In the fast-moving, highly energized world of school choice and parent-empowerment advocacy, education savings accounts are the hottest thing since vouchers, maybe even hotter. Ten states already have them in some form, and a dozen more legislatures are weighing bills to create them. But Finn is wary, particularly of the free-swinging, almost-anything-goes version known as “universal” ESAs.
In the fast-moving, highly-energized world of school choice and parent-empowerment advocacy, education savings accounts (ESAs) are the hottest thing since vouchers, maybe even hotter, inasmuch as they equip parents (in many jurisdictions) with flexible dollars to spend on behalf of their children’s education, not just a chit that can be delivered to a conventional school.
Here’s how EdChoice—organizational legacy of Milton Friedman—defines them:
ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds—often distributed to families via debit card—can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public-school courses and private services.
The University of Arkansas’s Patrick Wolf terms ESAs “the future of private school choice. It’s the model that provides the maximum amount of customization.”
There’s no denying that they’re spreading. Ten states already have ESAs in some form— Iowa and Utah joined the group just last month with “universal” versions—and the Wall Street Journal reports that a dozen more legislatures are weighing bills to create them. At the federal level, House Republicans are seeking to expand the popular 529 savings plans (originally designed for college tuition) into quasi-ESAs.
It’s not quite an avalanche. Just the other week, Virginia lawmakers rejected several ESA measures and nothing of the sort seems to stand a chance in deep blue states.
But there’s been steady movement in this direction, no doubt accelerated by Covid and the desire of more parents to extract their daughters and sons from unsatisfactory public schools and take charge of their own education, whether in private schools, home schooling, or various hybrids. And the pressure will surely mount as more GOP politicians try to score points by climbing onto the parent-empowerment bandwagon.
The latest wrinkle is commonly termed “universal” ESAs, for which all parents with school-age kids are eligible, unbound by family income, regardless of whether their children already attend private schools, and flexible enough to be used for a host of education-related expenditures. Notre Dame law professors Nicole Garnett and Richard Garnett say they:
...represent a definitive and principled move beyond school choice to parental choice…. [W]hile it is reasonable to expect that, at least in the short term, most families will use ESA dollars for private school tuition, ESAs are more than school-choice programs. They are true parental-choice programs, and catalysts for real-world education pluralism and diversity, giving parents the option of using the public dollars allocated for their children’s education not only for tuition but also for “microschooling,” instructional materials for homeschooling, tutoring, and education therapies.
Consider me wary, particularly of the free-swinging, almost-anything-goes version of universal ESAs. I’m a long-time advocate of school choice and, over the decades, have lauded many versions of it. I’ve practically memorized the Supreme Court’s century-ago ruling that “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
Yet I’ve also lived through enough school-choice enthusiasms to conclude that doing this right is not quite as simple as empowering parents. With three decades of experience with charter schools under the country’s belt, we’ve learned a few things. At least I have.
Start with the fact that even good parents often make dubious education choices, choices that ill-serve their kids in the long run. Instead of seeking out schools that maximize children’s future prospects by equipping them with solid skills, knowledge, and (one can hope!) values and behavior patterns, some parents settle for convenient locations or are beguiled by the claims and advertisements of shoddy schools in search of pupils. The very same parents may not enroll their kids in summer school despite Covid learning losses, failure to pass third grade reading guarantees, or lots of absences during the year and much to make up.
We can (and should) push for more rights and decision-making for parents, but let’s not be naïve about what will result, much of it good for kids, but some not. Too many of today’s “schools of choice”—charter, private, and district-operated—have mediocre-to-awful outcomes and aren’t racking up solid gains, either, yet they’re full of kids whose parents selected them.
No public policy can stop parents from making bad decisions—and a surfeit of policy is paternalistic—but those writing ESA laws (and charter laws, voucher laws, etc.) can boost the odds of good decisions by ensuring that parents regularly receive clear, accurate information on the educational progress of their kids and the performance of their schools, whether those schools are public, private, or some sort of hybrid.
