School Choice & Charters

New Index Rates Some States More Free Than Others

By Mark Walsh — September 27, 2000 4 min read

Arizona is at the top and Hawaii at the bottom of a New York City think tanks first-of-its-kind rating of all 50 states based on their commitment to school choice.

The Education Freedom Index, devised by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, unabashedly values private school vouchers, charter schools, minimal regulation of home schooling, and public school choice as desirable state policies. The institute also says its research suggests a positive correlation between a state’s ranking on the index and academic achievement.

Arizona ranked highest among the states because of its large number of charter schools, a tax credit for donations to funds providing private school tuition aid, relatively light regulation of home schooling, and an unrestricted interdistrict-choice program in the public schools, according to the institute’s report about the index.

For More Information

“The Education Freedom Index” is available from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Minnesota, praised for its openness to charter schools and tax credits for private schooling, came in second, followed by Wisconsin, which is home to the pioneering Milwaukee school voucher program.

Hawaii came in last because of what the institute viewed as the state’s heavy regulation of home schooling families, low number of charter schools, and drawbacks to its single statewide school system. The index gave preference to states with smaller and less dense school districts; families can change public schools and districts more easily in such states by making short residential moves, the report notes.

Hawaii education officials were mystified and a bit annoyed by the state’s last-place ranking.

“They are obviously misinformed,” said Greg Knudsen, a spokesman for the state education department. Hawaii places few burdens on home schoolers and does have some open enrollment in its statewide system, he said. And while just six charter schools are now operating, soon all 25 authorized by state law will be up and running, he added.

“I don’t know where they get off saying were the least free,” he said.

Each state’s ranking was based on five criteria: charter school options; government support of private education, such as tuition vouchers, tax credits, and direct financial aid to private schools; home schooling regulation; interdistrict options for choosing public schools; and the ease of moving to different districts.

The institute calculated various measures for each of the five categories to come up with an index score for each state. For example, under home schooling, the score was based on the proportion of students taught at home in the state as well as the absence of state regulations on the practice, as analyzed by the Home School Legal Defense Association, a group based in Purcellville, Va.

The institute had hoped to include the availability of intradistrict choice, such as magnet schools, as a factor but found that reliable state-level data were lacking.

“This is an imperfect effort, but it is the first effort of its kind,” said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the report’s author. “There is a lot of variety across the states in how many educational options they offer to parents, so it is worth measuring.”

Provocative Analysis

The report makes a case that a higher ranking on the index is related to higher achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the SAT college-admissions test.

After controlling for such factors as percentage of minority students, median household income, per-pupil education spending, and class size, the Education Freedom Index “is a significant predictor of student achievement,” the report contends.

The index runs from Arizona’s high of 3.27 points to Hawaiis low of 0.61. The report says that a state with a 1-point higher score on the index can expect an additional 5.5 percent of its students to score at the proficient level on the NAEP, which the institute calls a significant increase.

“I would not want to claim that this proves that expanded educational options causes higher student achievement, but it clearly suggests a relationship that is worth further study,” Mr. Greene said.

Independent observers said they were intrigued by the ranking, but had doubts about the relationship of the factors cited to student achievement.

“It’s a provocative analysis,” said Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver. “When you look at how free the states are, though, it’s also important to ask how much freedom teachers have in the classroom.”

Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, called the ranking “speculative and fun.” But the conclusions about academic achievement “would not be acceptable social science at all,” he said.

“They’re not even beginning to get at many of the variables that could affect the results,” said Mr. Levin, who heads the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

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