States Give Short Shrift to School Choice Option in ESSA Plans

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School choice is having a big moment in K-12 policy. But you'd never know it from reading states' plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.

States around the country are increasingly adopting tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts, expanding charters, and embracing other choice programs. And the issue is getting a lot of attention, both positive and negative, thanks to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime cheerleader on the topic.

But an Education Week review of all state plans shows that few are taking advantage of the handful of opportunities ESSA offers to expand, lay the groundwork for, or take advantage of existing choice programs. Those include using choice or charters as a school improvement tactic, setting aside federal money for such initiatives as dual enrollment and tutoring, and offering public school choice to students in struggling schools.

"There were a lot of possibilities of how states could use choice really creatively," said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research organization at the University of Washington. But most states opted not to employ them, she added.

That's partly thanks to "lack of imagination or risk aversion. That's something we saw more generally in the ESSA plans," Lake said.

Picking a Path

The Every Student Succeeds Act has some limited avenues for states to champion various types of school choice options. But only a handful of states are taking advantage of those opportunities, according to reviews of the plans by Education Week and others.

School Improvement

  • At least 12 states say they want schools that are perennially low-performing to consider reopening as charter schools to boost student achievement. Those states include: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.
  • At least one state—Texas—has floated the possibility of opening new charter schools as a school improvement strategy.

Public School Transfers

  • At least three states—New York, New Mexico, and Louisiana—require districts to offer students in very low-performing the chance to transfer to a better performing school.

Direct Student Services

  • ESSA allows states to set aside up to 3 percent of their Title I money for activities like tutoring, dual enrollment, Advanced Placement course-fees, transportation for public school choice, and more. At least two states—Louisiana and New Mexico—are planning to take this option.

What's more, many states are facing pushback on their choice proposals, such as Arizona's expansion of education savings accounts, which is being challenged in court, said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a research and policy organization in Denver.

Those states may not have wanted to enshrine policies in their ESSA plans that face an uncertain future.

To be sure, choice fans didn't get as much as they wanted out of the federal law itself, which passed in 2015 and is the most recent update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Some Republican lawmakers—including Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee—pushed for "Title I portability," meaning allowing federal funds for disadvantaged children to follow students to the school of their choice. But that proposal didn't make it into the final version of the law.

For her part, DeVos has tried to draw attention to the opportunities to advance choice through ESSA. And she admonished states for not taking advantage of some of them in a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers earlier this year.

Charter and Turnarounds

The part of state plans that mention choice most often? The section on school improvement.

ESSA requires states to flag their lowest-performing schools and come up with "evidence-based" interventions to help them improve. Schools that don't show improvement for several years must switch to what the law calls "more rigorous interventions," determined by the state.

At least a dozen states mentioned charters as a possible turnaround strategy, according to separate analyses by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Education Week.


See Also: Approved ESSA Plans: Explainer and Key Takeaways From Each State


States identified in one or the other analysis include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

Most pitched restarting a low-performing school as a charter as a more rigorous intervention to try when other strategies have failed.

Texas, though, proposed distributing a portion of its school improvement money under ESSA through a competition, giving districts a menu of possible strategies to choose from.

Among the possibilities: Districts can apply to use the money to start new schools, including charters, in places with failing schools. Other options that also include less dramatic steps, like revamping instruction to put a greater focus on data.

"We wanted to give districts the biggest set options possible," said Joe Siedlecki, the associate commissioner for school improvement, charters, and innovation.

New Mexico is giving districts with low-performing schools the option of using choice itself as a turnarnound strategy through charters, online classes, home schooling, and magnet schools.

Rhode Island's list of possible interventions for long-struggling schools includes not only charter restarts but also "small schools of choice." That would involve organizing larger schools into units of about 100 students per grade, with a focus on personalizing instruction and helping students develop stronger relationships with educators, according to the state's plan

Louisiana's plan notes that low-income students who attend schools that get a C, D, or F on the state's school rating system can participate in the state's private school voucher program. And Louisiana gives fast-track approval to charter schools that want to serve students in districts that are rated D or F.

States that emphasize charters are mostly the usual suspects, said Christy Wolfe, a senior policy adviser for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a research and advocacy organization. And that's not a bad thing, she added.

"States that we would have expected to be interested in leveraging charters did that," Wolfe said. And she's hoping the states forging ahead will study the results and help others learn from them.

"It's better for it to roll out in phases with high-capacity states [taking] the first steps."

