Should President Biden follow through on his campaign promise to grant local school districts veto power over the creation of new charter schools within their borders, on the assumption that their expansion harms traditional public schools?
Should President Biden follow through on his campaign promise to grant local school districts veto power over the creation of new charter schools within their borders, on the assumption that their expansion harms traditional public schools?
Anyone consulting the available research on the link between charter competition and student achievement will find little evidence to support such a shift. Indeed, multiple studies, including a recent analysis from Fordham, have found that charter expansion improves student outcomes at nearby district schools—or, at worst, does no harm. Yet the debate over charters’ fiscal effects is less studied and more complex. Opponents of charters contend that they drain district coffers because revenues decline as students leave while fixed costs remain largely the same, while proponents argue that it is charters that are denied essential funding.
So where does the truth lie?
To find out, we turned to Mark Weber of New Jersey Policy Perspective—@JerseyJazzman, to his Twitter followers—whose work on this topic is well known, to conduct our newest study, Robbers or Victims? Charter Schools and District Finances. Veterans of the charter wars will recognize the surprising nature of this partnership, as Mark’s skepticism of charters roughly mirrors Fordham’s longstanding convictions regarding their efficacy. However, for the purposes of the project, all parties agreed to sheath their swords (and their Twitter handles).
Because much of our knowledge of charters’ fiscal effects is based on studies from a handful of Rust Belt states, a primary goal of our project was to broaden the conversation by including as many states as possible. However, because every state takes a distinctive approach to authorizing and funding its charters, we decided against producing national estimates, choosing instead to generate separate estimates for each of the twenty-one states that met our inclusion criteria. Similarly, because both districts and states are likely to adjust their behavior as charters take root and grow, we included all eighteen years for which plausibly comparable data on charter locations and districts finances are available. And to simplify this complicated analysis, we asked Weber to focus on independent charter schools—that is, those not authorized by traditional school districts—as these are the ones most critics find worrisome.
The results are summarized in three findings.
- In most states, an increase in the percentage of students attending independent charter schools was associated with a significant increase in host districts’ total revenue and spending per pupil.
- In most states, an increase in the percentage of students attending independent charter schools was associated with an increase in host districts’ local revenue per pupil, and in some states, it was also associated with an increase in state and/or federal revenue per pupil.
- In most states, an increase in the percentage of students attending independent charter schools was associated with an increase in host districts’ per-pupil spending on support services, and in some states, it was also associated with an increase in instructional spending per pupil.
Identifying policies that could explain these patterns isn’t difficult, particularly on the revenue side. After all, numerous studies have found that charters’ de facto or de jure exclusion from local funding sources is the single biggest driver of district-charter inequities, and in states like Arizona and Idaho, charters still lack any access to local funding. So obviously, charter-driven enrollment losses are likely to increase host districts’ local funding per pupil insofar as they mean that districts are serving fewer students with roughly the same amount of locally generated money.
Furthermore, most states have some form of “hold-harmless” policy that directs more money to districts with declining enrollments, plus policies that funnel additional dollars to smaller school districts. And some of the states with the largest increases in state funding per pupil, such as Massachusetts and New York, also have policies that compensate districts specifically for charter-driven enrollment losses.
Finally, increases in host districts’ federal funding per pupil could be attributable to the fact that all four Title I programs also have time-limited hold-harmless provisions or issues with the distribution of Title I funds between traditional districts and charters.
But what about spending? One potential interpretation of the increases in support spending, which includes things like building maintenance and administration, is that charter-driven enrollment declines are indeed increasing host districts’ fixed costs on a per-pupil basis. However, in our view, though not necessarily in Weber’s, the simplest explanation for the observed increases in host districts’ spending per pupil is that their revenues per pupil are increasing. After all, traditional school districts, like all government agencies, have a strong incentive to spend whatever monies they receive, rather than signal that policymakers may be giving them more money than they require.
Either way, one piece of undeniably good news is that host districts’ instructional spending per pupil remained neutral to positive in all twenty-one states, even in the face of charter expansion. Notably, this key finding is consistent with the growing body of research that suggests charter competition has a neutral-to-positive effect on the achievement of students in traditional public schools.
Now someone needs to tell President Biden.
It’s not surprising that most of the arguments against widespread student loan forgiveness are coming from the political right, given that the idea itself gained prominence during the 2020 presidential campaigns of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But perhaps the strongest reasons for yelling “Stop” should come from the left because of the negative impact that such a step would cause to our most vulnerable families and communities.
