Friday, July 29, 2011

Voucher programs fail to deliver promised academic gains, national research review finds

The National Opportunity to Learn Campaign applauds the Center on Education Policy for its initiative and diligence in conducting a national review of a decade of research that, among other key findings, concludes that publicly funded voucher programs have failed to produce promised academic gains for thousands of students. 

After all these years of diverting taxpayer funds from public education, the research shows that low-income students who switched schools using a voucher program are not experiencing academic progress that is any more substantial than their public school peers, according to the CEP’s report, “Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research.” 

CEP reviewers found that students receiving vouchers in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., showed no significance difference in reading and math achievement.

The CEP report confirms what those who oppose vouchers have been saying for a long time: Voucher programs are inherently flawed in that they siphon off precious public school dollars and don’t improve students’ educational experiences.

“Vouchers have never been the answer,” says Tina Dove, National Director for the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. “Instead, our state and federal leaders should be focusing on systemic solutions that invest in public education and work toward ensuring all children are guaranteed a fair and substantive opportunity to learn as a civil right.”

The privatization of public education through vouchers means that public dollars are used to support private schools, which often discriminate against students with physical and learning disabilities and English language learners, some of our most vulnerable students.

Other key findings in the CEP report include:

  •  In the absence of evidence that voucher students do any better than their public school peers, advocates have shifted their rhetoric to focus more on the value of parent choice and overall parent satisfaction. 
  • Initially created to aid low-income students in low-performing urban school districts, some newer voucher programs – such as those in Indiana, Wisconsin and Douglas County, Colo. – are open to middle-income and suburban families.
  • Greater scrutiny of voucher research is necessary to help ensure that studies are not biased.
The National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, which is focused on eliminating the opportunity gap that is fueling a persistent achievement gap, aims to hold state and federal leaders accountable for ensuring that all children, regardless of where they live, have equitable access to an opportunity to learn. Competitive programs that benefit limited numbers of children are not the answer. We must, instead, make sure all children have access to the four building blocks research has proven are needed for academic success: high-quality early childhood education; highly prepared and effective teachers; rigorous college-prep curriculum; and equitable instructional materials and policies.

Valerie Strauss: "Why Save Our Schools March is happening Saturday"

As hundreds of education advocates, parents, teachers and students prepare to bring their demands for substantive education reform to our nation's capitol tomorrow, Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss writes about her interview with organizers of the Save Our Schools March taking place in Washington, D.C.

In her blog -- originally posted on -- read remarks from march organizers Anthony Cody is a veteran California science teacher who has a blog called Living in Dialogue for Education Week Teacher and Rita Solnet is a Florida businesswoman, parent and education activist, and co-founder of the nonprofit Parents Across America.

By Valerie Strauss

I long wondered why public school teachers sat quietly during the decade-long No Child Left Behind era watching high-stakes standardized test-based reform take hold, leading to a host of damaging unintended consequences (narrowed curriculum and teaching to the test, just to name a few).

This Saturday, teachers, along with principals, parents and other activists, quiet no longer, are scheduled to take their concerns to Washington, D.C., with a march intended to let the Obama administration know that they are unhappy with corporate-based school reform that is obsessed with test-based “accountability,” the expansion of charter schools and other measures.

I recently asked two march organizers why, now, after all these years, they were speaking out. Here, in a repost, is what they said:

Read the full post here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Not our idea of "school reform"

In his most recent blog post for the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant focuses on troubling trends in what is passing for education reform, including “school discipline policies gone wild.” Bryant writes that “school poverty, punishment and teacher experience are combining to create prison-like apartheid schools that condemn young people to low education attainment and greater risk of dropping through the cracks.” He adds “government defunding” as another troubling trend that is sweeping the nation and cause for concern for all who want to see the country restore itself as a world-class leader in education.

Jeff Bryant's blog -- which we are reprinting here in part and including a link to the fuller text -- was originally published on Campaign for America’s Future website,, at

By Jeff Bryant
Ask yourself if this is the type of school you'd like for your son or daughter:

* At one charter school, an array of 48 "infractions"-- such as "Lying/falsehood” and "Sleeping in class" -- will get students suspended or expelled.

* At another charter, students and parents are warned that "cutting class, school, detention and related mandatory school events can lead to suspension or expulsion. Other offenses that warrant out-of-class dismissal include possession of electronics and printed text deemed vulgar or profane … items confiscated can be held by the school permanently, irrespective of costs and fees."

