Tag: charter schools

“The Only Place Innovation Will Come From”

Yesterday, Bill Gates addressed 4,100 charter school leaders and activists and told them that their movement “is the only place innovation will come from.”

Certainly there are innovative charter schools–and others that deploy traditional methods with such skill and dedication as to achieve results far above the norm (think Ben Chavis’ American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland). But of course charters are not the only source of educational innovation, and, much more importantly, they are unlikely to drive the process of mass replication and scale-up of innovations responsible for the stunning economic progress of the past several hundred years.

Pick any field in which a brilliant innovation has been capitalized on and brought to the masses and you will likely find that it is capitalist–part of the profit-and-loss, free enterprise system.

There are occasional exceptions. The Jesuits introduced performance-based grouping in 1599, promoting students to the next grade whenever they had mastered the material of the current one, and managed to scale-up that policy internationally. But only free markets have created an ever-repeating cycle of innovation, replication, and dissemination that continues decade after decade, seldom pausing or reversing except due to some external calamity.

There are efforts afoot by business and financial leaders to emulate that cycle within the charter school framework. We should wish them well, but it’s a daunting task. As Friedrich Hayek explains in The Fatal Conceit, the web of freedoms, customs, and incentives we call free markets was not designed by earlier generations, but rather evolved inexorably over time. It is not a product of human planning, but of human nature.

Trying to reproduce the innovation, replication, dissemination cycle outside the free market system is like trying to make a wheel more round by increasing or decreasing the value of pi–and it’s just as unnecessary. We already have a system for accomplishing what Gates and the American public desire, why not use it? Why don’t we simply ensure that all children, regardless of family wealth, can afford access to a free education marketplace? The innovation and dissemination process will then take care of itself, as it does in every other field.

First to the “Top”

Congratulations Delaware and Tennessee – you’ve won the Race to the Top beauty contest! Of course, the grading was subjective and will be disputed by lots of states that haven’t won. Well, haven’t won yet – there’s a second round to this, remember.

So what do the victories for Delaware and Tennessee mean? The edu-pundits will no doubt be reading deep into the results over the coming days, trying to determine what they portend for the future of RttT, federal education policy generally, and politicians across the country.  And there are some juicy political leads worth following, including the possibility that the winning states were chosen because they have Republican congress members who could be pivotal in getting bipartisan support for the administration’s No Child Left Behind reauthorization plans.  

All of this, though, will ultimately miss by far the biggest point about RttT: The most beautiful promises and laws mean nothing unless they are implemented, and history offers little reason to believe that even the finest parts of the RttT winners’ applications will be brought to bear.

Despite over forty years of federal education interventions, and nearly two decades of state-level standards-and-accountability reforms, academic achievement has stagnated. Long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in mathematics and reading for our schools’ “final products” – high-school seniors – have been almost completely flat since the early 1970s, and fourth and eighth-grade “main NAEP” reading scores released just last week demonstrate the same awful trend since the early 1990s. This despite a 123-percent increase in real, per-pupil funding since 1970.  

Quite simply, no degree of legislative tinkering within the system has produced lasting improvements because those who would be held to high standards – teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats – have by far the most political clout in education, and they’ve hollowed out anything “tough” that’s been tried. The only thing that will move us powerfully forward – as extensive research on educational freedom demonstrates – is empowering parents to bypass education politics by freely choosing schools that have the autonomy needed to compete and innovate.

Unfortunately, that kind of reform wouldn’t gain a state so much as a point in the Race to the Top. And the limited choice – charter schools – that could get a state some points? According to the Center for Education Reform, Delaware only gets a B for its charter school law – a grade based generally on how free and competitive charter schools can be – while Tennessee gets an atrocious mark of D.

There’s nothing beautiful about that.

Charters No Substitute for Private Innovation

I wrote about this private school in South Carolina last year. The Voice for School Choice has a new video highlighting the great work of the Eagle Military Academy, which works with many kids the public schools cannot or will not educate.

There’s a lot of talk lately about the transformative power of some charter schools, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many secular and religious private schools have been saving kids all along with no public funds and little or no recognition from the elite opinion class.

We need to open up choice to these schools as well, not just public charter schools that cannot provide the breadth and depth of experiences offered by private schools.

Public charter schools are no substitute for full school choice through education tax credits.

Race to Domination

Today’s the day that states must submit their applications to the U.S. Department of Education to compete for round-one “Race to the Top” grants. But no worries if your state’s a little behind: Not only will there be another application round for the $4.35-billion dash-for-cash, but as President Obama announced today, he wants a $1.35-billion sequel to what was supposed to be a one-time, stimulus-funded contest.

The important question, of course, is whether sponsoring this race is worthwhile for federal taxpayers. The clear answer is no.

Sure, in response to RttT states have been raising charter-school caps, allowing teachers to be evaluated using student performance, and instituting other changes, but they’ve done little of real substance. Just raising caps won’t make it much easier to get good, competitive charter schools since most of the charter-supply problem revolves around over-regulation and painful authorization processes. And while states have eliminated prohibitions on using student test results to evaluate teachers, they haven’t done much to actually base teacher evaluations on student performance or other meaningful metrics.

