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February 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-1


Educational Freedom – For Your Child, My Child, All Children


National School Freedom Movement


Summary of Current National Status


Most of the recent educational equity reform has been done in states controlled by Republican Governors, such as those in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin, often with great resistance from powerful teachers unions.  Yet many Democrats, especially Democrat mayors in over-taxed, cash-strapped cities, are slowly coming to understand that something else must be done.  They are recognizing that insanity is doing more of what you’ve done before, throwing ever more money at it, and yet hoping for a different result.  Accordingly, some mayors such as Cory Booker (Newark, New Jersey), who is now the junior U.S. Senator from New Jersey, are beginning to support vouchers for private schools, including religious schools.[24]


Other Democrats who are supporting various forms of educational freedom and equality are Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Detroit Mayor David Bing, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.  These, and other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, are now backing a wide array of school choice options, including “teacher evaluations, charter schools, and ‘parent trigger’ policies.”[25]


Even Democrat governors such as Andrew Cuomo in New York, Dan Malloy in Connecticut, John Hickenlooper in Colorado, and Martin O’Malley in Maryland have backed some reforms, such as teacher evaluations and charter schools.  Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick succeeded in implementing teacher evaluation and teacher tenure links.[26]


Though most of the major educational equity reforms have been crafted and implemented by Republican Legislatures and Republican Governors – who are fundamentally focused on parental responsibility and choice for children – many Democrats are listening.


Some argue that by allowing the money to follow the child to any school of their parents’ choice, we will be dismantling the “civic” and “socialization” aspects of a government-school education.  They argue that we will return to the days of racial segregation and discrimination.  They fear the loss of control and potential for religious schools to somehow teach “intolerance” of differences.  “Civic values are ‘conveyed not only through what is taught in the classroom, but by the very experience of attending [a public] school with a diverse mix of students,’” according to former Education Secretary Richard Riles, who served in the Clinton administration.[27]  Research evidence and testing of the civic values of current private and charter school children shows these fears are unfounded.


The book Getting Choice Right, Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy, edited by Julian R. Betts and Tom Loveless, published by the Brookings Institution Press in 2005, reviews studies evaluating the civil values, including tolerance, volunteerism, political knowledge, social capital, political participation, civic skills, and patriotism of private-school students.[28] This extensive review of 20 quantitative studies on the civic values of students, done in places as varied as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Texas, shows that in fact private schools – both religious and secular – are actually graduating students with greater “tolerance,” more volunteerism, more political knowledge, and greater civic skills than government schools!  In 48 different categories of civic values they found either positive or neutral results in the learning of civic values by private-school students.  Only in three minor areas were negative results found.[29] This was true whether the schools were secular or religious, and if religious, Evangelical or Catholic. 


While some believe it is important to establish baseline levels for low-income or minority student balances in both government-school choice and private schools, the research shows that even without these mandated standards, enforced by government regulation, our children are learning and practicing positive civic values.


Opportunities Nationwide – in Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin


The newest Friedman Foundation report on school-choice enrollment, released January 23, 2014, shows continued growth in use of school-choice options by parents.  For the 2013-14 school year over 300,000 students in 23 states and Washington, D.C., are using a wide variety of educational freedom options, including vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, or education savings accounts.  The Friedman Foundation reports that some 15 states are currently considering additional school-choice legislation, either new programs or expansion of existing opportunities.[30]


Florida has become a leader in using charter schools, with over 625 schools enrolling over 200,000 students in virtually every county in the state.[31]  Recent reports show that there are large waiting lists of students who want into a charter school, but there are no seats available, though the number of schools has grown by about 60 per year and enrollment has grown by over 10 percent per year each of the last three school years.  There is good diversity in the charter schools, with 65 percent of the students being minority and over 50 percent receiving free or reduced lunches.[32]


A bottleneck in the program is that until 2013 charter schools had to be approved by the local county school board and some boards were perceived as unnecessarily holding up approvals.[33]  Currently, though local districts review the applications and provide general oversight, charter school contracts are uniform statewide.  The educational achievement results from Florida are significant, with 74 percent of the schools receiving either an “A” or a “B” on the statewide school performance grade.


The New Orleans, Louisiana, government-school system was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  Prior to this it had been one of the worst districts in the country, with vast numbers of children dropping out and those who succeeded in graduating still often unable to read, write, or do math.  In rebuilding the system Governor Bobby Jindal (Republican) initiated district-wide school choice by utilizing both charter schools and vouchers.  The use of vouchers in Louisiana has tripled since 2012, when it was expanded statewide.[34]  Though the plan is being challenged on constitutional grounds by the Obama administration – which also tried to shut down the Washington, D.C., voucher system – the early results show parents and children are very interested in educational freedom and their achievement reflects this interest.


