As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Unless you’re a taxpayer, in which case you will get less than you wanted from Washington even though they used your money.
President Obama has left office, and the results of the ideas issued under his watch are coming in. Education research demonstrates we didn’t always get a bargain. A new study finds that a multi-billion-dollar federal grant program that incentivized district schools to change their operations neither changed such operations nor resulted in student achievement.
From 2009 to 2016, the U.S. Department of Education awarded School Improvement Grants (SIG). Each year, the agency divided approximately $500 million between states as part of Obama’s stimulus package to help ease schools out of the financial crisis that started in 2007. Georgia schools received approximately $16 million per year from 2014-16.
Schools could fire the principal, replace half of the teachers, and change instructional strategies like adding instructional time to the school day (part of what are called the “transformation” and “turnaround” methods); convert to a charter school; or close the school and send students to better-performing schools.
The result? SIG had no effect—none—on student achievement, graduation rates, or college enrollment.
Note this key detail: Researchers studied 1,200 participating schools and found that the transformation/turnaround methods were by far the most popular choices for schools. Just 33 schools converted to a charter school and 16 closed and allowed students to attend higher performing schools (3 percent and 1 percent of 1,253 schools, respectively). Thus, more money and grant applications promising to teach differently did not result in drastic changes.
Remarkably, researchers had already documented that some of the strategies SIG incentivized in the transformation/turnaround approaches were not supported by rigorous evidence: “Previous literature provides mixed evidence on the effectiveness of some of these practices at raising student achievement.” Yet Washington still spent some $7 billion over nearly a decade encouraging these activities.
Meanwhile, approximately 2,000 new charter schools opened without this federal slush fund from 2009 to 2016. Today, more than 6,000 charter schools operate nationwide. Charter schools are different state-to-state, but in some areas where all public school results disappoint, like Detroit, Michigan, charter schools are outperforming district schools. Those opposing President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Department of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, have cited Detroit’s low scores and DeVos’s support of parental choice in Michigan as evidence that she is not qualified for the post.
But multiple studies demonstrate that Detroit charter school students are outperforming their peers in traditional schools. DeVos’s skeptics are free to scrutinize her policy positions, but opponents lose credibility when they misrepresent data.
Likewise, in Arizona, charter schools outperform district schools in terms of eventual college graduates. Charter schools account for 14 percent of Arizona’s total public school population, yet charter schools make up for 5 of the top 10 public schools in the state for students finishing college in 4 years.
Arizona charter schools—like nearly all charter schools in the U.S.—are producing these results despite being funded with less money per student than district public schools. Georgia charter schools are funded at approximately $3,000 less per student than district schools, and low-income 8th grade charter students are outperforming their peers in a national comparison. Now there’s a bargain.
Again, more SIG schools opted not to convert to a charter school with their grant money, choosing more administrative changes instead. And researchers did not find better student outcomes.
Let’s hope policymakers learned a lesson from a failed experiment relying on more taxpayer money for public schools. Lawmakers should commit to giving parents and children more quality educational choices over the next four years. Families will get a better deal when they can choose how and where their children learn.