids in my church who have graduated who can't read.”

McGuigan asks: In what sense are public schools “accountable”? Have the ineffective Tulsa teachers and administrators been fired? Have taxpayers gotten their money back? When this educational malpractice continues year after year, how can people continue to claim with a straight face that public schools are “accountable”? Policymakers need to face the hard truth that "rules" and "regulations" are not synonymous with "accountability."

Private schools participating in school-choice programs are already subject to certain forms of bureaucratic accountability. But is this necessary? Dr. Jay P. Greene (Ph.D. in political science, Harvard University) argues that “the oft-repeated claim that state funding requires accountability to the state is an obviously shallow and false political slogan rather than a well-considered policy view.” After all,

Most state-funded programs require no formal accountability to the state and instead rely primarily on the self-interest of the recipients to use the funds wisely. For example, the largest domestic program, social security, is designed to prevent seniors from lacking basic resources for housing, food, or clothing. But we don’t demand that seniors account for the use of their social security checks. They could blow it at the casino if they want. We’re just counting on the fact that most would have the good sense to make sure that their basic needs are covered first.

Even in the area of education, most government programs require no formal accountability. Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and the Daycare Tuition Tax Credit do not require state testing for people using those funds. We just trust that the public purpose of subsidizing education will be served by people pursuing their own interests. Anyone who declares that state funding requires state accountability obviously hasn’t thought about this for more than 10 seconds.

I’m often told that conservatives are running the legislative and executive branches of Oklahoma’s government. If that's true, and if they want all schools to “play by the same rules,” wouldn’t the conservative instinct be to eliminate rules for public schools rather than to add rules for private schools? If the goal is to level the playing field, then let’s free the public schools from their shackles.

Rob Neu is wrong

In The Journal Record, OCPA president Michael Carnuccio says the Oklahoma City school superintendent doesn’t understand what real courage looks like, and OCPA distinguished fellow Andrew Spiropoulos says the city’s leaders need to teach Mr. Neu the political facts of life.

On the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, journalist Patrick McGuigan says Mr. Neu's remarks were deeply offensive.

For my part, I would suggest Mr. Neu could learn a valuable lesson from another superintendent:

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Special-needs teen nearly beaten to death at Del City High School

News 9 has the story.

Oklahoma dropouts cost taxpayers $800 million a year

If public schools lose 60 students total because of a school choice program, the education establishment declares the sky is falling. But Oklahoma public schools lose 60 students every day as dropouts, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $800 million.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Republican National Committeeman says Oklahoma needs school choice

Great column by Steve Fair here. Like most (but not all) Republicans, Mr. Fair understands that Oklahoma Republicans strongly favor parental choice.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Answering some thoughtful school-choice questions

[Guest post by Patrick Gibbons]

Tyler Bridges, the assistant superintendent of the Clinton Public Schools, recently penned some thoughtful questions about how school choice policies might evolve in Oklahoma (“My Top 10 Unanswered #schoolchoice Questions”). As an individual working for an organization administering two school-choice programs in Florida (and as a former OCPA research assistant), I thought I might take a stab at answering his questions. I’m not here to write about the “right way” to design school choice policies, but I can explain what occurs in Florida and in some other states.

1. Will private schools be mandated to accept all students if said school so chooses to accept vouchers at their respective site?

Private schools are typically allowed to accept or reject anyone they wish, with some exceptions. For example, private schools are not allowed to reject students because of race, color, or national origin.

Some people get worried about private schools “not accepting all students,” but they forget the vast majority of public schools are free to reject students not living within their attendance zones. Magnet schools and programs for the gifted are also free to reject students based on academic ability or talent. It’s worth noting that the prestigious Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, a public school, only accepts a quarter of the applicants.

Louisiana takes away admissions policies from private schools participating in a voucher program. Louisiana requires participating schools to accept students through a state-run lottery system. This policy may have contributed to the very low participation rate among private schools (note: fewer than one-third of private schools participate in Louisiana, compared to more than two-thirds in Florida). Additionally, some (myself included) have speculated that the low participation rate is a contributor to the state’s uniquely poor performance among voucher schools.

