Monthly Archives: August 2011

THE OPEN PUBLIC SERVICES REFORMS-MINISTERS MUST LEARN FROM THE LAST GOVERNMENTS MISTAKES

History repeating

The government’s revolutionary open public services white paper actually covered some very familiar ground. The coalition should learn from its predecessor’s mistakes, says Patrick Watson in EducationInvestor (September 2011)

July’s Open Public Services white paper promised more choice, more accountability, more diversity and fairer access to services. Two reactions sprang immediately to my mind. The first was, what’s not to like from a plan that offers such clear benefits for consumers and suppliers alike? The second, though, was a strong sense of déjà vu.

We have, after all, heard all this before. The previous Labour government committed itself to public services reform. Centrally driven reforms, aimed at moving services from poor to adequate, were supposed to be followed by bottom-up ones, which would personalise services and deliver more choice. But something got lost in translation. If the poetry, in politics, lies in generating ideas, then the prose lies in delivering them, and for all its talk Labour ended up with half-baked reforms with producer interests still firmly entrenched. One has to ask, then, will these coalition reforms be any different?

Some of the proposals are certainly eye-catching. Every adult receiving social care will have an individual, personal budget by 2013. Also on the cards are personal budgets for those with chronic health problems, for children with special needs, and those in housing for vulnerable people. Funding will follow the pupil in schools, the student in further education, the child in care and the patient in the NHS. Consumers will be empowered to choose where the money is spent.

In order to improve access, the government will introduce a pupil premium, offering extra funding for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the money available increasing over time. There will be easier access to data, too, so that people can make informed choices about services. Crucially, there will be a new system of redress, provided through the beefed-up powers of ombudsmen, who will step in when choice is denied. In short, the reforms envisage putting the needs of the consumer of the service first.

So far, so good. But these reforms will come to nothing if the government fails to open up the supply side, encouraging entry from both the private and not for profit sectors. That means removing barriers to market entry, while simultaneously ensuring that the market is seen to be both fair and transparent. In this respect, the previous government failed to deliver. Labour, indeed, went so far as to ignore a blue print for change it had itself commissioned from PwC in 2006, ‘Overarching Report on Children’s Services Markets’.

This report has as much relevance today as it did at the time, and its findings could help this government to get its reform proposals off the drawing board. It found that some local authorities were neither meeting the needs of children and parents, nor delivering value-for-money’, and listed a number of barriers to effective market operation. These included a lack of transparency on costs; a shortage of experienced commissioners; limited dialogue between suppliers and commissioners; inconsistent application of national policies; and, “crucially, conflicting roles of local authorities acting as both commissioner and provider”.

Six years on, an Ofsted report published this August – ‘An evaluation of approaches to commissioning young people’s services’ – echoed some of the PWC report’s findings. The regulator found that only two local authorities “systematically managed commissioning as a strategic process… and took into account the full range of alternative providers”. In other words, most local authorities do not even consider the option of an alternative provider, and whether they could offer an improved service.

Even when local authorities do choose to outsource, they can bring services back in-house at a whim, without the need to market test or to demonstrate best value. This inflexibility increases the risks for alternative providers, and so limits the development of a diversified supply market. It also makes it harder to secure value for money for taxpayers.

If the reforms outlined by the white paper are to succeed, the government must combine strong leadership with incentives for those who reform, and sanctions for those who don’t. Simply issuing guidance is not enough: guidance can be ignored with impunity, and local authorities have a vested interest in keeping services in–house.

The key to changing this lies in the transformation of local commissioning and procurement practices. The government must drop its reluctance to become involved in market management. If the coalition is to deliver on its reforms it must ensure a clear distinction between those who commission services and those who provide them. If it doesn’t, it is doomed to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor.

Patrick Watson is managing director of Montrose Public Affairs Consultants, which specialises in education and skills policy. He also runs the education blog montrose42

ROLE OF THE PRIVATE SECTOR IN MEETING INCREASED DEMAND FOR EDUCATION IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD.

