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Survey Highlights Importance of Keeping State Tests off Private Schools

Though not so much this time of year, my Dad and I like to play catch in the backyard occasionally. It sounds kind of cliched, but my Dad starts talking about how he used to do the same thing with his dad. Then almost inevitably, he starts talking about this old movie called “Field of Dreams.” (After finally seeing this movie, I’m a little scared about wandering into cornfields, but that’s a different story.)

Anyway, there’s this famous line in “Field of Dreams”, where the guy keeps hearing the voice say: “If you build it, they will come.” People in the movie thought he was kind of crazy, sort of like some readers of this blog think I’m crazy.

But at least I’m here to tell you that when it comes to establishing private school choice in a state or community — and is there any doubt I’m a huge fan? — there’s a lot more to the matter than just building the program and expecting people to come. Hence, I encourage you to take a look at the American Enterprise Institute’s new study called “Views from Private Schools.”

Researchers Brian Kisida, Patrick Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith surveyed hundreds of private school leaders in three leading states with private school choice programs: Florida, Indiana, and Louisiana. Respondents included both schools accepting vouchers or tax credit scholarships, and those who chose not to participate. While answers differed among states, and there’s a lot of interesting detail in the paper, some of the key highlights that I saw are as follows:

  1. What most motivates private school leaders to participate in a choice program? Three big reasons emerge with more than 80 percent support each: to serve disadvantaged students, to help voucher-eligible kids in their schools, and to offer an alternative curriculum and program to the public schools
  2. What are their impressions of incoming voucher or tax credit students? Especially in Louisiana and Indiana, the students tend to be less academically prepared and the families less involved than others in their schools
  3. Is the student aid provided by private school choice programs sufficient? Majorities in all three states said No.
  4. Why do some schools choose not to participate? “Future regulations that might come with participation” was the top answer, but extra paperwork requirements also ranked highly, along with concerns that new students couldn’t keep up with the academic rigor and potential loss of the school’s “independence, character, or integrity”
  5. What concerns do participating schools have with the private school choice program? In addition to the future regulations and extra paperwork (sense a theme?), “a number of school leaders expressed a strong preference for nationally normed tests” rather than having to administer the state assessment. Florida school leaders were fine with testing and reporting, as long as they didn’t have to use the more burdensome and less helpful FCAT. In Louisiana, most respondents expressed concern about the requirement for participating schools to administer the state test.

The last question especially speaks volumes to Colorado’s own efforts to expand access to quality educational options outside the traditional K-12 public system. Some measure of transparency and accountability is crucial to building support for these innovative programs, but must be balanced with other important concerns. The state assessment largely is seen as infringing on a school’s unique curriculum and reducing important instructional time, while there are other, less intrusive ways to measure how well students are benefiting from the program.

Of course, the welfare of a particular private school is no more or less important than the welfare of a particular public school. But when we open the doors of choice as a way to access more quality educational opportunities, Colorado shouldn’t make participation so rough that it effectively excludes a large number of private schools from helping some of its current families, as well as additional disadvantaged kids, just to keep more adults in state government offices busy.

There are good ways to make these programs work well and prove their worth without subjecting scholarship students and their new schools to state testing and excessive regulations.