Sadly, we must also acknowledge that some kids have lousy, absent, or overwhelmed parents, some of them addicted, abusive, or simply oblivious. That’s why we have—for better and worse—Child Protective Services, the Milton S. Hershey School, and much more. Again, it’s important to empower parents and give them choices—but there needs to be suitable backup when parents don’t exist or can’t or won’t take responsible action. Mostly that means operating quality district public schools as the default for kids whose parents aren’t choosers.
Turning from demand to supply, we need to recognize that, when lots of money is floating around, some folks will grab for it by starting shoddy (but lucrative) schools, filling board and staff with friends and relatives, leasing a facility at exorbitant rates from themselves or their cousins, and deploying nothing that resembles a coherent curriculum. This potential hazard is well understood by sophisticated ESA supporters, but may not be clear to hyperventilating lawmakers. But they can reduce the risks by setting criteria for schools and insisting that whatever agency licenses them engages in due diligence and regular audits. If it’s not a government agency—we at Fordham, for example, authorize a dozen Ohio charters—some public authority needs to watch its performance. (“Trust but verify” isn’t limited to arms control.) And the potential penalties for defrauding kids of a decent education should be vivid and painful.
All those issues (and more) have arisen in the realms of charter school and voucher programs, and many states have had to take steps to clean up the mess, to reduce if not eliminate the education version of waste, fraud, and abuse.
I expect these failings will afflict ESA’s, too.
But that’s not quite the end of it, for “universal” ESA’s bring several more hazards that have already begun to appear in the media: the “windfall” effect when tax dollars are used to pay for private school tuitions that well-off parents (which does not include many private-school families) were already paying for on their own; the possibility that entrepreneurs will set up shop in wealthy areas where parents can “top up” the ESA dollars while ignoring communities with greater need for good education options; and the use of ESA dollars by parents to purchase things with, at best, a hazy relationship to K–12 education—tickets to amusement parks, trampolines, and such. It doesn’t take many such extravagances to put a cloud over the whole policy.
This problem can be mitigated by judicious phasing-in and monitoring of universal ESA programs. We have considerable experience with similar programs in the health realm—HSAs—and know that regulators and managers can set and enforce clear guidelines as to what is and isn’t allowable.
But we also know what follows when overzealous lawmakers ignore such risks. Besides the waste of public dollars, we can anticipate public outrage, media yammering, political posturing, then overreaction and overregulation to the extent that the original mission gets compromised.
Some readers won’t want to believe me, I know, but I’ve been around this track a few times. I wish my zealous revolutionary friends would anticipate the possibility of painful crashes, heed the advice of savvy advisors at ExcelinEd and Heritage, and consider placing a few “traffic calming” devices along the ESA road before their juggernaut suffers a broken axle.
Ready or not, the 2024 race for president is already in full swing. Like bad plastic surgery, this ordeal will be ugly and expensive. Just last month, former president Donald Trump unleashed a raft of divisive education proposals in what may presage an elevated role for what is usually a tertiary issue for voters. While his plan is red meat for the GOP’s hardcore base, last fall’s disappointing (for Republicans) midterms suggest that these same ideas are a major turn-off for the independents and swing voters needed to win the presidency. Still, it’s worth examining how leading Republican candidates plan to wield education as a cudgel in their pursuit of power and whether their tack leaves any room to pivot in the general election.
Unlike 2016’s free-for-all, the 2024 nomination fight has two clear contenders: Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Both have tapped into the poor handling of school responses during the pandemic and both have also taken active roles in today’s culture war-driven version of school reform. Notably, during Trump’s time in office, his education platform focused less on cultural elements and more on Betsy DeVos’s desire to expand school choice, especially the private school variety. This time around, Trump says “we’re not going to allow anybody to hurt our children,” calling for all teachers to “embrace patriotic values” and for all students to receive a “pro-American education.”
