Washington Won’t Give You What You Pay For

Washington Won’t Give You What You Pay For

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Unless you’re a taxpayer, in which case you will get less than you wanted from Washington even though they used your money.

President Obama has left office, and the results of the ideas issued under his watch are coming in. Education research demonstrates we didn’t always get a bargain. A new study finds that a multi-billion-dollar federal grant program that incentivized district schools to change their operations neither changed such operations nor resulted in student achievement.

From 2009 to 2016, the U.S. Department of Education awarded School Improvement Grants (SIG). Each year, the agency divided approximately $500 million between states as part of Obama’s stimulus package to help ease schools out of the financial crisis that started in 2007. Georgia schools received approximately $16 million per year from 2014-16.

Schools could fire the principal, replace half of the teachers, and change instructional strategies like adding instructional time to the school day (part of what are called the “transformation” and “turnaround” methods); convert to a charter school; or close the school and send students to better-performing schools.

The result? SIG had no effect—none—on student achievement, graduation rates, or college enrollment.

Note this key detail: Researchers studied 1,200 participating schools and found that the transformation/turnaround methods were by far the most popular choices for schools. Just 33 schools converted to a charter school and 16 closed and allowed students to attend higher performing schools (3 percent and 1 percent of 1,253 schools, respectively). Thus, more money and grant applications promising to teach differently did not result in drastic changes.

Remarkably, researchers had already documented that some of the strategies SIG incentivized in the transformation/turnaround approaches were not supported by rigorous evidence: “Previous literature provides mixed evidence on the effectiveness of some of these practices at raising student achievement.” Yet Washington still spent some $7 billion over nearly a decade encouraging these activities.

Meanwhile, approximately 2,000 new charter schools opened without this federal slush fund from 2009 to 2016. Today, more than 6,000 charter schools operate nationwide. Charter schools are different state-to-state, but in some areas where all public school results disappoint, like Detroit, Michigan, charter schools are outperforming district schools. Those opposing President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Department of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, have cited Detroit’s low scores and DeVos’s support of parental choice in Michigan as evidence that she is not qualified for the post.

But multiple studies demonstrate that Detroit charter school students are outperforming their peers in traditional schools. DeVos’s skeptics are free to scrutinize her policy positions, but opponents lose credibility when they misrepresent data.

Likewise, in Arizona, charter schools outperform district schools in terms of eventual college graduates. Charter schools account for 14 percent of Arizona’s total public school population, yet charter schools make up for 5 of the top 10 public schools in the state for students finishing college in 4 years.

Arizona charter schools—like nearly all charter schools in the U.S.—are producing these results despite being funded with less money per student than district public schools. Georgia charter schools are funded at approximately $3,000 less per student than district schools, and low-income 8th grade charter students are outperforming their peers in a national comparison. Now there’s a bargain.

Again, more SIG schools opted not to convert to a charter school with their grant money, choosing more administrative changes instead. And researchers did not find better student outcomes.

Let’s hope policymakers learned a lesson from a failed experiment relying on more taxpayer money for public schools. Lawmakers should commit to giving parents and children more quality educational choices over the next four years. Families will get a better deal when they can choose how and where their children learn.

New Report From Mississippi Finds High Levels of Satisfaction for ESA Families

New Report From Mississippi Finds High Levels of Satisfaction for ESA Families

Research evidence loves company. Consistent findings from different populations mean the results are less likely to be an accident and more likely to demonstrate a trend.

A new report from Mississippi finds that parents using education savings accounts report high levels of satisfaction, consistent with surveys of a similar law in Arizona. Ninety-one percent of respondents reported some level of satisfaction with Mississippi’s accounts, and 98 percent of respondents reported being either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their educational choices after using an account. Seventy-one percent of parents in the survey reported being “very satisfied” with their choices.

Similar to accounts in Arizona, Florida, and Tennessee, the education savings accounts in Mississippi allow parents to buy educational products and services for their children using a portion of their child’s funds from the state funding formula. Parents can make multiple purchases simultaneously according to their student’s needs.

Mississippi lawmakers gave parents of children with special needs this flexible option in 2015 after years of criticism of state services for these students. Empower MS’s Brett Kittredge says, “It was clear that many of Mississippi’s most vulnerable children were being left behind and this pattern would only continue unless policymakers took action.” In 2014, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that just 23 percent of Mississippi children with special needs graduated from a state high school.

Kittredge explains how Mississippi’s accounts are helping children like Lana Beard, who doctors diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and visual perception disorder. The accounts helped the Beard’s access a school that has specialized services for children like Lana when her assigned district school was no longer the right fit. Her parents used the account to help cover tuition and services at the new school.

Thousands of families across Arizona and Florida have similar stories. In some cases, families use an account to help pay for personal tutors, online classes, home educational needs, and even college savings plans. In Arizona, where students from failing schools and military families are eligible for the accounts, along with children with special needs, approximately one-third of participants are using their account for more than one learning option.

In 2013, researchers from EdChoice and the Goldwater Institute studied the nation’s first education savings accounts in Arizona and also found parents were pleased with their choice to leave an assigned public school and use an account. All parents in the survey reported some level of satisfaction, and 71 percent of participants were “very satisfied,” even among the families that were satisfied with their child’s previous public school. Focus group research conducted by the Goldwater Institute has also found similar satisfaction levels.

Georgia policymakers preparing for the 2017 legislative session should use the growing research evidence on parent satisfaction with education savings accounts to support efforts to give state families similar options.

Even though Mississippi’s program is still in its infancy, Kittredge reports the number of applicants for the accounts in 2016-17 exceeded the state’s cap of 425. He says families are now on a waiting list for a chance to participate next year.

“Parents are the ultimate accountability rating,” Kittredge says. “That is why we believe understanding parental satisfaction with [education savings accounts] is so important in judging this program.”

Jonathan Butcher is a contributing scholar at GCO in addition to his role as the education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.