Wednesday, December 17, 2014

ESEA at 50: In the Mood to Take Risks

The fiftieth anniversary of the ESEA is coming up in April of 2015, and we’ll be hearing a lot about it – you know, “looking forward, looking back.”  Make no mistake, I adore history and historians of the federal role.   I like to kvetch about NCLB’s problems as much as the next College of Education faculty member.  But my intellectual commitments are increasingly to policy analysis aimed at the future tense, and I am looking for new collaborators to get me to think in creative ways about that.  

My colleague Professor Eric Houck, a school finance scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I wrote a paper for the Russell Sage Foundation’s gathering on ESEA at 50 in New York last week.   We are very interested in how Congress could build some incentives for states to re-vamp their state finance systems to make them more equitable into the ESEA. We argue that federal policy has swung toward adequacy since NCLB, and suggest that when we meld the concepts of adequacy from school finance and opportunity-to-learn from education policy together, there is a justification for incentivizing equity.  We propose a competitive grant program within ESEA to make awards to states willing to revamp their state finance systems, either through better weighting of formulae to support students with the greatest needs, or by asking states to increase their share of spending, thereby blunting somewhat the effects of the local property-tax base system.  Although the Equity and Excellence Commission’s 2013 Report to the Secretary of Education called for a stronger federal role in that dimension, it never explained how it could be accomplished in policy.   

You might say it is impossible for the new Congress to care about equity, and that everyone is wedded to the current NCLB accountability model.   But let’s consider some political realities about the present and future Congresses: there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the NCLB model, and a lot of indications that Rep. Kline and Sen. Alexander favor deregulation for the next round of proposals.  In fact, it is probably “Deregulate or no deal.”  So I think progressives and centrists alike ought to ask how the current model of categorical programs (like Title I, Title II) could be restructured to support heightened accountability and targeting, more equitable state funding formulae, and expanded investment in early childhood, health, and other community supports.  (There are some fascinating forthcoming books about this; look for my spring blog.)

Eric and I heard a lot of very valid pushback about our ideas: there’s limited federal capacity within the Department to support such ambitious reforms; states won’t want to participate; you can never assess if you’ve ever truly provided equality of opportunity.  And those all deserve the best answers we can provide. My point is that if those of us in academia don’t start writing some policy proposals that are based on research – especially those of us past the point of promotion and tenure – there are plenty of think tank staffers who will readily jump in to fill the void (minus the research). I am willing to re-think some of my long-held suppositions about what the federal contract with states ought to look like, so long as civil rights are held sacrosanct.  I’m looking for a few venturesome friends to help me. 

PS – The paper is too drafty to post here now, but write me if you are interested, email me ( and I will send it once it’s further toward publication.  

by Elizabeth DeBray 

Elizabeth DeBray is a professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration& Policy in the College of Education, University of Georgia. She received her Ed.D. from Harvard University. Her research interests are the politics of federal education policy, policy implementation, and interest group politics.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Charter School Paradox in New Orleans: Too Big To Fail

