I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, January 16, 2017

How To Correctly Compare Charter and Public District Schools

Why do states collect education data if they won't use it properly?

I found myself asking this question once again this week as I read through a "Comment/Response Form" put together by the New Jersey Department of Education and released earlier this month. The form was in response to the state Board of Education, which is evaluating a series of changes in charter school regulations. Those changes, as I wrote in my last post, include loosening certification requirements for charter teachers. 

The rationale for this, according to the state's charter cheerleaders, is that charters "do more with less"; in other words, they get better results and spend less money than public district schools. Chris Christie has repeatedly made this case in his push for the disastrous "Fairness Formula," which would rob urban districts, serving many more disadvantaged children, of necessary state aid. Christie points to the alleged efficiency of charter schools to justify these cuts: if they can "do more with less," why can't the district schools?

In their form, the NJDOE included this argument in response to a question from a member of the state BOE (p. 8):
12. COMMENT: The commenter asked for the per pupil cost for charter school students based on a random sampling of 10 percent of charter schools and their districts of residence. The commenter also asked if the proposed amendments to N.J.A.C. 6A:26-7.5 will affect the per pupil cost. (C) 
RESPONSE: The proposed amendments to N.J.A.C. 6A:26-7.5 will not affect per pupil costs for students attending charter schools. 
The 2014-2015 Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending was used to determine per pupil costs in charter schools and in districts of residence. The table below provides information on per pupil spending for eight charter schools that were selected randomly. Charter schools are ordered by the size of the difference in per pupil spending between the main sending district and the charter school. Per pupil spending in 2014-2015 in the eight charter schools ranged from $12,845 (compared to $23,466 in the main sending district) to $18,541 (compared to $22,013 in the main sending district). (emphasis mine)
This response is immediately followed by this chart:

Wow, look at that -- see how lean and mean the charter schools are compared to their hosting public district schools? Chris Christie must be right; the charters "do more with less"! We should be letting them open up all over the state!


Jersey Jazzman (artist's conception)

NJDOE analysts, please get out your pencils and take notes, as I present...


1) When comparing the spending of two school authorities, do not include services one provides for the other, or for the community at large.

The figures in the table above come from the NJDOE's Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending. Yes, that's right, this is the state's own data. The figure used in this comparison is "Total Spending per Pupil, 2014-15." How does this state define this figure?
Total Spending Per Pupil was first developed in FY 2011 to provide a more comprehensive representation of district expenditures, since the former per pupil measures excluded some significant cost categories. This variable uses a larger enrollment number, including all students for which the district is financially responsible. The Total Spending measure adds the following items to the costs already included in the Budgetary Cost (Indicator 1):  
  1. pensions and social security payments made by the state on behalf of districts;
  2. transportation costs (including students transported to nonpublic and charter schools);
  3. judgments against the school district;
  4. all food services expenditures (including those covered by school lunch fees);
  5. capital outlay budgeted in the general fund (facilities and equipment);
  6. special revenues supported by local, state, and federal revenues (such as preschool, IDEA, and Title I);
  7. payments by the district to other private and public school districts for the provision of regular, special, and preschool education services (charter school students and their associated costs are only included in the charter school in which they are being educated).
  8. debt service for school debt; and
  9. an estimate of the district's share of the debt service that the state is paying for school construction bonds issued for school construction grants and School Development Authority projects.
The number of students sent to other entities (except charter schools) is added to the district's average daily enrollment in order to calculate the per pupil expenditure.  It should be noted that sent students and their associated costs are included in the per pupil cost of both the sending district as well as the school where the student is actually being educated.  Therefore, it is not appropriate to sum all districts' total expenditures, as this would overstate the aggregate cost.  This variable is calculated using audited (actual) data since some of the additional categories are not available in districts' budgets.  Two years of data are provided for comparison. (Emphasis mine)
This simple explanation makes clear that school districts provide many services that charter schools do not; it is, therefore, inappropriate to compare their costs. Take transportation: the total spending figure NJDOE uses for host districts includes the transportation costs for students attending charter schools. But why should a district have that counted in their comparative budget, but not the charter school whose students use that service?

The district pays certain costs to students who attend private schools; again, charter schools don't have to worry about that cost. The school has to pay legacy debt costs, meaning its budget includes students who have already graduated and left the district. Why should that be included in a comparison of current expenses? For that matter: if the community uses school buildings for a variety of reasons outside of school, why should the cost of maintaining that building only be put on the host district?

Charter schools also tend to enroll students in the lower grades, and many don't enroll pre-K students. How can we then compare the spending patterns of charter and district schools when grade level expenses aren't necessarily the same?

The thing that's really incredible about this comparison is that the NJDOE knows there is another figure -- Budgetary Per Pupil Costs -- that the department itself says is better for this purpose:
The Budgetary Per Pupil Cost(BPP Cost) section contains the Budgetary Per Pupil Cost and its subcomponents as they are reported for districts' User Friendly Budgets (required by N.J.S.A.18A:22-8.a).  While these costs do not provide an exhaustive picture of the cost for educating all students, they do allow school administrators and citizens to compare specific measures of school district spending.  Generally, the BPP measures the annual costs incurred for students educated within district schools, using local taxes and state aid. These costs are considered to be more comparable among districts, and may be useful for budget considerations. Examples of costs that are not included in the BPP are: expenditures funded by restricted grants, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF), tuition payments to other districts and private schools, debt service expenditures, and principal and interest payments for the lease purchase of land and buildings.  Consistent with the exclusion of tuition expenditures, the measure excludes the enrollment for students sent out of district (Indicators 1 through 13, and 15). It should also be noted that budgetary costs for non-operating districts, Educational Services Commissions, Regional Day Schools, and Jointures are not included in this document. (emphasis mine)
BPP isn't perfect (for example, it doesn't address the grade level issue), but it's much better than Total Spending per Pupil. How do the charters and the districts compare on this measure?

Yes, the districts are still spending more, but it's much closer than the figures NJDOE gave in its memo. Still, why would the charter be sending less? Could it be...

2) When comparing the spending of two school authorities, you must take into account differences between their student populations.

