Tag: achievement

Pounding the Table, Not the Facts, on School Choice

There’s an old legal proverb about how to win a court case: “If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither is on your side, pound the table.” In this factually-challenged attack on school choice, two lawyers at the UNC Center for Civil Rights do a great deal of table pounding.

Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, the lawyers charge that school choice programs don’t work and that they increase racial segregation. For example, they claim: 

…in states with [school choice] programs, student achievement at the private schools is no better, and often worse, than in the public schools. In fact, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, whose voucher programs are the country’s longest running, traditional public school students outperform voucher students on available proficiency measures.

Even read in the most charitable light, the lawyers misleadingly compare apples and orangutans. Participants in school choice programs are generally more disadvantaged than the general population, so it is absurd to compare their average performance against the general population, which includes all the students in wealthy “public” school districts (where low-income parents have been arrested for trying to enroll their kids). Government school advocates rightly object when someone compares average private school performance to average government school performance. The private schools outperform government schools on average, but because both parents and the private schools select each other, the comparison breaks down. The same is true here.

A meaningful comparison requires a randomized-controlled trial, which is the gold standard of social science research because the process of randomization allows researchers to compare like against like and to isolate the effect of the “treatment” (in this case, the offer of a school choice scholarship). Fortunately, there have been 12 such studies addressing this very question from highly-respected institutions like Harvard University and the Brookings Institution. Eleven found that school choice programs lead to positive student outcomes, including higher academic performance and higher rates of high school graduation and college matriculation. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact.

Status Quo Stalwarts, Meet Reality[School Choice Week Blast from the Past, Pt. 2!]

Back in 1993, when Whitney Houston hit #1 with “I will always love you”, there was something that California-based state schooling advocates didn’t love at all: a school voucher ballot initiative. Much was written on the subject, and in 1994 a booklet was published summarizing the arguments for and against (Voices on Choice, K. L. Billingsley, ed.). In today’s School Choice Week installment, we’ll hear from those who were agin’ it.

Maxine Waters, United States Congress (D, Los Angeles):
“Contrary to claims, school choice will be devastating for urban, minority, and poor students who desperately need quality education.”

Delaine Eastin, California State Representative (D, Fremont):
“Having schools without [government] standards won’t improve learning.” Private school choice “won’t teach more kids how to read and write.”

Well, actually… U.S. private school choice programs usually do improve student achievement significantly in one or more subjects, and they have never been shown to have a negative impact on student achievement. The domestic scientific evidence to that effect was collected and summarized last March by Greg Forster, for the Foundation for Educational Choice. I do have one quibble with the report (it doesn’t count the insignificant findings in studies that have at least one significant finding, as is standard practice in literature reviews) but even after addressing it the aforementioned statements would still hold true.

Heck, even the few choice programs that don’t currently seem to be raising test scores are substantially raising students’ graduation rates–and doing it at substantially less cost to taxpayers than the state schools.

What’s more, when we cast a wider net and look at scientific studies comparing government and independent schools within countries all over the world, the results are even more dramatic.  In fact, it is the least regulated, most market-like schools that most consistently outperform state-run monopoly school systems such was we have in the U.S.

Delaine Eastin:
“[T]his initiative allows schools to fail. But it does nothing to protect taxpayers when they do. When public school systems go belly up as a result of the voucher initiative, the courts are likely to rule that taxpayers will be stuck with the tab—and it won’t be cheap.”

Modern private school choice programs have been operating around the country for as long as twenty years, and I know of no case in which they have been found to increase the total burden on taxpayers. In fact, the only systematic studies of the issue find that these programs save taxpayers money—sometimes quite a bit of it. Florida’s legislature has studied the fiscal impact of that state’s k-12 scholarship donation tax credit program, and found it to save $1.49 for every $1 it reduces revenues. That’s a nearly 50% return.

What’s more, the program has been found in two separate studies to both improve achievement of students who remain in public schools and to improve achievement of students who receive scholarships to attend private schools. It’s not hard to fathom why: on average, private schools spend thousands less per pupil than does the public school monopoly.

Warren Furutani, past president, Los Angeles City Board of Education:
“It is no coincidence that dollars are being pulled from our underfunded, overburdened school system at the same time our governor and the president of this nation are pushing vouchers and choice.”

Um… Yeah… About that claim that “dollars were being pulled” from “underfunded” public schools in California. I just happen to have the actual spending trend handy:

So, not only were these Status Quo Stalwarts unable to correctly predict the future, they had some difficulty accurately describing the present. Oh, and while thrifty school choice programs around the country have been improving student achievement and attainment, it’s hard to say the same for the California’s state education monopoly.

Ranking the Charter School Networks

Much of the response to the study I released last week has focused on the relative academic performance rankings of California’s charter school networks. That wasn’t the point of the study, which focuses on whether or not philanthropy + charter schooling can replace venture capital and competitive markets as a mechanism for scaling-up the best education services. Rather than try to fight the tide, I thought I’d just share the relevant rankings in an easy-to-link form, and once the debate about them dies down we can return to the larger policy point.

With that in mind, the first table below lists the top 15 charter school networks in terms of performance on the California Standards Tests, adjusted for student factors and peer effects. For comparison, two non-charter schools are included: the academically selective elite public prep schools Gretchen Whitney and Lowell–both of which feature in most lists of the top public schools in the country. There are 68 networks with the necessary data, but the lowest grant rank is 61 because eight of the networks received no philanthropic funding at all.

Next is a list of the charter networks that philanthropists have invested-in most heavily, with a view to replicating their models. Notice the minimal overlap? I repeat this comparison in the study with Advanced Placement test performance, and find the same pattern (it’s just slightly worse).

Every one of the above networks received substantially more grant funding individually than the top three highest achieving networks… combined.