Smaller class size is favored school reform method

Smaller class size is favored school reform method

(Ind.) Smaller class size, followed by increased technology and greater accountability (such as shuttering failing schools) was perceived to be the most effective school reform strategy, according to a new survey released this month.

The least favored methods of improving schools were restricting the power of teachers unions, providing merit pay for teachers and, at the bottom of the barrel, lengthening the school day.

Based on responses from 1,000 participants from all parts of the U.S., the study was sponsored by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for creating and expanding school choice programs for all children.

The organization has been a strong proponent of school vouchers, which offer parents government funding to pay for private school tuition.

Since the early 1990s, voucher programs have been introduced in districts across the nation, including the District of Columbia, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. In most cases they have been made available only to low-income or special-needs students. 

Though most reports on voucher programs have not shown a substantial academic impact, Friedman study author Dick Carpenter, a professor of leadership and research at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, suggests the survey results have implications for policymakers.

“For those interested in creating new voucher programs, results showing support for universal vouchers versus low-income vouchers may indicate a reason to rethink past strategies of incrementalism,” he wrote.

In addition to asking respondents for their opinions on various flavors of school reform, the survey also asked them to rank in order of preference six different policies, including vouchers, which allow parents to choose the educational environment for their children. 

Results from this portion of the survey show that the most popular mechanism for providing school choice was a tax-credit reimbursement while the least favored was a voucher specifically for low-income students.

Tax credits are similar to vouchers in that they use government funds to reimburse parents for educational expenses, including private school tuition. About a dozen states have some form of private school tax-credit program, including Arizona, Florida and Iowa.

Survey results showed only minimal differences of popularity among the other school choice options surveyed: tax-credits for organizations providing private school scholarships; educational savings accounts; universal vouchers; vouchers for students with disabilities; and vouchers for low-income students.

Some opponents of vouchers were quick to criticize the survey.

On her blog, education-reform critic Diane Ravitch, called the study’s results an embarrassment for the Friedman Foundation.  She conceded that the findings support the foundation’s position that universal vouchers enjoy more support that those only for low-income students.

“But the big problem for the Friedman Foundation,” she said, “is that the public prefers to improve public schools by reducing class sizes, not by adopting vouchers.”

According to Friedman Foundation CEO Robert Enlow however, the survey makes the case for a mixed educational marketplace.

“Diverse reactions to education reform actually reinforce the need for greater school choice,” he  said. “School vouchers are an essential vehicle to let families drive the reforms they want.

“For example, just because longer school days are not popular to some doesn’t mean we should do away with the idea,” Enlow said. “Some parents need their children to spend more time in school. School choice would afford them the flexibility to find schools with that offering.”

Click here to read the Friedman Foundation’s study, “School Choice Signals: Research Review and Survey Experiments.”

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