I can't believe I still have to explain this to anybody, let alone the NJDOE, which should know better. Take, for example, special education:

As I've pointed out literally dozens of times: Charter schools, on average, do not serve nearly as many special education students as public district schools. Everyone acknowledges it costs more to educate a child with a learning disability; even Chris Christie doesn't argue that point! And yet NJDOE made their little table without even acknowledging this glaring problem with their comparison. Of course, the special education gap varies from city to city.

The data for Freedom Academy in Camden are clearly very noisy, but the overall trend is clear: charters don't serve nearly as many special education students as public district schools. In Hudson County, however, the story is more complex.

At first glance, you would assume some of the charters, like Elysian in Hoboken and University Academy in Jersey City, were picking up their fair shares of classified students. But there's a caveat...

3) Always acknowledge the limitations of crude data.

In this case, the problem is that special education classification is binary in the data; in other words, a students is either classified or isn't. But not all classifications are the same:

A "specific learning disability" is a lower-cost classification, unlike, say, autism or a visual impairment or a traumatic brain injury. For both Elysian and University Academy, the majority of their special education students are SLD; that's not true for their host districts.* So the public district schools are enrolling more of the students with costly disabilities compared to the charters. That explains a good part of the cost differential, as we'll see below.

Here's another difference that shows up in the data on charters in Hudson County:

To be fair: Jersey City Public Schools has a free lunch-eligible (FL) rate equivalent to University Academy; Soaring Heights' rate, however, is much lower. FL is a crude proxy measure for economic disadvantage, but it's the best one we've got. In Hoboken, the difference between the public district schools and Elysian is very large.

Again: schools are supposed to get more state aid when they enroll more FL students, because everyone acknowledges it costs more to equalize educational opportunity for disadvantaged children. Of course, if the charter cheerleaders don't agree, their beloved charters should stop taking more money for enrolling more FL students. Think that'll happen?

One more difference that matters:

Across the state, the education of children who do not speak English at home has been left to the public district schools; the charters have taken a pass. Once again: schools are supposed to get more state aid when they enroll LEP students, because it costs more to educate them. Ignoring this reality when comparing charter and public district school spending leads to a flawed analysis.

4) Remember that education is a human capital-intensive enterprise.

Think about those differences in special education rates while pondering this:

Support services include many functions, like child study teams, that are necessary for schools with special education students. It's obviously a significant part of a public school district's budget -- but not a charter school's. Those zeroed out column above aren't missing data; they're showing charter schools who simply don't report any spending on support services. I've always urged caution when interpreting these figures, because there may be reporting differences and data error.


At this point, given year after year of data, there is just no question about it: Charter schools spend, on average, much more on administration than public district schools. It just makes sense: as Bruce Baker points out in his latest report (which, sadly, has been completely misinterpreted by the usual suspects), small charter schools can't leverage economies of scale, and that manifests, to a large extent, in administrative costs.

And yet charter spending, overall, is still less. Again, part of that is the low amount charters spend on support services, a function of enrolling fewer classified and LEP students. But there's another factor...

5) Remember: it's easier to keep costs low when you have an inexperienced teaching staff.

One of the truly foolish things I hear from charter cheerleaders is that charters are taking advantage of  millennials' alleged desire for temporary careers. First of all: we know experience matters, especially in the first few years of a teacher's career. Why, then, would it be a good thing to have charter schools where the average teacher's experience is less than 2 years, like Bergen A & S and Newark Legacy?

Second, do millennials really want to start at the bottom of the pay scale every time they change jobs? Because that seems to be what's happening with many charters:

On average, charter school teachers make considerably less than their public district school counterparts. As I've noted before, this difference holds even when accounting for differences in experience.

Look, if charter cheerleaders want to brag on "doing more with less," then fine: acknowledge you're doing that, in part, by paying your teachers less. Then explain to the rest of us how that's a good thing for the profession.

6) Remember: it's easier to keep costs low when you offer less expansive educational programs. As a music teacher, I think all students should have the opportunity to make music. But that's hard to do if you don't have the personnel to make a program:

This is a technique I've used before: looking at the staffing files to determine the extent of programs in areas like music. The first thing to look for is whether schools actually have teachers in these specialist areas: in the case of Newark Legacy, Soaring Heights, and Freedom Academy, the staffing files suggest music just isn't a part of those charters' curricula.

The next thing to watch is how many students each specialist teacher has for their "load." At North Star -- which compares itself to the most affluent suburban districts in the state -- the music teacher has a much greater student load than music faculty in the Newark Public Schools. That means it's much less likely North Star has the bands and choruses and orchestras NPS can offer their students -- they just don't have enough teachers to make it happen.

That said, it's a mixed bag. Some of the charters do quite well on music; how do they do in other areas?

According to the staffing files, Barack Obama CS in Plainfield had a music teacher, but not a health/PE teacher. And that's understandable, if not acceptable; it's hard for a small charter school to offer everything a public district school can. And maybe that's the takeaway here...

As I have said, many, many times on this blog: I really don't have a problem with charter schools per se. I started my career in a charter. I have seen first-hand that some kids just don't thrive in a "regular" public school, and might do better if given a "choice." We can and we should try to innovate in our schools.

But let's not fool ourselves about how and why charter schools "do more with less." Advantages in student populations; advantages in staffing costs; unequal curricular programming and support services: these are the reasons for the differences in costs between charters and district public schools.

Keeping this in mind, let's step back a bit and think about how I did this analysis. This is all based on data collected by the NJDOE. The reason they collect the data, supposedly, is that they can then analyze it to present to policy makers -- like the state BOE -- so they can make good decisions.

But that is most certainly not what happened here. Instead, when a member of the board asked a reasonable question,** the NJDOE gave a facile, cursory answer that matched Christie's ideological predilections.

That is a very bad way to make policy. It's a disservice to the many students and families in this state who are looking for better education and better schools. It's an abdication of the duty a state department of education has to the citizens of its state.

There are some really good people at NJDOE, as there are at all the state departments of education. But too many ideologues are at the top, and they are failing in their jobs. 