GAPS IN EDUCATION IN DEVELOPING WORLD FILLED BY PRIVATE SECTOR AND INFORMAL EDUCATION

Aid agencies now looking seriously at non-state education providers to meet demand and to  fill the gaps

Comment

There is growing dissatisfaction with the quality of public primary and secondary education systems, in much of the developing world.  The priority attached to Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that relate most closely to education has resulted in much public investment and external support being directed towards, in the main,  universalising primary schooling (not all of it cost effective). As a result budgetary provision for secondary education has stagnated or even declined. Indeed, the policy debate on the development of secondary schooling has been pretty muted, if not silent.

A new trend, though, is much in evidence. Significantly, in many developing countries any increase in school places has come through the non-state system. In countries like Pakistan, India and across Africa there has been significant expansion in non-state places and indeed informal education. In Pakistan, for example,  the share of the private sector in education has increased from approximately 3% in the early 1980s to approximately 25% today. India‘s Annual Status of Education Report (2009) showed that private school  enrolment increased from 16.3% in 2005 to 22.6% in 2008, an astonishing  increase of  approximately 40%.   (James Stansfield, August 2010).  And demand for private sector education is increasing worldwide. According to the IFC  in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda private school  enrolment is up to over 40 percent now . This education   is delivered, in the main,  through low cost low fee schools and it is astonishing how very  poor families are prepared to make considerable sacrifices to send their children to non-state schools.

The last two decades have witnessed a rapid growth of fee paying,   low cost ,private schools serving low income communities across the developing world.  Not only have these schools emerged without any government help or assistance,  they are often unrecognised by education authorities .Nevertheless,   they continue to grow apace and  to develop in sometimes hostile regulatory environments.  Furthermore,  evidence suggests that  that they can often outperform their public counterparts, and at a fraction of the cost.  These developments present international donors, including our own DFID, with a number of new opportunities and challenges. How ,  as a donor,  do you encourage   this spirit of self- help in education and support the growth of private schools to meet obvious demand  without undermining their independence or sustainability, and without upsetting the Government of the target country, which  will argue , inevitably, that aid is best channelled through it?  But , self-evidently you cannot ignore a situation in which many low income families are turning their backs on a state system that is regarded by them, and  with some justification, as  wholly inadequate and which will not meet their aspirations.

Governments ,of course,  around the world recognize the importance of education, and in most countries the state remains both the major financier and provider of education.  However, government efforts to expand schooling have not reached all members of society equally. And it’s the poorest who suffer most. (World Development Report (2004)  If children are lucky to move into secondary education they often have not been taught the basics to succeed there.   While governments may have an interest in promoting and financing the market for education, it does not necessarily follow that the public sector has a monopoly role in providing that education. In many  countries, there are other providers of education, such as  church schools, home schools, charity schools  and  private schools, both for-profit  and not-for-profit. There are also informal providers of education below the states radar but nonetheless popular.  By extending financing to these other education providers through vouchers or grant programmes, governments would give all parents,  regardless of income, the opportunity to participate more fully in their child’s education by  choosing the school that is right for them. Interestingly aid agencies, including our own  DFID have  historically largely ignored the fact that new school places are being offered  by private and not for profit providers in the developing world. International agencies, global charities (with a handful of notable exceptions)  and national governments have previously focused most of their attention on  increasing international aid to help finance the expansion and improve the quality of  government schools across the developing world mainly focused at the Primary level. Corruption absenteeism, nepotism,  poor teacher training, poor regulation and other factors have often undermined state education.  However, a number of factors are now challenging this consensus including: the inability of developing country governments to meet the increasing demand for schooling; an increasing awareness of the poor quality of education being provided by many existing government schools  and finally the rapid growth of fee paying private schools serving low income  communities. These development have been well  documented by  Professor James Tooley in The Beautiful Tree (2009) and  in other reports. Crucially,  most of the expansion in school places in Africa, Pakistan and India appears to be care of the private sector. (profit and not for profit)

Based upon their research in Asia and Africa, Professor James Tooley and Dixon (2005)  came to the following conclusions: First, the majority of children in the poor areas which they studied were  attending private unaided schools.  Second, this meant that the official number of school enrolments was widely underestimated.  Third, children were getting better results in private unaided schools and, finally, the teacher costs in private unaided schools were significantly less than government schools.

