Ep. 310: Researcher Profile — with Lindsey Burke

March 15, 2022

During this Researcher Profile episode, we talk to Lindsey Burke about her beginnings in the educational choice movement as well as her relationship with EdChoice.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director, state research, and special projects. Today I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to a wonderful researcher. I’m here with Dr. Lindsey Burke director of the Center for Education Policy and Mark A. Kolokotrones Fellow in education at the Heritage Foundation. Thanks for joining me today, Lindsey.

Dr. Lindsey Burke: Thanks for having me Drew.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So Lindsey, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us just a little about what attracted you to issues in K-12 education and educational choice?

Dr. Lindsey Burke: Yeah. So, that’s a great question. Well, first, I guess I’ll start at the Heritage Foundation, where as you said, I direct the Center for Education Policy. I’ve been at Heritage for, gosh, about 13 and a half years now. Working in the education space and have been thrilled and honored to work alongside the EdChoice team for many of those years. Really just have loved serving as a fellow with EdChoice and really, I think working hand in glove to advance education freedom in the state. So that’s been a big part of my focus over the past decade plus now in the ed reform and education choice movement. Prior to that, so I really got involved in ed policy I had completed a master’s in at University of Virginia and had focused on foreign language instruction, French in particular, and had the opportunity to do some teaching in Virginia. Lo and behold a position had opened up at Heritage that I really thought was just the perfect intersection of education policy and some this sort of on the ground work that I’ve been able to engage in. So moved up to Heritage, up to Washington DC and pursued it further there. And then I guess most recently I completed a PhD at George Mason back in 2018, where I really got to dive into thinking about how policy can influence the shape and form of school choice programs. Are there policies and program designs that are more likely to foster what we all want, which is pluralism and education and diversity of school options, or are there policies in place that at the end of the day would just sort of replicate what we already have with the public system? So that was really, I think for me, formative research to think about how do we make sure as we’re working to advance education choice in the states and we’re appropriate at the federal level we’re doing so in a way that does provide options to families that are sufficiently different from the public system that isn’t them well.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So what was that experience like both working full time and getting your doctorate full-time?

Dr. Lindsey Burke: That was definitely an experience. And that was exactly what I did worked full time and did the PhD part-time at night, which actually it did work out pretty well. If you can get through what I think is the hardest part, which is going to classes physically at night for a few hours after you’ve worked all day. But if you can get through that at the point where you start really researching, working on your dissertation topic, it’s all about forcing yourself to write for a couple of hours every day after you’ve worked. But I think it worked out really, really nicely. And part of it was the fact that I was focused on a topic that is my day job, that is part and parcel of everything I do as part of my work at Heritage advancing education freedom for families. It worked out really well in that sense. It was the work that I was already doing was complimentary to the research I was doing for my dissertation and then vice versa as well. I delved deeply into the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which of course listeners know is the only federally funded voucher program in the country. It is a fantastic scholarship program for low income students living in the nation’s capital. Has really just been a lifeline for families living in DC, which is unfortunately home to some of the worst performing and most unsafe district schools in the country. And so it has really been, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say, life saving for so many families in DC. And so I was really able to delve into how regulations and program design is affecting the DC voucher program in the sense that a lot of schools have actually dropped out, have stopped participating in that program because over time regulations have accrued and it has become more onerous for a lot of these schools to participate. I was able to do a lot of on the groundwork with school principals in the district, and really get a sense from them about what drives their decision to either have their school participate in this particular school choice program or to not ever have participated or to have once participated and then withdrawn from the program. I learned a lot that I hadn’t considered before, but also things that are pretty intuitive that there are capacity issues for schools. Principals worry about their autonomy as regulations start to get more onerous about what that looks like for their school’s mission and curriculum. So I think that it really was a research project, if you will, that at the end of the day has helped to inform my thinking about shaping policy in the district or around school choice programs in particular. So that’s a long-winded answer to your question about doing a PhD and working full-time at the same time. But I really think it was incredibly beneficial and that it was, like I said, complementary to my day job as a education choice researcher.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So let’s talk about some of the educational choice research that you have done. You were talking about regulations, you’ve also done some survey work looking at ESA usage. What’s been most surprising finding of all of those streams of research that you’ve done around this issue, and also what’s been, what’s your favorite type of research to conduct along these lines?