Replete with dog whistles and ad hominems, Trump’s grievance-based manifesto doubles down on the fear-mongering that has characterized the GOP’s education strategy over the last few years. Under the banner of “protecting children,” he’s riffing from the GOP playbook that says schools are teaching kids that America is irredeemable, encouraging them to switch genders, peddling pornographic library books, allowing transgender girls to compete in girls’ sports, and hiding their liberal propaganda from parents. Once upon a time, funhouse-mirror politics like this would have been dismissed, by Republicans and Democrats alike, as a distraction from the principal goal of ensuring that more students could read, write, and compute proficiently. The tenor of the times ignores the fact that schools continue to struggle mightily with this assignment.
For his part, DeSantis hasn’t officially made a presidential announcement and isn’t expected to until after the state’s legislative session, which ends in May. Like Trump, DeSantis hasn’t shrunk from political fights, as evidenced by his decision to offer up endorsements in thirty school board races last year. But he has been far more disciplined than the former president, demonstrating an ability to extend his appeal on education beyond the GOP’s base, including his proposals to nix state testing and to raise teacher pay. At the same time, DeSantis’s handlers have proven adept at stoking the panicked media coverage of the present zeitgeist and cynically exploiting it to their advantage—most recently with the dustup involving the AP African American Studies course. When DeSantis jumps in, expect him to lead the charge in turning culture war crusades into national issues.
Other current and erstwhile GOP governors could soon join the fracas. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley just threw her hat into the ring. Another one to watch will be Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. Along with DeSantis, Youngkin has been held up as an exemplar of how education can be used by Republicans to win purple states by appealing to a broad cross-section of the electorate while selectively picking his battles—like the National Merit Scholarship spat. Indeed, Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign micro-targeted its messages on education with nine different education models for nine different types of education voters. As one of his key political advisers described this strategy:
It was a very sophisticated, deliberate goal to make education the forefront. We made a decision very early on in 2021 that we were going to go on offense on education because Republicans always played defense, and it wasn’t an easy decision and all of these people said we were crazy, but it ended up working out.
Yet as in the recent midterms, Republicans risk overplaying their hand again. Not content to smartly build upon the post-pandemic swing in public trust on education, Trump and DeSantis seem bent on waging explosive, culture-clash-fueled fights over race, gender, and pedagogy, even though most parents simply see this stuff as “background noise.” What’s more, the GOP’s approach is not about persuading more people to “protect” kids; it’s about embarrassing and humiliating people if they don’t do so on the GOP’s distorted terms and conditions. As a result, whoever emerges from this hostile primary contest will more than likely be mortally wounded in the general. Which is also bad for kids because Democrats, too, have proven themselves all-but-impervious to advancing good policy.
America’s education system buckled under the weight of the pandemic. School closures and related policies were often overzealous and went on for far too long. Test scores in reading and math plummeted to levels unseen for decades. Adult interests were unapologetically put ahead of children’s needs. To be sure, these structural breakdowns were largely the result of state- and local-level failures, not federal. Nevertheless, the nationalization of our politics makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the grotesque rhetoric coming from Trump and DeSantis. Insofar as schooling is concerned, the 2024 election is shaping up to be a scum pit of unserious ideas no matter which of these two brawlers ends up grabbing the brass ring.
The school shooting in Newport News, Virginia, involving a six-year-old who shot his teacher, fell from the headlines before we could learn our lesson from it.
An article in The 74, a website dedicated to education news and commentary, was titled, “After three weeks and a flood of new details, Virginia school shooting grows more unthinkable.” According to the reporter, with every new detail about the events leading to a six-year-old shooting his teacher, the incident “becomes harder to understand.”
If only that were the case.
Unfortunately, the recent shooting is all too easy to understand. Teachers put their finger on a root cause quickly. At a school board meeting shortly after, teachers inveighed against the school board for its lenient school discipline policies. “It was just a matter of time before something like this happened,” one teacher said. “Teachers often joke about how students get sent into the office for discipline and come back ten minutes later with a snack and pat on the back.”
