Tuesday, April 23, 2019

“School Choice” and the Myth of Improved Educational Outcomes

Jason Kenny is promoting the idea of school choice – code for the expansion of charter and private schools. The UCP policy platform commits to equal funding for students, whether they attend public, Catholic, private or charter schools. Alberta already has has the highest per-capita funding of private schools in the country at 70 percent of public school students, compared to 60 percent in Quebec, 50 percent in B.C. and Manitoba and zero percent in Ontario.

Yet the evidence is clear that charter and private schools do not increase the overall performance of the education system in a jurisdiction. The World Bank says so:

“There is no consistent evidence that private schools
deliver better learning outcomes than public schools.
Numerous risks, such as the exclusion of disadvantaged
or less able or desirable students, social segregation,
exploitation of families for profit and the undermining of
public education.” –World Bank Development Report on Education, 2017

And the OECD also says so:

“School choice advocates often argue that the
introduction of market mechanisms in education allows
equal access to high quality schooling for all…However
evidence does not support these perceptions, as choice
and associated market mechanisms can enhance
segregation.” –OECD Equity and Quality in Education – Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, 2012

A 2019 study of the charter schools in Ohio conducted by Stanford University shows that the “typical charter school student in Ohio makes similar progress in reading and weaker growth in math compared to the educational gains that the student would have made in a traditional public school” and further shows “that enrollment in online charter schools is associated with substantially negative learning gains in both reading and math, which drags down the overall charter school impact on student progress”. Similar results were found in Idaho and slightly better results were found for some Charter schools, but not all, in Washington State. Similar findings are reported for academies (charter schools) in England.

But there are also significant examples of failure. A recent report from the Network for Public Education in the US shows that some 40% of US Government-funded charter schools either never opened or closed shortly after receiving government funding, wasting one-third of the $4.1 billion allocated by the Federal Government.

What private and charter schools do to a school system is to change the composition of public schools, reduce overall available funding for public schools and put at risk the equity of school systems. In a major study of the privatization of public education, Sam Abrams demonstrates the negative impacts of the explosion of charter schools in the US and other countries.

Sweden is an interesting case. The country privatized much of its K-12 system only to find that the private providers could not function effectively and produce results. Some went bankrupt. Much like any corporate entity, they cut corners by employing cheaper teachers that were not qualified while spending lavishly on outside consultants. They also employed a competitive scheme where teachers were financially rewarded for garnering better test scores, leading the school to focus more on test preparation than on education and learning.

In England, the transfer of public resources to private firms continues apace. Charter schools (known as academies or free schools in England) have supplanted schools which were formerly public schools supervised by skilled educational oversight teams and local education authorities. More than 7,000 schools have become academies. Academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times. Funded directly by Government, the only oversight they receive is from their own managing board and from a national inspection service. Many academies are part of “chains” or network of like-minded schools bonded by common ownership. Some of these chains have collapsed in scandal. There is no evidence that academies perform better than public schools, once adjustments are made for intake.

What is more, academies are not efficient. In 2018 six of the 10 largest academy trusts issued warnings over pay, short-staffing, building safety, and financial risks. The trusts cover hundreds of English schools. One of the largest chains, the Ark Schools, posted a £4.1 million loss in 2017-18 even though it had over 50,000 students enrolled. A recent report suggests that eight out of ten academies are in deficit.

So why the interest in charter schools? One answer is money. While the organizations that run them pay themselves handsomely, secure significant assets (in England this includes land, buildings, and infrastructure) that were previously publicly owned and can award their own partner businesses lucrative consulting, technology and management contracts. While the academy or charter school may not be financially viable, the State is always there to “bail” out schools at risk of closure.

A second reason is ideological. Charter schools can pursue their own versions of teaching and learning somewhat independent of oversight by others. In Canada, Charter schools still have to offer the Provincial curriculum and be subject to Provincial education regulations, but have a degree of independence not found in many school districts.  Alberta adopted charter schools in 1994 to encourage innovation and permit parental choice. The thirteen charter schools that remain (three closed due to poor registrations, poor management or some combination of both) are largely located in Calgary and Southern Alberta.

Alberta also has a significant number of private registered or accredited private schools which serve app. 4% of Alberta’s school students. Most of these schools reflect a commitment to a particular religion. The key difference between Charter and Private schools relate to the ability to determine who can be admitted – private schools can select students, Charter schools cannot.  The Alberta government provides app. $13,000 in funding for every child who goes to public school but just $5,200 for everyone in a private school. The funding for private school students amounts to app. $162 million per year out of a $9-billion education budget. Five other Provinces in Canada provide no funds to private schools, yet they persist in these jurisdictions.

Albertan’s have a great deal of choice between types of publicly funded schools. Alberta is one of only three provinces that provide fully-funded Catholic education, and one of only two provinces that provide fully-funded French Catholic education, within the public system.

Would increasing the number of private or charter schools and increasing the level of public funding available improve the performance of the system overall? There is no compelling evidence that it would.

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