Tag Archives: school choice

The Union Public Schools: Choosing to be Excellent

The Union Public Schools: Choosing to be Excellent

A school classroom, somewhere in Oklahoma:

The students in this class are to design and build a video game in which the player must guide a cow across a busy highway. A successful program will result in either the cow successfully crossing the road resulting in the player being rewarded with a hand clap while if the cow is hit, the feedback to the player is an “Aw.”

That this is a high school coding class would be a good guess but it is actually a class of first graders engaging in their school’s STEM for all curriculum that begins in kindergarten and continues through high school where the students design mobile apps and web pages, while tackling cybersecurity and artificial intelligence projects. (Kirp, 2017)

Although the vignette suggests an affluent district, it comes from the Union Public School District that hosts 16,000 K-12 students located on the economically challenged east side of Tulsa, Oklahoma. 70% of the students qualify for reduced lunch ( 65.5% white, 31.3% Hispanic, 14.9% AfricanAmerican, 7.9% multi-racial, 6.9% Asian, and 4.9% American Indian). (Union Public Schools Annual Report)

Among other challenges is the fact that 2,700 of the children are English Language Learners (ELL) representing 50 different languages. 

Oklahoma has not been generous in support of its schools, and thus Union has about one-third fewer dollars per student ($7,605) than the national average.

A teacher in Union with twenty years experience and a doctoral degree will earn a bit less  than $50,000 per year. For a comparison, Kirp notes that teacher with similar qualifications in Scarsdale, New York, would earn $120,000.

Despite its challenges Union does better than the national high school graduation average with an 88% graduation rate with 100% of those off to further education. The district’s accomplishments are the results of a decade of serious effort triggered by a meeting in which the superintendent reviewed by name a list of dropouts and was humiliated when none of the district principals were able to account for any of the kids.

Over the decade of rebuilding, the faculty and administration worked at making their schools responsive to the community’s children and youth. (Kirp, 2017)

In an affluent middle-class community, parents provide their children with an abundance of out of school activities: art and music lessons, visits to science museums, summer science camps, sports camps, academic tutoring and enrichment like SAT preparation courses.

In east Tulsa where most families are economically stressed, the Union schools have picked up the role filled by affluent middle class families by transforming themselves into “community schools” that provide enrichment activities for their students and their families by opening early, so parents can drop their children off on the way to work and staying open late and during summers. “They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.” (Kirp, 2017).

Professor Kirp’s question “Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These?” challenges the assumption that public schools are unable to meet the needs of students and their families.

The power of that assumption provides the rationale for the President’s 2018 budget recommendation that while cutting the federal Department of Education’s overall budget by $9 billion, there would be “an additional $1.4 billion into school choice programs.”

School choice is a policy, which is a tool that is used to accomplish a task, and policy “work best when its actually tailored to the task at hand.” (Williams, 2017)

School choice programs can be connected to equitable access and better outcomes for the traditionally underserved populations when they are well-crafted.

For example, Louisiana rebuilt its hurricane ravaged schools based on the creation of charter schools after Katrina.  A painful learning curve made it clear that the new system would not work without an aggresive accountability system that would ensure that unsuccessful charters were closed. The result is that New Orleans system of public charters is thriving.

Michigan invests heavily in charter schools. Its policies are based on the idea that the more charters the better, and accountability is weak.  The result is that “the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops,…and bicycles…fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

State policy permits unsuccessful schools to shop around for new authorizing agencies and be back in business under a new name. (Zernike, 2016)

Instead of raising all schools the charter movement has resulted in “a total and complete collapse of education in this city,”  according to Scott Romney, a board member of the civic organization New Detroit. ( Zernike, 2016)


Kirp, David (2017). Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These? New York Times, April 1, 2017 Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/opinion/sunday/who-needs-charters-when-you-have-public-schools-like-these.html

Williams, Conor P. (2017). School choice is great… Washington Post, January 19, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/01/19/school-choice-is-great-betsy-devoss-vision-for-school-choice-is-not/?utm_term=.bac9773ce27e

Zernike, Kate (2016). A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift. New York Times, June 28, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/us/for-detroits-children-more-school-choice-but-not-better-schools.html


accountability, STEM, school choice, public schools, U.S. Department of Education, Louisiana, Michigan, vouchers, charter schools

Recent Research: Three Voucher Programs, Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio

The policy of providing vouchers to pay tuition for public school students to attend private schools aims to give families whose income falls below a certain level or whose children attend schools that are deemed to be “failing” the option of sending their children to a private school.

