School Finance

Perhaps you’ve been on vacation or caught up in the historic events of recent weeks, but over the past ten days, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted our second annual Wonkathon. Last year’s was about charter school quality; this year’s focused on how to implement the brand-new (and groundbreaking) Nevada education savings account program. (Congratulations to Seth Rau of Nevada Succeeds, the winner of the Wonkathon, who both seized his home field advantage and proved that when it comes to using similes, you’d better go big or go home.)

As Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute rightly concluded, our blogfest demonstrated remarkable consensus, at least among the scholars, policy analysts, and practitioners who participated. Nobody wants Nevada to micromanage the program; everyone understands—and wants regulators to address—the risk of financial malfeasance. Most agreed that making educational providers assess their results with a nationally norm-referenced test was a reasonable approach.

Yet lurking behind the apparent consensus is an unspoken question: What’s this reform trying to accomplish? The law itself says it wants to increase student achievement and parental satisfaction. But go back and read the fourteen posts and you’ll find that the ones most enthusiastic...

A new report by researchers at the University of Arkansas examines non-public revenue in public charters and traditional public schools (TPS). This is the same group of researchers that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute commissioned to do our first charter-district finance study—and thankfully, they’re at it again, dispelling the myth that charters get all the philanthropic dollars they need to make up the existing funding deficit. Not so.

Analysts engage in an in-depth examination of non-public funds for Fiscal Year 2011 in public charter and TPS sectors in the fifteen states where they possess sufficient data (which means this isn’t a representative sample). Non-public funds include revenues from areas such as food service (that yummy cafeteria food), investment revenue, program revenue, rental revenue, philanthropic funds, and others.

Key findings: TPS received $6.4 billion and charters $379 million of non-public revenue in 2011. For TPS, this amounts to an average of $353 per pupil; for charters, an average of $579 per pupil. Yet these numbers vary by state. For instance, in Michigan charters receive 50 percent less in per-pupil revenue from non-public sources than do the TPS. The types of non-public revenue coming in also change by sector. In TPS,...

Over the past two weeks, we received fourteen responses to Fordham’s second annual Wonkathon prompt:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

This year’s posts offered a wide-range of oversight models from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. But there can only be one Wisest Wonk.

Without further ado, the winner of Fordham’s 2015 Wonkathon is Seth Rau, whose “Nevada should regulate ESAs like brothels” came in with 39 percent of the vote.

Tracey Weinstein’s “Does Nevada’s new ESA law hold promise for kids?” came in second with 17 percent.

And Rabbi A.D. Motzen’s “Why almost universal is not good enough” came in third with 15 percent.

Thanks to all the participants for another great Wonkathon, and congratulations to this year’s Wisest Wonk, Seth Rau! You can re-read the individual responses below or get the short and sweet version from Jason Bedrick’s recap.

 “Nevada needs...

Jason Bedrick

As the Fordham Institute’s education savings account (ESA) Wonkathon comes to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure that all ESA students take NNR tests and track...

“Doing more for less” was a mantra for school reformers four or five years ago, when school funding across the country hit its nadir. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute frequently argued in favor of using the economic crisis to do things differently. (See here, here, and here.) Much pain has accompanied the recent tough times. But there are school districts and educators across the county that have managed to turn crisis into opportunity, many of whom I’ve met in my work (with Fordham until 2012, and more recently with Bluum and ROCI in Idaho).

Reynoldsburg, Ohio, offers a good example. The city is about ten miles east of Columbus and serves about seven thousand students. Its school district’s annual budget took a 10 percent hit from 2008 to 2011, while it simultaneously saw a 10 percent increase in economically disadvantaged students (who currently make up about half of all the district’s students). Reynoldsburg also eliminated about 20 percent of its staff between October 2008 and October 2009 (see here for details).

Fast forward to this month: The Wall Street Journal reports that Reynoldsburg is in the midst of an overhaul defined by “a...

In Fordham’s second annual Wonkathon, fourteen wonks opined on education savings accounts:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

But who was the wisest, wonkiest wonk of all? Vote for the best policy discussion on education savings accounts. (And may the best wonk win!)

Rabbi A.D. Motzen

This is the fourteenth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy SmarickNeerav KingslandLindsey M. BurkeJason BedrickAdam PeshekRobin LakeTravis Pillow, and Robert Tagorda.

"Universal school choice," screamed the headline at National Review Online. The reference, of course, was to Nevada's new education savings account (ESA) bill. Celebrated by school choice organizations in multiple press releases—and even by some, but not all, of the previous posts in this Wonkathon series—as a "universal" ESA, the new program is creating quite a buzz. The headlines, however, are missing an asterisk. 

The Nevada ESA bill is broad. It's bold. It deserves to be celebrated, but it's not universal. Calling the program “universal” ignores the tens of thousands of Nevada families excluded from the program, and it may even prevent other states from achieving truly universal school choice.

Defining “universal”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines universal as "including or covering all or a...

Robert Tagorda

This is the thirteenth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy SmarickNeerav KingslandLindsey M. BurkeJason BedrickAdam PeshekRobin Lake, and Travis Pillow.

If you read SB 302, the Nevada legislation that establishes education savings accounts, you quickly realize how ambitious the program is. Section 9 enumerates the appropriate uses of funds, including transportation costs “up to but not to exceed $750 per school year.” Section 12 puts the onus on educational entities to ensure that students take mandatory norm-referenced exams in language arts and math — and “provide for value-added assessments of the results.” Section 15.5 goes beyond academics, affirming that children who “opt in” to the program “must be allowed to participate in interscholastic activities and events” sanctioned by a statewide body.

These legislative details may seem arcane in isolation. But collectively, they illustrate the sweeping and comprehensive nature of the bill. ESAs are not envisioned as accessories...

Travis Pillow

This is the twelfth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy SmarickNeerav KingslandLindsey M. BurkeJason BedrickAdam Peshek, and Robin Lake.

Private school choice programs have historically targeted students who need extra help, like low-income kids or children with special needs. Nevada’s education savings accounts have gotten a lot of buzz, in part, because they break that tradition. Their availability to nearly all students gives them an unprecedented chance to spur innovation for students who haven’t typically been the focus of school choice advocates.

The providers that emerge to serve these students could look quite different from ordinary schools. Picture micro-schools that meet one day a week for a single subject and share course materials digitally, or traditional private schools that allow students to come in for just an hour or two of classes a day, which they pay for a la carte.

Take advantage of parents as active...

This is the eleventh entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy SmarickNeerav KingslandLindsey M. BurkeJason Bedrick, and Adam Peshek.

Nevada’s new education savings account program is big news. It’s a “universal” program, meaning that any parent whose child attends a neighborhood public school can opt out of that school and instead receive access to a pot of funds that can go toward a variety of schooling services—online courses, private school, homeschool curricula etc. Unlike more limited voucher programs with restricted funds (some could only be used by poor students or those with disabilities, and most could only be used for private school tuition), Nevada’s decision to make education funds available to everyone is a potential game-changer for school choice. And it resurrects the viability of school vouchers, which have been relegated to the policy fringe for the past decade.

For years, voucher advocates and economists argued that the...

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