 Notwithstanding the great public relations machine that the charter school movement uses, scholars continue to debate the role of charter schools in the United States. Research suggests that charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools, do not typically outperform traditional public schools in terms of academics and have a slew of issues in terms of financial accountability. Why, then, are charter schools achieving such popularity within minority populations? It’s mind-boggling! Let us be clear about one thing: the charter school experiment in New Orleans must work! The charter school movement must not only work in the superficial assessments created by and advanced by the state of Louisiana, through the state’s Department of Education and Recovery School District. The charter school movement in New Orleans must succeed on all levels. The state of Louisiana continues to report gains in student achievement on state assessments while the state continues to falter in national assessments. This is reason enough to be a skeptic of the charter school movement’s stated role in the advancement of student achievement in New Orleans’ public schools, but tales of charter school success in Louisiana, and chiefly in predominately Black and poor New Orleans, are suspicious for a variety of other reasons. The School Performance Scores for Louisiana’s public schools are comprised mainly of scores on state assessments. The scores do not contemplate or give enough attention to other important areas of student achievement, such as graduation rates, dropout rates, attendance rates, suspension rates, expulsion rates, enrollment in special education and gifted programs, matriculation and completion of college, or any of many other academic indicators that are potentially more compelling and important assessments of student achievement and equity for Black students. We know these areas are critical to the assessment of student achievement for Black students. In the most glaring recent example, a 15-year old student was shot in killed on the streets of New Orleans. It is beyond reasonable to correlate the amount of time a student spends out of school (for suspension, expulsion or general absenteeism) to the number of opportunities that these youths have to be involved in these deadly encounters as well as encounters with the police. To not make these connections, is foolhardy and ignorant, at best. In the words of a close friend and colleague, “Dead kids can’t take tests.” This comment is dead on (no pun intended) because New Orleans has led the nation in murder rate nearly half of all years over the last 25 years. The reality is much more bleak for young, Black males. Murder victims over this time were almost exclusive Black and male. Furthermore, nearly 55% of the murder victims were under the age of 30, with close to a fifth being school aged. The reality is that our schools must be more than testing zones. They have to be providers of hope, saviors of the city; they must be transformative. For these reasons, I am openly critical of assertions that student achievement is trending upward in the New Orleans Public Schools. I am even more skeptical of the attestations that the charter school movement is responsible for the growth in student achievement in New Orleans. In the words of my advisor during my time at Penn State, “I don’t think your data can support these claims.” Charter schools – at least in New Orleans – are outrageously secretive although they operate with public funding. It is nearly impossible for educational researchers, especially those already pigeonholed as anti-charter, to gain access to the statistics needed to adequately measure the effect of charter schools on New Orleans’ predominately (and almost exclusively) Black student population. Herein lies the problem and greatest barrier to moving the agenda from school improvement to the creation of transformative schools.
Despite these problems with charter schools, it is beyond time to reassess our loyalties and disloyalties to the charter school movement in New Orleans. For some time, I have agreed with my middle-class, liberal White friends; the charter school movement will collapse on its own. The model is simply not sustainable. This, however, comes from a place of privilege. We can stand by idly because we are not direct stakeholders in this matter. Although I am a graduate and former employee of the New Orleans Public Schools, I have no children in the New Orleans Public Schools. Furthermore, if things get too terrible in New Orleans, I can relocate with relative ease. My position as a professor allows me to work from various locations and at varying times: to be honest, even the distant commute to neighboring Mississippi would not be too much to overcome in my line of work. My friends have the resources to send their children to private schools. Of course, New Orleans leads the nation in the percentage of students enrolled in private schools. The Archdiocese of New Orleans estimates that a whopping 44,000 students are enrolled in its schools in New Orleans! The New Orleans area has a unique history of flight from public schools, which includes White flight to the suburbs and middle-class Black flight to private schools. Needless to say, there is a large degree of disinvestment and distrust in the public schools of New Orleans. My friends do not particularly need the public school system; they are more than capable of affording the cost of the elite private schools in the New Orleans area. Charter schools were supposed to fix this. Charter schools were supposed to result in better performing public schools with more attention to equity. Instead, charter schools have resulted in the population of New Orleans sharply divided. Some parents endorse the charter school movement (of course, anything beats the old New Orleans Public Schools) while other parents complain that the charter school movement has ripped away Black parents’ stronghold on education policy and politics. My research into charter school board demographics supports the latter view: Whites dominate membership on appointed charter school boards in the all charter district, leaving Black parents virtually powerless in education policy and politics. Parents have fought for the rights to their schools but have been generally unsuccessful. Of course, parents of students in schools managed by the popularly-elected Orleans Parish School Board do not have these problems. These parents send their children to schools with a majority Black school board. The popularly-elected school board is severely limited in its reach because the majority of schools in New Orleans are managed by predominately White appointed charter school boards.
There is a brutal reality overlooked in the charter school debate in New Orleans; if our charter schools fail, then we fail our children. For the sake of a generation and our future, we must save the charter school movement in New Orleans. The charter school ship has sailed in New Orleans, and we must see that the ship reaches a pleasant destination at all costs. Both sides will have to lay down their arms. Charter schools must become open to honest and impartial criticisms that are aimed at improving the reform movement to make it more equitable in achieving its stated goals of quality education for all students. Charter schools may start this process through the sharing of data that will enable educational researchers to better gauge the successes and failures of the charter school movement. Opponents of the charter school movement must make concerted efforts to identify, research and promote the reforms that are working equitably. There are examples of attempts at equitable reforms in New Orleans. We need not create a false dichotomy: the charter school movement can coexist with movements towards greater educational equity. To their credit, charter schools have been successful at converting low-performing schools into mediocre schools. This is, admittedly, though less than equitable means in some cases.

Where do we go from here, though? What does reform 2.0 look like for New Orleans? Can we get mediocre schools to become exceptional schools? Through concerted collaboration, inclusive policymaking and equity-based actions, we can save the charter school movement while saving the education of an entire generation of students. The challenge is no longer to raise test scores; we must now alter lives!

by Steven Nelson

Steven Nelson is a visiting assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.