This is a common teacher complaint in school districts that eschew traditional discipline in favor of a social justice effort to fight the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Thanks to an Obama-era Dear Colleague Letter, it is now conventional administrative wisdom that teachers are biased against minority students and students with disabilities, that consequences harm students, and that discipline policies are successful insofar as they reduce disciplinary statistics. A week after the shooting, Newport News’s superintendent boasted that “the number of disciplinary incidents and student infractions across the school division declined by 40 percent.”
But, as one teacher said, “ask any teacher...why discipline incidents declined. Infraction numbers are down because incidents aren’t always officially reported. The message we are being given is that suspensions count against us.” School administrators who, like the Newport News elementary school principal, pride themselves on being “anti-racist,” blame teachers for misbehavior, sweep it under the rug, and claim credit for improving discipline even as conditions deteriorate.
Understand this, and the actions by administrators at the elementary school stop being inexplicable.
According to the lawyer of the teacher who was shot, administrators were warned three times that the six-year-old had a gun. The last time, administrators allegedly told an employee that he couldn’t search the student and should just wait it out because the school day was almost over. Such behavior makes no sense if you assume that school administrators put safety first. But it starts to make sense when you understand the pressure to prioritize statistics over safety. Such profound negligence is almost certainly not accidental, but rather policy-induced.
The other should-be-inexplicable-but-isn’t detail is the fact that this student was in a traditional classroom. According to reports, his misbehavior was so severe that the school required a parent to accompany him to class. The week the shooting occurred was the first week the parent’s presence was no longer required.
According to reports, this student has a severe disability. While education privacy laws prohibit confirmation, it seems all but certain that he had an “emotional and behavioral disability” (EBD). Over the past decade, the social justice left has pressed school districts to be “inclusive” of students with disabilities. When the disability in question is physical or related to learning difficulties, it might be best to keep a student in a traditional classroom rather than educate him in a special classroom or at a specialized school.
But “inclusion” becomes extremely problematic with EBD students. School districts are pressured to keep the most extremely disruptive students in regular classrooms. Then school district administrators are pressured to sweep their misbehavior under the rug.
As I argued in Why Meadow Died, it was the combination of these two policy pressures that enabled the Parkland school shooting five years ago. School shooters tend to display plenty of disturbing behavior before carrying out their attacks. If you press school officials to ignore the signs, you all but invite disaster. This is, according to a lawsuit, what happened in Oxford, Michigan, where school administrators allegedly willfully refused to refer a student to law enforcement after being warned he had a gun. And it is, according to this teacher’s lawyer, what happened in Newport News.
It’s a tragic reality that some students pose a clear and direct threat. So long as social justice policies pressure schools to keep those students in normal classrooms and ignore the warning signs, we should not be surprised when the “unthinkable” happens again and again.
Editor’s note: This was first published by the Washington Examiner.
English learners (ELs) are students whose native language is other than English and who score below proficient on an English proficiency test. There were more than 5 million ELs in U.S. schools in 2019, and millions of dollars in federal, state, and local funds are spent each year in an effort to help them reach proficiency and shed their EL classification. While specific language instruction is most of what’s done to reach that goal, these young people are not just learning language, but also math, science, social studies and (yes) English with their peers. Could the effectiveness of their general education teachers have an impact on the speed with which ELs reach proficiency, as well? A new study aims to find out.
SRI International researcher Ela Joshi uses administrative data from the Tennessee Department of Education covering the school years 2006–07 to 2014–15—a dataset that includes student and teacher demographics, students’ annual EL status, measures of teacher effectiveness from the state’s evaluation system, student-teacher linkages, and staffing details—as well as EL students’ scores on end-of-year tests. Her sample comprises over 13,000 Volunteer State students who began kindergarten between 2006 and 2012 and who were continuously enrolled through third grade. Most importantly, all were still classified as ELs at the start of third grade, and all were linked with specific EL teachers and specific general education teachers at the elementary level or specific general education English teachers in middle school.
