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Schools Don’t Need Fewer Regulations, They Need Smarter Ones

Published:  February 6, 2013
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Last week was National School Choice Week, a celebration that tends to make strange bedfellows of education policy advocates. The broad appeal of the movement – parents should be able to choose a high-quality school for their children – belies the volatile political reality. However, two recent reports add empirical evidence to the frequently emotional and personal discussions surrounding school choice.

The cleverly-titled School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring?, from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, examines the assertion that state-imposed regulations and accountability measures discourage private schools from participating in voucher or tax-credit programs. The report surveyed 241 private schools in five voucher-participating cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. 

Surprisingly, the authors found that regulations don’t act as a strong deterrent for participation. Only 3 percent of non-participating schools listed program regulations as the primary reason for not opting in.

A descriptive analysis of 13 voucher programs and tax credit scholarship programs found a similarly mild effect on participation. Moving from the lowest to highest regulation burden represented only a 9 percent decrease in participation from private schools.

Instead of restrictions and accountability measures, the most-cited reason for not participating was the availability of voucher-eligible families. It seems that these schools believe the area they serve wouldn’t provide enough qualified voucher students to make participation worthwhile. In fact, more than a third of non-voucher schools reported that they would be more likely to participate if the program extended eligibility to all families in the form of a universal voucher.

While voucher regulations had a small deterrent effect, it’s interesting to note that Catholic schools – which make up more than a third of private education options – had high participation even in the most heavily regulated environments. The study’s authors believe that combatting declining enrollments, as well as a foundational mission to serve the poor, drives this participation.

School Choice Week also brought a new report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) examining changes in charter school achievement levels over time. Weighing in at two volumes and about 200 pages, Charter School Growth and Replication is a detailed study of the impact of network expansion and the range of performance quality within charter schools.

One of its most notable findings is that charter schools with a rocky first year aren’t likely to improve their achievement results over time. A charter school in the lowest quintile of performance its first year has a 66 percent probability of staying in the lowest two quintiles of schools in math and a 70 percent probability of staying in the lowest two quintiles in reading.

The trajectory of the lowest performing schools becomes more entrenched over time – once a school spends two years in the lowest quintile, the probability of staying in the two lowest quintiles ranges from 82 percent to 91 percent in math and 89 percent to 96 percent in reading.

The study further examines the impact of schools that operate as part of a Charter Management Organization (CMO). They find that CMO schools, on average, tend to post the same achievement results as non-CMO schools, but produce better results for disadvantaged subgroups – students of color and those in poverty – than traditional public or non-CMO schools. 

Another striking finding is the broad range of academic quality of CMO networks. In math, 37 percent of networks produce average achievement results stronger than a traditional public school, while 50 percent posted weaker results. In reading, where the spread of effect sizes is even more pronounced, 43 percent of networks fare better than traditional schools and 37 percent fare worse.

While the two reports occupy different spheres of school choice policy – one focused on the provision of education through the private market, the other on the effectiveness of publicly-authorized charter schools – they both convey a similar theme. Regulations imposed on schools matter, but not always in the ways we’d expect.

Fordham’s report delivers a significant blow to the argument that heavy regulations act as a strong deterrent for participation in voucher programs. For private schools considering voucher participation, it seems that the market  of qualified students, as well as internal factors such as admissions criteria and school culture, may play more of a role than previously thought.     

The CREDO study should act as a wake-up call for charter school authorizers. The study suggests that the length of charter authorization periods should be reconsidered: if a school performs poorly in its first few years, it is not likely to improve before its charter is up for renewal.  

Given the noted difficulties in closing poor-performing charter schools, this report may push authorizers to scrutinize new charter school applications even more closely. In a recent op-ed, the New York Times cited the CREDO study as evidence to push for the closing of poor performing schools and limit the authorization of new charters to the “most credible” candidates. Unfortunately, the study shows that credibility is difficult to measure. Operating under the umbrella of a CMO is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Further, the CREDO study finds that characteristics that might seem to indicate success - network maturity, size, and proximity to other network schools – do not provide significant information about future performance.

One bright spot is the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF), a non-profit that invests in charter school operators. CREDO found that students in schools selected by CSGF tend to outpace peers in both traditional public schools and other non-CSGF CMOs. The ability of CSGF to “pick winners” from the charter school pool suggests that a high level of due diligence and oversight from authorizers can have impact on school quality.

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