Tag: evidence

Is School Choice Worth Celebrating? A Look at the Evidence

In honor of School Choice Week, I’ll be answering questions on Facebook tomorrow (4:00pm, Eastern) about the evidence regarding free education markets. When I began studying education policy back in the early 1990s, parent-driven education markets were generally thought of as a new, radical and speculative adventure—uncharted waters where, heaven help us, “thar be monstars.” That was a mistaken view then, and it’s positively absurd now.

As I wrote in Market Education, The Unknown History, the education market of classical Athens, in the 5th century BC, was the first time and place on Earth in which education reached beyond a tiny ruling elite. There was no government participation in education. Teachers competed in the town square to attract paying customers, families called the shots, and the city ended up building a thriving economy and the highest literacy rate in the ancient world. During their heyday, the Athenians invented democracy, most forms of Western literature, and some pretty enduring art and philosophy. Simultaneously, 100 miles away, Sparta established a highly organized system of public boarding schools. It’s legacy? One decent action movie and a name for high school football teams.

Over the next 2,500 years, markets continued to outshine state-run school systems in their ability to serve the needs of families, and they also reduced the social tensions created by state schooling. Near-universal literacy and elementary enrollment among the free population were achieved in the United States by the mid-19th century—before the rise of state school systems—chiefly through private and home schools financed by a combination of parent fees and philanthropy. Even the semi-public “district” schools of the early 19th century charged most parents fees, reserving free and subsidized places for the poor.

Granted, historical evidence is subject to interpretation and charges of selectivity, and so it might not be universally persuasive. But, since 1990, scores of within-country scientific studies have compared education systems ranging from state-run monopolies such as our public schools, to state-funded and regulated private schools, to truly market-like systems in which regulation is minimal and parents choose their schools, as well as paying at least some of the cost directly themselves. I reviewed that body of research a few years ago for the Journal of School Choice and found that it shows private schools tend to outperform state-run schools. More specifically, it shows that the freest and most market-like education systems have the most consistent advantage over state schooling.

There is no credible case against this body of research. I could not find a single study that found a public school system to be more efficient than a market system in terms of student achievement per dollar spent. There weren’t even any insignificant findings for this comparison. Every single study that looked at the efficiency question found statistically significant results favoring education markets over state schooling. It’s rare to see such clear results in the social sciences, but perhaps that’s because there are few areas of life that are still under the thrall of state-run monopolies.

Education markets, when coupled with a mechanism to ensure universal access (such as education tax credits) are a better way to serve our individual needs and to advance our shared ideals. Compulsion and state provision are not only unnecessary, they are counterproductive to our most cherished educational ideals.

Education Policy, The Use of Evidence, and the Fordham Institute

In recent weeks, the Fordham Institute has repeatedly called for government testing and reporting mandates to be imposed on private schools participating in school choice programs (here and here), on the grounds that such “public accountability” improves private school academic outcomes. In defense of this claim, the Fordham Institute cites a study of Milwaukee’s voucher program in which test scores rose following the introduction of such mandates.

Patrick Wolf, director of the research team that conducted the study, has now responded, explaining that his team’s results do not necessarily support Fordham’s claim:

[B]y taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime….

What about the encouraging trend that lower-performing schools in the MPCP are being closed down?  [Fordham] mentions that as well and attributes it to the stricter accountability regulations on the program.  That phenomenon of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” pre-dated the accountability changes in the choice program, however, and appears to have been caused mainly by low enrollments in low-performing choice schools, as parents “voted with their feet” against such institutional failure. Sure, the new high-stakes testing and public reporting requirements might accelerate the creative destruction of low-performing choice schools in Milwaukee, but that remains to be seen. [emphasis added]

But there is a deeper problem with the Fordham claim, to which Wolf alludes: a single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

And Fordham’s preferred policy not only lacks a body of supporting evidence, it is undermined by a large body of evidence. When I reviewed the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide in 2009, I sorted the results into two categories: 1) all studies that compared “public” schools to “private” schools, where those terms were loosely defined; and 2) studies that compared “market” schools to “monopoly” schools. “Market” schools were those paid for at least in part directly by parents and only minimally regulated. “Monopoly” schools were public school systems such as those common in the U.S.

The purpose of these separate categorizations was to see if limited regulation and direct parent funding make a real difference, or if private schools that are paid for entirely by the state and subjected to Fordham’s “public accountability” have the same advantages as their more market-like counterparts.

The result of this breakdown of the literature was stark. Studies looking at truly market-like education systems are twice as consistent in finding a private sector advantage as those looking at “private” schools more broadly construed (and thus including state-funded and regulated private schools).

The pattern of evidence thus seems to contradict Fordham’s belief in the merits of “public accountability” in market education systems. What it favors are policies that promote the rise of minimally regulated education markets in which parents pay at least some of the cost of their own children’s education directly themselves, whenever possible.  That’s just the sort of system likely to arise under education tax credit programs.