The principle behind the voucher strategy is the assumption that any given private school is better than any given public school, therefore a child who can attend a private school will receive a better education than in a public school. However, because private schools have historically served children from affluent families, their supposed “better” may be an artifact of their student population.

State voucher legislation has an accountability requirement that private schools accepting state funds must use the state accountability test to measure student progress. This means that researchers are able to compare progress made by voucher students with their peers in public schools using the same criteria, a standards-based accountability examination that covers the same content for both groups.

The fact that students in private schools take the same accountability tests as their peers in public school makes it possible to test the principle results of private school superiority.

Research on voucher programs has yielded mixed results with some students in some settings doing well while other students in other settings show no differences.  So, black students in New York City experienced growth in reading and math but there were no gains for their Hispanic peers in either reading or math. In the District of Columbia voucher program reading scores improved after the third year in the program while there was no improvement in math. There was no evidence of differences in reading scores in Milwaukee. Other educational outcomes like higher rates of graduation were found in New York and DC along with higher rates of college attendance in New York. (Dynarski, 2016)

Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio each has a voucher program and each of these has been studied over the past year and a half. The question that each of the studies tested was when compared to their academic performance in public school, was their subsequent performance in private school the same, better, or worse.

Indiana’s voucher program began in 2011 and was continued and expanded in 2014. There is now no limit to the numbers of students who can participate. In addition, the means test has been modified to allow families with higher incomes to participate.

In a study conducted by Drs. R. Joseph Waddington and  Mark Berends, respectively from the University of Kentucky and the University of Notre Dame found that students switching from a public school to a public charter experience no differences in achievement. In the case where students switch to a private school using an Indiana voucher, students experienced annual loses of -0.09 SD in mathematics and -0.11 SD in English-Language Arts. Studens who switched to Catholic schools experienced losses of -0.18 SD in mathematics. (Waddington and Berends, 2016, #27765)

The Louisiana Scholarship program was studied by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. As with the Indiana study it also found consistently negative consequences for the academic performance of students using vouchers to attend private schools.  A student performing at the 50th percentile in math at a public school who then enrolled in a private school using a voucher saw his/her performance decline to the 34th percentile after one year. If the student was in the third, fourth, or fifth grade, the decline was to the 26th percentile. There were similar declines in reading, to the 46th percentile from the 50th. (Mills et al., 2016)

Finally, research funded by the voucher-friendly Walton Family Foundation and conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined the Ohio EdChoice voucher program. The conclusion from the study was that “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” (Dynarski, 2016) & (Figlio and Karbownik, 2016, p. 39)

The three studies of voucher results in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio undercuts the assumption that is beneficial to students to move from a public to a private school.

It is a fact that since the decade of the nineties  public schools have been “under heavy pressure to improve test scores” something that private schools have not had to consider.  There is further evidence that public schools actually outperform private schools. 

In a NAEP funded study of NAEP mathematics scores, Lubienski & Lubienski (2006) found that when demographics and location were controlled, public schools “significantly out-scored Catholic schools by over 7 points in 4th grade math, and almost 4 points in 8th grade. math. Of private school types studied…the fastest growing segment of the private school sector, conservative Christian schools, were also the lowest performing, trailing public schools by more than 10 points at grades 4 and 8.” (Lubienski and Lubienski, 2006, p.4)  Note: the public schools in both Ohio and Indiana public schools performed above the national average on the most recent NAEP for fourth grade reading and mathematics.

The mixed results in earlier research on vouchers and the fairly unequivocal results of three studies described above pose interesting questions for both policymakers and parents to consider.


Dynarski, M. (2016). On negative effects of vouchers. Economic Studies at Brookings: Evidence Speaks Reports, 1(48). Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/on-negative-effects-of-vouchers/

Figlio, David (2016) Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition, and Performance Effects retrieved from https://edex.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/publication/pdfs/FORDHAM%20Ed%20Choice%20Evaluation%20Report_online%20edition.pdf

Lubienski, C., & Lubienski, S. T. (2006). Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/EPRU-0601-137-OWI%5B1%5D.pdf

Mills, J., N., Egalite, A. J., & Wolf, P. J. (2016). Education Alliance for New Orleans. Retrieved from http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/files/publications/ERA-Policy-Brief-Public-Private-School-Choice-160218.pdf

Waddington, R. J., & Berends, M. (2016). School Choice in Indianapolis: Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools. Education Finance and Policy. doi:doi:10.1162/EDFP_a_00225


school choice, vouchers, private schools, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, test scores, parochial schools, types of private schools