Step up, folks. Do the work.

ADDING: One thing I didn't get to -- and I will get to this one day in a comprehensive way, I promise -- is how charters like Elysian benefit from substantial philanthropic giving.

This is Elysian's campus, in just about the most affluent section of Hoboken. Public money is in no way the only revenue that drives programming and provides facilities at this school. More to come...

* There's a lot of suppression in the special education data, ostensibly to protect the privacy rights of classified students. It's so prevalent that I really couldn't make useable graphs for speech disabilities, another lower-cost classification. SLD is more important for this discussion, however, because charter schools get more funds for enrolling non-SPL classified students -- but there isn't a distinction between SLD and other higher-costs classifications when the aid calculations are made. This is a  complicated topic I get into more here.

** Well, somewhat reasonable: why ask for just a sample of charters? Why not analyze all of them? It's not impossible -- I did it. In fact, why not ask someone like me, who's already done the research, to answer the question?

Unless you don't really want to hear the answer...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Will NJDOE Turn Charter School Teachers Into Indentured Servants?

Last week, the New Jersey state Board of Education held hearings on regulatory changes for the state's charter schools. Probably the most significant -- and most controversial -- of the Christie administration's proposed revisions were changes to the certification requirements for charter school teachers.

Basically, the Department of Education wants to create a new certification just for charter school teachers. From what I can tell from reading the proposed regulations (available at NJ Spotlight), a prospective teacher who did not go through traditional college-based training -- what's referred to as an "alternative route" -- would follow a different path toward getting certified than would an alt-route teacher working in a public school.

A quick primer on alt-route: in New Jersey, there are a series of steps a prospective teacher has to take to be eligible for hiring. Once those are completed, she receives a Certificate of Eligibility (which can also be with Advanced Standing). She can then be hired by a district, which leads to a Provisional Certificate. While teaching, she takes courses and is mentored by a qualified teacher with a standard certification (I've been a mentor several times). If all goes well, the Provisional Certificate becomes Standard after a couple of years.

The ostensible reasons for all of this are:

1) No one gets to go into a classroom without at least meeting some very basic requirements. With the CE, a teacher has to have, for example, some college credits in French if they're going to teach French. They also have to take what's known as a "24-hour course," which is a short sequence that covers the basics of teaching (it can be done over a few Saturdays at many of the state colleges).

The point is that the state is making sure that students don't wind up with a teacher who is completely clueless. Obviously, no system is perfect, but I think the CE requirements are reasonable and not particularly onerous. Sure, you have to cough up some money for the tests and the course. But if you've got a college degree -- and that's a requirement -- I'd say it's not an unreasonable amount.

2) Once you've got a gig, you have to get your full training if you want to keep it. The cost is more significant: $1,000 for your mentor, plus about $1,500 to $2,000 for your coursework (less if you have Advanced Standing). But that can vary: many alt-route teachers go on to earn their masters degree, which costs more but also means you get a boost in pay on a district's salary guide.

So how does the charter school certification process differ? As near as I can tell:

1) The certificates would be issued under a pilot program, and only by a select number of "high-performing" charters. What happens to these certifications if the pilot is discontinued? I don't know...

2) Some of the requirements for getting a charter school CE are eased; most significantly, the 24-hour course is not required. Which means, I believe, that a charter school could have a teacher take over a classroom with NO training in pedagogy whatsoever.

3) An alt-route charter teacher only has to do 50 hours of professional development, compared to 200 hours for a public district alt-route teacher. But I see nothing in the proposed regulation that imposes any restrictions on what those 50 hours of PD would actually be.

Keep in mind that we already have an example of charter schools running their own teacher training outfit: the Relay "Graduate" "School" of "Education," a "graduate school" that doesn't have any actual scholars in its faculty, and gives its degrees based on highly dubious measures of student "growth" (see Bruce Baker and Carol Burris for more on Relay).

4) A charter school certificate would only be valid for a charter school teaching job.

This last one is important, if only for this reason:

This is from my report on the finances and staffing of NJ charters from last year. At every stage of their careers, New Jersey's charter school teachers make less money than teachers in public district schools. Yes, there are some notable exceptions (see my report for details), but the overall trend is toward lower pay"

Now, a key tactic in keeping pay low is to keep a staff inexperienced. But constant staff turnover can exact its own costs; in addition, it's hard to expand if you have to rely on teachers who only plan to stay at your school for a few years. Worst of all for the charters: it may be that they are taking in teachers early in their careers, only to have them move later to higher-paying jobs in district schools.

I'm still looking into research on this, so I can't say how much of a problem it may be. But keeping charter school teachers in a separate certification category can only help to slow any movement of those teachers toward public district schools with their higher salaries. And that could help quash wage pressures for charters, who wouldn't have to compete with district schools for personnel.

Furthermore, as Bruce Baker points out in this post, the 50-hour requirement sets up a money-making scheme for the charters, where they basically raid the paychecks of their own staff:
Other options exist for recapturing portions of teacher salaries. But as is true for the Turkish Tuzuk, documentation of these schemes may be difficult to obtain from privately-managed charter schools that often claim these agreements are exempt from public disclosure laws. One common model is the “company store,” where employees are required to purchase goods and/or services from the affiliated entities. This model can be used for visa processing fees for foreign labor, but might also be used for obtaining relevant credentials, professional development, or even housing.[vi]
For example, founders of New York and Newark, NJ area charter schools and management companies have established their own Graduate School of Education (Relay GSE), staffed primarily by themselves—current and former employees of the charter schools and management companies. Relay GSE was criticized in public hearings over its use of under-credentialed and inexperienced faculty to deliver its programs, but was eventually granted accreditation.[vii]
The Relay Board of Trustees includes founders of KIPP, NYC; Achievement First; and affiliates of Uncommon Schools.[viii] In New Jersey, Relay’s graduate programs are offered on-site within North Star Academy,[ix] a Newark charter school affiliated with the Uncommon Schools network (established by a founder of Relay GSE). The Dean of Relay, Newark, is a co-founder of North Star Academy.[x] Former teachers from the affiliated charter schools report being obligated as a condition of employment to obtain credentials (MA degrees and related certifications) from Relay GSE. That is: employees at the charter schools are having a portion of their salary taxed to pay tuition to a “graduate school” run by founders of their own charter schools, operated within their own charter school facility (lease agreement unknown), where courses are often taught by their own teaching peers having only slightly more advanced education and experience.[xi] We elaborate on this example in Appendix A. [emphasis mine]
And so the proposed regulations lead charter school teachers into a sort of indentured servitude: Under the proposed regulations, a charter teacher would be stuck paying for the limited professional development her boss offers, and she couldn't leave for a better paying public district.