Public Policies and Contemporary Segregation

Prior to a grand jury failing to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, Richard Rothstein released an important report examining the broader structural contexts that make Ferguson, like many inner-ring suburbs, likely to provide limited opportunities for its young people. His work connects nicely with more contemporary work I’ve done examining the opportunity of students of color in suburban schools and districts that are rapidly changing—which in many instances are expanding the geographic scale of central city segregation. Rothstein stresses—and my own reading and research on this topic concur—that this is not unique to Ferguson or St. Louis, but is systematic and similar across metro areas in the country.

Rothstein’s report is especially useful because it illustrates how much of the existing patterns of segregation within metropolitan areas are a result of state action, not simply private prejudice. He provides an array of examples of policy tools used by jurisdictions outside of St. Louis to destabilize what integrated neighborhoods existed, pushing out black residents due to zoning policies, annexation or other means.  Moreover, two important points are (1) the myriad of ways in which the federal government not only condoned but indeed subsidized the discrimination against African Americans in suburbia, but also (2) the comprehensive nature with which racial discrimination permeated policies at all levels, reinforcing private action (including through government regulation of professional practice). Thus, a lesson from this is that even when the Supreme Court, for example, prohibited certain actions as unconstitutional or the Fair Housing Act became law, they were somewhat limited in changing outcomes on the ground because of the reinforcing and perpetuating effect of existing policies and practices. Indeed one of the conclusions Rothstein draws is that “the lesson of Black Jack [suburb that resisted a proposed integrated housing development] was that winning a lawsuit is not the same as winning the fight for integration” (p. 21).

What’s also important to understand is the way in which this has a perpetuating effect.  The exclusion of African-Americans from further out suburbs in St. Louis County means that they were not able to reap the advantages of rapidly rising home values. As African-Americans were increasingly relegated to central city neighborhoods, there was a rise in mismatch from employment opportunities and combined with limited public transportation opportunities, this made it difficult for Black residents to keep what good jobs were available to them (Rothstein also recounts employment discrimination in the metro).

Layered onto housing segregation and inequality is school quality and fragmentation.  In St. Louis city and county, there are nearly two dozen districts that have three or more schools. Given the differences in present day values due to the discrimination in the housing market Rothstein recounts, it is likely that students have vastly different opportunities, including due to segregation. The current governor as Attorney General two decades ago tried to end the long-lasting interdistrict desegregation program that sought to create more integrated experiences for students in the metro. At a time in which the Supreme Court has limited the ability of districts to pursue voluntary integration, the work that Rothstein has done could potentially be the foundation for arguing that schools should be responsible for remedying existing segregation due to the multifaceted ways in which it resulted from governmental action.

by Erica Frankenberg

Erica Frankenberg, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests focus on racial desegregation and inequality in K-12 schools, and the connections between school segregation and other metropolitan policies.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Can the US Meet its College Completion Goals with the Current Tuition Structure?

This is the question that we asked in a recent policy brief that was released through the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. This policy brief is based on our prior work on cross-national higher education policy diffusion that considered postsecondary enrollment levels, completion levels, and the role of different types of tuition systems.

In our work, we noticed that no nations with upfront tuition systems have gross graduation rates above 50%. This is a concern because the US has adopted a goal “that by 2020, America would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” but the US uses an upfront tuition system.

Johnstone & Marcucci argue that user fees enable the expansion of postsecondary systems due to the infusion of resources that student tuitions add into these systems. However, it appears to us that there is an inconsistent rate of expansion. Nations with upfront tuition systems are able to expand from elite systems in which few students graduate from college to massified systems with between 15-50% gross graduation rates.

However, upfront tuition systems have a negative effect on the expansion of gross graduation rates beyond the 50% threshold. Upfront tuition systems place an emphasis on students enrolling, since payments are collected at the time of matriculation. Under these systems funding incentives are generally comparable for both new and continuing students. As long as replacements can be found for dropouts, upfront tuition systems provide similar incentives for systems that churn through many students, who attend but never graduate, and systems that have students return year-by-year. Perhaps because of the incentives inherent in upfront tuition systems, it appears that there is a structural limitation of upfront tuition systems in expanding gross graduation rates above the 50% threshold.

In our policy brief we considered tuition structures and gross graduation rates for 37 nations. Nations with other models of higher education funding – deferred, dual track, and no/only nominal tuition systems – have all passed the 50% gross graduation rate threshold. If large upfront tuition levels impede students from completing their degrees, then the structure of an upfront payment system itself may depress college completion rates.

We think that discussions about college completion should include discussions of the financing structure that is currently used in the US. Importantly, we would like state and national policymakers, and institutional leaders to consider the question, Can the US meet its college completion goals with the current tuition structure?

Jennifer A. Delaney, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She specializes in higher education finance and policy; particularly state funding of higher education.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.