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.]

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