choice research

Florida’s tax credit voucher program helps get students to — but not necessarily through — college, study finds

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Students in the country’s largest private school choice program were more likely to attend college than similar students who remained in public school, according to a study released Wednesday. But the Florida program didn’t seem to help many students actually complete a degree.

It’s the latest volley in a long-running debate over the effectiveness of school vouchers and tax credits for private school tuition, policies that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has championed.

The study may bolster claims that these programs help students in the long run, and shouldn’t be judged only by test scores. In recent years, those short-term results have been middling at best and dreadful at worst.

Critics will likely seize on the fact that Florida’s program had only a small impact on degree attainment, and that the bump in attendance was concentrated in community colleges.

“An increase in college enrollment, even if it’s in the community college sector — in part because that’s where most kids in Florida, especially from low-income families, go to college — I do view it as a positive finding for the program,” said Matthew Chingos, who conducted the research with Daniel Kuehn, both of the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank.

“Do we have to temper that with a little bit of caution given the attainment result? Sure.”

Attending private school with a voucher may increase college attendance, but not completion

The paper focuses on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which was enacted in 2001 and now serves nearly 100,000 students. The program encourages donations to nonprofits that issue vouchers to low-income families to pay for private school.

(The study was funded by a number of organizations that support school vouchers, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Oberndorf Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The Walton Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Chingos and Kuehn looked at 10,000 students who used a tax credit to transfer out of a public school between 2004 and 2010. They then compared them to students with similar test scores at the same public school who didn’t use a credit to leave the school.

The paper estimates that participating in the tax credit program raised enrollment in Florida public colleges by about 6 percentage points, with virtually of all of the increase coming from community colleges. Students who used the tax credit in an earlier grade were half a percentage point more likely to enroll in a public four-year college.

FTC = Florida Tax Credit

But the program had little effect on whether students received an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, though using a tax credit in earlier grades may have slightly increased a student’s chance of earning a two-year degree.

The authors note that only a small number of students had been out of school long enough to complete a four-year degree.

Most of the students studied only used the tax credit for one or two years, though those who stayed longer were more likely to enroll in and complete college. It’s not clear whether that’s because the benefits of the program accumulated over time, or because kids for whom the program was working stayed in it longer, or because those who continued to use the tax credit were simply more likely to attend college to begin with.

Researchers say study has limits, highlights larger debate on how to evaluate voucher programs

The key limit of the study is the difficulty in ensuring that the kids who take a scholarship are similar to those who do not.

Doug Harris, a Tulane economist who reviewed the study at Chalkbeat’s request, said it had both strengths — its focus on long-term outcomes — and limitations.

“Two students who have the same measureable characteristics … but make different schooling choices, are clearly different in unmeasurable ways that the analysis cannot address,” said Harris, pointing out that this might make the program look better than it really is.

Chingos agreed that this is a limitation, but said it could affect the results in either direction.

Another concern is that the long-run data is limited to public colleges and universities in Florida. If private high schools are more likely to get kids to enroll in private or out-of-state colleges, that might affect the results, and Chingos notes that data shows this appears to be true at the national level.

Meanwhile, the study highlights the complications in evaluating education programs.

Short-run test score measures are more available but widely seen as limited; long-run outcomes may be preferable but they are more difficult to obtain, and, by their nature, can only be used for established programs. School voucher programs have generally looked better when examining longer-term metrics.

But Florida’s tax credit program seems to have a comparable effect — none or a small positive one — on test scores and long-term measures.

“Both outcomes seem to suggest the same general pattern,” said Harris.

The jury is still out on whether voucher programs that lead to declines in test scores are likely to benefit students in the long run. A recent study found that charter schools in Texas with low test scores also tended to hurt four-year college attendance rates and adult income.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

college knowledge

‘This levels the playing field’: How New York City is trying to get more high school students to apply to college

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Bryant Ramirez about his college plans at Pace High School on Monday.

Bryant Ramirez hunched over a worksheet Monday listing the private colleges where he plans to apply and, next to each one, whether he thinks he has a good shot of getting in.

It wasn’t long before the senior had written out his top choice — the Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn — and fired up a school laptop to begin filling out an electronic application.

“I feel confident,” Ramirez said of his chances of landing a spot at one of his preferred schools. “But you never know.”

On Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited Ramirez and more than 20 of his peers at Manhattan’s Pace High School to showcase a growing citywide program designed to give schools more time and resources to help students through the college application process.

The program, called “College Access for All,” is meant to address the gap between students whose families already understand the application process and can help give them a leg up, and those who might be first-generation college students or who might not apply at all. This year, the education department expanded the program to include roughly 274 of the city’s high schools, or more than half of the total.

Participating schools help students craft post-graduation plans for specific careers or colleges, and ease the application process through school-sponsored college visits and additional counseling.

“More students are saying ‘I want to go to college,’” Fariña said. “This levels the playing field.”

At Pace, which is part of the program, students begin conversations about college in their advisory groups junior year, and later take college counseling classes where they are given time to fill out applications, financial aid forms, and learn about the college application process. The school also offers the SAT during a school day (instead of the weekend, when some students might not make it), and takes juniors and seniors on college visits — trips that school leaders are planning to extend to ninth and tenth graders.

Lancia Burke, the school’s college counselor, said some of those initiatives didn’t exist when she started at Pace 11 years ago and tried to cram as much information as possible into a single workshop with the entire senior class. (She also met with students individually.)

At one point, she felt overwhelmed as she tried helping students craft their college essays, so she approached the English department.

“‘Hey, I can’t handle going through all these personal essays,’” Burke recalled saying. After that, the department added college essay writing into their curriculum, she said.

The College Access for All program is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which aims to get 80 percent of students to graduate high school on time and two-thirds of graduates college-ready by the year 2026.

About 51 percent of New York City’s graduates were considered college ready in 2016, meaning they could enroll at a CUNY school without having to take remedial classes, a 4 percentage point increase since 2014. The proportion of students who enroll in college or a work-training program within six months of graduating has also ticked up to 55 percent, also 4 percentage point increase since 2014.

Fariña said she hopes the program boosts the number of students who apply to college. But simply applying to college isn’t enough, she added.

“We always want to see the numbers going up in terms of applying,” Fariña said. “But once you get there, do you stay there?”