Joshi uses discrete-time survival analysis to estimate the relationship between ELs’ likelihood of reaching English-language proficiency in each year between third and eighth grade, as well as specific characteristics of their general education teachers—such as demographics and effectiveness—that may impact that trajectory. Joshi tests five separate measures of teacher effectiveness, all of which use either state value-added (TVAAS) or teacher observation scores: a continuous three-year composite value added score; the TVAAS level of effectiveness; a continuous average observation score; observation quartiles; and a summary level of effectiveness (LOE) score, which combines TVAAS, observation data, and student surveys.
Overall, ELs assigned to effective or highly-effective general education teachers (as rated by any of the five effectiveness measures) were 17 to 50 percent more likely to reach English-language proficiency in a given year, compared to their peers assigned to less-effective general education teachers. However, robustness checks on these findings began to whittle away at the observed impacts. In the end, teacher effectiveness based on TVAAS scores and observation scores were the strongest predictors of student success (10 to 31 percent more likely than their peers to reach proficiency), the others showing little to no impact. Joshi discusses a number of possible mechanisms that may be at work, all of which boil down to “great teachers are great teachers to many different types of students.”
As to demographics, a ten-year increase in teacher experience was associated with a 5 to 8 percent increase in the probability of a student reaching proficiency in a given year, and assignment to a general education teacher of color was associated with an 11 percent increase in the probability of reaching proficiency. The latter finding could be connected to the benefits of a sympathetic set of academic perceptions and attitudes between teacher and student observed in other research, but the former seems to be more of the “great teacher” effect.
All of this combines to point out the obvious: To reach the highest possible level of achievement, all students need their teachers to be of the highest possible quality. Unfortunately, how to make that happen is far less obvious.
SOURCE: Ela Joshi, “Unpacking the Relationship Between Classroom Teacher Characteristics and Time to English Learner Reclassification,” American Educational Research Association AERA Journal (January 2023).
“Go to law school.” This was the advice that my mother—who had spent her entire career as a high school English teacher—gave me upon my college graduation. She also advised me on which career to avoid: teaching. My mother was adamant that I not follow her footsteps into the classroom. In her view, the long hours it required, the mediocre pay it promised, and above all, the lack of respect it received disqualified the profession from serious consideration by a young professional.
Recent research by Matthew A. Kraft and Melissa Arnold Lyon analyzing the past fifty years of the K–12 teaching profession in America shows how widespread these perceptions are.
The motivation for the study was both to better understand the current state of the teacher profession as the nation emerges from the Covid-19 era, and to explain macro-level changes to the profession over time. To achieve these goals, the study compiled and analyzed data from 1970 to 2022 on four factors: professional prestige, interest among students, preparation to enter the profession, and on-the-job satisfaction—which, taken together, serve as a “barometer of the state of the profession.” Data come from over a dozen surveys and studies, including the Harris Poll Prestige Ratings, the PDK/Gallup Polling of Parent Perceptions, the NCES Surveys of High School Seniors, and the RAND American Teacher Panel.
Kraft and Lyon find that all four factors have fluctuated considerably over the last five decades. The prestige of teaching—as measured by public perception—declined sharply in the 1970s but experienced a steady recovery through the 1980s and 1990s. The 2010s began a new decline that continues today. The 2022 PDK/Gallup Polling of Parent Perceptions showed that just 37 percent of parents want their children to become teachers.
Student interest in teaching has followed a similar pattern of decline, recovery, and decline since the 1970s. According to the CIRP Freshman Survey, a longitudinal study administered to incoming college students by the Higher Education Research Institute, interest in becoming a teacher fell from 22 percent of freshmen in the early 1970s to 5 percent in 1982. It ticked back up to 10 percent in the 1990s and 2000s, but dropped back down to 5 percent by 2013.
The same fluctuations were seen in the number of undergraduate and graduate degrees completed in education. In the early 1970s, roughly one in four college graduates completed a degree in education. This figure fell to one in eight by 1987, where it remained steady until the 2010s. But by 2019, it had dropped further to just over one in twelve.