There are some encouraging signs that international donors are beginning to take this issue seriously and our own DFID seems to be particularly interested in the role played by  non -state education providers at the Primary and Secondary levels. Significantly one of its commitments in its Business Plan is to ‘ Make DFID more private sector friendly’ and  it wants to bring private sector expertise into  DFID’s strategy particularly in respect to empowering women, signalling  a cultural shift.  This new interest is to be welcomed but carries with it a danger. As James Stansfield points out in Self Help and Sustainability in Education in  Developing  Countries (Newcastle University-2010) ‘ : ‘History has shown,  excessive donor intervention due to a lack of cooperation within the international  community can often undermine sustainable development.  This will apply, in particular, to interventions in this emerging private education sector, where excessive levels of international aid could easily begin to crowd out existing private investment  and discourage future private investment. ‘

Using aid to support poor families aspirations in education looks  like a good idea but  there has to be a strategic approach so that private investment, given  Stansfields warning ,is also encouraged . Its an area where UK Companies  have the potential to play an important role.

http://research.ncl.ac.uk/egwest/egwest/pdf/pdfs/Self%20Help%20and%20Sustainability%20in%20Education%20in%20Developing%20Countries%20latest.pdf

WILL PLANNING PERMISSION UNDERMINE THE FREE SCHOOLS INITIATIVE?

 

FREE SCHOOLS-  PLANNING  BARRIERS PERSIST

Planning Consultation doesn’t give the Government what it wants (and needs)

Robust Statement from Government warns local authorities against refusing planning permission for new schools.

Comment

The Academies Act of July 2010 stripped local Authorities of the powers to oppose Free Schools and Academies on educational grounds.  However that was the easy part. The hard part concerns planning permission. It has always been known that planning permission might act as  a Trojan horse to stymie the development of new schools. Planning permission rules  of course exist for a very good reason. A permitted development right could give rise to a range of adverse impacts, such as: noise, the impact upon neighbouring properties and residential amenity and the hours of use – especially where schools  are used by the community into the evening or at weekends. Local residents are ,of course, affected directly by schools and   some residents would prefer not to have any school close by, because of the possible disruption.  Planning is not just about the use of the building. As things stands any application to change an existing building into a school requires a traffic plan. This has got to satisfy local planners that a school in that particular locality will not snarl up local traffic.  Traffic is a major concern in relation to child and highways safety; access; impact on the local road network; public transport provision; sustainable travel to school; parking and congestion. The school run forms a significant part of the morning rush hour.    The Department for Communities and Local Government ran a consultation exercise between 14 October and 10 December 2010 on proposed changes to  ‘the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order  1995’ to facilitate schools development.   The consultation was designed to explore ways of supporting the Coalition Government’s free schools policy through the planning system.  It offered a number of options, for example, keeping planning permission as it is. Or, giving a permitted development right for some uses to convert to a school use.; Or giving  a permitted development right for all uses to  convert to a school use. Or, finally, giving a permitted development right, with attached conditions, for all uses to convert to a school.

The majority of the respondents to the consultation (120) did not support a change to the existing planning framework. Forty-seven respondents favoured  reform, with twenty five  respondents stating no preference. So the Consultation hasn’t really gone the Governments way. The Government ‘ sees that many of the respondents to  consultation share its vision to increase choice and opportunity in state  education, but remain unconvinced that the consultation proposals presented  the best means to achieve this.’