For conservatives, across-the-board, no-strings-attached forgiveness of student loans is an obviously bad idea. It’s enormously expensive—the version sponsored by Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to waive up to $50,000 in student loan debt per person—would cost upwards of $1 trillion. It would cut against deep-seated principles of personal responsibility and fairness, especially given that most college graduates—not to mention holders of professional degrees—are relatively affluent. And it would create expectations for more such windfalls in the future, encouraging future generations to over-borrow and encouraging university bureaucrats to over-spend and hike tuitions further.
Progressives should rethink their view
It’s unclear if the narrow Democratic Senate majority would approve anything like the Warren-Schumer plan, or even President Joe Biden’s more limited proposal to waive up to $10,000 per person. That’s why a coalition of more than 200 progressive groups is calling on Biden to take action unilaterally by directing his Education secretary to use discretion under the Higher Education Act to “minimize the harm to the next generation and help narrow the racial and gender wealth gaps.”
But progressives should curb their enthusiasm because untargeted loan forgiveness could in fact harm the very people they purport to champion: the most disadvantaged Americans, including children growing up in poverty.
The reasons are two-fold. First, the immense cost would dry up federal resources that could otherwise be used for anti-poverty efforts. Imagine the good that $1 trillion could do if invested in the neediest Americans, rather than relatively well-off college-goers. For example, a National Academies committee estimates that we could reduce child poverty by 50 percent with an additional investment of $90–110 billion a year in the Earned Income Tax Credit, housing vouchers, and SNAP benefits.
For $1 trillion, then, we could slash child poverty in half for an entire decade. Not only would that alleviate the suffering of millions, it would also bring downstream benefits in terms of enhanced education outcomes, stronger families, and less multi-generation poverty.
Second, canceling student debt without asking for anything in return would wreak havoc with several forgiveness programs already on the books. These encourage teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and others to serve in high-need areas, or young Americans to opt for public service, including the military. Many of these programs need reforms, and Biden has promised to make them. But, for example, if new teachers can have their loans forgiven no matter where they work, we’ll lose an important tool for recruiting them to urban schools, Indian reservations, and other places where they are needed most.
Target debt relief to meet social needs
Targeted programs are smart ways to tackle social programs, provide relief to borrowers, and support the notion of mutual obligation. So let’s have more of them. Given the massive learning loss experienced by so many students during this awful pandemic, especially Black and Brown children and those growing up in poverty, our schools desperately need millions of tutors to help kids catch up. The federal government could create a loan forgiveness program for adults willing to participate in such an initiative.
We also have critical needs in other areas. For example, some have suggested that the heroes who volunteer to be kidney donors could receive loan forgiveness. (That one strikes close to home for me, as my family suffers from an inherited kidney disease that can only be cured with transplants.)
The massive overhang of student loan debt is no joke. Millions are struggling to pay back what they borrowed for college. As tuition has skyrocketed and two punishing recessions have weighed down wages and employment, some college-goers face a real squeeze. But canceling debt outright, especially at massive scale, would represent an enormous lost opportunity. We can find ways to provide relief to the people who need it most while also working to solve some of America’s thorniest social problems. That is the sort of “jubilee” that would be worth celebrating.
Editor’s note: This was first published by USA Today.
Any discussion about “equity” in education that is not first and foremost a discussion about literacy is unserious. Wide and persistent gaps between White and Black students, stretching back decades, make it abundantly clear—or ought to—that state education officials have no more urgent business to attend to than ensuring that every child can read in every school under their control or influence. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress has turned grim with two-thirds of states showing no progress on reading at all, and seventeen declining in the most recent round of testing in 2019. With profound and persistent disruptions to schooling in the past year, there is no basis to be optimistic for a reversal of these trends any time soon.
To its credit, the Council of Chief State School Officers understands this rock-bottom priority. CCSSO has emerged in recent years as a consistent, informed, and energetic proponent of the “science of reading,” and has put considerable effort into championing state initiatives to encourage the adoption and implementation of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) in literacy. Its new report, A Nation of Readers, describes “concrete actions” that state leaders can take to improve the caliber of reading instruction and materials in classrooms within their borders. It’s required reading for any state or district official in a position to influence curriculum adoptions, professional development, or teacher training and certification.
“State chiefs can play an essential role in articulating and advocating for the urgency of coherent literacy policy predicated on evidence-based practices regarding how children learn to read as well as how to teach reading,” the report notes. But this is not mere bully pulpit tub-thumping. The report details concrete steps state education agencies can and should take to push, prod, or cajole districts and schools to ensure classroom practice reflects what we know about teaching reading. “Often driven by tradition and a lack of access to rigorous research on outcomes, too many districts do not align their reading policies, programs, and practices with the current evidence base regarding how reading skills develop. District decisions and teacher practices often occur in a vacuum, without clear state guidance or support around what constitutes high-quality literacy instruction.” Just so.
