Experts, studies offer variety of results for school choice models

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,520 views 

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series examining public school financing and school choice impact. Read part one here.

One University of Arkansas education professor says school choice would lead to better outcomes for students, another agrees but cautions that both good and bad effects would be limited, and a third says there’s not evidence to show it would work.

The three were interviewed by Talk Business & Politics last week as Gov. Sarah Sanders’ administration and lawmakers were finalizing her Arkansas LEARNS education package.

That package will include what she calls “education freedom accounts.” Like other states’ education savings accounts, or ESAs, they would provide parents access to the state per-pupil foundation funding that goes to public schools. For the 2022-23 school year, schools receive $7,413 in per-pupil foundation funding for each student that attends, plus other types of funding. Total per pupil expenditures were $11,620 in 2021-22.

During an interview with KARK’s “Capitol View” that aired Feb. 12, Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva said a “one-size-fits-all” approach may not meet all students’ needs.

Oliva said conditions would have to be met to ensure children are being educated. Private schools would be vetted, they would have to be accredited, and they would assess their students. Then they would receive direct payments from the state.

The program would be phased in over three years starting with the upcoming school year, with universal availability the final result. Oliva said the “most fragile learners” would be prioritized, including students in bad schools, students with disabilities, English language learners, foster kids, homeless kids, and children of military service members.

According to the conservative-leaning Arkansas Policy Foundation, 109,683 Arkansas students were attending charter, home, or private schools this school year. That compares to 66,627 in 2013. Of those this year, 26,378 were being homeschooled and 19,932 were attending private schools. The rest were attending charter schools, which are public schools operated by public school districts, government entities, higher learning institutions and tax-exempt non-religious organizations.

Patrick Wolf, Ph.D., distinguished professor and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, said school choice is expanding nationally. The movement is going away from narrowly targeted school voucher scholarships serving students with disabilities and low-income students, and is going toward universal or close-to-universal accessibility with flexible education savings accounts that parents can use to cover other expenses such as tutoring, technology, therapies and textbooks.

If the LEARNS plan becomes law, as seems likely the case, Arkansas would be following that trend. The state now has two narrowly targeted offerings tied to scholarships. The Succeed Scholarship Program provides private school scholarships to roughly 850 foster children, children with disabilities, and children of military service members. The Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Scholarship Program offers tax credits for donations to nonprofits that provide scholarships to students from families earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level.

Wolf’s fellow professor at the Department of Education Reform, Robert Maranto, Ph.D., editor of the Journal of School Choice, said the COVID pandemic increased the momentum for school choice because some people were dissatisfied with the public schools’ response. The growth of ESAs benefitting the middle class, over vouchers which primarily benefited poor kids, has also increased momentum.

Among the leading school choice states are Arizona, West Virginia, Iowa and Utah. Arizona, long a leader in the school choice movement, in 2022 enacted the nation’s first fully universal school choice program. It provides about $7,000 for parents to spend on private school tuition or approved educational materials. Parents receive a debit card-like instrument. They keep their receipts, and their expenses are periodically audited by government officials. More than 30,000 students out of the state’s 1.1 million are participating. Arizona’s new governor, Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, proposed doing away with the program in her State of the State address, saying the state can’t afford it.

Wolf said most states are gravitating more toward West Virginia’s model, where there are more accountability measures on the front end. Parents who agree not to enroll their child in a district-run public school receive money in an account they can use to purchase educational services from certified vendors vetted by the state and listed on a website. All students not already enrolled in private schools are eligible. That program recently was upheld by that state’s Supreme Court.

Among other state leaders, Iowa is moving toward universal availability over three years, while Utah has recently enacted legislation for a program that will grow to universality. Wolf said none of the states’ programs allow for funds to be used to pay parents or immediate relatives for homeschooling services.

Wolf also said some states require private schools accepting students using ESAs to test those students. In West Virginia, Iowa, Utah and Florida, private schools choose their own nationally norm-referenced test. Tennessee requires ESA students at private schools to take the state accountability test. Arizona does not have a testing requirement.

