Tag: bruce baker

Democracy - Whatever That Is - and Education

Democracy is inherently good, and since public schools are democratically controlled they, too, are inherently good. Right?

You’d think so from the way many people invoke “democracy” when championing government schools, but thanks to a recent blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, we might have a rare opportunity to actually scrutinize that assumption. A few days ago, Petrilli questioned the value of local school boards in light of what seems to be frequent capture by teachers unions, and was immediately accused of attacking “democracy” by historian Diane Ravitch.

“Gosh, Mike,” Ravitch wrote in the comments section, “it sounds as though you have identified the real problem ‘reformers’ face: democracy.”

With that the battle was on, and it’s one I’m happy to join: A huge problem we face in education is, indeed, democracy.

Before I go further, the first thing that’s necessary to do is define “democracy.” Unfortunately, that’s something rarely done by those who wield the term like a rhetorical chainsaw, swinging it wildly at anyone who might question government schooling.  Typically, it seems the word is employed to just vaguely connote some sort of action by “the people” – whoever they are – as opposed to “elites,” or to indicate that popular voting is in some fashion used to make laws.

That said, the most basic definition of democracy – the one you probably learned in grade school –  follows these lines: “Control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.” You might also assume the word means representative democracy, where people vote for their representatives and majorities of reps make the laws, but usually the word’s use isn’t even that precise.

This lack of precision leads to numerous problems, and a big one was illustrated in an exchange between Bob Bowdon – of Cartel and ChoiceMedia.tv fame – and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker. Bowdon had a Flypaper post pointing out numerous cases in which ”the people” enacted education policies disliked by teachers unions, and the unions, instead of accepting the “democratic” outcomes, headed to the courts to thwart the new laws. Baker would have none of this argument, in the comments section of Petrilli’s post calling Bowdon’s entry an “absurd and misinformed rant.” Why? Largely because Bowdon failed to acknowledge that courts in Georgia – where one of the legal actions cited by Bowdon occurred – were taking perfectly legitimate action in striking down a charter school law that violated the state’s constitution.

Of course, Baker isn’t talking about democracy, at least in any precise way (or the feel-good, “people rule” sense I think Ravitch meant to convey) but a constitutional republic with separation of powers. That’s a very different thing, with a very different goal, from simple majority rule. As The Federalist discusses with great insight, a constitutional republic with checks and balances is a system intended to minimize the threat government poses to individuals, while enabling it to do those things that government must do.  That does not at all seem to be the “democracy” Ravitch and company were lauding, and you can’t reasonably blame Bowdon for turning that against them. Live by the loaded, imprecise definition, die by the loaded, imprecise definition. Unfortunately, that makes it much harder to have a useful debate about education governance.

But why don’t we want pure democracy?

Aside from the towering logistical problems, uninhibited majority rule is an existential threat to individual liberty, the true foundation of American society. Should my ability to drum up support from 50.1 percent of voters be all that’s needed to have your house taken from you, your speech quashed, and your family imprisoned? Of course not, but pure democracy would not only allow that, it would give it complete legal sanction.

So a constitutional republic, with its checks, balances, and enumerated powers, is infinitely preferable to pure democracy. However, it is a much harder concept to employ when you just want people to feel good about public schools, or angry about efforts to change them. “For crying out loud, they are democratic schools – schools controlled by the people – you evil 1-percenter!” (Cue foreboding tyranny-of-the-majority music.) And just because a form of governance is better than democracy doesn’t mean it works well.

Why does this superior form of government still largely fail? To really get into this question I recommend Cato’s Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice, available free online! I’ll just briefly hit the main, inherent pathology of government that constantly leads to skewed results.

Ultimately, it comes down to concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: The people who get the greatest benefit from a policy will be the most motivated to participate in the politics of that policy, while the costs are usually highly diffuse, giving the people paying for it relatively little incentive to politick. In education, the greatest benefit is accrued by the school employees – the people whose very livelihoods come from the system – hence they exert hugely disproportionate power. They are also much easier to organize than parents or taxpayers.  

In light of this basic inequality of incentives, it is no surprise that teachers unions (and other education employee organizations) wield disproportionate influence. Teachers and administrators aren’t bad people, it’s simply that normal incentives give them much more reason to constantly engage in education politics than the average voter, taxpayer, or even parent, for whom there are many other major concerns than trying to influence the district, state, of federal government on education policy. 

