Ep. 17: The Disability Rights Community’s Skepticism with School Choice with Sivan Tuchman

October 10, 2017

In this installment of EdChoice Chats, Drew Catt interviews Sivan Tuchman, research analyst at The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). They talk about Sivan’s background as an educator, and then dive into her current research projects, including research on school choice and special education.

Drew Catt: Hello. I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and policy analysis. I’m joined today by Sivan Tuchman, research analyst at The Center on Reinventing Public Education or CRPE. Thanks for joining us Sivan.

So, Sivan, we’re curious. Have you always wanted to be a researcher? Describe your journey to studying K–12 education.

Sivan Tuchman: Yeah, I am not one of those people who always dreamed of researching K–12 education, but I did my undergrad in sociology at Berkeley. And taking a sociology of education class made me realize that I truly believe in education as a lever for social change, and that kind of spurred me towards wanting to eventually go into policy. I started though, in the classroom and taught for eight years in private, public and charter schools and taught special education in each one.

I knew that, eventually, I wanted to go and do something more. It wasn’t really until I started teaching at a full-inclusion charter school that I realized that school choice was an opportunity for students with disabilities in a way that I just didn’t see the traditional public schools that I had taught at being able to provide and was just kind of blown away by the opportunities that charter schools could have.

Then, also realizing that there were lots of types of school choice and wanting to know more about how each one of those sorts of systems could potentially enable students with disabilities to be successful, both academically, as well as in later life outcomes, social and emotional skills, etc. That eventually put me on a path towards looking for Ph.D.s in ed policy and finally found a fit when I went to the University of Arkansas.

Drew Catt: Yeah, speaking of which, you’ve been working towards your doctorate of philosophy in education policy, as you said, at the University of Arkansas. You studied the effects of private school choice programs on the probability of a student being identified or de-identified in special education. Tell us more about what you found.

Sivan Tuchman: Well, I think we generally, as you described, we found were very much in line with what economic theory would expect us to find, which was we found a much greater likelihood of students with disabilities no longer being categorized as needing special education services in the second year of the program. In the second and third year of the program, there was a lower probability that students would be newly identified as having a disability.

In general, there did seem to be an overall difference in the likelihood that a student participating in the program would ever be in special education, though at the end of the three years, the difference in that was not statistically significant. We definitely saw the trend that the private schools were removing those labels from students and not putting on new labels for students.

We did a little bit of work on academic achievement, but it was a very hard analysis to do with our small sample and the challenges of working with test score data for our students with disabilities.

Drew Catt: Yeah, those small ends can be tricky sometimes.

Sivan Tuchman: Yeah.

Drew Catt: How can policymakers use your findings? Is there anything they can take away and use right now?

Sivan Tuchman: Well, I think at the end of the day, people want to know like is this good, or is this bad? And I think different people would have different opinions on whether lower numbers or overall rates of students being identified in special education is a good thing, and others that would find it bad. I think all I can say is this is just the way it is. We see these same trends in charter schools through some research by Marcus Winters and Elizabeth Setren, so we weren’t surprised to find these results.

I think at the end of the day, policymakers need to realize that when we talk about school choice, parents are making the decision about what they want for their students, and schools are not necessarily obligated to continue some of those explicit service provisions that students previously had in a traditional public school.

It’s not to say that they’re not still providing students with everything they need because parents are choosing them. And if parents are choosing the school that says they don’t need a special education label anymore, then that’s totally their prerogative. I think it’s important, though, that policymakers also consider what do we need to do to make sure that parents are making good and informed decisions, when they’re going into a choice system, especially around special education.

A lot of people even would never apply to a program because they think, “Oh, well if I apply to this private school choice program, and I no longer have my special education label, and I decide not to, is it gone forever? Do I have to go back through the rigmarole that is the eligibility process in the traditional public school?” So I think having good systems for informing the public about the realities of these programs is really important.

Drew Catt: Yeah. You also recently co-penned a piece with Robin Lake titled “Disability Rights Advocates Are Fighting the Wrong Fight on School Choice.” What inspired this discussion? What are advocates doing wrong, and what should they be doing instead?

Sivan Tuchman: I mean, I work at CRPE because of that kind of article. Robin and I both have very diverse experiences around special education and school choice. She has it from the CRPE lens as well as, as a parent. And mine is as an educator and a researcher. I think that even though we’re coming at it from totally different vantage points, we both see that special education is at best, it’s stuck in 1997. At worst, it’s stuck in 1970.

So we know that choice is an opportunity for parents, and it’s an opportunity that right now, is held in the hands of the districts when parents might see that a school of choice is a good option for their student. The district is really the strong-arm in that relationship, and school choice puts control in the hands of the parents.

