Tag: catholic schools

Is It Good to Have More Kids in the Inefficient and Less-Effective Government School System?

The Los Angeles Times editorializes today on our new research demonstrating the high cost of charter schools in terms of tax dollars and an impoverished private sector in education.

The editors still “see a lot to celebrate” in charter schools and I would heartily agree. Charter schools often provide a safe, better alternative to the existing public schools for many kids who desperately need one.

Oddly, the editors at the LAT seem most celebratory not about choice, empowerment, and competition-driven improvements in education, but about the prospect of “more enrollment and resources,” “more money,” and “more funding” that the formerly private school students will likely bring to the government school system.

But money isn’t the problem with government schools, otherwise the LA school district would be tops. LAUSD spent nearly $30,000 per student in 2008, over $20,000 excluding local bond revenue (they claimed just $10,000 that year).

Government schools, even government charter schools, are inefficient and a poor reflection of the educational diversity possible in the private sector. A Ball State University study estimated that charters received over $9,000 per student in 2007. The average tuition in Catholic schools, where most of the private charter students come from, was just $6,000 in 2008 according to the government’s NCES.

In other words, charter schools cost over 50 percent more than the average tuition at a Catholic school. And the charter school might well be worse for the kid who switches on average. After all, the private school would be that family’s first choice if money weren’t an issue. And because private schools have to charge tuition, they need to provide enough value to compete with taxpayer-funded schools. That means a private school needs to provide a value worth more than $15,000 while charging just $6,000 (the $9,000 parents could get in the charter school plus the $6,000 they have to pay out of pocket for tuition).

Because of financial hardships and a high tax burden to support government schools, many families are choosing to move their child out of the private school that’s best for their child to a newly acceptable, “free” charter school.

If we want the best education for the largest number of kids while lowering the tax burden at the same time, expanding government charter schools isn’t the way to do it. Private school choice through education tax credits is the route to sustainable, continuous improvements in educational achievement and efficiency.

 

Catholic Schools and the Common Good

One of the first things you learn when you start to study the comparative performance of school systems is this: on average, Catholic schools are much more educationally effective and vastly more efficient than state-run schools. And then you learn that their impact goes beyond the three R’s. I wrote a little about these facts a few years ago, while I was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and my Mackinac friends have resurrected the post for Catholic Schools Week. I’ve appended an excerpt below, but you can read the whole thing here.

When state-run public schooling was first championed in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, it was under the banner of “the common school,” and it was touted more for its predicted social benefits than its impact on mathematical or literary skills. The leading common school reformer of the time, Horace Mann, promised, “Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Having experienced more than a century-and-a-half of a vigorously expanding public school system, Americans are no longer quite as sanguine about the institution’s capabilities. Nevertheless, there is still a widespread belief that government schools promote the common good in a way independent private schools never could.

Is that belief justified? Scores of researchers have compared the social characteristics and effects of public and private schooling. They have found little evidence of any public-sector advantage. On the contrary, private schools almost always demonstrate comparable or superior contributions to political tolerance, civic knowledge and civic engagement. One group of private schools stands out as particularly effective in this regard: those run by the Catholic Church.

Charters Kill Private Schools and Add to Taxpayer Burden

Tradeoffs are an incurable part of reality. Unfortunately, many school choice supporters like to believe that there are no tradeoffs between school choice policies; public and private school choice, targeted or restricted, big or small, voucher or tax credits, it’s all choice and it’s all good. But some good things are better than others. And most things have some mix of positive and negative effects.

Charter schools often provide a safer, better alternative to traditional public schools. That’s good. Charter schools also destroy private schools, decrease educational options, pull private-school students into the government education system and thereby add significant new costs to taxpayers. These are all very bad things. And they are not at all balanced by theories of long-term shifts in how citizens conceive of choice in education.

Here’s the latest on how government charter schools are killing what’s left of the private sector in education:

The number of students enrolled in these public, independently run schools has risen dramatically in this decade. Philadelphia school district officials estimate that 73 percent of the children now in charters came from district schools and 27 percent from other schools. That 27 percent amounts to about 9,000 students, and Catholic-school educators believe that most of them came from Catholic schools.

Charter schools have one distinct advantage over Catholic schools. They do not charge tuition.

Charters are NO substitute for private school choice. In fact, by destroying private schools, they seriously erode the total range of educational options.

We need to be clear-headed about this; charter school laws, in the absence of robust private school choice programs, destroy educational freedom and choice.

Absent private choice, charters are a long-term setback for education reform.

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.

Why President Obama Won’t Save Urban Catholic Schools

In today’s Washington Post, Checker Finn and Andy Smarick ask President Obama to save the nation’s vanishing urban Catholic schools. Their commentary does a good job of explaining why he might want to do that: Catholic schools are typically bastions of excellence in otherwise educationally blighted inner-city areas. Economist Derek Neal has shown that black children attending these schools are 26 percentage points more likely to finish high school, and twice as likely to graduate from college, than similar students attending urban public schools.

Finn and Smarick also suggest ways that president Obama could bring the option of private schooling, including Catholic schools, within reach of all families – supporting the spread of state tax credit and scholarship programs around the country, for instance.

What Finn and Smarick don’t do is explain why the president will continue to ignore the evidence and their plea, instead letting the educational prospects of inner-city children erode even further. Three possible explanations occur to me:

  • The president is unfamiliar with the evidence on the superiority of private and especially urban Catholic schools
  • He thinks that his administration will succeed in dramatically improving public schools all over the country, despite the failure of all his predecessors’ efforts
  • He thinks that making it easier for poor parents to choose private schools would hurt him politically

Personally, I don’t believe the first explanation. I can believe the second, but wish I couldn’t (wouldn’t it be nice to have a realist in the Oval Office)? And I can certainly believe the third, but if so, the president simply hasn’t done the political math.

Coming out strongly in favor of public and private school choice at the state level would win Barack Obama substantial new support from independent and moderate swing voters who seem to have been drifting away from him, while costing him very little from his base. The NEA might reduce its level of support, but they’re not going to flip and back Republicans. And few if any Democratic voters would switch party allegiance over a Democratic president’s desire to help poor kids with the most effective policies.