Tuesday, May 02, 2017

John Kirtley's defense of vouchers

Here’s John Kirtley’s response:



First of all, I really appreciate the chance to respond. I have always valued your forum for its open exchange of ideas. 

Let me address the NYT article on the research.  There have been numerous columns in the Times and other media outlets attempting to discredit the empirical outcomes on private school choice. I would love for your readers to know the fuller picture.  Read the facts about credible research on private school choice here: http://www.federationforchildren.org/setting-record-straight-school-choice/ 

The bottom lineThere have been 15 gold standard empirical studies of private school choice programs that measure test score outcomes: 10 show improvement, 3 are neutral, and 2 are negative—and those two are only based upon results in early years of those programs.

Here is a link to a one page fact sheet on the research: 


Another thing to consider: the Louisiana program was designed in such a way that many higher quality schools might have been scared off from taking children, even though they had been inclined to. There is absolutely a need for academic and fiscal accountability in private school choice programs; however, the measures cannot be so onerous as to discourage high quality schools from participating.  Charter schools encounter the same issues in Florida--some operators say that they are discouraged from serving low income children because they aren't given enough time to turn around the kids before being shut down by districts. Even the fantastic KIPP school in Jacksonville needed time to turn around their kids. 


Regarding the NYT article on the Arizona scholarship organization: this piece shows how the design of tax credit scholarship laws is critical--just as it is with charter school laws. In my opinion and experience, a well-designed tax credit law will have the following characteristics:


* Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs), the non-profits that are allowed to receive tax credited funds, must be subject to strict fiscal accountability. Under Florida's law, SGOs must submit a clean audit every year by a legitimate third party CPA firm (we use McGladrey). SGOs are also audited by the state Auditor General every year. Officers and directors must undergo a background check and not have a business bankruptcy in the past seven years. Administrative funds are limited to three percent of the tax credited funds raised. Step Up For Students, the SGO that serves 99% of 100,000 children on the Florida program, was named by Charity Navigator as the third highest ranking charity in the country for fiscal accountability, governance, and transparency. 


* SGOs should not be able to serve a single school or subset of schools, and the should not be able to discriminate on the basis of religion. Under Florida's law, SGOs must award scholarships on a first come, first served basis after returning children. Parents may choose any qualified private school in the state, and the scholarships are portable to a different school if the first one doesn't work out. These measures ensure that a tax credit program is a true parental choice program, not a private school subsidy program. 


* Students must be given either the state assessment, or a nationally recognized norm referenced test, whichever the private school prefers. Private schools were already giving tests before our scholarship was created--the market demands it. Test scores must be reported to a research entity chosen by the state, and the results of the scholarship children must be made public (obviously subject to privacy laws). We have to know how the scholarship children are doing in order to justify the program to parents, policy makers and taxpayers. 


* Under Florida's law, private schools that take more than $250,000 worth of scholarship children must annually have a third party CPA look at their books and issue a report stating that the school is using the money for educational purposes. Any participating school must also provide evidence that their employees that deal with children have undergone background checks--something the private schools were already doing. 


With the right design and accountability, tax credit scholarship laws can be a vital tool in our fight to improve outcomes for low income children.  The average annual income of the children on Florida's program is $24,000 for a household of four; over 70% are minorities. They attend over 1,700 private schools of their parents' choice around the state. The scholarship has become just one of the many choice programs that parents choose in our state: we have magnets, charters, virtual schooling and dual enrollment with higher education. We have voucher programs for special needs children. But there are some children--especially low income children--that will only thrive in the environment that a private or even faith based school can provide. In Florida today, over 30% of the K12 children funded by the taxpayers do not attend their zoned school--and in the Miami Dade district it's over seventy percent! Why should we restrict the choices of poor parents?


It pains me so to see the choice movement splinter as it seems to be doing. Charter advocates should not oppose private school choice, and vice versa. How does it make sense to have a high performing charter school in NYC take over a building that was a Catholic school with a 99% graduation rate? As important, the political battles we must fight are much better fought together, as allies. Nothing makes the teacher union happier than to see the choice movement fight amongst itself.


I am not a private school advocate. I am a choice advocate. I am agnostic as to what kind of school a parent chooses. But I believe low income parents should be empowered to choose the best environment for their children, regardless of who runs it. The battle to empower parents has to be continually fought. The charter movement should never think (and I doubt it does) that the union will ever rest. Just two and a half years ago the Florida teachers union filed a lawsuit asking the courts to shut down the tax credit scholarship program and evict its 100,000 children from their schools. I beg your readers to watch this 60 second commercial BAEO aired about the suit, which shows over 10,000 parents and children--mostly minorities--who came to the distant state Capitol to march against the union: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=p9ZdN4jLhKE&feature=youtu.be


Within a month of the suit being filed, we had a formal coalition of over 100 of the state's most prominent African American ministers and over 100 Hispanic ministers denouncing the suit. 


As you watch that ad, don't you think we would be better off fighting together against the forces of the status quo, rather than fighting each other? I would also urge your subscribers to read this column by the principal of the school the President visited on Friday: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/opinion/os-ed-principal-gives-trump-preview-of-school-20170302-story.html


Whitney, thanks again for the opportunity to address your readers. I really appreciate it.


I asked John: “Do you have any opinion on whether voucher/tax credit programs should be limited to low-income families and/or students trapped in failing schools, so it's not just a government handout to wealthier families (especially those who seek white and/or religious schools)?”


Here was his reply:


Yes, I have very strong personal opinions on that.


I got into the parental choice movement twenty years ago to help parents who do not have enough money to move to a neighborhood where the zoned school met their children's needs, or could not pay for an alternative. I don't worry about those fortunate parents who have the ability to do that already. So I fight for low income and middle class parents who can't make a choice. I would add that most private school choice laws are means tested, whereas I don't believe I've ever seen a charter law that is.


I strongly object to any law that restricts scholarships to children in "failing" public schools, for two reasons:


1) It's just too easy for these laws to end up not helping enough kids. In Florida, Governor Bush's A+ Plan (enacted in 1999) had a voucher program for children in "failing" public schools. A public school had to get two "F" grades in a four year period for the children to be eligible. In the first year of grading there were only 78 " F" schools in the state. This was out of over 3,000 public schools, when the graduation rate for black children was less than 50%. The next year? There were no schools in the state that received an "F". That doesn't mean the law was a failure; in fact, the mere threat of the voucher made many schools improve (there have been excellent studies on this). But that program never served more than a thousand children in a state with over two million public school children. It shows you how hard it is to make a choice program based on " failing" schools work. Again I would ask you--where is there a charter law where the children have to attend a failing public school to get in?


2) I don't believe that eligibility should be based on the overall performance of a school. You could have a child zoned to a high performing school, and it's just a terrible fit for them. Conversely, you could have a "failing" public school (by some formula), and it works great for some kids. In the early 2000's Northwestern High School in Miami was graded an "F" every year. But every year they sent kids to the Ivy League on scholarship. It sure wasn't a failure for those kids.


The bottom line is that in my opinion eligibility should be based on income. But I don't want to see the middle class left out. What if your'e a cop and a nurse with two kids in New York City? Should their family not be eligible?


I would ask you this question: why doesn't the charter movement demand that eligibility for charter schools be means tested or limited to children attending "failing" schools?


John also sent me a link to this article: Parents, the president and private school choice, https://www.redefinedonline.org/2017/03/parents-president-private-school-choice


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