policy choices

Do vouchers actually expand school choice? Not necessarily — it depends on how they’re designed

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Who benefits most from private school voucher programs: families with few options or the schools themselves?

This is a hotly debated question among supporters and critics of school vouchers, and is especially relevant as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has vowed to allow more families to use public dollars to pay for private school tuition.

A 2016 study considers this question and comes back with an answer: It depends. Programs targeted at certain students, like low-income ones, lead to an increase in private school enrollment; but universal choice programs with few if any eligibility requirements don’t cause more students to enter private schools, with schools instead raising tuition.

That’s the conclusion of the research, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Economics, which examined eight private school choice initiatives, including both voucher programs and tax credit subsidies, which offer generous tax breaks for private school fees.

The researchers, Daniel Hungerman of Notre Dame and Kevin Rinz then at the National Bureau of Economic Research, divide the programs into two categories: what they refer to as restricted and unrestricted. Restricted programs limit availability to certain students, such as those who are low-income or have a disability; unrestricted programs are open to everyone.

An example of a restricted program is Florida’s tax-credit program, which incentivizes donations to nonprofit groups that offer tuition scholarships to low- and middle-income families. Arizona’s tax-credit initiative is similar in structure, but is classified as unrestricted because it is open to all students. (Arizona also has tax credit programs targeted at low-income students and those with disabilities.)

The study then looks at how the two types of programs affect school enrollment and finances, using data from tax returns of thousands of private schools.

Restricted-choice programs cause large increases in the number of students attending private school. But “programs that offer unrestricted subsidies lead to price increases but no change in enrollment,” the authors conclude.

In other words, under the universal programs studied, private schools did not admit additional students, but did raise tuition — by an amount the researchers estimated to be roughly the same as the public subsidy. (It’s possible that different — just not more — students enrolled as a result of the choice program.)

This gives credence to concerns that untargeted programs fail to create additional access to private schools, but are a revenue boon for schools.

At the same time, targeted programs seem to have their intended effect of allowing more families to choose private school. (Of course, whether that ends up helping students academically remains the subject of much debate.)

This suggests that school choice advocates who want to expand enrollment in private schools — as opposed to simply allowing them to raise tuition — should favor targeted programs. Some choice supporters have recognized this concern, recommending the creation of education savings accounts, which give families a pot of money to spend on any combination of educational expenses. Anna Egalite, a professor at North Carolina State University, argues that this approach, unlike traditional vouchers or tax credits, puts “downward pressure” on prices by “encourag[ing] parents to be cost conscious.”

DeVos and the Trump administration have not released any details on their promised school choice plan, but some past federal proposals have been focused on low-income student, and most existing state voucher and tax credit programs have restrictions of some sort. However, key school choice groups, including EdChoice and the American Federation for Children, which DeVos used to lead, have supported universal choice policies.

The study is one of the only analyses of how choice programs affect private school enrollment, but it comes with a number of caveats.

The research examined unrestricted programs that offer fairly small subsidies, often significantly less than in voucher initiatives. It’s unclear if the finding — that programs open to all don’t increase private school enrollment — would hold in cases where there were more generous subsidies.

Another caveat: it might be hard to categorize programs with eligibility requirements that most families can meet.

Take Indiana’s voucher program, the largest in the country. The state initially had tight income requirements, limiting the program to poor families; when those rules were in place, private school enrollment rose.

But after the state raised the income threshold to provide partial vouchers to some middle-income families, private school enrollment has essentially flatlined, raising the possibility the school choice initiative hasn’t actually given parents new choices — but simply subsidized existing ones. Since then, the number of students using the program has increased, while the number attending private school without a voucher has dropped precipitously.

It’s impossible to know the effects of Indiana’s voucher program on private school enrollment without a more careful analysis, and the recent study would have categorized it as a restricted program. In recent years many states have seen private school enrollment fall, so the fact that it remained steady in Indiana could be the result of the voucher system.

However, the income requirements in Indiana were more lenient than many of the other programs studied, and over half of students in the state are eligible to receive a voucher.

“At some point the [income] threshold gets so high that the breakdown we offered would not be useful,” said Hungerman, one of the study’s authors.

enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.