No state has made school improvement strategies centered on choice a requirement—they're just an option, among several others.

And it's unclear how many schools will go for it.

Restarting struggling schools as charters isn't brand new under ESSA. The Obama administration's School Improvement Grant program—which yielded mixed results when it comes to student achievement—encouraged states to try the strategy.

But it wasn't popular. Just 4 percent of schools took the option to restart as a charter in the 2010-11 school year, the first year of the SIG program. That inched up to 9 percent by the 2012-13 school year but was still eclipsed by other improvement options.

Direct Student Services

The law allows states to withhold up to 3 percent of Title I funding for disadvantaged students for "direct student services," including credit recovery, Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, personalized learning, tutoring, and transportation for students in low-performing schools who want to exercise choice. The Trump administration likes the provision so much it has pitched ratcheting up the allowable share to 5 percent in its most-recent budget request. But only two states explicitly say in their ESSA plans that they are going to take this option: Louisiana and New Mexico.

Louisiana is planning to give the money back to districts, through the Title I formula, to avoid cuts to any district's share. But districts will have to spend the money on things like credit recovery, Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, personalized learning, tutoring, and transportation for kids in low-performing schools who want to exercise choice.

New Mexico, on the other hand, will distribute the funds for similar purposes but through a competition.

Public School Choice

ESSA gives states the opportunity to use a school improvement strategy that was mandatory under the previous version of the federal K-12 law, the No Child Left Behind Act: allowing students in struggling schools—defined as those in the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state and those with really low graduation rates—to transfer to better-performing ones. The law says districts need to give priority to low-achieving impoverished students in deciding who gets to transfer.


Join Us: Free Online Event, May 1: Keys to ESSA Implementation


At least three states are making public school choice mandatory for certain schools: Louisiana, New Mexico, and New York.

Louisiana will offer choice to students in schools that are rated F or academically unacceptable, as well as schools that have received a 'D'. New Mexico's state law allows any child attending a school that has earned two F's in the last four years to go to a different school within the district. New York is using public school choice in a more limited way. It's an option for all districts. But it's only a must for those with schools that are in the bottom 5 percent of performers, where less than two-thirds of students graduate, and which have had achievement declines for two consecutive years.

New York's plan points to what the state sees as some of the problems with public school choice. It argues that students in low-performing schools didn't always have a better-performing school to transfer to and that public school choice can lead to greater segregation and inequity.

Choice shows up in some unexpected places in other ESSA plans. For instance, the District of Columbia incorporated a kind of choice metric into its accountability system: "re-enrollment," or the percentage of parents who choose to return their children to a particular school for a second school year.

When ESSA passed, Republican lawmakers touted a provision allowing up to 50 districts to use a "weighted student-funding" formula as a win for choice.

The pilot program allows districts to combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students. English-language learners, those in poverty, students in special education—in short, students who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students.

In theory, adopting a weighted student-funding formula could make it easier for districts to operate school choice programs, since money would be tied to individual students and could therefore follow them to charter or virtual public schools.

But for now, most districts appear to be thinking of the pilot as a means to make sure disadvantaged students get their fair of funding—not as a way to soften the ground for new school choice programs.

Three of the five districts that applied to join the pilot in the 2018-19 school year—California's Wilsona, Oregon's Salem-Kaizer 24J, and Pennsylvania's Upper Adams—don't have school choice programs in the works, district representatives said.

Another applicant—Indianapolis—already has a school choice program and uses a similar, student-based formula to distribute its state and local dollars. But participating in the pilot isn't part of an effort to bolster the district's existing choice program or create a new one, said Carrie Cline Black, a district spokeswoman.

Related Blog

Still, there could be one applicant that has school choice in mind: Puerto Rico. The island's school system was ravaged last fall by Hurricane Maria, leading to widespread educational disruption. In response, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed legislation that would create new "alianza" schools very similar to charters. The U.S. territory's participation in the pilot, if it's approved, could enable those efforts.

DeVos and her team have expressed enthusiasm for the pilot and the other pieces of ESSA that can bolster choice.

But the Center on Reinventing Public Education's Lake thinks the department may not have done enough to help states see the possibilities in the full range of potential choice options in ESSA. "There wasn't a lot of guidance given [on implementation]," she said. "Without that, states tend to be cautious, they want direct permission rather than taking a risk and asking for forgiveness."

Vol. 37, Issue 28, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: April 25, 2018, as School Choice Proves Scarce in ESSA Plans
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