It might be the most common mistake in education writing and policy analysis today: declaring that a majority of public school students in the U.S. hail from “low income” families—or, even worse, that half of public school kids are “poor.” Let’s put a stake through the heart of these claims because they are simply not true—and paint a distorted picture of the challenges America’s schools are up against.

The problem starts with the use of the free-and-reduced-price lunch program (FRL) as a marker of economic disadvantage. Generally, students living at 130 percent of the poverty level or below are eligible for free lunches; those at 185 percent or below can get a reduced price lunch. This was always a crude and imperfect indicator, but as Matt Chingos explained last year, for two reasons it’s now completely divorced from reality.

First, Congress expanded “direct certification,” under which students are deemed FRL eligible because they receive other forms of public support, such as food stamps. Second, Congress expanded “community eligibility,” which allows schools with at least 40 percent of students identified as eligible for FRL through direct-certification-type means to provide free lunches to all of their...

A new study examines the effects of No Child Left Behind on children’s socioemotional outcomes. Prior studies have found that consequential accountability systems like NCLB have yielded positive gains in achievement; others have shown that they narrow the curriculum by focusing on tested subjects. But very few have looked at the potential impact of the legislation on socioemotional or “non-cognitive” outcomes.

The authors use student-reported survey data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Kindergarten Cohort of 1998–99 (also called ECLS-K), which is nationally representative. Data used for the study were collected in the spring of students’ third and fifth grade years—the same time of year that students typically take standardized tests. Note that NCLB legislation was signed in January 2002 in the middle of the third-grade year for the sample. During spring of that year, students took tests that established baseline scores for judging school performance in subsequent years. Schools could fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in 2002–03 (students’ fourth grade year); thus, by the time that they were surveyed during the fifth grade year in spring 2004, NCLB consequences were widely in effect. Authors use a “differences in differences” strategy where they compare states that already...

Last month the Urban Institute added to the rapidly accumulating body of conflicting evidence about the impacts of private school choice on student achievement. While early studies showed positive effects on test scores, more recent evidence from Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio showed private school choice programs having neutral to negative effects. This report differs from most of its predecessors by measuring long-term outcomes, namely college enrollment and attainment. Urban’s investigation of the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program is the first study to look at these outcomes at the state level, and the results are encouraging.

While not a traditional voucher system, the FTC program allows Florida taxpayers to receive a 100 percent tax credit for donations to scholarship funding organizations, which provide tuition assistance for low-income students to attend private schools. Participants in the program must have family incomes of up to 260 percent of the US poverty threshold and receive scholarships worth up to $6000. Started during the 2002–03 school year, FTC is now the largest private school choice program in the country, with 100,000 current participants.

Analysts compare FTC participants to non-FTC students, controlling for test scores, age, gender, race or ethnicity,...

Nat Malkus

Last week, the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). While it is among the biggest cases on the court’s docket next year, it certainly holds the biggest stakes when it comes to public education. The case deals with mandatory union agency fees, which plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, argues violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.

Illinois state law “compels state employees to pay agency fees to an exclusive representative for speaking and contracting with the state over governmental policies.” In short, non-union employees must pay unions, as the exclusive employee representatives in collective bargaining, to negotiate contracts on their behalf. Janus has long been critical of both the union and forced association through agency fees. He wrote last year in the Chicago Tribune, “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of association. I don’t want to be associated with a union that claims to represent my interests and me when it really doesn’t.”

Janus targets a forty-year-old precedent set by Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which...

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in The 74.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos just had the best week of her tenure so far, thanks to a well-orchestrated back-to-school tour that ended in Indiana on September 15. She had a clear, attractive message and stuck to it: We need to unleash the creativity and innovation of our schools and educators, and stop trying to make one size fit all. She also demonstrated a true commitment to sector-agnosticism—she visited traditional public schools, not just private and charter ones—and celebrated schools that are as far from her own conservative Christian upbringing as one can imagine—and did it all with grace and humor. Well done, Madame Secretary!

The best part, in my view, came toward the end, when she toured the 21st Century Charter in Gary, Indiana. I’m biased; it’s run by a friend, Kevin Teasley, who has been around the choice and charter schools movement for a long time, and once even dabbled in punditry and policy wonkery. But unlike some of us unreformed reformers, he’s done penance by actually starting and running schools. He will be the first to...

Public school enrollments in the U.S. rose from 41 million in 1990 to almost 51 million today. That’s a nearly 25 percent increase in twenty-seven years—and the growth has been almost constant over that period, albeit much slower during the past decade. NCES projects that nearly 1.5 million more students will further swell the ranks of American public education by 2024.

