Monday, February 26, 2018


Last week, Representative Vander Woude from Nampa introduced into the House Education Committee House Bill 590, the Guided Education Management Act. The bill proposes setting up a "scholarship fund" by which contributions may be made to a non-profit for the purpose of providing for education needs just about anywhere other than in a public school.  

The bill specifies that students who enroll using the GEM Act shall be from one of four groups:

  1. students who meet the federal free/reduced lunch criteria
  2. students with a disability
  3. at-risk youth
  4. youth whose parents are active-duty military or who were active-duty and were killed in the line of duty.
The Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Association of School Administrators, and Idaho Education Association recently published a position paper opposing the establishment of voucher or tax credit programs in Idaho, under the headline Private School Vouchers are Wrong for Idaho. Chief among the reasons the authors cited for their opposition were:

  1. Idaho is already 49th in spending for education, and can't afford any further erosion of its support for public education
  2. We need to wait until we see the effect of the new 529 rules in federal tax code, which allow for tax credits for contributions for k-12 private schools
  3. Many requirements for public schools are not applied to private schools:
    1. they admit who they want to admit
    2. they typically do not provide meals, transportation, or special education services, which are hallmarks of equity for students
    3. though the tax credit bill would primarily affect enrollment in urban districts where private schools are located, the consequential tax revenue loss would affect rural districts as well.

This proposal reminds us a bit of the run-up to the Luna Laws. Here are two of the main issues with the proposal:

  1. Voucher programs don't work, just as Pay for Performance and Replacing Teachers with Computers, two of the Luna Laws, were contrived reform mechanisms with no research backing.
  2. If Arizona is any example, the voucher proposal could tear apart the coalition that's been working to improve education since 2011. 
Let's examine these issues a bit more in detail.

Voucher Programs don't work

What we sometimes miss in emotional debates is the research supporting or disputing the merits of the proposed reform. There have been some major research studies done on voucher programs around the nation. The conclusion is that vouchers typically lead to lower achievement among the students that use them to attend private schools.

INDIANA has the largest voucher program in the country, initiated by Governor Mitch Daniels, and continued and expanded by Governor Mike Pence. The state’s program requires that schools which accept voucher students administer standardized assessments, so it was possible for researchers to analyze results. In a large study of academic effects, researchers found that In mathematics, voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading”  (results summarized in a New York Times article).

LOUISIANA implemented a voucher program known as the Louisiana Scholarship Program for students at or below 250% of the federal poverty line in 2011-12. A study by the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans  and another by the Brookings Institute's Mark Dynarski found that students who used the vouchers to enroll in private schools experienced a net loss in achievement over the first two years of the program, though performance improved somewhat in the second year.

OHIO’S voucher program, known as EdChoice, was studied by researchers from the Thomas B.Fordham Foundation, a conservative group that promotes school choice. The researchers found that scores improved for students eligible for the voucher program, but not for those who actually used vouchers to attend private schools.

MILWAUKEE'S voucher program is the oldest in the country. Charlie May reports in Salon about the results of a  Wall Street Journal analysis of the data (sorry, the whole story is behind a paywall) which sparked the article's title, "Milwaukee proves that private school vouchers don’t make much of a difference".

With the research largely showing lower achievement for voucher recipients, it's hard to understand why this type of choice is considered a good idea.

The Post Luna Laws Coalition - Will it Break Apart?

Arizona is kind of a mess right now. A tax credit bill remarkably similar to Idaho's proposal passed there last year, and now voucher proponents in the legislature and the Governor's office want to expand it. But an organization known as Save our Schools Arizona  collected over 110, 000 signatures to defer proposed legislation to a ballot measure. The Arizona Governor, Doug Ducey,  noted that he does not plan to play "small ball" on his voucher program to a Koch sponsored gathering in California in January.  Is this ringing a bell for those of you who were here in 2011? 

