A Mostly Merry Month for Educational Choice
Those favoring educational freedom – and their enemies – have been busy in May.
Overall, May has been a good month for the school choice movement despite a few lawsuits involving the teachers unions (so what else is new?). The Washington Education Association announced it would file suit by the end of the month challenging a new law in the Evergreen State that corrects problems in the way that charter schools are funded. WEA spouts the usual blather about how charter schools are not accountable, but of course the parents who send their kids to these schools of choice have a very different opinion.
Then there is the Sunshine State, where the Florida Education Association is suing over the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program. Launched in 2001, it allows low income families to send their kids to a private school with money that is funded directly through private donations from businesses, which can then earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits from the state for their contributions. The union has a couple of legal problems, however. Thus far it hasn’t demonstrated to the court that it has standing – sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party’s participation in the case. Additionally, the union has yet to articulate a specific harm that the program inflicts on public schools.
Now for the good news. In August 2015, the ACLU sued Nevada over its Education Savings Account law. Passed a couple of months earlier, the law covers tuition at approved private schools, as well as textbooks, tutoring services, tuition for distance learning programs, fees for special instruction if the child has a disability, et al. There are two tiers to the program: less affluent families get the statewide average basic support per-pupil, or around $5,700, while wealthier families receive $5,100. In support of the litigation, the Nevada State Education Association came up with “Ten Reasons Why Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts Are Bad News for Public Schools and Students” a document which includes the same old tired complaints we always hear from unions – public schools are underfunded, private schools have no accountability, choice leads to segregation, etc. But the lawsuit which claimed that public monies should not go to a religious institution, was denied by the judge who said, “parents – not state actors – decide whether they will use an education savings account, or ESA, to pay for tuition at private and religiously affiliated schools.” The ESAs are not home free yet, however, as there is a second lawsuit pending before the Nevada Supreme Court where the justices are expected to hear arguments in early June.
When it comes to public funds going to private schools, there has always been an arbitrary line drawn between k-12 and college. Pell Grants, which traditionally have been awarded to college students in need to use at the college of their choice – public, private, secular or religious – have been championed by the teachers unions. Yet the same unions rail against any similar vouchers on the elementary-high school level. But, in a very interesting move, Pell Grants can now be used by high schoolers as part of a dual enrollment program. Under the new plan announced just last week, thousands of low-income high-school students in nearly two dozen states, will, starting this summer, be able to get federal grants to take college courses for credit. And some of the 44 participating colleges are private. So with Pell Grants now stretching into high schools, it will be interesting to see if the teachers unions weigh in. Nothing from them yet. In any event, the slippery slope may have become just a bit slicker.
Two studies have come out this month which show the benefits of school choice while dispelling most of the banalities that the teachers unions and other anti-choicers regularly use. In “A Win-Win Solution – The Empirical Evidence on School Choice,” a meta-analysis (study of studies), Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice senior fellow Greg Forster found that choice improves academic outcomes not only for participants but also public school students. Summing up the study, Jay Greene writes that choice “saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy. A few outlier cases that do not fit this pattern may get a disproportionate amount of attention, but the research consensus in favor of school choice as a general policy is clear and consistent.”
A second meta-analysis led by University of Arkansas researcher Patrick Wolf, using 19 gold standard studies of private school choice programs globally, found that private school choice increases the reading and math scores of choice users. Interestingly, achievement benefits of private school choice appear to be somewhat larger for programs in developing countries than for those in the U.S. Wolf explains, “Our meta-analysis avoided all three factors that have muddied the waters on the test-score effects of private school choice. It is a non-ideological scientific enterprise, as we followed strict meta-analytic principles such as including every experimental evaluation of choice produced to date, anywhere in the world.”
Facts, data and meta-studies are what honest researchers use. The unions, not using any objective methodology, rely purely on vapid talking points which they cannot back up. (Actually there was one recent study commissioned by the United Teachers of Los Angeles in which the union tries to prove that charter schools have cost the LA School district a half billion dollars. But the report, loaded with inaccuracies and distortions, ultimately proved that a study commissioned by a teachers union is about as valid as preposterous claims made by a 3am TV pitchman hawking wrinkle cream. More on the faux UTLA study soon.) Some National Education Association baseless assertions:
Fact: There’s no link between vouchers and gains in student achievement.
Fact: Vouchers do not give parents real educational choice.
Fact: Vouchers do not reduce public education costs.
Lie. Lie. Lie.
But no matter. The unions will not give up their ongoing efforts to deny parental choice. To paraphrase an old maxim, since they can’t bang on the facts, they try to bang on the law. And when that doesn’t work, the only thing they have left to bang on is the table.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.