This is a really lousy deal for charter school teachers -- which is why, when I spoke at the NJEA Convention this year, several charter teachers told me they were against the proposed regulatory changes. Who can blame them? Why should they be stuck in lower-paying jobs? Why can't they access our state's universities for their professional development?

And even more important: how does any of this help charter school students?

ADDING: The memo from the NJDOE has some really awful analysis; stand by...

Monday, January 9, 2017

Teaching In the Age of Trump

Last week, Mrs. Jazzman and I decided to indulge one last time before we start our new years diets, and found ourselves in line for the best hot dogs north of the Bronx County line. As I waited for my turn at the condiments station (get the red relish), I overheard a conversation between a nice young woman working the counter and a nice young man working the grill.

To my best recollection, it went like this:
WOMAN: ... yes, he's crazy and disgusting, but I can't just vote on that. I have to vote on policy. 
MAN: Well, what did he say about policy that made you want to vote for him? 
WOMAN: Health care. Health care is a mess. 
MAN: But we have universal health care now. He wants to take that away. 
WOMAN: No, he wants everyone covered. But Obamacare isn't working. 
MAN: What's wrong with it? 
WOMAN: It's costing people a lot of money, and you don't get to choose your own plan, and everybody has to sign up for it. 
MAN: But that's the way universal health care works. Everyone has to be in it. It doesn't work unless everyone is in it. 
WOMAN: OK, but why does it have to cost so much then? I thought Obamacare was supposed to keep costs down...
And so on. It took all I had not to butt in and start flapping my mouth about things that I tell myself I have a better than average understanding of compared to the average person... but as every teacher knows, you usually learn more by letting a conversation spool out than by interjecting your precious personal opinion the first chance you get.

Let me start by saying I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would ever vote for Donald Trump. Even if you agree with him on everything, the man is clearly unfit for high office. That bus tape is more than enough to say the man should never have been allowed near the White House -- and that was only one of his many outrages.

There is also no doubt that some -- some -- of his supporters are really horrible people.

But this woman didn't seem horrible to me. She was having a respectful conversation with someone who disagreed with her -- and she had, in my opinion, some legitimate points. President Obama said you could keep your plan; he was wrong. Premiums have gone up, although they seem to be stabilizing. And while there's little doubt Obamacare has expanded coverage for many, a case remains to be made that other systems would be better.

Again: I don't claim any expertise here. My point is that even if you find Donald Trump to be repulsive, and some -- some -- of his followers to be deplorable, there is still a serious, legitimate debate to be had about policy with at least some of people who voted for him. And that number of people may be larger than we liberals want to admit.

But can we have that discussion, given how our political debates are currently waged?

I keep thinking about the news of Russia's interference in our election process (reminding myself that America has attempted to influence elections in other countries many times itself). Of course I don't want Putin mucking around in our elections. Of course we need to get to the bottom of the email hacking.

But as an educator, I'm more concerned by the thought that the American public can be so easily swayed by propaganda -- no matter the source.

The declassified intelligence report that was recently released, for example, goes into great detail about the influence of RT America TV, a "Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States," on the last election. The report takes RT to task for its coverage of Occupy Wall Street, fracking, police brutality, and the third-party presidential debates, suggesting that coverage of such issues is "fueling discontent."

Well, OK -- so what?

Is the American electorate so incapable of critical thinking it can't be exposed to this sort of opinion without bringing the entire system down? Is fracking something people are just supposed to accept? Did Occupy Wall Street not have a legitimate point? What about Black Lives Matter? Are they "fueling discontent" illegitimately when they protest against the police killing unarmed citizens?

I don't watch RT, so I can't say if their coverage had problems or not; I just find it very odd that our national intelligence leaders think it's somehow a threat to this country for its citizens to be exposed to criticism of our nation's actions and policies. They almost seem to be saying that the American public can't be trusted to make its own decisions about what is and is not relevant to our nation's discourse; that we are so easily swayed by the media that we can't even figure out what is and what is not in our own best interests -- and that's why foreign interference is so dangerous.

Are they right? Are we so incapable of critical thinking that a few leaked emails can turn an election?

One of the ongoing themes of this blog is that we ask far too much of our public schools. You can't expect K-12 education policy by itself to remedy the problems of inequality, chronic poverty, and racism. But that doesn't mean education doesn't play a part, and that we can and should work to improve our schools.

In the same way: I don't think K-12 education by itself can create citizens capable critical thought. Consumerism, screen culture, and a sad history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia -- among other things -- will not be overcome solely through better public schooling.

But we, as public school educators, have got to start acknowledging that we have other obligations to our students aside from teaching the content laid out in our standards. Yes, it's important that children acquire skills to contribute to the economy; however, they also need to become critical thinkers if our democracy is ever going to work.

I'm very worried we are failing in this task. Again, this can't entirely fall on the schools... but what are we doing in the schools to make sure students are ready to participate in meaningful discussions about the issues? What are we doing to train good citizens?

Not everyone is like those two nice young people I eavesdropped on. But there are plenty of people who are ready to become engaged in the same way they are. I have to believe this; otherwise, let's just fold up the tents and go home, because democracy is otherwise pretty much doomed. At least some of us want to make this system work. At least some of us are up to the challenge. I have to believe this.

But do my students have the tools they need to act in ways that support themselves and their fellow citizens? Will they be able to navigate through the sea of noise that arises in a modern, open society? Can I help them gain those skills?

