Research & Commentary: Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net

Published December 5, 2017

In a new Heartland Institute Policy Brief, titled “Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net,” Carl Brodt and Alan Bonsteel, the treasurer and president, respectively, of California Parents for Educational Choice, note roughly 20 percent of all students fail to graduate high school on time, while 10 percent will enter a corrective or supplemental “safety net” program to help them stay in the classroom. Of this 10 percent, only a small number will go on to earn their diploma, despite a “plethora” of local and state resources dedicated to these programs.

Around 5 percent of all high school students are in a safety net program at any one time, and these students are disproportionately black or Hispanic, come from low-income families, require special education services, or have drug or alcohol issues.

“Traditional government schools have many serious problems, but at least some oases exist in the system in which students can excel,” Brodt and Bonsteel wrote. “By contrast, the safety net designed to help at-risk students complete high school and move on to economically successful lives is failing most of them. To most people, the nature of the problem is largely invisible. While the public sees raw numbers reflecting how many students graduate and how many do not, few appreciate the waste of both human potential and public funds that these failure rates represent. Each failure is a tragedy, an individual who often will struggle through the rest of life, who will not acquire a comfortable living standard, who will miss many of the joys personal achievement brings, who might end up in a life of crime, and who almost certainly will be a drag on the economy and society.”

Standard safety net elements include continuation schools, sometimes located at a high school. There are also alternative school options such as opportunity schools – which “provide additional support for students who are habitually truant from instruction, irregular in attendance, insubordinate, disorderly while in attendance, or unsuccessful academically” – and community day schools, which serve pregnant or parenting students, those in trouble with the law, and those who have been expelled by “teaching [them] to view themselves in a positive way, to be emotionally resilient, and to get along with other people.” Youth educational programs also exist at jails and juvenile detention centers, and adult education classes are also part of this safety net.

To fix the problems in the safety net, the authors suggest defining in the most uniform way possible what defines an “at-risk” child and what defines the “safety net.” They would also like to see closer tracking of these children in longitudinal databases, which should “show student progress toward high school graduation, record signs that students might be at risk of not attaining that goal, note any support they are receiving in the safety net, and report on student success resulting from that support.”

The authors further call for an expansion of school choice options, including voucher programs, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts (ESAs), which would give to these children the opportunity to matriculate in additional education programs. Providing more options would allow students to escape their old schools and peer groups, and thus their old problems.

To bolster their arguments, the authors point to data provided by the American Institutes for Research that show school choice programs increase the chances of an at-risk student “buying into” the educational process.

Brodt and Bonsteel recommend “minimizing the number of children who fall into [the safety net] in the first place,” by moving away from the 19th century, Prussian, one-size-fits-all model of mass education that is predominant in the modern U.S. K–12 system and using a more interactive and experimental approach with students instead. 

“If we are willing to act boldly to implement the recommendations described [in the paper],” the authors conclude, “we can transform and revolutionize how we work with children who are floundering in school. Over the next two decades we could empty many of our prisons of young people who have been poorly served by our dysfunctional educational safety net.”

The following documents provide additional information about education choice.

Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net
In this Heartland Policy Brief, authors Carl Brodt and Alan Bonsteel warn the educational safety net in the United States is failing too many students. The authors discuss how the performance of safety net programs can be assessed, consider the costs of such programs, and describe how the programs ought to be held accountable. Because the safety net currently fails most of its students, Brodt and Bonsteel also offer several recommendations for improvement.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this new Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

Recalibrating Accountability: Education Savings Accounts as Vehicles of Choice and Innovation
This Special Report from The Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation explores how education savings accounts expand educational opportunities and hold education providers directly accountable to parents. The report also identifies several common types of regulations that can undermine the effectiveness of the program and how they can be avoided.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact John Nothdurft, Heartland’s director of government relations, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.