Since the repeal of the Luna Laws in 2012, parties from across the spectrum have forged a coalition which has supported public education. The K-12 Task Force, commissioned by Governor Otter, made a number of recommendations, many of which have been implemented. Among the achievements have been:

  1. Monumental Career Ladder legislation which has increased salaries while holding districts accountable for teacher evaluations.
  2. Leadership stipends that have made a huge difference in the ability of districts to compensate employees for extra duties involving governance of schools.
  3. Advanced Opportunities programs for students to take college coursework while in high school, whether it be Advanced Placement or Dual Credit.
  4. Fostering educator involvement in committees sponsored by the State Board of Education and the State Department of Education.
  5. Strengthening of support for Career Technical Education programs around the state.
There are many other achievements, along with a lot more work to be done. We have yet to find the answers to Idaho's low Go On rate, for example. But stakeholders are working together to find solutions, something that was not happening only a few years ago. 

Is there potential for that coalition to break apart over the voucher issue? We think there is, and quite frankly, we are worried that this issue will provide the spark for another fracture in Idaho's education system. And we don't want to see that happen.

Monday, February 19, 2018


Down at the Capitol, we sometimes hear from legislators about how schools are measuring up, using SBAC or SAT or even IRI scores. Recently, we heard that the Boise District had several "low-scoring" schools on the 2017 SBAC.

As the research has shown, results on assessments such as the SBAC correlate highly with poverty. In fact, one study showed that scores could be predicted accurately by rank ordering schools based on poverty.

So, what of the claims about "lowest-scoring" schools? Are they true? If so, what factors are involved?

We looked at the 10 lowest scoring schools on the 3rd grade SBAC in Reading and Math. Then we threw a bunch of them out because they were too small to yield reliable results. That's one problem with school rankings in Idaho - many of the schools are so small that the results may change dramatically even in one year.  

For example, Stone Elementary School , just north of the Utah border in Oneida County District, had the lowest average 3rd grade Reading SBAC score in the state. There are only 8 students in the school, which serves students in grades k-3. Almo Elementary, just north of the City of Rocks National Reserve in Cassia County, had the second-lowest average score. Almo had 12 students in 2017. You can see why their scores might be variable from year to year. Other schools that are not included because of small N include Meadows Valley, Grandview, Swan Valley, Lowman, Three Creek, and Arbon.

After purging the results from the smallest schools, we came up with lists of "low scorers", and looked at the characteristics of the schools. Here they are:

What do most of these schools have in common? Well, almost all have high percentages of low-income students, high percentages of Limited English students, or both. 

Students from low-income backgrounds can and do learn in school. Oftentimes, though, they enter school with a language deficit, and don't have some of the opportunities that help develop background knowledge essential for understanding complex concepts. For example, many of our low-income students may not have had the enrichment opportunities that other students have, so when a test question asks about golf greens or the Grand Canyon, they may not have a frame of reference for fully understanding the question. That's one of the reasons why the District offers opportunities like field trips and summer reading programs that build background knowledge, and it's a great argument for pre-k programs like we have at Whitney and Hawthorne.

Moreover, most of the schools on the list have high percentages of students with limited English skills. Locally, Jefferson, Taft and Garfield have large populations of refugee students, who typically will take up to seven years to fully learn the  oral and written English language and its abstractions (e.g., similes, metaphors, idioms, symbolism, etc.). These students are from many different countries, and they have provided a richness of diversity that has changed the culture of our schools for the better.

The fact is that very small percentages of Limited English students in Idaho pass the SBAC in either Math (19% at 3rd grade) or ELA (16%). The percentage is even smaller in Boise, where half of our LEP students are refugees. However, we expect that these students will continue to learn the language and will become contributing citizens in Boise. 

We'd match the instruction taking place in these schools with any in the state. Each has caring, compassionate staffs who go the extra mile for kids every day and provide excellent instruction. To label them as anything but successful is simply unfair. In fact, if you read this blog and are interested, contact us and we will be happy to take you on a tour of any of our schools. 

Will the students in these schools show growth? Absolutely. However, it's a fair question as to whether the SBAC can measure that growth, since average scores last year declined in all 14 of the SBAC Consortium states.

So, how about the characteristics of the highest scoring schools?

Well, that was predictable. None of the highest scoring schools had enough LEP students to report (the Idaho elementary average was 6%). All had relatively small percentages of low-income students (the Idaho elementary average was 54%). Collister also houses the Boise District's highly gifted (HG) program, and Sorenson is a Magnet school in Coeur d'Alene.