That's the gig. God help the country if we aren't up to this task...

ADDING: Once again, The Gospel According to St. George:


Saturday, January 7, 2017

More Mapping "Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers

A few posts ago I made some maps that showed how school voucher programs around the nation invariably result in tax dollars overwhelmingly flowing to religious schools; specifically, Catholic and other Christian schools.

Remember that our incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has championed vouchers because they will, in her own words, lead to "greater Kingdom gain." In other words: voucher programs, by design, exist to support religious instruction.

Voucher supporters will claim that the Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v Simmons-Harris settled the constitutionality of vouchers back in 2002. But any fair reading of the majority's decision shows they predicated their argument on the idea that families were being given a "choice" to attend either religious or non-sectarian schools; therefore, voucher programs are facially neutral and not in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.

As David Souter points out in his dissent, however, the "choice" given to families isn't really a choice at all; it has the formal appearance of a "choice," but in reality, voucher programs give parents the "choice" of sending their children to a segregated, underfunded public school or a school that forces children to engage in religious practices. That's hardly neutral.

The Zelman majority does flips and twists to get around the so-called "Lemon Test," a legal precept that came out of the landmark Lemon v. Kurtzman case of 1971. The Lemon Test has three prongs:
  • The statute must have a secular legislative purpose. (also known as the Purpose Prong)
  • The principal or primary effect of the statute must not advance nor inhibit religious practice (also known as the Effect Prong)
  • The statute must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religious affairs. (also known as the Entanglement Prong)
If we take DeVos at her word -- that she supports vouchers because, at least in part, they lead to "Kingdom gain" -- it's clear that any program that moves taxpayer funds to private, religious schools fails all three prongs of the Lemon Test. That's particularly true if there are other remedies the government could undertake to improve its public schools (more on this in a future post).

And yet, again, the 2002 SCOTUS convinced itself, by a slim 5-4 margin*, that Zelman was in keeping with precedent. Emphatically, the majority says the Ohio voucher program was "true private choice." Keeping this in mind...

I thought it would be interesting to zoom in a little more on some of large cities where voucher schemes have been established to see just what kind of a "choice" families who enter the programs really have. You can find links to my data sources at the earlier post.

Let's start with Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which runs one of the oldest and most expansive school voucher programs in the nation (click to enlarge).

Two religions dominate the program: Roman Catholic and Lutheran. There are scant few "choices" for non-Christians, and only a few schools that are non-sectarian.

Of course, it makes sense that there would be many Lutheran schools in the area, given its ethnic background and history. But where are the "choices" for the families who would rather not have their children receive religious instruction? And doesn't the dominance of two particular forms of Christianity suggest the program really is advantaging certain sects over others?

Here's the breakdown in Indianapolis, Indiana, the center of a voucher program promoted heavily by our incoming Vice President:

Again, Catholic schools predominate, but other sects of Christianity have a significant presence, and many others are not represented at all. Further, there isn't one nonsectarian school inside Marion County.

I speculated last time that many of the families using vouchers might choose to send their children to religious schools even without the extra taxpayer funds. In Indiana, a family of four can make up to $89,910 and still qualify for a voucher. And according to an IN-DOE report, 52% of students receiving a private school voucher had no record of ever attending an Indiana public school (p. 16).

Given the predominance of schools specifically aligned with a particular sect, I think it's safe to say at least some of the students using vouchers would not have attended an Indiana public school under any circumstances -- their families would choose religious instruction no matter what. Which is important for two reasons:

First: Students receiving vouchers are putting fiscal pressure on the system that wouldn't be there if vouchers didn't exist. In other words: their families and/or their churches would be paying for the voucher students' schooling even if they couldn't use vouchers. Even if you think vouchers are a swell idea and constitutional, you should acknowledge that the presence of these students requires more funds to be added to the system if per pupil revenues are to remain constant.

Second: While theoretically these families are "choosing" their schools, in reality they've already made their "choice" -- and the taxpayers are subsidizing their children's religious instruction. The Effect Prong of the Lemon Test, therefore, fails: these families are receiving taxpayer-supported religious instruction for their students that they and/or their churches would otherwise be paying for.

If the Trump/Pence/DeVos voucher plan passes -- and given this Congress, I have little doubt it will in some form --  the practical effect will be billions of dollars in public funds diverted away from public schools and toward private, Christian schools with the purpose of funding religious instruction in certain specific sects. I don't care what the Court ruled in Zelman -- this is, on its face, a clear violation of the Establishment Clause.

Again: DeVos has publicly admitted this. I don't for a second think that will at all hold up her nomination, or will stop this voucher scheme from going through, or will keep the new Trump-Roberts Court from continuing to find vouchers constitutional. But, at the very least, she should be made to admit what she's up to. She should have to acknowledge the practical effects of school vouchers.

And then she should have to confront a large body of research that shows the purported positive effects of vouchers are a myth. More on that to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

* It's worth noting the Zelman vote by the SCOTUS was 5-4, but the Lemon decision was 8-1.

ADDING: Here's some more from the Mother Jones article I linked to above:
Indiana's choice law prohibits the state from regulating the curriculum of schools getting vouchers, so millions of dollars of the state education budget are subsidizing schools whose curricula teaches creationism and the stories and parables in the Bible as literal truth. Among the more popular textbooks are some from Bob Jones University that are known for teaching that humans and dinosaurs existed on the Earth at the same time and that dragons were real. BJU textbooks have also promoted a positive view of the KKK, writing in one book, "the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies."

Other Indiana Christian voucher schools use the A Beka program, whose history books are known for whitewashing slavery. An A Beka passage on slavery notes, "A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well." (For a comprehensive look at both curricula, see here.)

The Indiana Christian Academy uses curricula from both Bob Jones and A Beka while Kingsway Christian School in Avon, Indiana, spends some of its taxpayer money to take kids on field trips to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where they can learn how dinosaur bones prove the truth of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood. Teaching creationism as fact in public or charter schools is illegal because of First Amendment prohibitions on the government advocating religion, but there's nothing stopping schools funded with public vouchers from doing it.
Read the whole thing. I'll have more to say about some of the other links in the article in a bit...

