Tag: educational freedom

Politico Distorts Evidence on School Choice

Yesterday, Politico ran a story on school choice programs claiming that American taxpayers “will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition — and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.” In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence both that school choice works and that it saves money.

On the question of whether school choice results in superior learning, Politico makes the wrong comparisons. For example:

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

It is not accurate to compare disadvantaged students participating in a school choice program to the general population, which includes children from wealthy families, just as it would be inaccurate to compare all private school students against all public school students (which would show a clear advantage to the former over the latter). That’s comparing apples and orangoutangs. The most accurate comparison is a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of social science. As James Pethokoukis and Michael McShane pointed out over at the AEIdeas blog, Politico fails to mention that 11 of 12 RCTs found that choice improves student outcomes. The last study found no statistically significant difference while no study found any harm.

Many of the gains were small, though statistically significant, and often the gains were only for certain subgroups (generally low-income blacks) who had the least schooling options at the outset. However, based on the available evidence, even the most pessimistic reading of the data must conclude that school choice does no harm, on average. Even then, in addition to more satisfied parents, school choice is a great boon to taxpayers as it produces similar (or better) results at a much lower cost.

Should America’s CEOs Listen to Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan?

Politico reports that U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan will address the Business Roundtable today, calling on the nation’s CEOs to “step up and promote the Obama administration’s education agenda.” That agenda is essentially a doubling-down on the policies of the past 50 years—further increases in federal pre-K spending, further centralization of school standards and testing, etc.

Before agreeing to go along, America’s business leaders should ask themselves: who should be learning from whom? Over the past half-century, which record is more worthy of emulation: that of federal government K-12 policy or that of the free enterprise system?

As an aid to their deliberations, I offer the graphics below:

Versus what economist Mark J. Perry calls “The Magic and Miracle of the Marketplace.” The image on the left is from the 1964 Sears Christmas catalogue. The goods on the right show what you can buy today for the inflation-adjusted cost of one of those vintage TVs (images courtsey of Mark J. Perry).

Discuss.

Fordham Study Shows “Common Core” Unnecessary

The Fordham Institute released today a (“groundbreaking”) study titled “What Parents Want,” which finds that:

nearly all parents seek schools with a solid core curriculum in reading and math; an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education; and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. But some parents also prefer specializations and emphases that are only possible in a system of school choice.

That summary could just as easily describe chapter 1 of my 1999 book Market Education, which reviewed 20 years of public opinion research on people’s educational goals and came to the same conclusion. So far so good.

Upon (re-)discovering that parents already share a “solid core” of educational expectations, do Fordham’s Michael Petrilli and Checker Finn reluctantly abandon their erstwhile attachment to the government-backed standards and testing known as “Common Core”? After all, in a free marketplace with lots of overlap in consumer demands, there will be substantial overlap in what providers deliverall voluntarily; no need for government nudging. [I am shocked, shocked, to discover that Apple puts a web browser on its iPhone, similar to the one on my Android phone!?! Even without a government mandate!]

Strangely, but not unexpectedly, that is not what Petrilli and Finn elect to do. On the contrary, they conclude that the freely-occurring commonality among parents’ demands “bodes well for policy initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, which are designed to deliver much of that.”

Translation: families would pursueand educators would thus providea common core of studies voluntarily, therefore, governments should compel educators to adhere to a particular set of standards cooked up by a group of bureaucrats and arm-twisted into place by the federal government. Because, really, when has anything pursued voluntarily not been improved by the addition of government compulsion?

Senate Hearing Wednesday: The ‘School to Prison Pipeline’

I’ll be testifying before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights this Wednesday, at 2:00pm. The hearing will investigate the “school to prison pipeline”—the pattern of flawed disciplinary policies and practices, including “zero tolerance,” that has been widely faulted for unnecessarily pushing students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

In addition to summarizing some important recent research on the subject, I’ll also be describing an alternative discipline policy that has shown enormous success in one of the most violent, crime-ridden districts in the country, and what Congress can do to encourage the adoption of such policies.

The hearing is open to the public (Dirksen building, room 226), and I’ll be posting my written testimony afterwards.

The Latest Nobel Prize in Economics… Why It Should Make Us Sad

The latest Nobel Prize in economics has been awarded to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley. They’ve done brilliant work on algorithms for optimally matching pairs of things (such as job vacancies and job seekers), but at least one prominent application of their work should produce a deafening roar of foreheads hitting desktops: public school choice.