* Another threatens parents that "a child with 12 unexcused absences for the year can lead to the school reporting the parent to the Louisiana Department of Social Services."

* And one more, a KIPP charter school, mandates that "five or more instances of the student being tardy or absent can result in a $250 fine, an official police report, a summons to perform 25 hours of community service by the parent, guardian or child or permanent removal from the school."

These examples of school discipline policies gone wild are from a stunning new article in The American Independent. [1]Reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn explains how three trends -- student poverty, punishment, and teacher experience -- are combining to create prison-like apartheid schools that condemn young people to low education attainment and greater risk of dropping through the cracks.

What's even more disturbing, however, is to see how this trend for New Orleans schools is being writ large across the nation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How much a family earns shouldn’t determine how much a child learns

Do Americans today believe it is fair for children from wealthy families to have greater opportunities to learn than children from poorer families?  Few would say so.  Most of us would say, most of us believe, that children at every income level should have an equal opportunity to learn.

But this chart of 8th grade reading data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — “The Nation’s Report Card” — shows an enormous gap in student reading proficiency based on family income.

After eight years in school, students from low-income families – those that are eligible to receive free and reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program – have between one-third and a half the likelihood of reading at or above Proficient as those from families with higher incomes.  This holds true for Black, Hispanic, White and Asian students.

Our public education system was founded to create a level playing field,  so that all children would have an equal opportunity to learn, prosper and thrive.  How have we reached the point where the quality of the education a child receives is determined by the quantity of income available to his or her parents?

It is time to return to the vision of the Founders:  a first-class public education system for all children.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Shedding light on education and civil rights

By Tina Dove
National Director, The Opportunity to Learn Campaign

In a recent House of Representatives debate, a heated discussion arose about light bulbs and energy-efficiency standards. As an environmentally conscious American, I’m quite concerned about energy efficiency. As an educator, I’m extremely interested in light bulbs, specifically the ones inside of our children that come to life when they learn something new.

As a high school social studies teacher, I saw those light bulbs come to life when my students had the famous “aha!” moments we teachers know all too well.  I worked hard to make those bulbs light up because my students deserved that kind of inspirational learning moment.  It’s this energy that fuels lifelong learning and future academic success.

Sadly, for many of our nation’s students, this light bulb moment hasn’t happened because the conditions that enable such an experience don’t exist for far too many of our neediest and underserved children. For them, the lamp shows up for school, but too many obstacles exist to get the light bulbs working. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently released extraordinary data that provides in stark detail the level of inequity that exists in schools serving our poorest students, our students of color, and our students with special needs.  

In short, these students are being denied an equitable opportunity to learn; a chance to have that light bulb moment that so many of their peers across town or in the suburbs enjoy in their everyday school experiences.

The numbers don’t lie.  Of the 7,000 schools sampled: 

  • Only 22 percent of local education agencies (school districts) reported that they operated pre-K programs targeting children from low-income families.  This runs counter to the research that speaks to the overwhelming benefits associated with access to high-quality early childhood education for all children, particularly those from poor families.
  • Schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have teachers with only one or two years of experience than are schools within the same district that serve mostly White students.  This when the research is abundantly clear about the impact highly prepared and effective teachers have on student success.

  • 3,000 schools serving nearly 500,000 high school students offer no Algebra II classes — a course that is a basic requirement for acceptance into two- and four-year colleges and universities — essentially robbing them of access to college-preparatory curriculum.

  • Only 2 percent of the students with disabilities are taking at least one Advanced Placement class, thus contradicting the notion that all students deserve rich and rigorous academic curriculum.

  • English language learners make up 6 percent of the high school population (in grades 9-12), but are 15 percent of the students for whom Algebra is the highest-level math course taken by the final year of their high school career.  Meanwhile, girls are underrepresented in physics, while boys are underrepresented in Algebra II.  

Data like this underscore our need to question the equity of not providing access for all children to the kinds of resources that are proven to help students become successful in school, their careers and in life.

So instead of having raucous debates about whether Americans should be able to purchase incandescent light bulbs instead of compact florescent ones, Congress (and other policy makers) needs to be coming up with equitable solutions that flip the switch on the most important lights we have and keep them shining brightly — those found inside all of our children.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Making the case against vouchers

In this article – originally published last week in The Nation – Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, details disturbing facts about the American Legislative Exchange Council’s agenda to upend public education.

