Tag: education system

A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 2

The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. Our initial comments were posted Tuesday. The next installment is here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

First Response

Since this is a “dialogue,” let me focus on something that Andrew said in his first installment – that public education “…has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field.” I take that as a defense of the “free market,” where competition allegedly leads to quality and success. I don’t think that the “free market” is the best model for education. To quote African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop John Hurst Adams, one of my mentors, “the free market has limitations when it comes to the human condition, because it’s an amoral concept that ‘lets the market decide’ who swims and who gets swept away.” That’s applicable to the standard argument that private school choice would improve public schools through “competition.”

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Public funds going to private schools would revive that tradition, for every tax dollar that “follows” a child to private schools in tough economic times will lead to understaffed and under-equipped public schools. Public school funding is set by legislators who are well aware that their constituents without children in the schools are loathe to fund them, and who’ve catered to those constituents by cutting funding for public education. There can be no true “competition” between public schools that only receive public funds and private schools that would have public and private funds at their disposal, for the free market turns on available capital.

The economic crisis now rocking markets in our nation and the world is also instructive. That crisis was, at least in part, created by policies that deregulated the free market and promoted not only innovation, but sheer greed which crafted a shaky, “house of cards” economy that has collapsed and taken people down with it. The lesson now, as it was during the Great Depression, is that unregulated free market activity can have disastrous results. I believe that the current financial crisis is also an element in the push for Private School Tuition Tax Credits. Many private schools are hurting because parents who can no longer afford high tuition are considering public school alternatives – private schools are hungry for the “bailout” that the pending South Carolina legislation would provide.

America makes the lofty claim in our Pledge of Allegiance to be “one nation under God.” If we’re serious about that, then we should heed the words of the Jesus who is seen as the Messiah by Christians and as God’s prophet by Jews and Muslims. He said that the Creator’s standard for right behavior includes equitable treatment for all people. That equity is at the heart of public education but is not a factor in free market competition, where the vagaries of the market decide outcomes and impact success in life. I said so six years ago in one of my conversations with my friend Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina. He laid out his argument for private school choice over more funding for public schools in familiar, logical and compellingly Libertarian free market terms, but he never answered one question that I asked – why can’t we provide good public schools because it’s simply the right thing to do?

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The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

First Response

Glad you brought up the objective studies, Joe, but you only mentioned one of them. I recently collected every scientific study I could find comparing outcomes between public and private schools (Journal of School Choice, vol. 3, no. 1). I came up with 65 studies that compare student achievement, cost-effectiveness, parental satisfaction and other measures. The results overwhelmingly favor private schooling. What’s more, the least regulated, most-market-like school systems stand out as the best of all (here’s an earlier version of the paper).

Interestingly, there’s one study I couldn’t include because it wasn’t released ‘til a few weeks ago. It’s the 3rd year DC voucher study (the successor to the one you mentioned), and it shows that students who’d been attending private schools for the full 3 years are 2 school-years ahead of their public school peers in reading! Even including the kids who’ve only been in the program for 1 year, the vouchers are now producing significant gains.

And there’s no evidence that school choice weakens the public schools. Professor Jay Greene looks at this question in his book Education Myths. He finds that public schools either improve under school choice programs, or are unaffected. So even the families that don’t choose to attend private schools will likely be better off, and certainly no worse off, than they are now.

Who would be the biggest beneficiaries of the SC education tax credit bill? Low-income kids. As noted in the preamble at the top of this column, only low-income families would be eligible for tuition aid from Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The amount of aid each family could receive from an SGO is not capped, so that assistance can be allocated based on individual need. Pennsylvania already has such a tuition-assistance program, serving over 40,000 students with bi-partisan support.

Parents who earn enough to owe state taxes would be eligible for direct tax credits to offset their own kids’ education costs, but those credits are explicitly capped (at around $2,800, if their kids are not zoned to attend a “failing” public school – more if they are).

It’s certainly reasonable to wonder how poor families would cope with transportation and any non-tuition costs, but we can just look at how scholarship tax credit programs are working in states like Pennsylvania and Florida: some schools provide transportation, some are within walking distance, some families form carpools, and others use public transportation. Tens of thousands of poor children manage to get to their private schools under these programs every day, and to obtain uniforms for the schools that require them. Many others do so even without scholarships.