Unfortunately, what’s happening in the special education and disability rights community is a lot of skepticism and, I think the giving of misinformation to parents. I have had the experience myself, that even with special education researchers, you know being deterred from studying school choice for students with disabilities under the premise that they just discriminate.

But that wasn’t my experience, so I think it’s really important that we know what is really happening, and that we encourage advocates to advocate for students and not necessarily for these institutions that have existed for whatever number of years. What we see is that in cities that have a large percent of students enrolled in charter schools, you don’t see the large disparities in special education enrollment. That’s likely because parents have more information about what charter schools are. Their neighbor’s kid goes to a charter school. The misinformation is alleviated slightly by the fact that there are just more of them around.

There’s also, special education vouchers are in 13 states now, so the idea that we can just tell parents, “Don’t enroll your kids in these programs,” or “You’re going to go into massive debt if you choose to send your kid to a school participating in a private school voucher program.”

These are not helpful for students. What’s helpful for students is making sure that these programs have regulatory processes or safeguards in place so that parents can make good decisions and that students are protected. And at the end of the day, we want to make sure that we’re fighting the right fight, and it’s not to eliminate these programs that are clearly not going anywhere. It’s to make sure that the students who do choose to participate in them are receiving what they need.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Staying in the vein of school choice, what critical needs and priorities do you see for future school choice research?

Sivan Tuchman: As I kind of alluded to, I think that regulation is something we really need to be looking at. I mean there’s some work looking at different aspects of schools that participate in private school choice programs based on the types of regulatory frameworks. But even if we think of like charter schools or open enrollment, what is the right way to make sure that we have high-quality school supply within a city in every neighborhood, so students aren’t having to travel an hour each way to get to and from school within urban cities?

I think that we need to recognize how detrimental it is that funding is not functioning in an equitable manner. We talk a lot in school choice about backpack funding, especially when we think of special education where you should be able to enumerate how much money is spent on each individual student based on their services and the underlying per-pupil expenditure for a given district.

But at the end of the day, it’s really hard to find that amount of money. That data is just not being made available to researchers, and I think at the end of the day it’s detrimental to not be able to make recommendations on how much money should be in a given student’s backpack.

So we have a student in New York City who gets 60 minutes a day in a resource room and maybe 30 minutes a week of speech therapy. I need to know how much that costs because that tells me that that student, if they want to go to a school of choice should be able to have that amount of money go with that student, whatever kind of school that might be. Whether it’s a magnet school or a charter school or a virtual school, or it’s a private school voucher.

But right now, we have programs that are just not being equitably funded, partly for political reasons, I think. But when we’re talking about students with disabilities, I think you’re really doing a disservice by saying, “Hey, you’re making the choice about what school you want to go to, thus, we’re going to give you less funding.”

Drew Catt: Yeah, so what’s next for you? Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects?

Sivan Tuchman: Yeah, right now the big thing we’re working on here at CRPE is personalized learning. We’ve been doing a lot of this work through the Gates Foundation, and that should be coming out in late winter/early spring. I’ve also been doing some work with The National Center on Special Education in Charter Schools to do some case studies that look at schools that are intentionally implementing personalized learning and school discipline specifically around students with disabilities.

Then really trying to think hard about how we can look better at school matching and school fit for students with disabilities in choice systems. When you have a robust choice system within your city, whether it’s a D.C. or a Los Angeles, a New Orleans, how are families choosing those schools? How are they determining whether a school is a good fit for their student? And then how are they interacting with the information sources as well as the enrollment systems that are available to them, so that they are able to find that good fit.

Because that’s a huge underlying theory behind school choice as well as when we think specifically about special education. We’re all about the individual student and trying to find those schools that match them well. I think it should definitely be something worth thinking hard about. Then last I’ll give a plug that I’ll be going to the EdChoice Academy this October, so I’m looking forward to being part of the first cohort of that.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It should be a good time. Do you have anything else to add for us today, Sivan?

Sivan Tuchman: I don’t think so. I mean I’m excited to be out of grad school and diving into some of the hard questions that are out there around school choice especially, but it’s called The Center on Reinventing Public Education for a reason. I think we’re really trying to dig into some of those issues around how do you truly reinvent how we’re thinking about education for students, so that reform can actually be reforming because I think right now, we do a lot of reform and not much changes, which I think is at a loss for mostly students.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s really interesting, the difference between reform and change.

Sivan Tuchman: Yes. Especially when it’s in policies. When we talk about policy and then practice, usually they’re not a straight line between the two.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Well thank you so much for joining us, Sivan.

Sivan Tuchman: You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

Drew Catt: There you have it. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast for more of our coverage of new school choice research and education reform policy chats. Thank you for listening, and until next time, take care.