To deal with the effects of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in school districts, Petrilli suggests a couple of possible options: a move toward greater mayoral control of the schools, as exists in New York City, or having states control education. But these are fraught with at least as much peril as local control.

At the risk of violating an Italian corollary of Godwin’s Law, the mayoral control argument seems to come down to this: Mussolini made the trains run on time. Essentially, if you can put someone with dictatorial power in charge he won’t have to worry about special interests and can do what needs to be done. Plus, in the case of mayoral control there wouldn’t be real dictatorship – Il Duce could be voted out in four years.

Obviously, though, there’s a reason the term “dictator” doesn’t enjoy the same esteem as, say, ”chocolate,” or “Betty White” – people generally don’t like the way dictators turn out. Maybe you’ll get one who’s benevolent and wise – in which case you’ll just be troubled by your ultimately nonexistent freedom – but more likely you’ll get one who’s stupid, or cruel, or a combination of the two. And what do you do when the dictator imposes a bad reading curriculum on your kids, or closes a school that might have served them well? Just suffer.

But there’s the election – you can hold a mayor responsible then! Of course, that puts us right back in the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs problem, where the special interests are likely to be much more active in politicking than the average voter. And the problem isn’t just that: When the public votes for mayor, the vote is based not only on education policies, but also law enforcement, sanitation, sodium speakeasy crackdowns, and myriad other things. In other words, it is almost impossible to send an unambiguous message that the public is angry about education when so many issues affect who votes and why.

All these problems remain with state or federal control. There’s a reason the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, etc., have big headquarters in the Washington, DC, area, and their state affiliates run hefty operations in state capitals: they are wielding political power! And, like mayoral elections, voting in state or federal elections isn’t just about education, but taxation levels, wars, roads, bridges to nowhere, extramarital affairs, “do nothing” congresses, birth certificates, and so on.

At this point you might feel that democracy really is bad, and generally doomed to failure. And you’d be right, which is why government should be restricted to doing only those things that private individuals cannot do, and one of those things is not furnishing education. We know that private individuals can and do supply widespread education from our own history, in which education and literacy had very broad reach before government schools existed, and in which private schools often thrived – including a huge system of parochial schools – despite having to compete with “free” alternatives. Perhaps even more compelling, we can see it in the massive for-profit schooling industries that out-teach government schools in the poorest places in the world.

So what is the viable solution to our education governance problems? To end government control of education, setting both educators and parents free. Move to a system of universal school choice, in which funding is controlled by parents, educators have the autonomy to run their own schools, and all involved have equal power because free, voluntary exchange – not wielding political influence – is how business is done. Don’t make parents and taxpayers engage in endless, plodding, political warfare in which they’ll always be outgunned. Let them exercise immediate power by taking their kids – and the money to educate them – out of schools that do not satisfactorily serve them and put them into schools that do.

Thanks again to Mike Petrilli for daring to question “democracy,” and I hope it spurs a truly thoughtful, honest discussion about this absolutely crucial topic.

Author of the Private School Spending Study Responds

Bruce Baker, author of the study of private school spending about which I blogged yesterday, has responded to my critique. Dr. Baker thinks I should “learn to read.”

He takes special exception to my statement that he “makes no serious attempt to determine the extent of the bias [in his chosen sample of private schools], or to control for it.” Baker then points to the following one paragraph discussion in his 51 page paper that deals with sample bias, which I reproduce here in full [the corresponding table appears on a later page]:

The representativeness of the sample analyzed here can be roughly considered by comparing the pupil-teacher ratios to known national averages. For CAS and independent schools, the pupil-teacher ratio is similar between sample and national (see Figure 21, later in this report). Hebrew/Jewish day schools for which financial data were available had somewhat smaller ratios (suggesting smaller class sizes) than all Hebrew/Jewish day schools, indicating that the mean estimated expenditures for this group might be high. The differential, in the same direction, was even larger for the small group of Catholic schools for which financial data were available. For Montessori schools, however, ratios in the schools for which financial data were available were higher than for the group as a whole, suggesting that estimated mean expenditures might be low.

Even with my admittedly imperfect reading ability, I was able to navigate this paragraph. I did not consider it a serious attempt at dealing with the sample’s selection bias. I still don’t. In fact, it entirely misses the main source of bias. That bias does not stem chiefly from class size differences, it stems from the fact that religious schools need not file spending data with the IRS, and that the relatively few that do file IRS Form 990 (0.5% of Catholic schools!) have a very good reason for doing so: they’re trying harder to raise money from donors.  This is not just my own analysis, but also the analysis of a knowledgeable source within Guidestar (the organization from which Baker obtained the data), whose name and contact information I will share with Dr. Baker off-line if he would like to follow-up.