As the Nobel organization’s website explains, the original algorithm was developed by Shapley and David Gale to optimally match pairs of individuals who could only each be matched with one other person. For instance, optimally marrying-off 10 men and 10 women based on their relative levels of interest in one another. Over the past decade, it has come to be used to match students to places in local public schools (by Roth).

The problem is that this approach to “school choice” correctly assumes that the better public schools have a fixed number of places and cannot expand to meet increased demand. So it’s about finding the least-awful allocation of students to a static set of schools—a process that does nothing to improve school quality.

Meanwhile, there is something called a “market” which not only allows consumers and producers to connect, it creates the freedoms and incentives necessary for the best providers to grow in response to rising demand and crowd-out the inferior ones. It also provides incentives for innovation and efficiency. But instead of advocating the use of market freedoms and incentives to improve education, some of our top economists are spending their skill and energy tinkering with the increasingly inefficient, pedagogically stagnant status quo.

Forehead… meet desk.

State Rep. Balks at Voucher Funding for Muslim School

Just as Louisiana’s legislative session was wrapping up earlier this month, state Rep. Kenneth Havard refused to vote for any voucher program that “will fund Islamic teaching.” According to the AP, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans was on a list of schools approved by the state education department to accept as many as 38 voucher students. Havard declared: “I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this.”

For unreported reasons, the Islamic school subsequently withdrew itself from participation in the program and the voucher funding was approved 51 to 49. With the program now enacted and funded, nothing appears to stand in the way of the Islamic school requesting that it be added back to the list, and it is hard to imagine a constitutionally sound basis for rejecting such a request.

This episode illustrates a fundamental flaw in government-funded voucher programs: they must either reject every controversial educational option from eligibility or they compel taxpayers to support types of education that violate their convictions. In either case, someone loses. Either poor Muslims in New Orleans are denied vouchers or taxpayers who don’t wish to support Muslim schools are compelled to do so.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Education tax credit programs can ensure universal access to the education marketplace without violating anyone’s freedom of conscience. That’s because tax credits extend choice not only to parents but to taxpayers as well. Taxpayers in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and a half dozen other states can choose to donate to nonprofit tuition-assistance organizations that serve the poor. If they do make a donation, they pick the organization that receives their funds, whether it be Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, secular or entirely indifferent to religiosity.

Similarly, direct education tax credits for parents who pay for their own children’s education compel no one to support those parents’ choices. Such personal education tax credits, which already exist in Illinois and Iowa, merely let parents keep more of their own money. Far from increasing the tax burden on their fellow citizens, parents who pay for their own children’s education with the help of a credit save other taxpayers from having to pay for their children’s state schooling.

The school choice movement does not need to throw taxpayers’ freedom of conscience under the bus to secure freedom of choice for parents.

Tax Credit Policy Design for School Choice: A Response to John Kirtley

There are few people with whom I am so much in agreement on the goals of education policy as John Kirtley. To the extent that we differ, it’s chiefly about the best ways of achieving those shared goals. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on his recent post on Education RedefinEd.

Regulation of Private Schools under Education Tax Credit Programs

I’ve no reason to think that the customary financial reporting requirements imposed on scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) are problematic, but the same cannot be said about regulations imposed on the private schools themselves. In response to an earlier post by Adam Schaeffer, John writes that “Adam is absolutely correct that you can only drive so much excellence through top-down accountability.” But Adam actually goes further, arguing that there is no evidence you can drive any excellence through “top-down accountability” (read: “government regulations”) on private schools. The purpose of noting the corruption in state schools (e.g., in Florida and Atlanta) is to show that even the vast array of government regulations imposed on public schools fails to curtail such defects. And, as I found in reviewing the worldwide literature comparing different types of government, pseudo-market, and market education systems, it is the least regulated, most market-like systems that consistently do the best job of serving families across all measured outcomes.

If there were compelling evidence that government regulations on schools could reduce corruption or boost academic achievement, there might be a case for such regulations being added to tax credit programs. But no such evidence exists to the best of my knowledge. In addition to failing to achieve its intended goals, regulation inhibits the educational freedom and diversity that are responsible for the market’s efficiency and responsiveness to families—undermining the whole purpose of a choice program.