Dr. Lindsey Burke: That’s a great question. Corey DeAngelis and I have done a series of nationally representative surveys where we randomly assign different program condition, different regulations to private schools and assess whether or not schools would participate given particular regulatory environments. I guess it wasn’t surprising as much as it was informative, but it really did reinforce that if you over regulate these programs, if you tell a private school that the only way they can participate in a school choice option is that they follow state standards and align their curricula accordingly, that dramatically reduced their likelihood of being willing to participate. If you tell private schools that they, as a condition of participation, will no longer be able to really define for themselves what admissions procedures they have in place, they will no longer participate in a school choice program. All of that research that we conducted came out of what we saw happen in Louisiana, where, as you know, private school participation in the Louisiana voucher program is the lowest of any private school participation in the country. Just one third of private schools are willing to participate in Louisiana Scholarship Program. And that is a function of the regulatory environment that principals worry that they will lose control over what is taught in their schools, that they won’t have the ability to determine admissions, which means could have students who they’re unable to counsel about whether or not the school is a good fit for them. Reporting requirements to the state are incredibly onerous. And so it’s no surprise them that only one third of private schools in that state participate. There was such a sort of irony in that, in that Louisiana’s regulation were propagated in the name of accountability. Yet what ended up happening as is typically the case with heavy handed government interventions is that only the schools that were already losing students prior to program entry decided to participate. So you had schools that were not out on solid fiscal ground saying, you know what, we’re willing to incur the regulations in order to be able to participate in this program and secure more students. So ironically you had the worst performing schools end up in that one third of schools that decided to participate in Louisiana. That is likely the reason why some of the only rigorous research showing that there was a negative impact on students who participated in a choice program is from Louisiana. So that reality really jump started a lot of the research Cory and I did. So I would say that was some of the surprising research. I guess my favorite research, which is the more positive story is the incredible way that we’re seeing families use education savings accounts to really customize an education for their children. This is research that I had first done for EdChoice, EdChoice being one of the first places to release a study that looked at how families used every single dollar in their education savings account. I was able to look at Arizona back in 2011 when they first launched their ESA program and count basically every penny and look at how families were using all of that money. We could see that about a third of families were customizers. They were not only attending private schools, sending their children to private school, but they were leveraging the flexibility of their ESA to pay for private tutors and do online learning and buy textbooks. Everything that they’re allowed to do through the state statute. So to me, that was really interesting. We were able to sort of get a baseline for customization from that study. And then my Heritage colleague, Jonathan Butcher, and I followed up on that study a couple of years later looked at Arizona again, found that those customization rates were pretty stable, that about a quarter of families were customizing. Since then with other folks, Jason Bedrick at EdChoice, we’ve been able to continue that customization work, we’ve looked at Florida, very high rates of customization in Florida with their ESA program, about 44% of families are customizing. Then Jonathan Butcher just built off of that work and his youth study out looking at North Carolina. North Carolina is one of the more recent ESAs states and he found that somewhere on the order of about two thirds of families are using their ESAs flexibly. So all of that to say it is fascinating to me and a real indication that ESAs are working the way that we all hoped they would work. That as wonderful as vouchers and tax credit scholarships are, and they are great, that ESAs do all of that and a little bit more. They provide more flexibility for families, more customization, and the data are bearing that out over and over again.

Drew Catt: It’s fantastic how when you look at the first year families and aggregator in those programs, it’s more or less an introduction to the whole concept. It seems from some of your work and some of Jason’s work that I’ve seen, that as time goes on they become more and more likely to be customizers.

Dr. Lindsey Burke: Yeah, they’re fluency with how to use ESA and the uses that are available to them it improves over time as well. It’s not only that, it’s not only that parents utilize it to maximum flexible use, but sort of a virtuous cycle where there become additional options for use available to them. So if you look at Arizona where the way that they’ve designed the program, which I think is great, families can say, hey, this option worked really well for my child with special needs, take the example of equine therapy, and that should be an approved provider approved option for ESA use. So they tell the state that has worked well for them, and it gets added to the list of approved providers. So it’s more families are using their ESAs for additional services and it becomes clear that these services are in furtherance of providing learning opportunities for those eligible students, then those options get put on a list and make that list broader for families. So they have more flexibility over time. They’re taking full advantage of it. As these programs mature and people see more and more that it will be very exciting, not only for the families, which of course is the most important thing, but just from a research perspective too, to see what will happen in West Virginia. West Virginia is just a huge story this year coming out of the pandemic. And by the way, not only the pandemic, but the teachers unions fighting tooth and nail to prevent even a modest school choice program. All of a sudden the state pushing back and saying, not only are we going to do school choice, we’re going to go bigger than any state has ever gone and we are going to provide a near universal ESA option to every student in a public school in West Virginia moving forward. I am just really excited to see how that unfolds students will begin being able to participate in 2022. So it’ll be interesting to see what the uptake rate looks like, how many families are participating, how they use their ESAs. Just ultimately what that means for sort of leading other states in terms of expanded eligibility. Because that really should be the goal, right? As so many people have pointed out for so long that yes, of course, like Friedman said, public funding for education, but that does not mean that has to be delivered through government schooling. So this massive separation between the financing of education and the delivery of services is finally happening in West Virginia. And so just from a research perspective, it will be fascinating to see what that looks like over the next few years.

Drew Catt: Yeah. In the meantime, I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens with New Hampshire, they didn’t go as fully universal as West Virginia, but still low and middle income households being eligible. Recently saw that I think a little over 1,600 students were already enrolled in the program for state the size of New Hampshire that’s-

Dr. Lindsey Burke: Big.

Drew Catt: Pretty sizeable especially the first year of a program. We often hear that these programs are going to result in a mass exodus from public schooling, but that’s never been borne out and what actually happens or what the research shows. So it’s fascinating. One, the programs becoming more and more expansive, more and more inclusive of students, including as many students in the eligible population as possible, but also you come up against the awareness issue from some of the parent surveys. How do you think about that through your work is like getting the word out there to more and more parents?