The report stems from a convening last January of state chiefs and policy experts on how to improve reading skills for all students and to grapple with systemic barriers to improving reading outcomes and set forth action state leaders could take to remove those barriers. According to the report, seventeen states have either passed laws or proposed new legislation designed to “encourage or require” districts to implement the science of reading. Louisiana, for example, put a statewide “Instructional Materials Review” process in place several years ago, which has become a national model. Arkansas’s 2017 “Right to Read” Act requires that all K–6 core content teachers and all K–12 special educators and reading specialists in the state must complete professional development pathway and obtain a “proficiency credential” on the science of reading. Nebraska provides guidance and technical assistance to districts on instructional materials selection, and collects data on each district’s curriculum, displaying the data on a statewide “Instructional Materials Map.”
The report recommends “engaging college and university partners” in support of states’ reading strategy. This is a crucial and often overlooked lever, even in states that have taken bold steps to push the adoption and use of “high quality instructional materials.” Curriculum doesn’t teach itself. At the CCSSO literacy summit last January, David Steiner, the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and New York’s former state education commissioner, highlighted state education departments’ curious reluctance to cross swords with the colleges and universities they nominally oversee, reminding the state chiefs in attendance that they have “multiple tools at their disposal they’re simply not using.” The report quotes Steiner at length: “Accreditation is a real tool. A school of education, an alternative certification program cannot operate if the state says it can’t operate. Certification is a real tool. Teachers cannot teach if the state says they’re not certified to do so.” Steiner encouraged state superintendents to hold schools of education to account for the impact their graduates have in the classroom.
The National Council on Teacher Quality has documented promising progress on reading instruction. Its 2020 Teacher Prep Review found that just over half of elementary teacher preparation programs earned an “A” or “B” for coverage of the science of reading in their course offerings, up from just 35 percent seven years ago. Still, the vast majority of teachers attend ed schools in the states in which they are licensed and ultimately work. The power of accreditation implies the potential for states to align not just instruction, assessment, and professional learning, but teacher certification and licensure to ensure that teachers graduate not merely familiar with the science of reading but trained and qualified to teach one or more specific reading curricula built upon it, and prepared to implement it with fidelity on day one. There are obvious advantages to districts and schools having a pool of candidates qualified to teach the specific programs they have been encouraged to adopt, and for universities to track which of those programs lead to their teachers getting reliably hired—a “last mile” solution that would complete the virtuous circle forward-thinking states are already building.
Covid-19 had not yet entered our vocabulary last January when the CCSSO summit convened, but the pandemic is a reason press on—not press pause—with these recommendations. “SEAs should be clear about the importance of reading instruction as a key lever for accelerating unfinished learning,” the authors note. Covid relief funding “gives districts a unique opportunity to invest in effective reading instruction, including curriculum and professional development.... The evidence base for how children learn early foundational reading skills is settled,” the report concludes with admirable clarity and certainty. “State chiefs are uniquely positioned and uniquely responsible for driving improvements in literacy founded on evidence-based practices.”
CCSSO has laid out a clear and compelling set of action steps that are well within the power of every state to achieve and every state chief to drive.
Why do some students succeed and others lag behind? This is, of course, a central question in education policy. Since James Coleman’s massive 1966 report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” the debate has tended to center on whether the gaps we observe among student groups are more attributable to differences in school resources or family background factors. Yet in his seminal 1959 article “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition,” Coleman pointed his readers towards another important factor, more elusive and not obviously connected to either the resources of the school or family: the agency of the student herself.
Adolescents have their own interests and social norms, which influence how hard they work at their studies and what learning they achieve. In an important twist, Coleman argued that school policies—such as grading on a curve—could have an effect on student norms and thus influence student effort, albeit indirectly.
Using an experiment to see how much middle school students are willing to complete homework modules in return for cash incentives, a new NBER working paper aims to shed light on the extent to which student motivation drives student outcomes.
To investigate this question, the multinational group of university-based economists who conducted the research set up a website to administer math quizzes to fifth and sixth grade students in three Illinois districts across the socioeconomic spectrum. The website had eighty short math quizzes that the students could complete, and the students received cash incentives for each quiz completed, and students were allowed to take each quiz as many times as they wanted. The students had access to the website for ten days, and, crucially, the amounts of the incentives were randomized across students, meaning that some students were randomly offered more money than others. This randomization enables the researchers to estimate the effect of the incentive for different subgroups of students, for example, boys versus girls.