For those graduates who did become teachers, job satisfaction peaked in 2008 with 62 percent of survey respondents claiming they were “very satisfied” with their jobs. The numbers then fell off a cliff. By 2022, just 12 percent of teachers claimed to be very satisfied.
These fluctuations over time cannot be explained by a single cause. Instead, Kraft and Lyon identify eight explanations: education funding, teacher compensation, changing labor market opportunities, unionization, barriers to entry, working conditions, accountability and autonomy, and school shootings. They identify compensation as the strongest factor in the overall health of the teaching profession, but they also recommend that policymakers increase teacher autonomy and create opportunities for career advancement.
The study paints a bleak picture during a time when effective teachers are desperately needed. The 2022 NAEP results showed that pandemic-era learning loss wiped out two decades of growth in reading and math scores. There is an epidemic of student mental health crises. School administrators report that disruptive and violent student behavior has skyrocketed. To reverse these and other disturbing trends, a great educator is needed in every classroom. Kraft and Lyon’s recommendations to increase teacher pay and autonomy could help in this recovery.
SOURCE: Matthew A. Kraft and Melissa Arnold Lyon, “The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession: Prestige, Interest, Preparation, and Satisfaction over the Last Half Century,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (November 2022).
On this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast, Kymyona Burk and Tom Greene of ExcelinEd join Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss how Ohio, Mississippi, and other states are implementing research-based literacy policies. Then, on the Research Minute, Amber examines virtual charter schools’ effect on student achievement in Pennsylvania.
- The Mississippi study that Kymyona discussed on the show: “The Effect of Retention Under Mississippi’s Test-Based Promotion Policy” —Wheelock Education Policy Center
- “A new study confirms Mississippi’s promise: ensuring all students can read” —Jeb Bush and Kymyona Burk in the Magnolia Tribune
- “Gov. Mike DeWine enters the ‘reading wars’ with budget proposal to fund change to ‘science of reading’” —Cleveland.com
- “Concern over Tennessee’s third grade reading, retention law prompts flurry of bills” —Chattanooga Times Free Press
- The study that Amber reviewed on the Research Minute: Sarah A. Cordes, “Cyber versus Brick and Mortar: Achievement, Attainment, and Postsecondary Outcomes in Pennsylvania Charter High Schools,” Education Finance and Policy (February 2023)
Have ideas for improving our podcast? Send them to our producer Nathaniel Grossman at [email protected].
- Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is requiring districts to adopt curriculum aligned with the science of reading, and banning those that include the “three cueing” method, including Ohio State’s Reading Recovery. —Cleveland.com
- “The last thing America needs is more ‘grown-ups’ using schools and kids as proxies in their never-ending political battles.” —John Halpin
- Public-sector unions have undue influence on their employers in the government, leading to abuse and a lack of accountability. —George F. Will
- Just one in ten students are receiving the type of high-dosage tutoring that is effective in reversing learning loss. —The 74
- To oppose Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to expand charter schools in New York City, teachers unions are resorting to the old lie that charters steal resources from traditional public schools.—New York Post
- A state court has declared Pennsylvania’s school-funding system to be unconstitutional due to its reliance on property taxes. —Chalkbeat Philadelphia
- A new study shows that private school enrollment, homeschooling, and opting out of kindergarten help explain why more than a million students are missing from public school rosters. —Chalkbeat
- At a loss for what to do with near-daily classroom disruptions, some schools have resorted to informal, “off-the-book” suspensions for students with disabilities. —New York Times
- Governors are ahead of Donald Trump when it comes to politicizing education. —Washington Post
- Two-thirds of American fourth graders are not proficient in reading, a trend that can be reversed with phonics instruction, tutoring, access to quality books, and education parents about the importance of reading to their children. —Nicholas Kristof
- Or maybe not. Returning to phonics instruction and dropping three-cueing systems will not be sufficient to help all kids learn to read. —Timothy Shanahan