In New Orleans, a district which is overwhelmingly African American (95 percent) and low-income (90 plus percent), the graduation rate is higher than the national average and the number of students passing state tests has almost doubled.[35]  A bad system is getting better, though they still have a lot of improvement ahead of them.


The 2013 school reform proposal of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (Republican) called for the removal of the “ownership” of a student by their home district, recommended performance-based funding, and initiated a scholarship program for early high school graduates.[36]  Currently, in Michigan the “Schools of Choice” program allows individual districts to decide whether or not to participate and how.  Students may open-enroll into any school in their home district, to a charter school (300 statewide), or to another district, based upon their parents’ choice.[37]  At this time, there are over 270,000 students participating in some form of government-school choice, plus many more in private schools or homeschooling.  Approximately two-thirds of the Michigan charter schools have wait lists.[38]


More importantly, a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) of six years of student data found that charter-school students in Michigan “gained an additional two months” of learning in both reading and math in an academic year,” when compared to traditional government schools.[39]  In the troubled Detroit district, the gain was slightly larger, at three months.  Seventy percent of the students in Michigan’s charter schools are low-income, so charters are not peeling off high-income children who are already succeeding, as some school-choice opponents allege.


The CREDO “National Charter School Study, 2013” updated a similar 2009 study which covered 16 states.  This update reviewed student-level data from the original states plus 11 new ones which have implemented charter schools since then, for a total of 27 states.  Over 6,000 charter schools and 2.3 million students were studied, representing 95 percent of the national charter-school enrollment. 


Stanford found that charters are enrolling more low-income (54 percent) and minority students than regular government schools, and that on a nationwide basis, achievement is consistently higher in reading and equal in math, though the students in general arrive with a lower level of competency.[40] Again, the charter schools are not discriminating against low-achieving students by refusing to accept them and therefore skewing the results.  Charter schools which have been in existence longer generally show stronger gains than newer schools, which might be reasonably expected, but the achievement results for both groups are still significant. 


The newer charter schools – in states which have recently implemented this school choice option – are more Hispanic (42 percent) and have even more low-income children (61 percent).[41]  The report states that this reflects the “growth in the proportion of disadvantaged parents that is aware, informed, and comfortable exercising their options for school choice.”[42]  Low-income and minority parents are willing and able to evaluate and make decisions about what is best for their children.  As the Stanford report shows, many are choosing non-traditional schools.


Another form of school choice is online education and massive open online courses (MOOCs).  These have the potential to open up vast learning opportunities to people all over the world.  A key feature of this learning is the ability to read, watch, and listen to what and when the individual wants to.  In Average Is Over Cowen calls it “time-shifting.”[43] The user has control of the situation, can receive immediate feedback, is able to interact with others interested in the same thing, and can do as much or as little as they want.  This learning is both less expensive and more flexible for every student.  It can also be tailored to the specific needs of that student. 


Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia is a leader in MOOCs at the college level, implementing the “Emporium” model being used in over 100 schools.  The on-line math class sizes range from 200 to 2,000 students.  The university has 550 computers available, basically 24/7, in a 60,000-square-foot converted department store.[44]  There are some 8,000 students every semester who choose from 11 classes offered this way, with significantly lower costs and staffing requirements.[45]  There are, however, math faculty and graduate students who staff the Emporium to answer specific questions, and the flexible space allows for conferences and work groups, video lectures, and individual tutoring.


In Wisconsin, the successful private-school voucher system first implemented in Milwaukee is now being expanded statewide for the 2014-15 school year as the “Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.”  One thousand students will be allowed to participate, from families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and to ensure statewide availability only 1 percent of the eligible students from each new district will be allowed to participate.  Additionally the School Choice scholarship amount has been increased to $7,210 for K-8 and $7,856 for 9-12 students.  These amounts will be indexed to changes in the overall state funding level beginning with the 2015-16 fiscal year.[46]  Additionally, as of the 2014 tax year there is a new private-school tuition tax deduction of up to $4,000 for K-8 students and $10,000 for high school students.  This ensures higher-income parents, who choose to pay for private-school from their own financial resources, are treated equally to low-income parents.


The low-income students (up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level) in Milwaukee and Racine, some of the most difficult urban districts in the country, are continuing to participate in a voucher program which provides an average of $6,442 for private school tuition.  Interestingly, if the students’ parents are actually legally married, the voucher amount increases by $7,000.[47]  Wisconsin has one of the most extensive school-choice programs in the country, and Governor Scott Walker (Republican) is a leading figure in the educational freedom movement, working hard to ensure children’s and students’ needs are put first, not the demands of adults with a financial incentive to limit their freedom.  As a result of his efforts, not only are educational costs down, but achievement is up.




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