The one and only empirically defensible argument in favor of regulations of schools under tax credit programs is political: in some states, it may not be possible to enact tax credit programs without such regulations. In that case, a judgment call has to be made on whether the regulations are so bad as to compromise the program and make it unworthy of passage, because it would fail to produce positive results and give the movement a black eye that would mistakenly be carried over to better, freer programs.

But that argument does not apply to states that have already enacted relatively free school choice programs, by definition: the bills have already passed, so the regs weren’t politically necessary.

Multi-SGO vs. Single SGO Tax Credit Program

 John also argues that a proliferation of SGOs increases the risk of a financial or other SGO scandal in any given year. It’s a plausible argument. If the probability of a scandal breaking out at any one SGO is fixed, and that probability is equal to x, then the probability of a scandal breaking out at any one of a group of SGOs would be = 1 – (1 – x)^N, where N is the number of SGOs. As N goes up, so does the likelihood of at least one scandal occurring.

On the other hand, it seems likely that the probability of a scandal breaking out at an SGO is not fixed, but rather is proportional to the number of people the SGO employs. Hiring more people raises the chance that you eventually hire someone crooked. Tempting as it is to develop a full-blown mathematical model for scandal risk based on the number and size of the SGOs, it seems sufficient to say that the two factors probably cancel each other out to a considerable extent. In other words, it is not obvious that scandal risk would be appreciably different in single SGO vs. multi-SGO environments.

But the absolutely crucial factor that the above discussion omits is that the impact of a scandal also varies with respect to the number of SGOs. If you have 200 SGOs, each of limited size, and one of them has a scandal, it’s no big deal. Donors will just stop giving to that SGO and it will go out of business unless it manages the Herculean task of convincing the public it has mended its ways. Parents that had gotten scholarships from it will then seek scholarships from one of the SGOs that is now receiving the donations that the corrupt one used to get. In fact, this is just what would have happened in the case of the errant donation that John mentions, whether or not any new regulations were imposed.

Indeed, we see this with charities in general. Charitable giving is hugely popular in the United States, but every year some charities are found to be fraudulent or mismanaged. This has had little or no effect on the popularity of charitable giving over time. The system has proven extremely resilient as former donors to the fallen charities have simply shifted their giving to better-run institutions. There has been no move to winnow down America’s charitable landscape either overtly or indirectly (such as by drastically limiting the share of donations that can be used for operational overhead, and thereby driving most institutions out of business).

John likens the probability of a scandal at an SGO in a multi-SGO tax credit program to “giving the enemy a hand grenade.” Extending that simile, the single SGO model is like giving opponents a nuclear time bomb. What happens if there is only one SGO that accepts all the donations in a state and it succumbs to a scandal? Donors have nowhere else to turn. Many will likely stop donating and poor families who were depending on those scholarships will suffer. That, in turn, will not sit well with legislators or the public, who would likely act to re-open the flow of funds to those families.

But how would they go about trying to do that on short notice? One way would be for the state to take over the corrupt SGO and promise to set it aright. As we’ve seen, state control of education does not prevent scandals, so that won’t work—but it would destroy the independence of the program. Another alternative would be for the state to create its own SGO alongside the corrupt one, with much the same effect. Yet another option would be for the state to impose a passel of new regulations on the corrupt SGO, promising that these would solve the problem—which, as we’ve seen, they’d be highly unlikely to do. And finally, the state could simply shut the program down entirely, forcing all those families back into the state school monopoly, which they had deliberately chosen to flee. Every one of those outcomes is far worse than the outcome in a state with many SGOs. Indeed, even without a scandal, a single-SGO system represents a vastly easier and more tempting target for a state takeover than a distributed, multi-SGO system.

I am both very happy and very relieved to grant that John’s organization, Step Up for Students, is impeccably run and is not likely to suffer a scandal in the foreseeable future. But, as Adam asks, what happens if/when John and the organization’s current top executives are gone? And similarly, what happens in states that don’t have a John Kirtley to create and brilliantly staff and oversee their one and only SGO? I’ve been around long enough to know that John Kirtleys do not grow on trees. The school choice movement is astonishingly lucky to have him as one of its leading lights. And because of the rarity of his invaluable qualities, it is unwise to design a policy that relies on similarly exceptional individuals to lead every SGO in every state in perpetuity.

Some SGOs will inevitably be overseen by less experienced, capable and honorable people (just as some public school districts are today) and so our education policies must systematically minimize the damage that mismanagement and corruption can do. Giving donors real choice among a panoply of different SGOs is the only mechanism yet suggested to accomplish this task, and one that has proven its value for generations in the broader charitable sector.