 

However a Government statement on planning said ‘A refusal of any application for a state-funded school, or the imposition of conditions, will have to be clearly justified by the local planning authority.  Given the strong policy support for improving state education, the Secretary of State will be minded to consider such a refusal or imposition of conditions to be unreasonable conduct, unless it is supported by clear and cogent evidence. .. ‘And there should be a presumption in favour of the development of state-funded  schools, as expressed in the National Planning Policy Framework.’  ‘Local authorities should give full and thorough consideration to the importance of enabling the development of state-funded schools in their planning decisions’.. ‘ Where a local planning authority refuses planning permission for a state funded school, the Secretary of State will consider carefully whether to  recover for his own determination appeals against the refusal of planning permission.’

So, the Government is signalling that it will not tolerate the use of planning laws to  obstruct the development of new schools. However the reality is that it needs the co-operation of local authorities to   advance the free school initiative and wants to avoid messy legal disputes that will slow the reform process and undermine its momentum. As things stand there are less free schools in the pipeline than was initially anticipated.

http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/planningschoolsresponses

http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/planningandbuilding/pdf/1966097.pdf

OXBRIDGE IS NOT THE ONLY OPTION-PUBLISHED LETTER EVENING STANDARD 22 AUGUST 2011

OXBRIDGE IS NOT THE ONLY OPTION

Published Letter; Evening Standard; 22 August 2011

You report that schools are to be officially ranked in league tables by the proportion of sixth-formers they send to Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is one of the governments nuttier ideas- reflecting the obsession with Oxford and Cambridge-that didn’t deserve to get off the drawing board. Given how few schools send pupils to Oxbridge ,in any quantity, it will  do nothing but irritate heads and governors. UCL, Imperial, LSE, Durham, Bristol and others will also be understandably aggrieved. Imperial frequently tops Oxford in League tables and  is thought  to  have better science courses overall.  There are also plenty of very bright pupils who could easily go to Oxbridge but choose other universities because Oxbridge doesn’t offer the options they want   , or the courses  simply suit them better. Their schools now stand to be penalised. The Sutton Trust, which exists to improve access for disadvantaged pupils disapproves of this measure which speaks volumes. Ministers should change their minds and quickly.

Patrick Watson, London

INCREASING INPUTS INTO EDUCATION DOESN’T ALWAYS IMPROVE OUTCOMES – WHY?

INCREASING INPUTS INTO EDUCATION DOESN’T ALWAYS IMPROVE OUTCOMES – WHY?

International evidence on how accountability measures improve outcomes

Comment

Making Schools Work (World Bank) is about the threats to education quality that cannot be explained by lack of resources. Its key messages are:

The quality of public education in developing countries is often threatened by service delivery failures.

Weak accountability is a root cause of low-quality and inequitable public services.

Improving accountability requires: information for accountability, school-based management and teacher incentives.

It reviews service delivery failures in education: cases where programs and policies increase inputs to education but do not produce effective services where it counts – in the classroom. It documents what we know about the extent and costs of such failures. It argues that a root cause of low-quality and inequitable public services is the weak accountability of providers to both their supervisors and clients.

The central focus of the book is that countries are increasingly adopting innovative strategies to attack these problems. Drawing on new evidence from 22 rigorous evaluations in 11 countries, the authors examine how strategies to strengthen accountability relationships in school systems have affected schooling outcomes.

The book provides a succinct review of the rationale and impact evidence for three key lines of reform: (1) policies that use the power of information to strengthen the ability of students and their parents to hold providers accountable for results; (2) policies that promote schools’ autonomy to make key decisions and control resources; and (3) teacher incentives reforms that specifically aim at making teachers more accountable for results.