Obviously, schools that are trying harder to raise non-tuition revenue are likely to… raise more non-tuition revenue. That is the 800 pound flaming pink chihuahua in the middle of this dataset. According to the NCES, 80 percent of private school students are enrolled in religious schools (see p. 7), and this sample is extremely likely to suffer upward bias on spending by that overwhelming majority of private schools. They may spend the extra money on facilities, salaries, equipment, field trips, materials, or any number of other things apart from, or in addition to, smaller classes.

Baker’s study does not address this source of bias, and so can tell us nothing reliable about religious schools, or private schools in general, either nationally or in the regions it identifies. The only thing that the study tells us with any degree of confidence is that elite independent private schools, which make up a small share of the private education marketplace, are expensive. An uncontroversial finding.

It is surprising to me that this seemingly obvious point was also missed by several other scholars whose names appear in the frontmatter of the paper. This is yet another reminder to journalists: when you get a new and interesting paper, send it to a few other experts for comment (embargoed if you like) before writing it up. Doing so will usually lead to a much more interesting, and accurate, story.

Union-Funded Study Says Private Schools Expensive!

I know, it’s a bit of a dog-bites-man headline, but bear with me. A new study by a Rutgers University ed. professor purports to tell us about “Private Schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, Supply, and Policy Implications.” The trouble is, the study presents no data that are representative of private schooling in the U.S.

Author and ed school professor Bruce Baker analyzed per pupil expenditures of private schools that had registered with Guidestar.org. Based on its mission statement, Guidestar is a service brings together charities seeking donations with would-be donors, in an effort to encourage philanthropy. Only a fraction of the nation’s private schools participate, and they are self-selected into that group. It is reasonable to think that the schools that self-select into Guidestar are the ones most avidly seeking donations. According to a PowerPoint presentation on Guidestar’s site, its top five types of users are:

  • Non-Profit Development Directors
  • Non-Profit Fundraising Directors
  • Grant Writers
  • Foundation Grants Administrators and Donor Services Managers
  • Corporate Foundation Giving Program Managers

Quite possibly, the private schools most actively seeking non-tuition revenue are the ones… receiving the most non-tuition revenue. So not only is the Guidestar population of private schools not randomly selected, and non-representative of private schools nationally, there is reason to believe it is biased in the direction that its author and funders favor.

This would be bad enough, but it gets worse. The author makes no serious attempt to determine the extent of the bias, or to control for it. In fact, he consciously makes it worse: he choses to eliminate from consideration any private schools reporting revenues or expenditures under $500,000, thereby excluding smaller, less expensive schools.

I have literally NEVER seen a serious academic study that starts from a sample that is known to be biased in the direction favored by its funders and then consciously makes matters worse by actively skewing it even further!

An example of the kind of analysis that is supposed to accompany the presentation of a non-random sample to ascertain extent and direction of bias appears in my own 2006 study of Arizona private schools, available here. I dedicate five pages (beginning on page 14) to an assessment of whether and to what extent my survey respondents differed from the universe of all Arizona private schools. Significant effort was expended on that section of the study, because it is both necessary and expected. I was disappointed, though not surprised, by the absence of such a section in the Baker study.

Not only can the Baker study not tell you how much U.S. private schools really spend, it seems to have a little difficulty getting the public school spending figures right, too. For instance, there is a line on page 42 implying that DC public schools were spending $14,000 in 2007.  Federally-reported data show that DC was already spending over $18,000 per pupil in 2005-06. And I’ve shown that it spent $28,000/pupil in 2008-09.

Finally, did I mention that Baker’s study was funded by the NEA-bankrolled “Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice”? As Ed Sector pointed out a couple of years ago: “The Great Lakes Center and the NEA’s Michigan affiliate are also linked on a personal level: [the Center’s director] Teri Battaglieri is married to Michigan Education Association Executive Director Lou Battaglieri.”


Update:  Note that the reason Guidestar only has financial information for a small fraction of the nation’s private schools is that the vast majority of U.S. private schools are religious, and religious schools are not required to file IRS Form 990 (from which Guidestar gets its financial data). The religious private schools that do file Form 990 are thus a small self-selected group that is presumably seeking to maximize its revenue from charitable donations, and hence very likely biased toward higher spending schools.