Saturday, October 27, 2007

Referendum 1 Q&A #2

Kim, I'm still working on your question. Derrick's is easier to answer right now because I've already done research on his. I'm still getting the facts for yours.

On to Derrick's Question:

Q: Here's a question for you. Theoretically, just to throw this out there, parents who are involved enough in their child's education to take advantage of the voucher system would more likely have children who are successful in public schools. Whereas students whose parents are less involved in their child's education would be less likely to utilize the vouchers and their children would be more "at risk". (I'm just going off the hunch that students with more involved parents tend to do better. No research as of yet.)

So, here's the question. Do you think that presence of vouchers could cause the public schools to lose higher achieving students and lead to the ghettoization or of public schools by increasingly removing the higher achieving students who have more involved parents from the public schools where they would have a powerful positive effect?

You must admit it's an interesting question at least.

A: Good question Derrick. This is a common concern among those who are unsure about school choice programs such as Referendum 1. It is also a valid concern that deserves a better response than the usual glib answers that I hear. I'll try to give you something more substantial to chew on.

Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor at the Department of Economics at Harvard University, conducted a study of the effects of school choice and school competition in the United States. In it she studies the effects of what she calls "first generation school choice programs," most of which were enacted between 1988 and 1994. In her paper she "focus[es] on evidence that is recent and that relies on the most credible empirical methods."

The term she uses for the phenomenon you have described is "cream-skimming", where charter and voucher schools end up with a selection of the better students. The evidence she gathers shows that school choice programs do not cream-skim. Her words:

"Not only do currently enacted voucher and charter school programs not cream-skim; they disproportionately attract students who were performing badly in their regular public schools. This confirms what theory predicts: there are no general results on the sorting consequences of school choice."
This confirms one of my knee-jerk, glib responses to your questions. The students who are doing well in public schools, whose parents are happily involved in their school, have no reason to leave.

Ms. Hoxby also says that public schools have responded constructively to school choice programs. They show marked improvements and better serve the students who stay in public schools. Milwaukee enacted a voucher program in 1998. The improvement in the public schools as a result was so great that "people have sometimes asked whether they might not be due to severe reverse cream-skimming. That is, perhaps the voucher schools removed all the worst students from the Milwaukee Public Schools?"

Some more quotes on "cream-skimming" from her paper:

"In short, the evidence...strongly suggests that charter schools are not cream-skimming in any conventional racial, ethnic, or economic way. They are disproportionately drawing students who have suffered from discrimination, not enjoyed undue preference, in the public schools."

"Overall, it appears that choice schools are not cream-skimming in the US. ... If anything, choice schools are disproportionately drawing students who are generally considered to be less desirable or who are already experiencing achievement problems."

She also explains that different types of school choice programs are more or less likely to cream-skim. The elements of a school choice program that is unlikely to cream-skim or negatively affect public schools are:
  1. There are plenty of public schools for a student to choose from and a student's family can choose to either move to an area where the schools are better or they can apply to the local school district to go to a public school different from their local school.
  2. Voucher eligibility is limited.
  3. Vouchers are not uniform in size, but higher or lower based on income.
  4. When a student chooses to use a voucher, only the amount of the voucher goes with them. The remainder stays in the public school budget.
Utah's Referendum 1 includes all of these factors.
  1. Because of the huge numbers of kids in Utah, there are many public schools to choose from. Most (if not all) Utah school districts allow a student to attend a school other than the one closest to him if his parents apply for him to go to a different school and make arrangements to get him there.
  2. This is a preliminary answer to your question, Kim. Because the amount of a voucher does not cover the full cost of a private school education, use of the voucher system will be self-limiting. Only those parents who are truly committed to sending their children to private school will use it.
  3. The voucher system set up in Referendum 1 offers different sized vouchers based on income.
  4. The maximum voucher amount is $3000. There is a specific clause in the language of Referendum 1 that holds a public school harmless when a student chooses to use a voucher. The extra money alloted to that student remains with his or her public school.
So, there's the answer to your question, Derrick. School choice programs like Referendum 1 have not only been shown to NOT cream-skim, they have actually been shown to disproportionately remove the students who are not being served well by public schools. In addition, public schools in other states have responded impressively to school choice programs and have shown marked improvement in student achievement and productivity.

The evidence from the last two decades of school choice programs highly suggests that Referendum 1 will improve education not only for the few students who take advantage of vouchers but also for the vast majority of students who stay in public schools. Quite the opposite of the often feared "ghettoization of public schools."

If anyone would like to read through Caroline Hoxby's paper, it can be found at The title of the paper is "School Choice and School Competition: Evidence From the United States." It's a good read.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Good answer. Thank you for that.