Why, then, is enrollment decline an issue for schools and school systems? There are, as always, two possible—and obvious—explanations for why the number of kids attending a particular school or district shrinks even as national totals rise.

First, families may move from one community or region to another, as in the well- known shift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt that’s been evident since the 1970s—a major demographic transformation brought about by economic changes (and the pursuit of better weather). That’s why Arizona today has nine House members versus three in 1970—and why Michigan has fourteen now versus nineteen then.

Second, families may change their child’s school—by shifting to a nearby district, by availing themselves of public school choice within the district, by opting to home-school, or by transferring to a private or charter school.


Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Is School Choice Enough?,” the lead article in the fall issue of National Affairs.

As with so many issues—from trade and immigration to Russia and taxes—the Trump presidency has exposed a schism within the conservative movement when it comes to education policy. While expanding parental choice is a paramount objective on the right, a key question is whether choice alone is enough, or if results-based accountability ought to be sustained and strengthened, too. How this question is resolved will have wide-ranging consequences—for education reform in general and for the design of school-choice initiatives in particular.

Though it’s easy to lump conservative school-choice advocates into a single category, there are some major disagreements between those who argue for school choice alone and those who wish to combine it with other reform strategies. The first and perhaps the most fundamental of these disagreements can be reduced to one question: Is parental satisfaction enough?

To better understand this question, a simple thought experiment is clarifying: Imagine that conservatives are wildly successful in expanding school choice. Every parent in America, however poor or rich, gains access to several educational options, including religious schools. In...

According to the most recent data published by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, 27 percent of public school teachers are chronically absent—meaning they miss more than ten days of school for illness or personal reasons.

That’s a lot. But is there an explanation for that number that might satisfy the many critics of our public school system? For example, might it be attributable to the fact that three-quarters of teachers are female, meaning they are more likely to miss work due to maternity and, in most cases, the burden of being primary caregivers?

The short answer is no.

Obviously, teaching is a challenging occupation, especially in high-poverty schools. So the point of this column isn’t that teachers are slackers, or that they should never get a day off, or that no teacher should ever be chronically absent. The point is that there’s room for improvement.

Per OCR, public holidays, professional development days, and field trips don’t count as teacher absences. Nor do summer, winter, or spring breaks. But the data do include days missed for maternity and long-term illness, so let’s crunch those numbers and see where it gets us.

In 2016, approximately...

(Trigger warning: This essay contains a bleeped, profanity-laced rant that may cause you to question your most deeply held beliefs.)

It's not often I cite vulgar, inappropriate humor to draw attention to the absurdity that occurs when someone sets achingly low standards and then expects accolades for surpassing them. But I cannot resist after re-discovering a raunchy (NSFW) skit from Chris Rock’s 1996 classic, savagely funny performance in “Bring the Pain”:

You know the worst thing about [bleeps]? [Bleeps] always want credit for some [bloop] they supposed to do. A [bleep] will brag about some [bloop] a normal man just does. A [bleep] will say some [bloop] like, "I take care of my kids." You're supposed to, you dumb [bleeper][bleeper]! What kind of ignorant [bloop] is that? "I ain't never been to jail!" What do you want, a cookie?! You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having [bleeper][bleeper]!

I have been wondering how Chris Rock would re-write this skit as we enter the annual season in which a parade of education reform leaders triumphantly announce academic results marginally superior to the poor outcomes of the public education system we have committed our lives to transform....

This study uses administrative data and other public records to examine the impact of unionization on the test-based achievement of California charter schools between 2003 and 2013. Using a difference-in-differences approach, the authors estimate that unionization boosted math achievement by about 0.2 standard deviations but did not significantly affect reading achievement. These estimates differ from those of Hart and Sojourner (2015), who analyzed similar data but found that unionization had no impact on test scores. However, in the appendix of the more recent study, the authors provide a mostly convincing defense of their methodological choices.

A quarter of California charters were unionized in 2013, and between them these schools accounted for a third of charter enrollment. However, for obvious reasons, the authors exclude “conversion” charters that are automatically unionized because they are legally bound to the district contract. So their analytic sample includes just forty-four charter schools that switched from non-unionized to unionized between 2003 and 2013.

Overall, students in unionized charters score about 0.5 standard deviations higher on math and about 0.3 standard deviations higher in reading than students in non-unionized charter schools. And teachers in these schools are more experienced and far more likely to be on track...