As for wanting to start by fully funding public schools… we’re already there. The 2007-08 budget for Charleston public schools lists total expenditures at over $548 million (p. 21) for 40,202 students (p. 4). That’s $13,650 per pupil – more than the state and national averages, which are both about $12,000. These numbers are vastly higher than the median U.S. private school tuition, which the Department of Education reported as $3,500 in 2003-04 [the most recent year available]. And only about a fifth of private school revenue comes from sources other than tuition. Even if tuitions have doubled since then, they’d still be barely half of Charleston’s per pupil spending.

I’ll have to wait ‘til next time to address your concern about the history of school choice, since I’ve run out of word count. In the meantime, here’s a thought:

There’s nothing wrong with trying to fix the public schools. But you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

A Dialogue on School Choice

The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. The next installment is here.


Rev. Darby

Rev. Joe Darby

Opening Comment, Con

My local newspaper, The Charleston Post and Courier, recently affirmed their continuing editorial suggestion that we “give School Tax Credits a Try.” I think that’s a very bad idea.

My wife is a public school teacher – and an excellent one at that. She spends much of her time either shaping young minds or preparing to do so, even supplementing meager supplies at her own expense and using creative means to reach and teach children described as “at risk.” Her school is almost 100% “free lunch,” but her students score well on state tests because she’s a good teacher. Most of her colleagues who labor under difficult circumstances are excellent teachers too. Rather than simply blaming an ominous “public education establishment,” we should note the truth – objective studies show that private education is not always a winner. A 2008 United States Department of Education study of the District of Columbia voucher program found that students in the program generally did no better on reading and math tests after two years than their public school peers.

A mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students. The major beneficiaries of private school choice in South Carolina will not be poor families, for the tuition tax credits and scholarships proposed will not cover the cost of many good private schools and will leave parents to take up the slack and to provide other things like uniforms, transportation and extracurricular activity fees. The major beneficiaries will be affluent parents who will simply have more disposable income when their share of their children’s tuition is decreased.

Before we give school tax credits a “try” we should first give equitably funded, staffed and equipped public schools a “try,” for many southern states have never done so. Excellence in public education for African-Americans was frowned upon after the Post Civil War period of reconstruction. In Paradoxes of Segregation by R. Scott Baker, Charleston, SC School Superintendent A.B. Rhett touted what was Burke Industrial School in 1939 as a place to “supply cooks, maids and delivery boys.”

His views matched those of the political powers that be when South Carolina’s schools were separate and unequal. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954, but South Carolina held out until the 1960’s. Our legislatively ordained strategies to maintain segregation included allowing parents to “choose” their children’s public schools and giving state “scholarships” to white parents who sent their children to private schools established to maintain segregation – the same essential strategies in the present quest for school tax credits. Many predominately African-American schools were woefully underfunded, and when whites fled the public schools for private schools, public schools sank into a state of chronic neglect. We can’t label public schools as “failures” when we’ve failed our schools. When we fully and equitably fund, equip and staff all public schools, we can then “try” tuition credits, for parents can then choose between quality public and private schools – although that might be bad for the private school business.

I serve as the pastor of a church in peninsular Charleston, where architectural preservation is serious business. Homes and businesses that have been long abandoned or neglected and are all but falling over aren’t torn down – they’re rebuilt and restored in spite of years of chronic neglect. If we can do that for neglected homes, then we should also acknowledge our past failings and do the same for our public schools instead of simply tearing them apart or abandoning them.

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The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

 

Andrew Coulson

Andrew Coulson

Opening Comment, Pro

On paper, the United States offers its citizens a solemn promise: work hard and you can succeed here – regardless of your race, sex, creed, or family wealth. But there’s a catch. To secure a good job you first need a good education. On paper, we’ve taken care of that, too. Over the past 150 years we’ve built up a monumental system of free state-run schools that aims to ensure every child access to a quality education.

In reality, it’s all lies.

If you’re in the top fifth of wage earners, there’s just a one-in-a-hundred chance that you are functionally illiterate. If you’re in the bottom fifth or have no income at all, the odds are that you cannot understand a newspaper or follow the directions on a pill bottle. Despite the relentless efforts of generations of reformers, America’s system of public schooling has failed in its most essential duty. We are not equipping all children to succeed in private life and participate in public life. America’s meritocratic promise is a lie.

What can we do about it?

There are those who still believe that the existing system can be fixed. Having compared different kinds of school systems from ancient Greece to the modern day, and from the poorest to the richest nations on Earth, I am convinced that that effort is futile. The problems with the status quo are endemic to its design.