What has RttT done that is of substance? Unfortunately, push yet more power into federal hands, forcing  states and districts to jump through all manner of hoops for a chance to get back some of their citizens’ money. Indeed, it is becoming painfully clear that President Obama intends to put Washington firmly above the states in the hierarchy of education power.

For his $1.35 billion RttT expansion, President Obama plans to allow districts to directly compete for federal funding, bypassing states completely. And then there’s his crusade for national curricular standards. His administration has been talking up “common” standards since almost day one, and in the ”fact sheet“ accompanying the RttT expansion announcement the first bullet states that RttT emphasizes “designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards.” 

Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the “states” working “jointly” thing, or utterly unbelievable administration denials. If the feds are paying states to adopt common standards then those standards will be de facto federal. Either that, or the feds will let states adopt any old joint standards and still get paid. Six of one bad thing, half dozen of the other…

Thankfully, there is resistance to Obama’s bribe-to-the-top scheme. Texas, most notably, has refused to participate in RttT, with Gov. Rick Perry declaring that ”we would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.” And Texas is not alone: According to a New York Times article appearing yesterday, states and districts around the country are refusing to put on their track shoes and run for the federal funds. 

Still, federal money – taxpayer money – can be a tough thing for any elected offical to turn down. Sooner or later, if we let him, Obama will almost certainly find an amount that no state or district can resist.

Thursday Links

  • Doug Bandow:  “Congress has spent the country blind, inflated a disastrous housing bubble, subsidized every special interest with a letterhead and lobbyist, and created a wasteful, incompetent bureaucracy that fills Washington. But now, legislators want to take a break from all their good work and save college football.”

How Michigan Could Save $3.5 Billion a Year

Michigan is facing a projected $2.8 billion state budget shortfall. As a result, Governor Granholm has cut $212 million from state public school spending – rousing the ire of parents and education officials around the state. But if Michigan merely converted all its conventional public schools to charters, without altering current funding formulas, it would save $3.5 billion.

Here’s how: the average Michigan charter school spends $2,200 less per pupil than the average district school – counting only the state and local dollars. Put another way, Michigan school districts spend 25 percent more state and local dollars per pupil, on average, than charter schools. Sum up the savings to Michigan taxpayers from a mass district-to-charter exodus and it comes to $3.5 billion.

Anyone who wants to check that calculation can download the Msft Excel 2007 spreadsheet file I used to compute it. It contains both the raw data from the relevant NCES Common Core of Data files, and all the calculations. Among other things, it shows total per pupil spending and the pupil teacher ratio for every charter school and every public school district in the state. (Unlike certain climatologists, some of us researchers not only keep our data around, we’re actually happy to share them).

Journalists who have questions about this file are welcome to get in touch. Note that it is also viewable, I believe, with the free OpenOffice spreadsheet program, though I haven’t tested that.

LA Times Hastens Toward the Light

With print media players disappearing faster than mosasaurs in the late Cretaceous, one would expect the last papers standing to be extra careful with their fact checking for fear of being blogged into extinction. One’s expectations would be mistaken.

Yesterday’s LA Times editorial on charter schools combined errors of fact and omission with a misrepresentation of the economic research on public school spending. First, the Times claims that KIPP charter public schools spend “significantly more per student than the public school system.” Not so, says the KIPP website. But why rely on KIPP’s testimony, when we can look at the raw data? LA’s KIPP Academy of Opportunity, for instance, spent just over $3 million in 2007-08, for 345 students, for a total per pupil expenditure of $8,917. The most recent Dept. of Ed. data for LAUSD(2006-07) put that district’s comparable figure at $13,481 (which, as Cato’s Adam Schaeffer will show in a forthcoming paper, is far below what it currently spends). Nationwide, the median school district spends 24 percent more than the median charter school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Next, in summarizing the charter research, the Times’ editors omitted the most recent and sophisticated study, by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby. It finds a significant academic advantage to charters using a randomized assignment experimental model that blows the methodological doors off most of the earlier charter research. The Times also neglects to mention Hoxby’s damning critique of the CREDO study it does cite.

Finally, the Times’ editors are mistaken in claiming that district operating costs “do not necessarily go down” as large numbers of students migrate to charters. Economists find that districts reap significant cost savings as students leave – e.g., by cutting staff and consolidating buildings. The Times is claiming that the marginal cost of public schooling is essentially zero – that it neither costs more to educate one additional student nor less to educate one fewer student. In reality, the marginal cost of public schooling is generally found in the empirical literature to be near or above 80 percent of the total cost.

There are certainly reasons to lament the performance of the charter sector, and the Times’ editors even came close to citing one of them: its inability to scale up excellence as rapidly and routinely as is the case in virtually every field outside of education. Before getting into such policy issues, however, the Times should make a greater effort to marshal the basic facts.