Survey is ammunition, not illumination

University of Illinois education professor Christopher Lubienski said he winced when he saw a recent Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice survey that purported to find suspiciously strong support among Indiana voters for private school vouchers.

Christopher Lubienski

Christopher Lubienski

Lubienski, who studies both school choice and research methodology, suspected the survey results would be reported uncritically — and sure enough, they were.

“The Friedman Foundation is an advocacy organization,” he said in a phone interview this week. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but they have a position. I think it’s not appropriate to represent them as some kind of objective research organization. They’re not; they’re pushing an agenda.

“Researchers are looking for illumination,” he said. “And the Friedman Foundation is looking for ammunition.”

The Friedman Foundation survey found that an extraordinary seven in 10 Hoosier registered voters favor vouchers, in which the government pays private and religious school tuition for qualified students. Other surveys find voucher support to be half that strong. The foundation also found strong support for charter schools and for education savings accounts, a new and convoluted approach to providing public funding for private school tuition.

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Voucher survey findings: Consider the source

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is out with a new public opinion survey featuring the surprising finding that seven in 10 Indiana registered voters favor school vouchers, which provide taxpayer-funded tuition payments for parents who send their children to private schools.

The survey finds vouchers are popular across the board – even with many Indiana Democrats and with supporters of Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, an outspoken voucher opponent.

If this sounds suspicious, it should. Surveys by other organizations never seem to find anywhere close to that kind of support for vouchers. The recent Hoosier Survey by Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs, for example, found only 39 percent support for vouchers for private or charter schools. Nationally, the 2015 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Poll found only 31 percent support for vouchers.

So as for Friedman Foundation survey, consider the where it’s coming from. The foundation is an advocacy organization whose mission is to bring about the late economist Milton Friedman’s vision of privatizing education through universal state voucher programs that are open to all students.

The Indianapolis-based foundation has been conducting these state opinion surveys for a long time, and somehow they never fail to find strong support for vouchers. Researchers Jon Lorence and Gary Miron analyzed 10 of the Friedman Foundation surveys several years ago and concluded they were plagued with questionable sampling techniques, biased questions and other problems.

“Contrary to the authors’ claims, the data provide little evidence that state public officials will increase their electability by supporting school choice policies,” they wrote in a review for the pro-public education National Education Policy Center. Continue reading

Authorizer shopping pays off for charter school

Organizers of the Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County went shopping for a friendly authorizer and found one. Grace College and Theological Seminary, a small Christian school in northern Indiana, agreed this month to approve the charter school.

But Seven Oaks has work to do before it can open. For one thing, it needs a suitable facility. It’s looking to buy or lease and renovate a building in Bloomington, according to a news release.

The board also has to work through a 10-page checklist of items to the satisfaction of Grace College, including details about school governance, financial management, curriculum and other matters. And it needs to hire staff, including a head of school, and recruit and enroll students.

So the school may open this August, as organizers hope, but it will be a scramble. It will probably require leaning heavily on Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative and/or the school management firm Indiana Charters, both identified as partners in the Seven Oaks application.

In fact, the charter – the written contract that spells out the duties of Seven Oaks and the authorizer – hasn’t yet been completed, Grace College public relations director Amanda Banks said. No decision has yet been made on whether Grace will collect the 3-percent administrative fee that state law allows charter authorizers, she said; that provision will be part of the charter, when it’s completed.

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Afflicting the afflicted

Indiana lawmakers are rushing to prevent schools from getting lower accountability grades as a result of this year’s big drop in ISTEP scores. But in their haste, they are making a serious mistake.

Senate Bill 200, which they are about to pass, says schools’ grades for 2014-15 can’t be any lower than their 2013-14 grades. The new grades are set to be issued this month by the State Board of Education.

Here’s the problem. The legislation doesn’t do anything for schools that got an F in 2013-14 and that didn’t improve in 2014-15. And improving was a long shot because passing rates for ISTEP, the major component in school grades, declined by over 20 percentage points statewide.

Indiana schools that get successive Fs face increasingly severe state sanctions. Schools that reach six Fs in a row – and apparently there are three that could this year – face state takeover.

This doesn’t make any sense. The only reason for SB 200 in the first place is that the spring 2015 ISTEP tests were so difficult that it would be unfair to base grades on those results. But if that’s the case for schools that got an A, B, C or D in 2013-14, it should be just as true for schools that got an F.

Journalists like to say their job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With SB 200, the legislature is turning that adage on its head. And that’s just wrong. Continue reading

Free speech and free riders

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Or the right of public employees to free-ride on other public employees.”

Who knew that second paragraph is what the Founding Fathers were thinking when they drafted the First Amendment to the Constitution? Apparently a majority of the Supreme Court knows.

According to news coverage of Monday’s oral arguments, the five conservative members of the court are likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a lawsuit that claims charging “fair-share” fees for union representation violates the First Amendment.

California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs argue that the fees amount to forced support for a political organization – the California Teachers Association – whose policies and positions they don’t support. But public-sector unions can’t use fair-share fees for lobbying and politics. The fees can pay only the costs that unions incur for bargaining contracts and representing employees.

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Study: Louisiana vouchers produce poor results

A new study of a Louisiana school voucher program should get attention in Indiana, where a five-year-old voucher program continues to grow rapidly with little oversight from state officials.

The study, published in December 2015 as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that Louisiana students who get state-funded vouchers to pay private school tuition perform much worse on standardized tests than if they had stayed in public schools.

The voucher program, called the Louisiana Scholarship Program or LSP, was established as a pilot program in 2008 and greatly expanded by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012. According to the study:

Attendance at an LSP-eligible private school lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and increases the likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large. The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children.

A 50 percent increase in the likelihood of getting a failing score in math is a lot. Lowering scores by 0.4 standard deviation is harder for us non-statisticians to grasp. But note that it’s five to 10 times as big an effect as the charter-school test-score gains that are touted as meaningful by the Stanford-based CREDO research organization. So yes, it should get notice. Continue reading

Less than meets the eye to ISTEP results

There’s not much to say about Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP scores, released this week, except that they went down. Way down.

In the spring of 2014, 74.7 percent of Hoosier students in grades 3-8 were able to pass both the math and English/language arts sections of the test. In the spring of 2015, that fell to 53.5 percent.

Of course, it was a different test, tied to a different set of standards, and with very different “cut scores” for passing set by the Indiana State Board of Education. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and other officials warned the passing rates would drop dramatically, and they were right.

And the scores fell pretty much across the board. Every one of Indiana’s 289 public school corporations saw its overall passing rate decline by 10 percentage points or more.

Yes, some dropped more than others. It’s tempting to focus on which districts saw their passing rates drop a lot and which dropped a little and to think that would tell us something about school performance. But it may not.

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