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.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”