Maranto said 30 years of research on school choice shows it results in significant improvements in parent-student satisfaction and some improvements in teacher empowerment, along with fairly substantial improvements in later life incomes. Test score improvements are small but generally positive and more in math and English.

Wolf said test score results for school choice students are mixed, and that studies have produced varied results. Arizona’s ESA program hasn’t been evaluated. Studies have shown positive effects from school choice programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., but some studies have shown negative effects, including a study he led in Louisiana.

There, participating students’ test scores were lower after four years than a control group of students who had wanted to participate but didn’t win the lottery system that made slots available.

Wolf said private schools were required to accept any applicant and had to administer a state accountability test, and the state superintendent of instruction had the authority to judge a private school’s curriculum and kick the school out. As a result, higher-quality private schools didn’t participate.

Test score results can depend on factors such as program design and the test used, Wolf said. Also, school choice students have their education disrupted, so there’s a dip followed by an improvement in test scores as they adjust. He said public school efforts are more aligned with state-mandated tests because they have been pressured to increase test scores. Private schools often emphasize other priorities.

Other measures of student success have seen more positive effects, Wolf said. Of the 10 findings related to student advancement – how many students graduate high school, how many enroll in college, how many complete college – eight are positive and two are null. He said there’s evidence that private schools do as well or better than districtwide public schools in promoting civic values like tolerance and community involvement.

“I think in balance, I’ve seen more positive effects than negative effects, and so I’m supportive of giving parents more options,” Wolf said.

Christian Goering, a professor of the University of Arkansas’ Department of Curriculum and Instruction, does not support school choice. He said the best research over 25 years shows such programs haven’t improved student performance. He said they send tax dollars primarily to wealthy families whose children are already enrolled in private schools and can pay for the cost.

“The evidence isn’t there that this is going to work. If it were there that this is going to work, then I’d change my mind,” he said.

Goering questioned if Arkansas private schools accepting school choice funding will be required to enroll all students. Elsewhere, they have tended to find ways to exclude students with disabilities or low achievement levels, he said.

Wolf said that in most school choice programs, private schools are allowed to apply their standard admissions criteria. Arizona does not have regulations requiring schools to take every student.

Goering said school choice at one point was an issue that had support among both Democrats and Republicans, but it’s become a conservative idea. He noted that conservatives generally are associated with concerns about government waste and unaccountable spending – practices that can happen when charter schools shut down with no way for governments to recoup the investment. He said some organizers in Arkansas potentially could want to open a school based on a religion other than Christianity, or they may want to teach discredited worldviews, such as that the earth is flat. One homeschooling family in Ohio has been leading a homeschooling network teaching neo-Nazi values.

What would happen if Arkansas enacts a major school choice program? Wolf said 2%-3% of students currently enrolled in public school would immediately transfer. These would be the students for whom the current system is not a good fit.

Then, he predicts it would grow incrementally but not radically. That’s because Wolf says the evidence shows test scores at public schools improve in a school choice environment. They tend to communicate more frequently and effectively with parents, launch new educational programs, and remove their least effective teachers from the classroom. A study of Florida found that in 30 rural counties, public schools lost market share to private schools, but their net enrollment increased because families moved to those areas.

Maranto said school choice offerings tend to diffuse culture wars. A number of European countries fully subsidize private school educations, and they have inspection processes and more control over those private schools’ curricula than in the U.S. The school choice growth happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s, partly to tamp down religious disputes between Catholics and Protestants.

He said Belgium and the Netherlands have had full school choice for more than a century. Students can use the option to attend secular, private, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim schools.

But he questions what options will be available in Arkansas, where much of the state is rural and where there is a limited Catholic school tradition and not a lot of school entrepreneurship. He pointed out that Arkansas has school choice options now, but they involve public schools competing against each other.

Maranto, a former Fayetteville School Board member, said most public schools give people most of what they want. He said the research shows certain reforms do more good than harm, “but it’s not a panacea, and it’s also not a terrible thing.” He said the impacts of school choice are overstated by both sides.

“There’s a little too much triumphalism on the part of people who are pro-choice, and a little too much alarmism on the part of people who really want to support traditional public schools, and I kind of want to do both,” he said.