Tag: education reform

Jay Greene’s Great New Manifesto

Education scholar Jay Greene has a great new pamphlet called Why America Needs School Choice. Concise and very readable, it does a fine job of introducing the general public to the arguments and evidence in favor of market forces in education. In the process, it debunks six “canards” put forward by defenders of the status quo school monopoly.

Of particular value is Jay’s explanation of why existing “school choice” policies, while often producing positive results, have not yet transformed American education. He notes that these existing programs are hobbled by enrollment limits and regulations, and thus represent only dim shadows of what truly free and competitive education marketplaces would offer. I couldn’t agree more! In fact, the manifesto might more precisely be called Why America Needs a Competitive Education Marketplace, though perhaps that would have narrowed its appeal.

One minor quibble: On page 46, Jay writes that:

No private school choice program has been eliminated legislatively. Aside from a few adverse state court decisions, every choice victory is permanent, and every defeat is temporary.

The implication is that legislative and court action are the only avenues by which choice programs can be overturned. A third, public referendum, exists–and was responsible for the repeal of a Utah school voucher program in 2007. Would-be reformers should remember that lesson: unless the public understands and accepts the value of a policy, it may well overturn it before the first student ever participates. Manifestos like Jay’s are a good way to help spread that understanding.

A more significant problem with this particular passage is that it seems to imply that every “choice” program is a victory, and it asserts every victory is permanent. There is good reason to conclude that neither is the case.

The worldwide historical and modern evidence indicate that private schools will ultimately accept government funding no matter what strings are attached, and that such subsidized schools can consume the unsubsidized sector. This has happened in the Netherlands, for instance, which no longer has an unsubsidized private school sector after a century of government-funded private schooling. And since subsidized schools may not be operated for profit, it has no entrepreneurial chains of private schools.

So what happens if the subsidies eventually accumulate so much regulation that government-funded “private” schools become indistinguishable from today’s government schools? The result would be a move from the current 90% government monopoly to a 100% government monopoly. Not a victory at all, as the international evidence shows that the least regulated, most market-like education systems enjoy the greatest advantage over centrally planned school systems such as our own.

Last year, I ran a statistical analysis of the level of regulation imposed on private schools participating in voucher and education tax credit programs. I found that vouchers impose a large and statistically significant burden of extra regulation on private schools, whereas tax credits do not.  There are other issues with vouchers and charter schools as well. So all “choice” programs are not created equal.

Still, these concerns aside, Jay has written one of the best introductions to the case for educational freedom I’ve seen. I hope it gets a wide readership.

All You Have to Do Is Let Go of the Monopoly

I don’t have to prove my bona fides when it comes to opposing top-down, standards-based education reforms. I’ve been highly critical of the No Child Left Behind Act; very aggressive in attacking the reckless drive for national curriculum standards; and have repeatedly noted the importance of educator autonomy. So when you read the following, keep in mind that it is definitely not coming from a command-and-control aficionado: The weakest position in today’s big education war is the one opposed to both standards-based reforms and school choice. It’s the one enunciated yesterday by the Washington Post’ s Valerie Strauss, but which is most firmly staked out by historian Diane Ravitch.  It’s the position that essentially boils down to “don’t touch my local, teacher-dominated monopoly!”

Why is this so weak? Because it gives parents and taxpayers – the people who pay for public education and whom the system is supposed to serve – the fewest avenues to get what they want out of the schools.

Outraged over your neighborhood school because it is dangerous, the staff apathetic, and the building crumbling? Too bad – you get what you’re given and can’t even appeal to a higher level of government. And as we’ve seen in far too many places where the residents aren’t rich enough to exercise choice by buying expensive homes in better districts – the District of Columbia, Compton, Detroit, etc. – Ravitch’s utopian vision of school districts as places where “people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors” is just so much gauzy rhapsodizing. Reality is much harsher.

Of course, there are gigantic, fatal flaws with the standards-and-accountability movement, and people like Ravitch and Strauss have very compelling reasons for concern.

The standards movement, for one thing, is completely reliant on standardized testing. Indeed, it is heading for a single, national test, despite well-established evidence that tests are highly constrained in what they can tell us about learning.

In addition, as Ravitch and others regularly lament, the standards movement seems to be dominated by present and former business leaders who have tended to treat education as just another uniform-widget production problem. But children are not uniform; they are individual human beings with widely varied interests, rates of maturity, educational starting points, and life goals. But that never seems to enter into the standards equation, rendering it wrong from the start. Add to this that standards-based reformers tend to treat the education system as a single entity to be engineered, rather than an industry in which schools are the firms and competition is essential for sustained innovation and improvement, and standards-based reforms are as hopeless as teacher-dominated mini monopolies.

Unfortunately, top-down standardizers seem unlikely to join the fold of the one reform that includes both necessary educator autonomy and powerful accountability to parents: educational freedom. Yes, they often like school choice as long as government dictates what chosen schools teach, but they don’t embrace real freedom. Perhaps, though, the Ravitches and Strausses of the world can be brought on board. They won’t be able to keep the local monopolies they cherish, but they’ll be able to get most of what they want: much less stultifying uniformity; considerably more freedom for teachers; and the flourishing of communities, though communities based on shared norms and values, not mere physical proximity.