Preserving Parental Choice

There is another important reason to prefer the multi-SGO model, a goal that John and I deeply share: preserving real parental choice. A central conclusion of my journey through education history from classical Greece to modern America, England, Canada and Japan was that parents generally make better choices for their own children than even “expert” third parties make on their behalf. That is true whether the third parties are government bureaucracies or private institutions. And in my reading of that history I failed to find a single education system in which third parties who were paying for children’s education indefinitely restrained themselves from shaping what or how those children were taught. Ultimately, the money came with strings attached. (The G.I. Bill, sometimes presented as a counterfactual to this observation, is actually not relevant, since the pattern I’m describing is for elementary and secondary education. It is when children are young and their minds most malleable that the temptation is greatest to shape them in whatever image the third party wishes.)

We’d be wise to expect that pattern to continue. But if all third party payment ultimately comes with strings, how do you preserve the maximum level of parental choice? You prevent any single individual or organization from gaining a monopoly in third party education subsidies. By ensuring that a multiplicity of funding sources exists, you make it possible for parents to seek assistance from whichever organization most closely comports with their needs and preferences.

The freedom of donors to give to different SGOs that match their different educational ideals thus offers unique protection to families against being forced to accept strings they object to.

The alternative John suggests, legislatively forbidding SGOs from attaching any conditions to their scholarships, is unlikely to achieve its intended aim in the long run. Certainly there is no precedent for it, and it is easy to think of cases that would undermine it. What happens when schools begin to open that refuse to serve gay students? Or that exclusively serve them? What about Wiccan schools? What about “Marx’s Manifesto Middle School”? What about “Hayek High”? For each one of these schools, there is a distinct and sizable constituency that would deeply object to funding it. So what happens if all SGOs have to fund all of them? Do angry, coerced donor/taxpayers roll over and go gently into that good night of compulsion? No. They demand that their representatives impose restrictions on the eligibility criteria for private schools. But since we live in a pluralistic society, that ultimately will result in a gradual accretion of homogenizing restrictions on the kinds of education schools can offer, winnowing down the range of choices available to families—precisely the opposite of the intended goal.

Nor is this merely a hypothetical. I suspected this phenomenon would exist based on my research for Market Education: The Unknown History, but recently tested it statistically by comparing the level of regulation imposed on private schools under voucher versus education tax credit programs. Under vouchers, every taxpayer is compelled to pay for every government-approved private school. Under tax credit programs (with the partial exception of Florida’s) donors have very broad latitude in choosing the kind of SGO they will support, and SGOs have similar latitude. So, based on my theory, we would expect vouchers programs to result in more heavily regulated private schools than tax credit programs because of the compulsion that vouchers perpetuate but tax credits avoid. After crunching the numbers using two different statistical methods and allowing for thousands of different randomized ways of measuring regulatory burden, I found that vouchers do impose a large and statistically significant extra burden of regulation on private schools that tax credits do not. This evidence is not dispositive, but it is consistent with the analysis outlined above, and it’s the only evidence we have. I suggest that we ignore it not so much at our own peril as at the peril of the children we seek to serve.

One Model to Rule Them All?

In any discussion of the “best” policy, I think it’s wise to consider the possibility that any one of us (or even all of us) could be wrong. Education policy is hard. We can of course do our best to collect the widest possible body of relevant evidence, and to test our recommendations empirically whenever possible. We can and should have more discussions like this one, which are hugely valuable. But after all that, we could still be missing something.

Given that reality, there is one other step we can consider to maximize our chances of getting education policy right: we can let different models coexist side by side for a few decades and watch how well they perform, rather than trying to homogenize them up front. If one program doesn’t work quite as well as another, we will see that and be able to learn from it. But if we insist on conformity in the short term, we may never learn those important lessons. And if we settle on a fundamentally flawed model, the results could fall very far short of our hopes and expectations.

Of course, in any state that is just adopting a school choice program for the first time, there has to be a decision as to which program is best. But in states where programs have already been implemented, it seems far wiser to allow them to mature independently rather than to try to “fix” them or even supplant them with new and different programs simply because we believe that they may suffer shortcomings in the future.

Almost anything is better than the status quo monopoly, and yet we’ve had this awful monopoly for a century and a half. It’s hard to correct mistakes once a policy monoculture has established itself and crowded out the alternatives.

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