The researchers designed the experiment with the intention of disentangling the extent to which academic outcomes are attributable to student motivation versus “academic efficiency.” This distinction is useful. For example, we may hear that students who do not turn in their homework are lacking motivation, and of course, that may be true. Yet the authors point out that if you have two students with equal motivation but one can get the homework done in a short amount of time and the other cannot because the second student has less of this “academic efficiency,” the first student may be turning in the homework because the work can be completed in a reasonable amount of time for them, while the other student would spend the same amount of time without getting anywhere.
The experiment allows them to differentiate between these two constructs to some degree, since the researchers can estimate academic efficiency based on how much time it takes students to successfully complete the quizzes, while estimating a student’s “time preference” (or motivation) based on how he responds to the randomly-assigned incentives.
As we would expect, the researchers find that students with larger cash incentives tended to successfully complete more math quizzes. Among students who completed at least one quiz, the students in the highest incentive group ($1.25 per quiz) did an average of twenty-six of the eighty available quizzes, whereas those in the lowest incentive group ($0.75 per quiz) did just eighteen, on average. Those students in the high incentive group also spent an average of a minute more per quiz, presumably because they had greater incentives to be careful and to continue attempting the quizzes even if they failed the first time.
Yet these averages obscure substantial variation across students. Half of the students never completed a single math quiz, while 4 percent completed all eighty quizzes. Of the students who completed at least one quiz, there was dramatic variation in how much money it took to get them to work, when considering the incentives on an hourly basis. At the 25th percentile of time preference, a student needed less than $3 to forego one hour of leisure time, but at the 75th percentile, a student required more than $18.
Then, using estimates derived from the effects of the incentives, they find differences in motivation among student groups. Female students are more motivated (i.e., they have less preference for leisure time) than male students, and black students are also slightly more motivated than white students. This leads the authors to the conclusion that “educational interventions that aim to decrease gender or racial performance gaps in math by motivating students through incentives or information about the returns to education may be misguided.” That’s because black students are already at least as motivated, according to their experiment, and because they find that academic efficiency has a much more powerful effect on the number of quizzes students take than time preference does.
They also look across these three districts and try to isolate the effect of the district on the students by seeing how students across the districts, which spanned the socioeconomic spectrum, varied in academic efficiency after controlling for all the student observable characteristics. The difference in district value-added between the wealthier and the poorer districts is about three fourths of a standard deviation, which is substantial.
The key implication of the study is that financial incentives are likely to be costly, and because achievement gaps don’t reflect gaps in motivation anyway, altering academic efficiency—not student motivation—is the “low-lying fruit.”
The experiment is clever and the findings are fascinating, but I see two important objections to the researchers’ claims about the varying importance of student motivation and academic efficiency.
First, they define academic efficiency as covering “differences in a child’s initial proficiency level, or differences in a child’s study process, academic support network, or innate ability.” We don’t know which of these factors contributes the most to academic efficiency, but they imply that this is mostly about levers that we understand and that are easy to implement. For example, in their conclusion to the paper, they suggest that “improvement in the quality of instruction” would improve efficiency, which is no doubt true. Yet increasing funding, improving the quality of instruction, or otherwise improving school inputs—even if they are well worth the associated costs—are unlikely to come close to equalizing academic efficiency, considering that so many other factors contribute to it. Some of the contributors to academic efficiency—student IQ, parent education, or previous levels of academic achievement—probably can’t be changed no matter what the intervention.
The second problem is that the claim that average motivation is just as high for Black students as White students contradicts all the other research on this subject that I have seen related to education or other life circumstances. Researchers have tended to find lower motivation, greater preference for leisure time, or higher “discount rates” of future benefits for Black respondents, poor respondents, and male respondents (e.g., here, here, and here). To be clear, I expect that most or all of any racial motivation gap reflects average differences in socioeconomic status across racial groups, not something inherent to students of one race or another. If researchers control for socioeconomic differences, as some have, both achievement and motivation gaps are bound to shrink or even disappear.
So if academic efficiency is actually very difficult to change and differences in engagement and motivation do explain some academic achievement gaps, it’s no longer clear that the key policy implication of this project—that improving academic efficiency is the low-hanging fruit—still holds. The resounding success of some recently-evaluated student incentive programs—particularly among traditionally advantaged student groups—is another reason to doubt this implication.