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Attacks on Teacher Tenure Still Don't Make Sense

The attacks on teacher tenure keep on coming -- and they're as illogical as ever. From the Partnership for Educational Justice:
Newark, NJ—Earlier this month, the New Jersey State Department of Education released state and district level educator evaluation data from the 2014-15 school year. The data revealed that Newark employs more ineffective teachers than any other district in the state and more than five times the number of ineffective teachers in Camden, the district with the second highest number. In the 2014-15 school year, 2.4 percent of New Jersey teachers taught in Newark, but in the same year:
  • More than half (53.3 percent) of the state’s ineffective teachers were in Newark
  • Less than one percent (0.9 percent) of the state’s highly-effective teachers were in Newark
  • Additionally, 12.4 percent of Newark’s teachers received a less-than-effective rating, which was nearly eight times the statewide average (1.6 percent)
If we're going to buy into these numbers, we have to make a whole bunch of assumptions: that data suppression isn't a factor in the skew, that Newark's teacher evaluations are equivalent to other districts', that the unmistakable bias in Student Growth Percentiles isn't affecting these outcomes, etc.

But let's set all that aside for the sake of argument and agree that Newark has an inordinately high percentage of ineffective teachers compared to other districts. What's the solution, according to PEJ?
Despite carrying far more than its fair share of ineffective teachers, most teachers in Newark were rated effective, and 321 Newark teachers were rated highly effective in 2014-15. Recognizing that some of these effective and highly-effective teachers are at risk of losing their jobs while Newark Public Schools continue to employ a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers, six Newark parents filed a lawsuit on November 1, 2016, challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey’s quality-blind teacher layoff law. Under the current statute, when budget reductions force school administrators to lay off teachers, they must do so based only on the date teachers started in the district, with the newest teachers losing their jobs first. In districts like Newark, this “last in, first out” (LIFO) law forces school districts to lay off some of their best teachers while keeping ineffective ones. Newark Public Schools currently face budget cuts that will reduce state funding to the district by nearly 69 percent. [emphasis mine]
OK, hold it a minute:

Maybe the problem for Newark's schools isn't teacher tenure or seniority -- maybe the problem is persistent underfunding and the pernicious effects of charter school proliferation.

Newark has been screwed out of the state aid it should be getting according to the state's own law year after year. It suffers further injury thanks to the "hold harmless" policies of charter school funding the state imposes. And it can't access some of its potentially largest generators of revenue because of the state constitution's restrictions on school funding; essentially, Newark suffers from an inability to tax itself to raise money for its own schools.

Newark's schools are run by a State Superintendent, Chris Cerf, who has the power to veto the wishes of the duly elected school board. This past month, Cerf overrode the board's vote to dismantle the "One Newark" universal enrollment system, which puts the school district in the weird position of promoting charter schools at the expense of its own enrollment.

All of this is forcing the district to conduct layoffs, regardless of the wishes of local citizens. And yet the PEJ thinks gutting tenure and seniority rights -- not just for Newark, but across the entire state -- will somehow fix Newark's woes.

What makes this especially bizarre is that PEJ admits that funding does matter:
The six Newark parents who filed HG v. Harrington have also filed a motion with the New Jersey Supreme Court to intervene in Abbott v. Burke, a decades-old school funding lawsuit. The Newark parents’ Abbott motion, which is also supported by Partnership for Educational Justice, opposes the State of New Jersey’s request to remove the current court order for extra education funding to 31 high-need school districts, including Newark, paving the way for significant funding cuts to these same districts.
So PEJ says districts with large numbers of children in economic disadvantage -- who generally can't raise enough local revenue by themselves because their property values are too low -- should get more state aid. But they aren't getting the resources they need, and that's supposedly part of the reason districts like Newark have disproportionately high numbers of ineffective teachers.

PEJ's answer, however, isn't to concentrate on fixing differences in funding or student poverty; instead, they want to remove tenure and seniority from all New Jersey schools. Which will address these structural inequities by...

[chirp, chirp...]

I haven't shown this old table Bruce Baker made in a while:

Just a few miles from Newark, Millburn has some of the highest performing schools, public or otherwise, in the nation. The teachers there have tenure; they have seniority rights; they have union contracts. How does taking away these things away from teachers in both districts help reduce the inequities between them?

In other words, as I asked nearly six years ago: What is the independent variable?

A teacher who is effective in one district isn't always going to be as effective in another, for all sorts of reasons. So even if we could easily shuffle teachers between districts, there's no guarantee effective teachers in the 'burbs will be as effective in the cities. But let's, again, set that aside and ask: what does it take to get high-quality candidates to become teachers in districts like Newark?

As I've noted before, tenure has a value to teachers; take it away, and you'll have to replace it with some other form of compensation to attract good people to the profession. It's also worth noting that tenure and seniority don't just protect school staffs; they protect taxpayers and students, who benefit from having teachers who, once they've proven their worth, can stand up and defend their community's interests.

But who will want to teach in Newark -- a place whose schools seem to be a plaything for the politically ambitious -- without some level of protection against cronyism? Especially if wages remain the same as they were before tenure was gutted?

In Newark, teachers wait about 15 years before getting a significant bump in pay on the salary guide. Who will stick around that long if you can be fired under an innumerate and easily-gamable evaluation system the moment your pay goes up substantially?

For that matter: who wants to teach in a school with lead in the water? Where the buildings are unsafe and decrepit?

American History HS, Newark, NJ, 2011

Where staff face retaliation for speaking out?

If PEJ really believes "bad" teachers are concentrated in Newark, it ought to take a moment and reflect on why that may be. Teaching is hard enough; teaching at-risk children is even tougher. But teaching at-risk children in underfunded, unsafe schools is damn near impossible. If we want to make teaching in Newark more attractive, we should focus on making teacher working conditions -- which are student learning conditions -- better.

It makes no sense to blame the inequities between school districts on factors that they share in common, like tenure and seniority. We should be focusing on what is different if we want to equalize educational opportunity. The appellate court in California understood this, which is why they overturned Judge Rolf Treu's poorly-reasoned decision in the original Vergara case and found the state's tenure and seniority laws constitutional.