Making Schools Work New Evidence on Accountability Reforms

Barbara Bruns, Dean Filmer, Harry Patrinos; World Bank;2011

Link to Book

OFSTED REPORT FINDS LOCAL AUTHORITIES ARE NOT LOOKING AT ALTERNATIVE SUPPLIERS TO DELIVER VALUE

Commissioning Childrens Services

Comment

A report published on 9 August by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, has found that local authorities are not always considering the voluntary and community sector, charities, or other arms of the public sector, when commissioning services for young people.  The report states ‘Alternative approaches were not always being considered and poorly informed views among local authorities and providers about the potential of competitors to provide an improved service remained unchallenged. Insufficient consideration had been given to engaging alternative providers from the voluntary and community sector, charities, or other arms of the public sector such as social landlords. Only three local authorities had worked collaboratively with neighbouring authorities to carry out joint commissioning.’  No surprise there then. Ofsted however fails to mention the private sector in the supply mix, which is perverse.  A 2006 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers on the Children’s Services markets, commissioned by the last Government, reached pretty similar conclusions, recommending a fundamental re-think on local commissioning and the removal of barriers to allow in new suppliers, from private and not for profit sectors, noting that some authorities were better at pursuing value for money than others. However, there was no fundamental change to the approach to LA commissioning practice in the wake of that report. The Government will have to think about how this might impact on their proposals in the White Paper on Opening Public Services which anticipates a more diversified supply market, with more accountability and  better access to information.

And if Local Authorities are not considering alternative providers, then what hope is there for the Big Society?

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/evaluation-of-approaches-commissioning-young-peoples-services

THE REASON FOR RIOTS IN ENGLAND 2011- IS GINI TO BLAME?

REASONS FOR RIOTS

Is Gini to blame?

Comment

The German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche -claimed that there was no such thing as an objective judgement ie one informed purely by empirical evidence and the application of  reason. Individuals (including philosophers)  unknowingly allow their own prejudices and cultural background to influence their judgement and one is reminded of this when reading the various explanations given for the recent riots in our major cities. These reasons include,  but are not limited to,  gang culture, black rap culture, immigration,  criminality, greed,  drugs, police tactics , stop and search, Police corruption, the Labour Government, the Coalition Government,(the Thatcher Government?) government cuts, tuition fees, August, poor education, youth unemployment, the NEET cohort,  economic deprivation,  poor parenting , broken homes, absent fathers, the judicial system, weak sentencing, the declining influence of religion and church leadership, the Gramacian Counter Culture  (don’t ask) , the concentration of wealth in the few, bankers excess  and so on. But maybe its  partly Ginis fault!

The Gini coefficient is a measure of statistical dispersion developed by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini and published in his 1912 paper “Variability and Mutability” .This is the most commonly used measure of inequality. The coefficient varies between 0, which reflects complete equality and 1, which indicates complete inequality (one person has all the income or consumption, all others have none).

Using this method, the measure of overall income inequality in the United Kingdom now happens to be higher than at any previous time in the last thirty years.  The Gini Coefficient of the UK is the second highest in Europe (0.34 or so) and one of the worst in the industrialised world.  The overall message when it comes to the UK is simple: income inequalities have been increasing, both recently and over longer time periods.  These inequalities have been increasing at both ends of the spectrum.  In other words, the poorest have fallen further behind the average, and the richest have moved further ahead. Inner London is deeply divided: it has by far the highest proportion of people on a low income (29% in the poorest fifth) but also a high proportion of people on a high income (28% in the richest fifth). In South East England the figures are respectively 17% and 27%.In short the gap between rich and poor is increasing. Add to this volatile mix the perception that some of those with huge amounts of money haven’t been behaving very well, of late, and indeed appear to have caused, or at the very least, exacerbated our financial and economic problems, and it could explain at least one aspect of why communities are fracturing from the bottom up.

What is also interesting and should  presumably be put in the mix  is that ,despite the greater inequality in the USA, according to a Sutton Trust report,  almost 70% of the people surveyed there  believe they can do better in the future (class mobility), whereas in the UK less than 40% believe they will rise out of poverty.  We also know that social mobility has stalled in the UK and that the education system is not seen as a leveller.