2. Are students that bounce back-and-forth going to be monitored? By whom? How often?

Low-income and undocumented students already migrate back and forth between schools all the time. Hopefully Oklahoma already monitors students who switch schools and, if so, hopefully it will continue to monitor students who switch education sectors as well.

3. Are vouchers prorated in their ESA if a student stays one month and then transfers back to their original public school?

Here in Florida the payments to private schools are set quarterly, but you could set the policy so the payments are monthly. With Florida’s education savings account program, unspent money does revert to the state if the child returns to the public school. This money is made available to students on the waiting list, as the program is open on a rolling-application basis.

4. Would the private school refund tuition to the state if they did so choose to return to public school?

Again, that is all determined by the policies created by the state. Typically the private schools keep the payment for that quarter (or the month), just like many public schools.

5. Could a student enroll at a public school after coming from a private school, get the voucher and then transfer back out? Is there a timetable in place to not allow this to happen?

Most programs allow kids to switch freely among private schools with the scholarship. If a student returns to a public school in Florida, we award the remaining scholarship money to a student on the waiting list. The student would need to then reapply for a scholarship if they wanted to attend a private school again.

6. If someone chooses to simply start up a private school, what regulations do they have, if any?

This varies from state to state, but every state has regulations for private schools. Almost every state requires schools to meet local zoning, safety, and fire codes and be open for inspection. Some states have requirements for insurance or surety bonds as well. Many states also require background checks for founders and teachers to ensure there aren’t any felonies or a history of child abuse. States often require private school teachers to at least have a college degree. Education or administrative licenses are not always required (it is likely those requirements don’t provide any value added).

7. Can someone choose to start a private school, accept public dollars for a few years and then when business is bad simply close the doors?

Yes. That isn’t a bad thing. Keeping an unpopular school open would be bad for students and taxpayers alike. Likewise, districts should also be closing down unpopular public schools.

8. Must a private school be owned or sponsored by a local organization to accept vouchers? Facility and staffing requirements?

Every private school is owned by someone or something. They are all incorporated under their respective state laws. This means they have reporting requirements to the Secretary of State and often the Department of Revenue, as well as annual incorporation fees due to the state. Incorporation requires forming boards, creating bylaws, and hosting board meetings. The majority of private schools end up incorporating as nonprofits.

Facilities are required to meet local building and fire and safety codes and schools are subject to inspection. This is standard for private schools in most states already. Finally, let the private schools do their own hiring for staff. No requirements are needed here other than a background checks, or public disclosure of educational attainment of teachers, which are often required of private schools anyway.

9. Will all accountability measures (Audit requirements, RSA, A-F, TLE, testing, etc) currently asked of public schools be transferred to private institutions if/when they choose to accept public funds?

The best accountability, in my opinion, is parents picking among a host of options and allowing students to move freely among them. But if “accountability” is defined as “rules and regulations,” it differs from state to state.

Here in Florida, private schools are required to submit financial audits if they receive $250,000 or more in scholarships (about 48 students). Florida also requires private schools to provide state-approved national norm-referenced tests to scholarship students.

I think this is a nice balance as many private schools already give national norm-referenced tests to their students. This allows private schools to retain independence in selecting tests (and curriculum) while also not outing the low-income students enrolled in the school (they aren’t pulled out of class to take a state test no other student in the school is taking).

By contrast, students in Louisiana must take the state test and private schools are subjected to the same A-F grades as public schools. Unlike public schools, the private schools in Louisiana can be denied future students. These rules are likely strong contributors the state’s previously mentioned low participation rate among private schools and may be a reason for the program’s relatively low performance.

This survey is a good barometer for how private schools in Louisiana, Indiana, and Florida feel about these regulations.

10. Will private schools accepting public funds be visited by Regional Accreditation Officers from the SDE to ensure compliance?

