DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, good or bad

The program was killed off in the house yesterday as part of the budget vote. There are some detailed studies out, and there is a ton of spin. I decided to take a look at the academic part of the studies to see if I could sift through things a bit.

From National Review Online:

Academic researchers evaluating the program have found that parents of voucher students are more satisfied with their children’s schools. Initial evidence suggests that children who were offered vouchers are performing better academically than their peers who were not, though the results so far aren’t statistically significant.

More satisfied parents and test scores that appear to be rising — not bad for a government program. Why, then, are congressional leaders so intent on terminating this relatively tiny expenditure?

The results of the first couple years dont seem to indicate much of a difference in academic performance.

After 2 years, there was no statistically significant difference in test scores in general between students who were offered an OSP scholarship and students who were not offered a scholarship. Overall, those in the treatment and control groups were performing at comparable levels in mathematics and reading.

The Program had a positive impact on overall parent satisfaction and parent perceptions of school safety, but not on students’ reports of satisfaction and safety (tables 4 and 5).

There were some impacts on subgroups of students, but adjustments for multiple comparisons indicate that these findings may be due to chance.

The main difference is that after 1 year, the non-SINI and higher performing groups of students appeared to experience statistically significant positive impacts on math achievement, while in the second year the impacts were on reading achievement. Adjustments for multiple comparisons suggest that both sets of results may be false discoveries.

Now, whats goofy, is that in some cases, some research shows that private schools do provide a better education than public schools. Certainly in other areas of the country, voucher programs have shown significant success. Then add in the description of the public schools in Washington DC…

Despite the system’s spending more than $14,000 each year per student, barely half of all students ever graduate high school. One out of every eight D.C. students reported being assaulted or injured with a deadly weapon during a recent school year. That’s equal to the percentage of D.C. eighth-graders who scored “proficient” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

I went whoa on this, so I had to look it up, and the are correct… scary.

And if all the facts are on the table, something doesnt add up at all, thus there has to be something seriously skewed here. Any private school that has such a low performance in reading would loose all their students in a flash. However, the NAEP is likely a drastically different evaluation, than what was used in the study.

Some possible explanations (its my guesses, no data to back them up, just my thoughts:)
1. The public schools taught to the tests used in the study, where as the private schools focused on a well rounded education.
2. Standardized testing in K-12 edu is pretty worthless as a sole metric of comparison.
3. Involved parents traditionally have more to do with education than funding, Scholarship students parents would be involved, so performance should be better. Why doesnt the study show this, ie parental approval is very high, but student performance is comparable.
4. Two years of data is too little to make a call.
5. The transition in schools may have caused a temporary drop in achievement.

I think it was a bad call to end this program at this time. It was supposed to run through 2012, and then there would hopefully be enough solid data to make the call. Granted preliminary data is not very good, but that could be due to other factors. In fact the next eval will be out this summer, at least they could have moved forward with this for another year. By then, the reports could have been looked at with a fine tooth comb. If it was indeed not effective, perhaps they could find out why, ie what are the other factors contributing to this. As a anti standardized test guy, obviously I blame the measurement methodology, but I really would like to understand what the real deal is. Also, to upend kids education over ideology, which does appear to be the case, is way uncool. I dont care which party does it… kids education has to be a priority, not the parents, not the unions, not the school district, nor Washington ideology.

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Tax credits for tuition (unintended consequences)

On the outset, this seems a mighty fine idea… but it doesnt quite go far enough, and is open to a ton of abuse. Not at the student level per se (they are the ones being abused), but at the state and educational institution domain. The problem in a nutshell, is that educational systems often charge a price just below what the market will bear. If there is excess money in the hands of the student and/or their parents, tuition will go up. Whether the increase is due to reducing the states percentage of funding as a whole, or an intentional shift to put more of the tuition burden on the student in order to pork pet projects, it will occur. Thus. Al Franken’s as well as Obama’s smaller plan, are a very good thing, but they are only a short term fix… state govts and other institutions in short order will proceed to eat up that tax credit through tuition increases. Its a windfall deal for many states… they can simple shift funding priorities around, such that they can fund their favorite programs.

Wisconsin is a prime example of this… pretty much as the economy grew, or more student loans became available, more and more of the burden was placed on the student.

* Interesting facts from http://www.wpri.org/Reports/Volume%2020/Vol20no7/Vo20No7p1.html

UW’s share of General Purpose Revenue… decreased 39% between 1975 and 2005
State tuition support per student decreased from 75% in the seventies to 24% in 2005-2006
Corrections share of General Purpose Revenue increased 280.7% between 1975 and 2005

Thus… if Wisconsin really wanted to make tuition affordable, they could, its just a matter of priorities. Simply returning to the tuition support levels like they had in the seventies would result in greater than a 50% reduction in tuition, albeit it would be unpopular with the corrections folks and others with a vested interest in pork. I wonder how many tax payers, students, and parents are truly aware of this. (The priority shift in funding was in the Alumni newsletter some years back… I was appalled)

I fear that expansion of the tuition tax credit in and of itself, will result in state govts having a field day with their pet projects and priorities other than education. That being said… in the short term, I support the ideas 100%, as something does need to be done, and it needs to be done now. Over time though, it just has to be followed up one way or another. US federal taxpayers sure don’t need to  subsidizing the building and operations of prisons in Wisconsin, or any other state under the guise of student tax credtis. Education funds as a result of this tax credit need to go to education alone, and not be porked into other arenas.

* be aware… stats can be misleading, and there are kazillions of permutations and ways to present data. I specifically chose these facts to show an extreme case of absurdity as to what can go wrong… and yes, that is cherry picking, but they are backed up by data in the report.

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