Now, we have excellent staffs at each of these schools, as well. We also have many supportive parents who devote hours of their time supporting their children and the schools. Further, the children have conversational and intellectual opportunities at home and in travel that give them a leg up on school readiness.

All of this goes to show that it's much more complicated than simply putting together a low-to-high list of school test scores and making a judgement. Many factors come into play when considering school quality. Whether your school is Jefferson or Roosevelt or Garfield or Collister, West or South or Fairmont or North, Borah or Capital or Boise or Timberline, your children will get a great education in the Boise School District. 

Monday, February 5, 2018


We found some interesting articles during the past several weeks. Here are a few:

Overhauling Japan's High-Stakes University-Admission System, from the Atlantic, is authored by Annabelle Timsit. The author provides a revealing look at Japan's reliance on the "Center Test", it's national exam, for entrance into the best colleges, and its effect upon prospective students.

"The psychological impact of falling behind in the highly structured Japanese tertiary system can be devastating. In a 2014 analysis, Japanese neuropsychiatrists found that roughly 58 percent of the ronin (students who fail the Center Test and study for a year or more at a "cram school") they surveyed had depression, and that just under 20 percent had severe depression."

According to the author, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is planning to overhaul the assessment and at the same time reevaluate its role in college admissions and in Japanese society.


The best school district in every US state was published by under the byline of Tanza Loudenback, but it's really a list of the "best" as identified by using several characteristics, including but not limited to achievement. We spent an entire blog post criticizing those ranking systems in 2015. But...guess which district NICHE identified as the best in Idaho?


Here are several articles about Ohio's ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) Online Charter, which suddenly closed recently, leaving 12,000 enrollees high and dry.  "The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded", written by James Pogue for Mother Jones, takes a decidedly political view of the disastrous effects of the closure. "Ohio’s Online Charter Scandal Is a Warning to the Nation", was written by Jan Ressenger for The Progressive. And from the 74, an education reform blog, "Ohio’s Charter School Disaster: How Big Profits and Pay-to-Play Operators Have Derailed Reform", was written by Matt Barnum.

All tell the same basic story from different viewpoints. ECOT owed the state of Ohio over $80 million, could not pay it back, and was dropped by its sponsor mid-year. Here's a quote from Mother Jones:.

"Despite years of critics raising similar concerns, the school’s demise happened quickly, after two Ohio Department of Education reviews from 2016 and 2017 found that ECOT had overbilled taxpayers by $80 million for thousands of students it couldn’t show were meeting the department’s enrollment standards. As a result, last summer the state ordered the school to begin paying back almost $4 million per month in school funds, which ECOT claimed it was unable to do. Then, last week, the school’s charter sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, claiming concern that ECOT wouldn’t have the funds to last out the year, suddenly announced plans to drop the school. Many of ECOT’s 12,000 current students learned on the nightly news or read in newspapers that unless an emergency deal could be worked out..."


It appears that one or more voucher bills may be coming to the Idaho legislature. With that in mind, we have been following some of the events in Arizona, where school voucher advocates were moving forward with a plan to expand vouchers until S.O.S. (Save our Schools) Arizona collected over 110,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Laurie Roberts, a columnist with AZ Central (the online version of the Arizona Republic), has written several columns (here, here, and here, among others) detailing the efforts, including a judicial decision denying a Koch Brothers backed effort to block the ballot initiative. The whole thing seems reminiscent of the ballot initiative that stopped the Luna Laws back in 2012. That campaign was marked by expenditures of hundreds of thousands of dollars by reform and privatization advocates.


And finally, Jack Schneider in the Atlantic wrote "What School-Funding Debates Ignore", a fascinating examination of inequality and the "education debt".

"The idea that equal inputs will produce equal outcomes presumes a degree of similarity across families and neighborhoods. Yet generations of inequality have constrained opportunities for people in marginalized communities, often most forcefully through racially isolated neighborhoods with vastly uneven access to mainstream social, political, and economic life. Given this context, producing equal educational outcomes would seemingly require more than equal funding."