Dr. Lindsey Burke: Right. And I said, virtuous cycle earlier, I think this is another example of a virtuous cycle whereby the fact that these programs are becoming more widely available creates a broader constituency for the program. And so it puts it on better political footing, long term, in addition to just being good policy. That you have more and more people, a broader swath of the population bought in because hey, they actually benefit from these programs being expanded. I think for so long, the choice movement has out of necessity and out of recognition that low income students in particular were poorly served by the system of government assigned and government delivered schooling. And those students had the least ability to do something about it. That the programs have largely been targeted toward lower income children, students with special needs. That is important and has worked incredibly well for those particular children, but has left out a broader swath of the population who would also benefit. Because at the end of the day, school choice is about values alignment. It is about enabling families to select into learning environments that align with their values and their hopes and their needs and their aspirations for their children. That means everybody should have access to education choice. So as these programs expand in terms of eligibility, again West Virginia is going to be great to watch, that means more and more families benefit who traditionally have not had access to education choice programs and so I think that will grow support broadly for the policy of school choice in the future.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s really interesting also to think about the large spike that we’ve seen in the number of families opting to homeschool their students coming alongside of the expansion of these ESA programs, which for the majority of the programs, at least some of the funds can typically be spent on online education. So I wonder how many homeschooling families out there would opt for more of like that online education, where it’s still happening at the home with the students having access to all the curricular materials and everything through the ESA program.

Dr. Lindsey Burke: Yeah. Right. As you know, I mean, this has been a distinction in state law around ESA programs is that students who participate in an ESA option who are accessing their share of public K-12 funds are distinct and who choose to effectively school at home. They might not pay private school tuition ever, actually, they might leverage their ESA and hire a private tutor and pay for curriculum and maybe do an online course. So they might look sort of like a homeschooler, but in statutes they are distinct, they’re students who are using their ESA funds to school at home and be customizers like I mentioned earlier. That is distinct from students who are homeschooling, who are not tapping into any of those, quote, public dollars who aren’t tapping into any of that money and are sort of pure home schoolers as we’ve historically known it. So, that is an important distinction in state statute. But all of that aside you’re absolutely right. I mean, this gets back to this idea of having an a la carte heart education available to families across the country, that an ESA allows. Enabling a really expansive universe of curricular materials to be available to them, enabling them to pay for those materials. Again, back to alignment of what parents want for their children when it comes to what they learn and what they pursued on the road. So I think it’s not only great for individual students and families, but just great for the broader idea of how we really re-conceptualize what education means, what it looks like, how it’s funded and who ultimately makes decisions about content and what children are taught in K-12 education. This puts families in the driver’s seat. I think a critical reform that enables other important reforms to happen as well. We are concerned about the content that’s taught in public schools. If we’re worried about transparency around materials being taught in schools, school safety, low academic outcomes, you name it, choice is the mechanism that puts pressure on the existing system to make all of those other reforms happen.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I feel like selfishly, I think through my own lens sometimes, and the fact that my wife’s a teacher and I often think how empowering ESA programs could be for individual teachers that just want to be subject matter experts. And they either can be full-time tutors or teachers to small group of students like setting up a specific type of academy where the student gets their class either physically or online through that in state provider.

Dr. Lindsey Burke: [crosstalk 00:20:55] great thing that came out of the pandemic was pods, we were all talking a lot about education pods a year and a half ago because they were and they remain, I think, very exciting in terms of delivery models and flexibility. But you’re right, for the individual teacher as well the sky could be the limit in terms of their earnings potential if you decouple financing, if you decouple K-12 education spending from schooling and you enable families to pay teachers and private tutors directly. If you have concurrent with that an appraisal market, that’s out there for materials as well and education broadly for schools and content, there are all of these reforms that are still somewhat on the periphery, but are very exciting to think about in terms of what delivery could look like. And what it means for individual teachers too, to really have families sort of driving that market paying excellent teachers directly could be a game changer.

Drew Catt: Yeah. To really think about the choices that could be available in the next, even decade, considering the fact that Arizona is having it’s decade anniversary of the ESA program. So to think how far we’ve come in 10 years and just to kind of sit and wonder what the next 10 years will bring on this front.

Dr. Lindsey Burke: That’s right. And that is the other reason I think ESAs are so exciting is that considering it was only about 10 years ago that we had the first ESA program and in that short amount of time, a decade, the most innovative program to date in terms of school choice in my opinion, that is now available in eight states as of this year. I mean, that is just phenomenal growth of a particular policy that didn’t even exist a few years ago. So I still find it very exciting.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s definitely, definitely that. So Lindsey, thank you so much for taking the time to hop on the podcast today and letting our listeners know a little more about you and the type of work that you do and enjoy doing.

Dr. Lindsey Burke: Well, thanks so much for having me Drew. It was great.

Drew Catt: To our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you choose to listen to them. For more of our coverage of news, school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you back soon with more EdChoice Chats.