PEJ, under the direction of Campbell Brown, seems to think its best chance of gutting tenure is to shop around to different states and hopefully find another judge like Treu who is willing to buy into their arguments. They've got money to burn (and they won't reveal where it's coming from), so why not? If they can't make it work in California, maybe some judge here in Jersey will fall for their schtick...

But that isn't going to help Newark's students, who need safe, clean schools with well-paid, well-qualified teachers who can work free from political interference and cronyism. Gutting tenure does nothing to address the profound differences in the lives and schools of children living in different worlds; if anything, it will make those differences even worse.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mapping "Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers

As I did in my last post, let's start with some quotes from our incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, caught in a moment of candor:
However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.

“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.

“It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment — whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be — that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education," he said. "We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities.”

When asked why they don’t just spend their time — and money — funding Christian schools, Betsy DeVos said they want to reform the whole system to bring “greater Kingdom gain.” 
“We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had, and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases … not well spent."
Now, this is not usually the argument for school vouchers that you will hear from the reformy types who push them; in fact, DeVos herself will usually sell vouchers under the free-market arguments of Milton Friedman and other pseudo-libertarians. In fact, in his best-selling 1980 book Free To Choose, Friedman argues that a voucher system that only applied to schools that weren't connected to churches would be "far superior to the present system." (p.164)*

There's scant little evidence that Friedman was right about the superior performance of these schools. And he made another prediction about vouchers in his 1962 best-seller, Capitalism and Freedom:
Our problem today is not to enforce conformity; it is rather that we are threatened with an excess of conformity. Our problem is to foster diversity, and the alternative [school vouchers] would do this far more effectively than a nationalized school system. (p. 97)
The desire for "Kingdom gain" expressed by the DeVoses isn't to be found in the advocacy of Friedman and his acolytes; then again, DeVos usually sells vouchers under the same free-market premise, as she did in this 2013 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable.
MRS. DEVOS: Well, I’ve never been more optimistic. Today there are about 250,000 students in 33 publicly funded, private-choice programs in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The movement’s growth is accelerating. Within the last year, the number of students in educational-choice programs grew by about 40,000. In 2012, we saw new programs in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Mississippi, and New Hampshire, and expanded programs in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In 2011, Indiana passed a major new statewide voucher program, which is only in its second academic year and is already enrolling nearly 10,000 children. We conducted polling in five states, and found educational choice enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among Latinos. 
This confluence of events is forcing people to take note, particularly because of the public’s awareness that traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts.
No talk of "Kingdom gain" here. Why, you'd almost think DeVos has learned to keep her true agenda quiet, for fear of alienating people -- particularly her allies in the cause on the political left -- who value the principle of separating church and state...

As I noted in my last post: when the Supreme Court, in Zelman v Simmons-Harris, found vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional -- in a tight 5-4 vote -- David Souter wrote a dissent that took the majority to task for engaging in "formalism." What he meant was that the Court could pretend that the Ohio voucher scheme in question was neutral when it came to religion, but the practical reality was that the religious schools completely dominated the program.

Is that still the case? As a practical matter, would public monies flow to religious schools -- specifically, Christian schools tasked with promoting "Kingdom gain" -- if a Trump/Pence/DeVos voucher program were implemented across the nation? 

Let's go to the data. As in my last post, I've matched state-level lists of private schools that accept vouchers/scholarships/whatever to the 2011-12 Private School Universe Survey (PSS) from the National Center for Educational Statistics. I concentrate here on some of the nation's largest school "choice" programs" Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. My matches aren't perfect: there are time differences between some of the lists and the 2011-12 database, and not all schools on the voucher-eligible lists could be matched to NCES data. Still, we should be able to get a fairly good picture as to whether religious schools predominate in these programs.

Let's start with the Milwaukee, WI area, home of one of the country's largest and oldest voucher programs:

There are a few nonsectarian schools, three affiliated with Judaism, and a couple of Islamic schools. But the vast majority of voucher schools in Milwaukee are Catholic or affiliated with some other type of Christianity.

Here's greater Indianapolis, IN:

Within Marion County, I could only match one school that wasn't affiliated with some form of Christianity.

Here's Cleveland and Akron, OH:

Catholic and other Christian schools overwhelmingly dominate the "choices" of voucher schools in Northeast Ohio.

Here's greater Colombus, OH:

There are only two nonsectarian voucher schools in Franklin County, OH.

Cincinnati, OH:

There are very few non-Christian voucher schools to "choose" from in greater Cincinnati, OH.

New Orleans, LA:

Only two voucher schools in greater New Orleans, LA are not affiliated with Christianity.

Finally -- and this really is an interesting contrast -- here's Washington, D.C.:

The DC "Scholarship" program has been in flux for years, a victim of mismanagement and corruption. But it seems to be the exception when it comes to offering nonsectarian schools as "choices." That said...

Most of the nation's school voucher programs are overwhelmingly dominated by Christian schools.

There is very little evidence that nonsectarian schools will play a significant role in any expansion of vouchers under the Trump-Pence-DeVos administration. Instead, school voucher money will almost certainly flow inordinately toward Christian institutions.

This will be a radical shift in public policy. By using "choice" as its pretext, federal and state governments will be diverting billions of taxpayer dollars, used previously to support public education, toward Christian churches -- all advancing DeVos's goal of "Kingdom gain."

Everyone OK with that? More to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

* Friedman also makes a bizarre argument that public schools "...teach religion, too -- not a formal, theistic religion, but a set of values and beliefs that constitute a religion in all but name." This kind of facile, trite argument is worthy of a Fox News screaming head, and not an eminent economic scientist.

The plain truth is that Friedman was a remarkably shallow thinker on educational "choice"; he largely based his voucher advocacy on his authority as a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and not on any empirical evidence. I've got some formal work coming soon that delves into this further; stand by...