Public schooling hasn’t failed so many children for so long because teachers weren’t smart enough, or paid well enough, or because classes were too large, or the federal government played too small a role. It has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field. Public school teachers are hamstrung by regulations and are paid based on time served rather than classroom performance. Parents are not free to seek out the public or private educational setting best suited to their children, they are extorted into the state system because of its monopoly on $12,000 per pupil in government funding.

But should we prevent people from trying to fix it? Certainly not. If they think they can bring to public schooling the same incredible progress that other human endeavors have experienced over the past forty years, more power to them.

By the same token, no one who wants what’s best for kids should stand in the way of a program that would give parents educational alternatives today. Our children cannot wait to see if the current generation of public school reformers will somehow succeed where their predecessors failed.

I’m an engineer by training and a geek by nature. I advocate programs like the one under consideration in South Carolina because the evidence overwhelmingly supports them. Scientific studies comparing this kind of free enterprise education system to conventional public schooling favor the free enterprise approach by a margin of 15 to 1.

Others advocate school choice for more personal reasons. DC school voucher recipient Carlos Battle wrote a poem explaining his gratitude and commitment to school choice, and delivered it to the rally here last week in support of that program:

surrender me from the typical stereotype of a

black young man

one who slings rocks, smokes weed, and keeps a

gun at hand

i am a whole different guy

one who reads books and wears a tie

you see, I’m changing the perception of a young

black man

i’m climbing the ladder of success - try and stop

me, try as hard as you can….

 

Please don’t.

Please don’t stop Carlos or the children who would follow him up that ladder.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

 

How Serious Is U.S. Ed. Productivity Collapse

A commenter at Joanne Jacobs’ edu-blog wonders “how serious this ‘collapse’ is.” I offered the following response:

How serious of a collapse is it? Total k-12 expenditures in this country were about $630 billion two years ago (see Table 25, Digest of Ed Statistics 2008). The efficiency of our education system is less than half what it was in 1971 (i.e., we spend more than twice as much to get the same results — see Table 181, same source).

So if we’d managed to ensure that education productivity just stagnated, we’d be saving over $300 billion EVERY YEAR. If we’d actually seen productivity improvements in education such as we’ve seen in other fields, we’d be saving at least that much money and enjoying higher student achievement at the same time.

My guess is that most people would consider saving $3 trillion per decade and more fully realizing children’s intellectual potential are both very important.

Another commenter observes that spending has of necessity increased due to the combination of rising salaries and a failure to deploy new technologies to lower costs. This is true to a point, but the total employee/student ratio in public schools has also grown dramatically over the same period. A few years ago I calculated that taxpayers would save more than $100 billion annually if the public schools just went back to the employee/student ratio of 1970. And the savings are still massive even if you account for a roughly 10% increase in teachers for expanded special education services.

Ultimately, though, you have to ask WHY public schools have failed to use technology to lower costs as virtually every other field has successfully done. The answer is that doing so is difficult and so won’t happen without the freedom and powerful systemtic incentives to MAKE it happen. The only system of freedoms and incentives that makes productivity growth the norm is the free enterprise system.

School Choice Movement in South Carolina

I was in South Carolina yesterday testifying before a state committee in support of a great piece of education tax credit legislation. The turnout and energy down there was impressive.

The fight for educational freedom has dragged on for years in SC, but the movement seems to have grown in strength considerably over that period. Parents are now more organized, homeschoolers and private school groups are more integrated and active, and the votes are a lot closer.

More than 200 supporters showed up to support the bill and testify, and their stories were compelling and sometimes heart-rending. Our public education system just doesn’t work for everyone.

And when I say “doesn’t work,” I mean that a child with severe learning disabilities ends up unable to function in society or a child from a troubled background ends up in jail or dead. There are schools that are serving these kids successfully, and want desperately to help more. A tax credit system would allow them to expand and diversify to help all children reach their potential.

For others, the system doesn’t work in ways less catastrophic, but it still isn’t what’s best for them. That’s why all families should be able to choose the best educational environment for their unique child. Educated children are not widgets manufactured in a factory.

The fight for school choice brings out similar issues in every state, so I’ll be blogging more on the hearing later on today…

RAND: Charter Schools Raise Ed’l Attainment

I am not a particularly avid fan of charter schools. As I’ve previously written on this blog, I see reason to fear that their long term result will be the growth rather than the contraction of the state schooling bureaucracy. That said, RAND has just published a relatively positive new study about their short-term effects.

