Blog: The Educated Reporter

Sen. Alexander: Federal Dollars Should Follow Students

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee. (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a leading Republican on education issues, delivered a pitch for expanding school choice, including by making federal Title I dollars “portable.” The idea, which is not exactly new, is that money under the $14.5 billion program for disadvantaged students would follow low-income children to the public school of their choice. 

Alexander’s speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington came as the Washington think tank unveiled its fourth Education Choice and Competition Index, which aims to highlight the most “choice friendly” large school districts in the nation. Top billing went to the Recovery School District in New Orleans, followed by the New York City and Newark districts. Among the districts to get an “F” rating (on an A-F scale): El Paso, Texas; Howard County, Maryland; and Mesa, Arizona.

The Tennessee senator said that while school choice has not grown as rapidly as he once predicted it would, he does see strong evidence that it’s building steam. Recent data show about 2.5 million children are enrolled in public charter schools, he said, and another 300,000 get public aid to attend private schools. It’s also worth noting that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates that more than 900,000 students are on waiting lists for charter school seats nationwide.

Alexander noted that the federal government has a long history of supporting private-school choice, though mainly in the higher education realm.

“America is the land of choices,” said Alexander, a former governor, U.S. secretary of education, and university president. “So why is it so hard to apply the same sorts of choices to elementary and secondary schools?”

(There was one gaffe during Alexander’s remarks, in which he mistakenly referred to some charter schools as also being private schools. For more, read Washington Post education reporter Emma Brown’s story.)

The senator’s proposal for Title I portability would leave the decision up to states on whether or not to allow the federal aid to follow individual students, as opposed to the current system, which provides money to particular schools in a district based on concentrations of poverty.

It remains to be seen whether Alexander’s proposal for Title I portability will have more success this go-around. As Alyson Klein reports over at the Politics K-12 blog, a new study raises questions about the strategy. Letting Title I dollars follow disadvantaged students to the public school of their choice would end up diluting the program’s focus on children in poverty, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely associated with the Obama administration. Klein notes that Title I portability is included in both a measure to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education put forward by Alexander, as well as a bill from Republicans on the House education committee.

At the event, Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, also served up an overview of the latest choice index from his think tank.

“We draw attention to how choice is manifest in the largest districts,” he said, “and how it’s changing over time.”

Of course, rating school choice requires some judgment calls, particularly when it comes to criteria. For Brookings, the factors include:

  • “Maximum choice”, including “good” traditional public schools, magnet schools, charters, “affordable” private schools, and virtual education within the district boundaries;
  • A choice process that “maximizes” matching parent preferences to assignments: no “default” school, a common application, availability of “rich and valid” information on school performance;
  • Funding and management processes that favor the growth of “popular schools over unpopular schools,” including weighted, student-based funding, processes for closing unpopular schools; and
  • Subsidies for the costs of choice for poor families, particularly for transportation.

Only 12 out of 107 districts examined got a grade of A or B. More than half received either a D (25) or F (33).

“Some of our low-performing districts say that they offer choice, but it’s a faux choice,” Whitehurst said.

The interactive dataset allows access to details on each of the districts examined in the survey, so this can be a useful starting point for further analysis by reporters, researchers, parents, and others.

Although the new report gives New Orleans high marks, a recent study from Tulane University offers a more mixed assessment of how school choice is actually going for families in that city, where since Hurricane Katrina most public schools were converted into charter schools overseen by the state’s Recovery School District.

In particular, it highlights the question of whether post-Katrina changes have led to a more equitable system that ensures better schools for all children. It finds that while the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores after Katrina, these families are not necessarily going to those schools.

Such families are less likely to choose schools with strong test scores, finds the report, from Tulane’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

From the report:

“This is partly because their incomes and practical considerations prevent them from doing so. Being close to home, having siblings in the same school, and including extended school days are all more important to very-low-income families than other families.”

The Tulane report also cautions:

“The fact that families have ‘more choices’ and seem to actively exercise choice does not necessarily mean that communities are better off. Education fulfills social goals that go beyond what ‘consumers’ might want. Also, while surveys suggest that the average parent is satisfied with the choice-based system, some parents may prefer the types of neighborhood schools that no longer exist with the elimination of neighborhood attendance zones.”

That said, even if very-low-income families are less likely than more affluent families to choose schools for their academic outcomes, there is some evidence in the city that average academic quality has increased in the city, and the strong preference some families place on academics may influence the market positively, a rising tide that lifts all families.

For reporters looking to learn more about school choice, including charters, vouchers, and virtual education, the Education Writers Association is holding a two-day journalists-only seminar in Denver on Feb. 27-28. Space is limited, and a few travel scholarships are still available for qualified reporters.