None of this, of course, goes any way to remotely  excusing the malicious , nihilistic violence, looting and arson that we have witnessed over the last week. But maybe these are issues that  should be looked at as part of the overall  mix in the post mortem into the possible causes.

One other interesting footnote -David Willetts, the Higher Education Minister,  in his book the Pinch wrote ‘  Even in sober law-abiding Britain we saw the turmoil that resulted when the baby boomers were coming to adulthood. The two most violent riots in post-War London were the Grosvenor Square riots of 1968 and the Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. They occurred around twenty years after each of the post-War baby boom peaks. (p129 of the paperback edition)’

Stuart Bonar points this out on his blog and adds ‘ Well, the third postwar peak in births (lower than the other two at 706,140, but still a peak with a trough either side) occurred in 1990. Yes, that’s right: 21 years ago this year.’

In the meantime, in the aftermath, our communities are making impressive strides in fighting back   and are trying to rebuild themselves and re-establish their  confidence, identities and mutual support networks.

http://www.poverty.org.uk/09/index.shtml

NEED FOR LEADERS IN A SELF-IMPROVING SCHOOL SYSTEM

SCHOOL LEADERSHIP

Report focuses on importance of  system leaders for a self- improving school system

Comment

Recent research by the NCSL studied system leadership development and school-to-school support, particularly the leadership skills required for these roles and the level of interest in them. In this report, Educational Consultant Robert Hill comments on some of the key lessons learnt from this research and its relevance to the schools white paper agenda. System Leaders are those who work beyond their own school to support others across the system.  Hill finds that improving school to school support starts from a strong base. There is varying understanding of different system leadership roles. School leaders are motivated to undertake system leadership roles by a strong sense of moral purpose. Becoming a professional partner is a good way into system leadership. There are substantial levels of interest in taking on the more demanding system leadership roles.  Experience of being a Headteacher, communication, presentation, interpersonal skills and strategic thinking ability are seen as the most important skills to fulfil system leadership responsibility. Once these Heads take on a broader role they are likely to sustain that commitment and the role of the National College in support of these leaders was said to be valued.  The main factors inhibiting school leaders taking on broader roles are fear that it will detract from their role as Head and a lack of experience.  Hill concludes that given the positive experience of existing system leaders it would make sense to use them to champion the broader system leadership roles and address concerns and reservations. And to ensure development support is available to school leaders to encourage and equip them to take on broader responsibilities including providing opportunities for them to observe   and be mentored by other system leaders. Obstacles include the reluctance of some governors to allow their heads to take on these executive roles and a lack of executive heads positions in their area. The aim is to establish a ‘self- improving school system’ but this requires a critical mass of school leaders who are willing and able to take  system leadership roles

http://www.nationalcollege.org.uk/docinfo?id=153443&filename=system-leadership-illuminas-research.pdf

 

CHEATING THE TEST SYSTEM IN ATLANTA

CHEATING  THE TEST SYSTEM IN ATLANTA

Widespread cheating damages accountability framework

Comment

Cheating in Atlanta schools to beat standardised tests in 2009 appears to have been systemic and pervasive. Eighty-two of 178 educators implicated in the investigation admit cheating; misconduct was documented in 44 of the 56 schools examined (the entire district is 100 schools). One school organized an “erasure party” where teachers and administrators created a social occasion out of illegally and immorally faking their students’ test results. The cheating in 2009, was prompted primarily by pressure to meet targets in a data-driven environment, a statement released by Governor Nathan Deal’s office said.  “A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in Atlanta Public Schools, which created a conspiracy of silence,” the state report concluded. The 2009 cheating was said to include teachers erasing incorrect answers on state standardized tests. Former Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall , who retired last month as head of the 48,000-student district, is accused of creating a culture of fear, pressuring faculty and administrators into accepting ever-increasing targets of achievement and turning a blind eye to the way those goals were achieved.  The scandal threatens the whole test-based accountability system.  It’s the scale of what has happened in Atlanta that is so shocking -it was not just a case of individual bad apples  but was clearly much  more widespread. The problem is that the system encouraged and  tolerate , or turned  a blind eye, to the violations in ways that  are still not  fully understood.  Something has gone very wrong if so many resorted to reprehensible behaviour in the Atlanta Public Schools system.  Critics suggest that such widespread abuse reflects a lack of confidence in the teaching profession over accountability measures reinforced by a sense of injustice.  The search is now on to find a healthier balance between accountability at the level of individual teachers and focusing on building organizational capacity to develop teachers and support their continuous professional development.