Again, that is up to the state. The Florida Department of Education is allowed to drop in and visit schools and ensure compliance with rules. Private schools are required to respond to DOE requests for information (like for safety plans, inspection documentation, audits, and background checks). Schools can have their eligibility pulled if they fail to do so.

As far as accreditation is concerned, most states allow private schools to seek their own accreditation through an approved third-party organization. Accreditation is not always required, and that isn’t a bad thing either (I’m doubtful accreditation adds any extra value either).

Bonus Round! (suggested by a well-informed colleague) Will public schools be allowed to require parents to pay for days taught or services not fully funded by the state (ACE, RSA, etc) due to not being serviced at a private institution?

If I’m understanding your bonus question correctly, you’re wondering what should happen if a student returns to a public school far behind his or her peers. Who should pay to catch the student up?

David Figlio at Northwestern University found that children entering private schools through Florida’s tax credit scholarship program are behind their eligible peers who remain in public schools. Should public schools be required to pay private schools then?

The answer is no to your bonus question and mine. Here’s why.

Figlio also found that the students who returned to public schools were behind the students that kept their scholarships. Figlio concludes, “the evidence strongly points to an explanation that the poor apparent FCAT performance of FTC program returnees is actually a result of the fact that the returning students are generally particularly struggling students.”

What Figlio discovered was that struggling students switch schools in the hopes of finding something that works. That is why they first chose a private school and, when that school didn’t work, returned to a public or charter school.

Children learn in different ways. That is why providing many educational opportunities allows us to improve the student’s chances of finding a school where they can excel.

[Former OCPA research assistant Patrick Gibbons (M.A. in political science, University of Oklahoma) is the public affairs manager at Step Up for Students, an organization providing scholarships for low-income and special-needs schoolchildren in Florida. A former schoolteacher, Gibbons also serves as a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.]

Monday, February 23, 2015

Statutorily created funding sources and ESAs

Andrew C. Spiropoulos, who serves as the Robert S. Kerr, Sr. Professor of Constitutional Law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, recently answered the objection raised by some ESA opponents that our state constitution requires that education funding go to districts rather than to students.

Comes now the objection that it may be illegal to divert 1017 money, Commissioners of the Land Office funds, or other statutorily created funding sources to ESAs. Prof. Spiropoulos says "there is no merit to these objections."

First, the HB 1017 fund is a statutory fund that can be modified by the legislature at any time. The same thing is true with any fund created by statute. The general rule is that if a later statute conflicts with a previously enacted one, the later prevails. In any event, there is no problem because the the HB 1017 fund consists of less than 30 percent of the money appropriated for common education. The ESA funding can come from the bulk of the agency budget funded by general revenues. The same point answers the Land Office funds questions. These funds make up a tiny percentage of the money appropriated to common education. None of that money need be touched.

SoonerPoll survey finds Oklahomans want school choices

On FOX 25 in Oklahoma City, Michael Carnuccio and Trent England recently chatted with OCPA's Jonathan Small about some of the results of a new SoonerPoll survey on school choice.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

'Our tax money should be spent on the best product available'

The public school system is failing our children, Montague Alcorn of Meeker writes in an excellent letter to the editor published today in The Oklahoman.

Private school students have a lower dropout rate and score higher on all standardized tests than do public school students. While there are some good individual public schools, the system itself is in need of drastic repair.

[A previous letter writer] seems not to be opposed to private schools, only “religious” private schools, and because of this disdain for religion, he feels our children should stay in a failing system. It would only take a few minutes observing the uncontrolled chaos of a public school with the serene atmosphere of a private school for him to understand the difference of philosophies between these types of schools. Private school goals are to develop children socially and academically while maintaining personal responsibility. Public schools’ goals seem to be lowering standards, increasing administration costs and appeasing the teachers unions.

Our tax money should be spent on the best product available. There’s a reason families with the means send their children to private schools, religious or not. It’s because of the excellent education and guidance their children will receive. It’s time to allow families that don’t have the means the same opportunity for their children.