While the RAND study finds no significant difference in achievement gains in charters versus regular public schools, it finds that charter students for whom they have the necessary data are 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college, after controlling for student characteristics.

While this is wonderful news, it will be a Pyrrhic victory if charter schools gradually succumb to regulatory encroachment and stultifying unionization, as seems likely.

Fortunately, as I blogged a couple of days ago, there is no need to run this risk. Truly market-like education systems show the same or better effects on students educational attainment, and show significant positive effects on academic achievement, school efficiency, parental satisfaction, eventual student earnings, and other outcomes. Access to such marketplaces can be made universal through tax credit programs that are significantly more apt to resist regulatory encroachment than are state-funded school choice policies, as I document in a forthcoming book chapter for Clemson University.

Ed. Feds to Reinvent Wheel, Ignoring Pi

Education secretary Arne Duncan testified before Congress today on the president’s 2010 budget for the Department of Education. One of the first things he said was this:

We also plan to work very hard at scaling up success in our education system. Under our 2010 budget, the Department would continue to use the Innovation Fund created by the Recovery Act to identify and replicate successful models and strategies that raise student achievement. We know that there are many school systems and non-profit organizations across the country with demonstrated track records of success in raising student achievement, and our 2010 request would help bring their success to scale.

Duncan and President Obama are so, so right to focus on this challenge. Sadly, their efforts will so, so utterly fail, just as those of all their predecessors. Here’s why:

For a long time, observers of U.S. public schooling have wrung their hands over a pernicious problem: there are many isolated and transitory examples of excellence within the system (think “Stand and Deliver”), but efforts to scale these models up on a lasting, nationwide basis have always failed.

One early and notorious example was the federal Follow Through experiment of the late 1960s and early ’70s. At a cost of over a billion dollars, it demonstrated that one instruction method, “Distar,” clearly outperformed 21 others. Distar was #1 not just overall, but in each of the subcategories of reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. It placed a close second in promoting advanced conceptual skills, and was even the most effective at boosting students’ self-esteem and responsibility toward their work. Nothing else came close.

So what happened? The public school system failed to follow through on Follow Through. Not only was Distar NOT widely adopted around the country, most of the schools that had used it during the experimental phase subsequently dropped it. Their performance dropped commensurately. End of story.

Then there was the billion-dollar Annenberg Challenge of the 1990s, which was meant to identify and replicate successful education models around the country. The project was funded by TV Guide mogul Walter H. Annenberg, launched by then-president Bill Clinton, and overseen, in its Chicago operations, by Barack Obama. And it was another utter failure. Some good schools were created here and there, but the lasting, system-wide improvements that Annenberg had been hoping for never materialized. Why?

The reason is simple: the incredible progress we’ve witnessed in virtually every aspect of life for the past two centuries is the product of freedoms and incentives that do not exist in public schooling.  After spending most of their adult lives writing an awe-inspiring 11 volume history of the world, Will and Ariel Durant remarked that:

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive or too transient. (The Lessons of History, 1968, p. 54-55).

And while the Durants learned this lesson from their study of history, others learned it from personal experience. Michael Manley, leader of the People’s National Party and Vice President of the Socialist International, looked back on his time as Prime Minister of Jamaica and observed in New Perspectives Quarterly:

The fact is we all seriously miscalculated the capacity of the state to intervene effectively. Despite the enormous sincerity we brought to the task, our nationalist and statist approach didn’t work… When one tries to use the state as a major instrument of production, one quickly exhausts the managerial talent that can be mobilized in the name of patriotism. Absent the profit motive, it was truly amazing how few managers one could find that were motivated solely by love of their country, and how quickly these noble souls burned out. I call this idea the “Guevarist myth.” (1992, p. 46-47).

The automatic process by which useful innovations are encouraged, identified, disseminated, perpetuated, and finally superseded relies on innovators being free to do whatever they think is best for their customers, and having powerful incentives to constantly improve on the state of the art. That is why dramatic progress has been the norm under the free-enterprise system over the past 40 years, while public school productivity has plummeted.

Great educators and great schools can and do appear within the public school system, but they do so in spite of that system, not because of it. They never scale up in the way that Google, iPods, or the Kumon tutoring chain have scaled up, because they lack the combination of freedoms and incentives essential to doing so. Trying to get a bureaucracy with a state-protected funding monopoly to reliably scale up excellence in the way that markets do is like trying to reinvent the wheel with an alternative value of pi. It simply cannot be done.

True education markets are the ONLY system that will do what Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and the American people wish.