Reforms in the US are, interalia, focused on improving the quality of teachers and teaching, holding teachers more accountable for their students performance but educators are finding it a challenge to develop a system that fairly judges an individual teachers performance. As the stakes increase, the temptation to cheat  the system increases.

USA -PRO CHOICE EDUCATION AGENDA -UP DATE

Pro- choice agenda  in the united states

Up-Date

Comment

With a new pro-choice, pro-market think tank launching in the UK next month, what is the current state of play on pro- choice reforms in the United States?

Economist Milton Friedman claimed, years ago, that it costs less to educate a child with a voucher or privately funded tax credit scholarship than to send him or her to a public school. “Support for free choice of schools has been growing rapidly and cannot be held back indefinitely by the vested interests of the unions and educational bureaucracy,” Friedman wrote in The Post in 1995. “I sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in one state or another, which will then sweep like a wildfire through the rest of the country as it demonstrates its effectiveness.” He was actually wrong in his prediction because he underestimated the opposition to the pro-choice agenda from Unions, some local politicians and education boards. Teachers’ groups say voucher programmes only divert money away from cash-starved public school districts. And critics question the wisdom of spending taxpayer dollars on private schools, which don’t have to report test scores or student achievement data.

However, the pro-choice agenda was born out frustration at the number of poorly performing schools, particularly in disadvantaged city areas, where low income parents    were finding their children trapped in conventional  public schools that were  failing to educate students at basic levels, year after year. US politicians and parents could see that the US education system was losing ground to others in international league tables too. School choice advocates believe that all children should have the opportunity to go to better schools ,through access to private schools via opportunity  scholarships (most commonly called school vouchers), special needs scholarship programmes,  and scholarship tax credit programs.

In voucher programmes, education dollars “follow the child,” and parents select private schools and receive state-funded scholarships to pay tuition. Tax credits programmes allow  companies and individuals  to  get tax credits for donating to nonprofit organizations that provide  scholarships for children to attend private schools. Charters are autonomous  public schools, run by educators, members of the  community, universities, or other bodies that are permitted, under their charter,  to  innovate and develop specialized educational programs for students. States with strong charter school laws allow these schools to operate with considerable autonomy, so that they can avoid heavy bureaucracy. Not all States, though,  have strong Charter school laws which has allowed a few poor performers to slip through the quality assurance net.

The country’s first modern voucher programme opened in Milwaukee in 1990. Florida launched one of the country’s first statewide voucher programmes in 1999, which serves special needs students.

Before this year, school voucher and scholarship tax credit programs were operating in 12 states and Washington, D.C., serving nearly 200,000 children, according to the Alliance for School Choice.

Robert Enlow the president and chief executive of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice gives a run down on his blog what has been happening in the States.

Since January this year there have been 18 voucher, tax credit and education savings account programmes  that have been adopted by state legislatures, Congress and one local school board.

Vouchers: Indiana passed the nation’s most extensive voucher programme this spring, offering vouchers to middle-class families earning up to $61,000 with no cap on the number awarded after three years. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an expansion of the Milwaukee voucher programme this summer. That programme, the nation’s oldest, now will include vouchers for middle-class families earning up to $67,000; a similar program was enacted for Racine.

 Ohio has quadrupled the number of vouchers available to students stuck in failing schools by 2013.

