(From the Daily Caller)
As Republican presidential candidates converged to talk both local and broad-scale reform at an education summit last month, much discussion focused on choice options for students and families.
Candidates, hosted by nonprofit The 74 Million, took to the New Hampshire stage to discuss their plans for the nation’s schools. The group included former governors Jeb Bush (Florida) as well as sitting governors Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Chris Christie (New Jersey) John Kasich, (Ohio) Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Governor Kasich emphasized support for charter school policies built on strong accountability measures. Ohio charter schools grew under “unfettered” policy early on, but now require increased accountability measures to ensure student achievement, Kasich said.
Charter schools are a frequent reform favorite, for good reason. Research on student outcomes, in environments that support strong charter policy and expansive voucher programs, indicates academic gains.
Research by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes and others has shown that charter schools in jurisdictions with strong laws, effective authorizers and fair funding produced strong academic gains for students compared with their peers in neighborhood public schools. This research has also found that jurisdictions that close particularly low-performing charter schools demonstrate positive effects on students’ academic progress.
In Dayton Ohio, special education charter school students gained 166 days in reading and 180 days in math over their traditional public school peers.
Former Governor Jeb Bush said he supports a provision of the No Child Left Behind rewrite currently in the House that would transform Title I funding into backpack funding, following the child, regardless of poverty levels in each school, to include charter schools. Universal vouchers, providing low-income students access to private schools and corporate tax scholarships have a “net result” in transforming outcomes, Bush said, and are “common sense principals of continuous improvement.”
The combination of choice options triggered major growth in Florida’s 4th grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. From 2003-2009, Florida students eligible for free and reduced lunch gained 47 points on the test, a number significantly higher than any other state which data is available on all four of the main NAEP tests, according to research by Matthew Ladner, Senior Advisor for Policy and Research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Several candidates spoke prominently of including private school vouchers as part of their education plans. Evidence suggests access to vouchers increases academic performance, particularly affecting the nation’s growing achievement gap.
Governor Walker expanded Wisconsin’s voucher program beyond low-income families, a program he described as producing a “vibrant middle class” and has the power to improve urban America.
Students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 2006 in 8th or 9th grade, compared to Milwaukee Public School students, were more likely to enroll in a four-year post-secondary institution, according to an extensive report by the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform.
Research on Milwaukee’s choice model, controlling for demographics and resources, found that private-school competition and charter-school competition led to significant improvements in public school test scores in the schools where students who did not exercise choice options remained.
As Ohio Governor, Kasich has expanded his state’s voucher program to 60,000 students.
Christie, who has pressed for approval of opportunity scholarships for urban youth in New Jersey throughout his tenure as governor, has made clear he would continue to advocate for voucher as a a national leader.
Longitudinal data studies on large scale school choice initiatives, including voucher programs in Washington, DC, Milwaukee, WI and Louisiana, have documented positive benefits for students.
A culmination of 10 years of researching Washington, D.C.’s federally-funded voucher program for low-income students and found student graduation rates increased 21 percent. Vouchers, the research team led by Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, found, impacted positive qualitative outcomes across families by dramatically increasing parents’ involvement in the education process. A qualitative evaluation by the University of Arkansas researchers found most parents in the program, moved essentially from the “margins to the center of their children’s academic development.”
Both Bush and Fiorina lauded Education Savings Accounts at the summit, as potentially transforming education beyond other reform measures’ capabilities.
A younger, dynamic model of education reform, ESAs direct a portion of per pupil state funding to eligible families. Most states with ESAs cater to underprivileged or special needs students, but Arizona and Florida’s programs are more far-reaching, and according to experts, represent the evolution of school choice.
“The candidates who are really on the ball regarding parental school choice will be backing Education Savings Accounts,” Wolf said. “The ESAs that already exist, in states like Arizona and Florida, put parents in charge of customizing their child’s education and also pressure providers to keep costs down. They are the smartphone of the school choice policy toolkit.”
In a departure from the choice discussion, New Jersey’s Christie argued that adopting better technologies in the classroom to personalize education should be part of a nationwide reform effort.
Louisiana Governor Jindal also spoke of his support for customized learning through smart educational technology in classrooms. New Orleans’ innovative Opportunity School Districts has allowed for widespread choice under Jindal’s governance, combining a variety of choice options with incentives to attract tech savvy entrepreneurs to compete as educational providers.
Early research indicates that technology integrated into classroom instruction can drive substantial gains in the student learning.
As Congressional decisionmakers continue to wrestle to negotiate common ground between federal education packages passed in the House and Senate, research linking education choice with strong student outcomes will continue to build momentum in the nation’s dialogue determining where to best lead schools.
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