The flimsiest position in our great education debate is the one held by opponents of both top-down accountability and educational freedom. But if they’ll  remove the rose-tinted glasses through which they see local public schooling, there is an option that should appeal to them, one that injects essential parent power and competition into education while giving educators the professional autonomy they crave. It is school choice – educational freedom – and it is the reform that wins the great education debate.

SCOTUS Issues a Super-Zelman Decision on Education Tax Credits

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States issued the Zelman decision for education tax credits. More than that, it’s Super-Zelman.

The findings in Zelman apply just as well to education tax credit programs, but only credit programs allow taxpayers to spend their own money on education.

As Andrew Coulson explained in detail earlier, the Court ruled that education tax credits are not government funds, and the plaintiffs therefore have no standing to bring suit in the first place. They were not harmed because none of their money was collected and then disburse by the state.

Children are rightly our primary concern, but taxpayers deserve more consideration than they often get in debates over education reform.

Education tax credit programs can expand educational choice and freedom while respecting the preferences and values of the individual taxpayers who earned that money in the first place.

Voucher programs simply cannot provide this kind of accountability to both parents and taxpayers.

Profits Do Oft Disprove Jesters

A new study of Sweden’s nationwide private school choice program reveals that both non-profit and for-profit private schools outperform state-run schools. And, after the most comprehensive set of controls for confounding variables, they do so by an almost identical (and highly statistically significant) margin.

Is there any reason, then, to prefer one form of private organization over the other? Yes. While non-profit private schools have tended to increase the size of their waiting lists in response to growing demand, their for-profit counterparts have done what all commercial enterprises would do in that circumstance: they’ve grown.

For more insights on this crucial distinction, have a look at Peje Emilsson’s presentation from our “Cloning Superman” event, which was broadcast on CSPAN.

If you want more good schools and fewer bad ones, make it easier for entrepreneurs and investors to team up with great educators, and let them earn profits or suffer losses in direct proportion to their ability to serve children.

Cloning “Superman”

We all know there are too few good schools and too many lousy ones. The trouble is, we lack a mechanism for reliably scaling up the former and crowding out the latter. Competitive markets perform this service in other fields, from coffee-shops to cell phones. Can the same thing work in education?

To find out, we’ve invited experts from both hemispheres to tell us what their nations have learned from decades of experience with private-school choice. Peje Emilsson founded the largest chain of for-profit private schools in Sweden’s nationwide voucher program. Humberto Santos has studied the academic performance of public schools, independent private schools, and chains of private schools in Chile’s voucher program. Responding to their findings and asking challenging questions will be Education Week journalist Sarah Sparks.

I hope you can join us for this fascinating discussion, and lunch, at noon on January 28th. Click here to register. The sooner we can stop “Waiting for Superman,” the better.

New NAEP Scores Reveal Education Shell Game

Over the past two decades, the media and federal education officials have tended to focus on modestly improving test score trends of 4th and 8th graders. As my colleague Neal has mentioned, new 12th grade results were released today, and they once again call that practice into question.

Whether one looks at the fixed “Long Term Trends” series of national test results reaching back to the early 1970s, or at the ever-evolving “Nation’s Report Card” series, it seems as though student achievement has improved a little over time at the 4th and (to a lesser extent) 8th grade levels. By the same token, both of those data series show little or no improvement in achievement at the end of high-school over the past one, two, or four decades. Indeed the most recent 12th grade results show a small but statistically significant decline in reading scores since 1992.

High school graduates are no better prepared today than they were in previous generations, despite the fact that we’re spending 3 times as much on their K-12 educations. Some of what they’re learning they may be learning a bit earlier, but when applying to college it’s the K-12 academic destination that matters, not the journey.

And that destination suggests that the past four decades of so-called public “school reform” have done nothing to improve the academic preparation of high school seniors for college, life and work. Not ESEA. Not NCLB.

Perhaps government is not the best source of progress and innovation after all? Perhaps if we want to see progress and innovation in education we should allow it to participate in the free enterprise system that has been responsible for staggering productivity growth in every field not dominated by a government monopoly?

New NAEP Scores Confirm ‘F’ in Feds

The recent elections made one thing very clear: Americans want a cheaper, smaller, more effective federal government. Today we have powerful evidence that a terrific place to start giving them that is education. New National Assessment of Educational Progress – so-called “Nation’s Report Card” – scores are out, and despite years of massive increases in federal education spending, as well as nearly a decade of No Child Left Behind “accountability,” stagnation is what we’ve gotten. Reading scores for 12th graders – our schools’ final products – are lower than they were in 1998 and 1992. In math all we have is a slight bump between 2005 and 2009, and no data before that because NAEP changed its math framework, making today’s results essentially meaningless. Looking at other NAEP tests – notably the long-term trends exam that tracks from the early 1970s – overall math achievement is almost certainly as lifeless as reading.

The Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern or fund American education, which is reason enough to get the feds out of our schools. If that doesn’t do it for you, however, that federal meddling has produced nothing but expensive failure should clinch it: It’s time to listen to voters and get Washington out of education.