Arizona adopted Education Savings Accounts, a voucher-type programme to cover education costs for special needs children. And Congress reinstated a popular voucher programme for low-income families in the District of Columbia.

Tax credits: Corporations or individuals may donate to scholarship-granting organizations to gain a credit on taxes due in their state. These scholarships help children attend private schools. This year a new tax credit program was enacted in Oklahoma while existing ones were expanded in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Iowa. Florida  lawmakers for example  in 2010 changed the educational landscape by expanding  the state’s scholarship tax credit program from $118 million to $140 million. The amount of money that can be raised for scholarship organizations and donated by individuals and companies varies by state.

 

Other private choice: In Louisiana, parents who send their children to private schools will be able to write up to $5,000 of tuition per child off their state income taxes, thanks to legislation passed this summer. In Indiana, parents who do the same or spend money home schooling their children will be able to write off up to $1,000 of any educational expenses off their taxes. North Carolina parents of special needs students will earn a tax credit up to $6,000 for educational expenses for their children. All this to encourage more educational options for families.

Charter schools, of course, continue to expand, with high profile take up in Washington DC and New York where they have been central to reforms. The mayor Michael Bloomberg says that the city has  narrowed the gap in high school graduation rates between the races. And the evidence backs that up. While 46.5 percent of all students graduated in four years in 2005, in 2010 almost two thirds – 65.1 percent – did. Black and Latino students remain less likely to graduate than their white and Asian counterparts, but the gap between groups has narrowed over the past five years: from a 23.89 percentage point difference between blacks and white in 2005 to a 17.6 point gap in 2010.

What keeps Charters going is that, if anything, demand for them is growing, particularly within minority communities. New Orleans is the great test bed, of course, for Charters. Most of its schools were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and almost all its new schools established since, have Charter status are are  being carefully monitored,   and are, irritatingly for opponents,  showing signs of substantive  progress.

Meanwhile ,many States are tightening up procedures for selecting and vetting  Charter operators, and other accountability measures, as not all have performed as well as  the not for profit KIPP chain, and underperformers  self-evidently  serve to tarnish the image and ‘brand’ of the Charter schools movement  .

Certainly the pro-choice agenda has made strides.  But there is still opposition to these developments and legal challenges are not uncommon.  Joel Klein who reformed New Yorks schools and who moved recently to News International (great timing?) is concerned that the momentum for reform is dropping off. With both himself and Michelle Rhee now out of the frame the ranks of the high profile advocates of the pro-choice agenda look a  bit  depleted.

Bill Gates and his Foundation are providing financial clout behind school reforms particularly in seeking to raise the standards of teaching and to bring in reliable performance measurement to help raise standards. The Quality of teachers, getting rid of poor ones and incentivising good ones is now central to the reform agenda in the States. But there are continuing debates over how performance is measured and whether bonuses work.

So the pro-choice advocates seem to think that the direction of travel is good, but they have much more to do and there is no sign that opponents are willing to give ground.

Note; Budget Cuts hit Education –  Of the 47 states with newly enacted budgets, 38 or more states are making deep, identifiable cuts in K-12 education, higher education, health care, or other key areas in their budgets for fiscal year 2012. Even as states face rising numbers of children enrolled in public schools, students enrolled in universities, the vast majority of states (37 of 44 states for which data are available) plan to spend less on services in 2012 than they spent in 2008 – in some cases, much less. At least 23 states have made identifiable cuts in support for public schools. In many cases, these cuts undermine school finance systems that are intended to reduce disparities between high-wealth and low-wealth school districts, so the largest impacts  are likely to be felt in communities that are least able to compensate for the loss of funds from their own resources. For example Kansas cut the basic funding formula for K-12 schools by $232 per-pupil, bringing this funding nearly 6 percent below fiscal year 2011 budgeted levels. Michigan is  another State cutting its  K-12 education spending, it  by $470 per student.