Op-Ed: Evaluating Connecticut’s school choice program a critical step

Few education pundits around the country would think of Connecticut as a school choice hotspot. But when I recently returned to the state after a 20-year absence, I was impressed with the degree to which voluntary public school choice has become part of Connecticut’s education fabric.

Given that many scholars believe that public choice is nearly impossible in states with strong traditions of “home rule” and small, community-based districts, I liked that my native state was proving people wrong and providing evidence that public choice can work in such a state (although some of the choice is admittedly court ordered).

Op-ed submit bugHowever, Connecticut’s experiment with public choice has one glaring weakness, noted in a recent story in this publication: the lack of comprehensive, third party evaluation. Indeed, given all of the lives that are impacted by choice schools – and the vast sums of public money being spent – I’m surprised at the lack of public outcry over the absence of evaluation.

I’ve spent much of the past decade conducting such evaluations, of both public and private choice programs, such as the Cleveland voucher program and statewide charter school systems in Indiana and Georgia, among many other studies. I’ve also led efforts to help hundreds of grantees in the U.S. Department of Education’s charter school, magnet school, and public school choice programs improve their evaluations. When done well, third-party evaluation provides critically important, unbiased information for school and system improvement.

For example, in Georgia, our team found a charter closure rate several times larger than the national average, yet the state had rather weak and vague statutory language about school closures, which invited unnecessary legal action and disruption to students. We drafted policy language that was eventually passed into law to help improve this aspect of their charter schools.

In Indiana, we found that advocates’ claims about charter school performance were exaggerated, but that many criticisms of the schools were also overblown. As one key legislator said behind closed doors in response to the final report, “I’m going to have to rethink some of my assumptions about these schools and their role in public education.”

That is exactly the role that non-partisan evaluation should play: Determining what’s working and what’s not, where there are benefits and where there are weaknesses, and how choice has impacted traditional public schools and their communities.

Given that some choice schools in Connecticut are intended to be Sheff interventions, it’s also reasonable for an evaluation to examine the extent to which, for example, public choice is helping reach the Sheff goals of equal educational opportunities and outcomes. The evaluation should also suggest specific improvements based on similar interventions elsewhere in the country, serving not only as an assessment of progress but also a springboard for future improvements.

My experiences with evaluation of these programs lead me to believe that one of the most important activities Connecticut could undertake to improve public education is to commission a third-party evaluation of its public school choice programs.

I’m repeatedly stressing the need for third-party evaluation because so many of these studies around the country tend to be conducted by pro- or anti-choice organizations, to the point that one can predict the results of the studies before they begin. These biased evaluations produce reports with little insight and should be seen primarily as the advocacy documents that they are.

That said, these evaluations are almost always political minefields. The day after it was announced that my team would conduct the Indiana evaluation, a leading educator pulled me aside at a conference. “We’re so glad that your non-partisan group is doing this study, we know you’ll be fair and honest,” he whispered. Then he said, “You realize we’re going to hammer you about this, no matter what you find, right?”

I laughed. He didn’t.

At one point after the study was released, I found myself on the phone with a lobbyist from the pro-school choice state chamber of commerce as he accused us of producing a “highly biased, anti-charter report.” Within seconds of hanging up, I received a call from another lobbyist saying that the state’s public education associations were upset because we produced a “highly biased, pro-charter report.”

We endured ad hominem letters to the editor, a whisper campaign questioning our qualifications, and more than one state elected official complaining to my bosses. My team was a bit shaken by the multi-sided criticisms, but we understood that the political flak was evidence that we’d been fair and honest in our assessments. It still wasn’t fun, though!

Whoever ends up evaluating Connecticut’s choice schools, if such an evaluation occurs, needs to have the thickest of skins, because despite all the assurances people will give about wanting the evaluation, the process will inevitably upset the apple cart.

I’ve heard many reasons why an evaluation of Connecticut choice schools has yet to occur, some of which deal with politics or vested interests not wanting to be under the microscope. I know where these concerns are coming from – no one ever truly wants to be evaluated or wants programs they favor to be evaluated. That’s human nature.

But as one state school chief said to me after a similar evaluation, “I may not like the results, but in the end, facts are a good thing. We can’t get better without facts.”

And facts are an especially good thing when we’re talking about improving children’s lives. Let’s get our public choice programs evaluated.

Jonathan Plucker is Raymond Neag Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

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