The results of this experiment have given us a lot to chew on. But given the broader research on motivation and student incentives, readers should be skeptical of the broad-brush claim that student incentives are generally ineffective.
SOURCE: Cotton et al. “Productivity Versus Motivation in Adolescent Human Capital Production: Evidence from a Structurally-motivated Field Experiment,” 2020 (NBER Working paper).
Recent work published in the Journal of Labor Economics examines how school segregation may be related to racial gaps in special education identification. The authors constructed a sample of approximately 869,000 students, linking birth records to educational records for children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002. Within their data set, the authors have a variety of health, social, and economic information regarding both children and their mothers.
The authors seek to tease apart the extent to which differences in special education identification between racial groups are driven by legitimate health and achievement-based judgements versus potential racial bias. Put simply, their model breaks down differences in special education identification into a sum of the explained and unexplained components. The explained component reflects differences in health, economic status, and parental education, all of which may drive special education identification in legitimate ways. The unexplained component reflects what cannot be explained by differences in other data points, and thus can be interpreted as the extent to which special education identification differs according to race. The highly detailed health and background data utilized in the model allow the authors to make comparisons between students who look nearly identical apart from their race, setting up a framework to consider racial inequities in their findings.
Across the board, the authors find that Black students are significantly less likely to be identified for special education than White students with similar health and family background data. Further, Black students are overrepresented in special education when attending majority White schools, but underrepresented in special education when attending majority Black and Hispanic schools. A Black fourth grader is 9 percentage points less likely to be identified for special education in a majority minority school than in a majority White school. A similar pattern exists for Hispanic students, though less pronounced; White students exhibit the opposite pattern.
The authors conduct a series of checks to determine what might explain these trends. Economic differences between majority minority and majority White schools likely play an important role in a school’s capacity to provide special education services, and indeed, the authors find evidence that economic conditions can explain representation trends for Hispanic and White students. However, economic conditions do not explain trends in special education identification for Black students, suggesting that race remains a part of the story.
The findings presented are compelling evidence that school composition plays an important role in students’ educational experience. Special education services are not uniformly good or bad. There is evidence both that high quality services are beneficial to those who need them, and that special education can remove students from learning opportunities in a stigmatizing way. As such, an immediate answer to racial disproportionality in special education may not be to achieve the “optimal” special education identification rate, but rather to ensure that special education services are high quality and available to all who may benefit.
Further, given the health disparities between Black and White children documented in this paper, the authors suggest incorporating health differences into IDEA’s disproportionality regulations. This may encourage schools and districts to ensure that special education services are made available to students more likely to live with a disability.
Finally, these results also indicate that school segregation is not a neutral phenomenon. There are real consequences to allowing segregated schools to persist, and Black children with disabilities are shouldering a meaningful share.
SOURCE: Todd E. Elder, David N. Figlio, Scott A. Imberman, and Claudia L. Persico, “School segregation and racial gaps in special education identification,” Journal of Labor Economics, 39(S1) (2021).
On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and David Griffith are joined by Mark Weber, a special analyst for education policy at the New Jersey Policy Perspective, to discuss the new report he authored for Fordham, Robbers or Victims? Charter Schools and District Finances. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines a poll of parents’ opinions on Covid-19 and their children’s’ schooling.
Amber's Research Minute
Morning Consult, “Gen Pop National Polling Presentation,” EdChoice (January 2021).
If you listen on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a rating and review - we'd love to hear what you think! The Education Gadfly Show is available on all major podcast platforms.
- “A year into the pandemic, thousands of students still can't get reliable WiFi for school.” —USA Today
- In three states, legislators are introducing bills to ban the use of the controversial 1619 Project curriculum, which frames the nation’s history around the oppression of Black Americans. —EdWeek
- Can the most powerful union president, Randi Weingarten, get teachers across the nation to return to schools in person? —New York Times
- “Is Biden lowering the bar for what ‘reopening schools’ means?” —Education Week
- Illinois’ policies have been driving people to other states for the last decade. Now, the state wants to mandate explicitly progressive viewpoints and activism in all public schools. —George F. Will
- The pandemic has raised demand for more educational options. Perhaps the future will have a more pluralistic educational system in America. —The Atlantic
- Families in Montclair New Jersey are fighting to demand in-person learning options, turning the mayor, a high-ranking teachers union officer, against parents and the superintendent. —NJ.com
- The pandemic has brought an unprecedented drop in Catholic school enrollment—the largest single-year decline in five decades. —AP News
- Stanford released a decade’s worth of data showing student test scores improving in California, on average, but revealing a widening gap between Black and White students’ scores. —EdSource