“ALEC's real motivation for dismantling the public education system is ideological – creating a system where schools do not provide for everyone – and profit-driven,” Underwood writes. “Proponents of vouchers have argued that they foster competition and improve students' learning. But years of research reveal this to be false.”
Read Underwood’s article in its entirety here:

Published on Thursday, July 14, 2011, by The Nation
ALEC Exposed: Starving Public Schools

by Julie Underwood

This article is part of a Nation series exposing the American Legislative Exchange Council, in collaboration with the Center For Media and Democracy. John Nichols introduces the series.

Public schools," ALEC wrote in its 1985 Education Source Book, "meet all of the needs of all of the people without pleasing anyone." A better system, the organization argued, would "foster educational freedom and quality" through various forms of privatization: vouchers, tax incentives for sending children to private schools and unregulated private charter schools. Today ALEC calls this "choice"-and vouchers "scholarships"-but it amounts to an ideological mission to defund and redesign public schools.

The first large-scale voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, was enacted in 1990 following the rubric ALEC provided in 1985. It was championed by then-Governor Tommy Thompson, an early ALEC member, who once said he "loved" ALEC meetings, "because I always found new ideas, and then I'd take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare [they were] mine."

ALEC's most ambitious and strategic push toward privatizing education came in 2007, through a publication called School Choice and State Constitutions, which proposed a list of programs tailored to each state. That year Georgia passed a version of ALEC's Special Needs Scholarship Program Act. Most disability organizations strongly oppose special education vouchers-and decades of evidence suggest that such students are better off receiving additional support in public schools. Nonetheless, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Florida, Utah and Indiana have passed versions of their own. Louisiana also passed a version of ALEC's Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act (renaming it Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence), along with ALEC's Family Education Tax Credit Program (renamed Tax Deductions for Tuition), which has also been passed by Arizona and Indiana. ALEC's so-called Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act has been passed by Arizona, Indiana and Oklahoma.

- ALEC's 2010 Report Card on American Education called on members and allies to "Transform the system, don't tweak it," likening the group's current legislative strategy to a game of whack-a-mole: introduce so many pieces of model legislation that there is "no way the person with the mallet [teachers' unions] can get them all." ALEC's agenda includes:

- Introducing market factors into teaching, through bills like the National Teacher Certification Fairness Act.

- Privatizing education through vouchers, charters and tax incentives, especially through the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act and Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, whose many spinoffs encourage the creation of private schools for specific populations: children with autism, children in military families, etc.

- Increasing student testing and reporting, through more "accountability," as seen in the Education Accountability Act, Longitudinal Student Growth Act, One-to-One Reading Improvement Act and the Resolution Supporting the Principles of No Child Left Behind.

- Chipping away at local school districts and school boards, through its 2009 Innovation Schools and School Districts Act and more. Proposals like the Public School Financial Transparency Act and School Board Freedom to Contract Act would allow school districts to outsource auxiliary services.

ALEC is also invested in influencing the educational curriculum. Its 2010 Founding Principles Act would require high school students to take "a semester-long course on the philosophical understandings and the founders' principles."

Perhaps the Brookings Institute states the mission most clearly: "Taken seriously, choice is not a system-preserving reform. It is a revolutionary reform that introduces a new system of public education."

ALEC's real motivation for dismantling the public education system is ideological-creating a system where schools do not provide for everyone-and profit-driven. The corporate members on its education task force include the Friedman Foundation, Goldwater Institute, Washington Policy Center, National Association of Charter School Authorizers and corporations providing education services, such as Sylvan Learning and the Connections Academy.

From Milton Friedman on, proponents of vouchers have argued that they foster competition and improve students' learning. But years of research reveal this to be false. Today, students in Milwaukee's public schools perform as well as or better than those in voucher schools. This is true even though voucher schools have advantages that in theory should make it easier to educate children: fewer students with disabilities; broader rights to select, reject and expel students; and parents who are engaged in their children's education (at least enough to have actively moved them to the private system). Voucher schools clearly should outperform public schools, but they do not. Nor are they less expensive; often private costs are shifted to taxpayers; a local school district typically pays for transportation, additional education services and administrative expenses. In programs like Milwaukee's, the actual cost drains funds from the public schools and creates additional charges to taxpayers.

But a deeper crisis emerges when we privatize education. As Benjamin Barber has argued, "public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity." What happens to our democracy when we return to an educational system whose access is defined by corporate interests and divided by class, language, ability, race and religion? In a push to free-market education, who pays in the end?

© 2011 The Nation

Julie Underwood

Julie Underwood, JD, PhD, is dean of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She was previously the general counsel of the National School Boards Association. The opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Wisconsin.