Aside from the 2011-12 NCES-PSS, here are the sources for eligible schools in various voucher programs:

Again: the matches are hardly perfect, the data is dirty, and it's survey data. Caveat regressor.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers: It's Already Working

Why do our new Secretary of Education and her husband support school vouchers? Back in 2001, they were quite candid about it:
The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom." 
Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools. 
Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed. 
In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.
School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.”
The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend. [emphasis mine]
The DeVoses made these comments at "The Gathering," an annual conference of wealthy Christians that pushes a hard-right social agenda, including normalizing homophobia, destroying women's reproductive rights, and even denying climate science.

Certainly, the DeVoses buy into the idea that "competition" will improve schools -- but let's not for a second believe their school "choice" agenda stops there:
The DeVoses say in the 2001 interview that they adhere to the Calvinist perspective of Christianity. Richard Israel, a professor of the Old Testament at Vanguard University in California, said Calvinists see it as the work of Christians to influence culture. 
"Their view of the Christian mission isn’t to be in the fortress and hold out against the pagans, but to engage culture from a Christian worldview and transform it," Israel said.

At one point in their interview, the Devoses are asked directly if they want to "destroy our public schools."
"No, we are for good education, and for having every child have an opportunity for good education," Betsy DeVos says.

“We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition — there were more choices for people to make freely — that all of the schools would become better as a result."
However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.

“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.
Now, I've been doing some research lately into the origins of school "choice" in America. Undeniably, the current choice movement has its origins in segregationist ideology in the South. I'll be saying a lot more about this later, but for right now, check out Jim Carl's Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education and Kevin Cruse's White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism for the history.

As the 60s and 70s progressed, it became clear the "choice" movement wasn't going to be sustained by appealing to segregationists; another rationale had to be sold to the public. Enter Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist whose 1962 best-seller Freedom and Capitalism contains the first widely-read argument for school vouchers presented in terms of market-style "choice."

This is the mainstream argument you'll hear these days for school vouchers: creating a market for schooling will improve education by leveraging competition. Friedman asserts that this is also the best way to address school segregation: the market will reward producers who establish integrated schools, and it will reward consumers -- in other words, parents -- who choose those schools.

Of course, time has shown that Friedman was dead wrong about this. But his market-based arguments have still had a profound effect on the way we talk about school choice: by hiding behind the rhetoric of the free market, voucher proponents can erase any of their ulterior motives, including segregation and "Kingdom gain."

Which raises an interesting question regarding vouchers: Have the school "choice" programs already in place -- programs that exist in part thanks to the efforts of Betsy DeVos -- led to "Kingdom gain"?

Let's go to the data. I'm relying here on the National Center for Education Statistics' Private School Universe Survey (PSUS). There are a few cautions I have to note: first, the latest survey data is from 2011-12. I wasn't always able to get the names of schools in the various voucher programs we'll look at for the same year; the best I could do is match the schools that were in the PSUS for the closest year that I could find a list of participating schools. Which means I might be missing some schools that were part of the voucher program in 2011-12, or I'm relying on data from the PSUS that's earlier than I can confirm a school's actual participation.

That said, I think we've still got a fairly good picture of what private voucher schools look like in terms of their religious affiliation for several of the largest voucher programs in the nation. Let's start with Indiana, which is the likely model for a Trump/Pence/DeVos school "choice" plan.

Over 97 percent of the voucher schools in Indiana are affiliated with a Christian religion. Only a tiny fraction of enrolled students attend a nonsectarian school (I could only match 7 schools to the NCES data).

Nearly 9 in 10 students enrolled in a Milwaukee "choice" school get a Christian education. The nonsectarian schools are represented a little better here, but not by much.

Here's Louisiana:

More than 9 in 10 students attending a Louisiana "choice" school are enrolled in a Christian school. Again, the nonsectarian schools are only a small fraction of the total number of schools participating.

Finally, Washington, D.C.:

Even in the nation's capital, the vast majority of students attending a "scholarship" school are enrolled in some sort of Christian school.

A few things to consider about all this:

- First, there is good reason to believe that at least some of the families that are "choosing" private schools are doing so for religious reasons. In most of these areas, there hasn't been a big growth in nonreligious schools to meet market demand.

- Which means it's quite likely these families would have "chosen" private schools anyway. So taxpayers aren't necessarily just shifting costs from public schools over to private schools; very likely, if the vouchers were discontinued, they wouldn't be paying for the public school education of many of the students who now receive vouchers. Which means it's quite likely a big expansion in school vouchers will actually costs the taxpayers more than they currently spend on schooling.

- The Catholic church is, by far, the biggest recipient of school voucher monies. But, given its decline in vocations, it's questionable whether the church could sustain a large growth in enrollment without access to more clergy to teach and administer in its schools.

Certainly, evangelicals like the DeVoses have had tricky relations with Catholics over the years. But even if we separate Catholic schools from other Christian denominations, it's clear those other schools have done well under the voucher schemes already in place. Unquestionably, churches will be the biggest beneficiaries of any new, national school voucher program.

In Zelman v Simons-Harris -- the 5-4 decision that found school vouchers are constitutional -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority:
“In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice. In keeping with an unbroken line of decisions rejecting challenges to similar programs, we hold that the program does not offend the Establishment Clause."
But in his dissent, David Souter points out the majority is engaging in nothing more than "formalism":

“If regular, public schools (which can get no voucher payments) participate in a voucher scheme with schools that can, and public expenditure is still predominantly on public schools, then the majority’s reasoning would find neutrality in a scheme of vouchers available for private tuition in districts with no secular private schools at all. Neutrality as the majority employs the term is, literally, verbal and nothing more.”
In other words: When voucher supporters claim they are offering "choice" to families, but the vast majority of the "choices" are religious, it's simply disingenuous to claim that the government is not using public funds, through school vouchers, to support churches.

If DeVos, or Pence, or Trump, try to weasel their way out of acknowledging this reality over the next several months, they should be called out on it -- hard. The plain truth is that Betsy DeVos's beloved school vouchers are going to get her exactly what she wants: "Kingdom gain" at the expense of the American taxpayer.

Pretending otherwise is bearing false witness. More to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.