Tag: public school system

New Jersey Canceled for Lack of Funds

New Jersey is broke. In an effort to get the state back on its financial feet, governor Chris Christie has made across-the-board cuts–including cuts to public school spending. This week, a judge ruled that his school cuts are unconstitutional, in light of state supreme court precedents dating back decades.

Basically, New Jersey’s highest court has ruled that the state must spend a fantastically large sum of money in order to meet its constitutional requirement of providing a “thorough and efficient” school system.

Slight problem: by definition, a system that spends outrageous sums of money for outcomes that are merely “thorough” cannot also be “efficient.” The courts seem to have resolved this logical contradiction by ignoring the word efficient. So now they just demand that the state spend more money on public schools, while acknowledging how futile that is. In Judge Doyne’s words:

Despite spending levels that meet or exceed virtually every state in the country, and that saw a significant increase… from 2000 to 2008, our “at-risk” children are now moving further from proficiency.

Spending more on public schools will do one thing for the state, though: bankrupt it. Unless something changes soon, we could well see the Detroitification of New Jersey: an exodus of residents fleeing failed government services and rising taxes, creating a death spiral as the shrinking tax base exacerbates the fiscal problems and perpetuates the exodus.

The only way that I can see for New Jersey to survive the court-mandated burden of its public school systems is to provide families and taxpayers with an alternative to them.

The state legislature is currently considering a k-12 school choice program that would subsidize private school tuition for poor kids by giving businesses a tax break if they donate to non-profit scholarship organizations. Florida has a program like this and it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces tax revenues. That’s because monopoly public schooling is so much less efficient (there’s that word again) than parent-chosen private schooling.

If the state doesn’t enact this program–and make it large enough to make a difference… fogettaboutit

What if We Ran a Public School System… and No-One Came?

The New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, which estimates the budgetary impact of proposed laws, has just released its analysis of a private school choice bill called the “Opportunity Scholarship Act.” The most remarkable thing about its report is the amount of money it assumes that districts would save for each student they no longer have to teach: $0.

On that assumption, if every student were to leave for the private sector tomorrow, districts would keep right on spending exactly the same amount they spend today. Inefficient though it is, not even state-run monopoly schooling is that bad.

The OLS report does not explain why it assumes that the per pupil savings for students leaving public schools (the “marginal cost”) would be $0. It states that this figure is “indeterminate,” but by not counting it at all is effectively treating it as zero.

In fact, the marginal cost of public schooling is not “indeterminate” at all. Economists “determine” it all the time, and it’s quite easy to do. You simply observe how district spending actually rises and falls with enrollment, using a time-series regression, as I did in 2009 to calculate the marginal cost of public schooling in Nevada (see Appendix A).

Even if the NJ OLS does not conduct a marginal cost estimate specific to New Jersey, they could have done–and should still do–the next best thing: take the marginal cost estimates for other states as a rough guide and estimate the NJ district savings from them. I estimated that Nevada district spending falls by 85% of average per-pupil spending when a student leaves, and Grecu and Lindsay, a couple of years earlier, estimated the figure at 80% for South Carolina.

If they want to be conservative, the NJ OLS could use the lower of these figures, and perhaps also run the numbers for estimates 10% higher and 10% lower.

Any of the above options is preferable to the logical impossibility of their current analysis, which effectively treats the marginal cost of public schooling as $0.

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.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Wheel Reinvention

The final guidelines for the Administration’s “Race to the Top” education reform program have now been released. It’s a system that stimulates competition between the states to produce results that the customer (Secretary Duncan) wants, using financial incentives. Déjà vu, anyone?

It’s as though Arne Duncan recognizes the merits of free market forces, but rather than faithfully reproducing them in the field of education, he’s decided to give us his own reimagining of them.

Here’s the problem. There are already 25 years of scientific research comparing real free education markets to traditional public school systems. It overwhelmingly finds that markets do a better job of serving families. But we have no evidence at all that Secretary Duncan’s newly invented system will do anyone any good.

So why go to all this trouble to reinvent the wheel, when the Secretary’s own Department of Education has found that an on-going federal private school choice program—which gets much closer to a genuine education marketplace—is raising students’ reading ability by two grade levels after just 3 years of participation?

Actually, Big Mistakes Are to Be Expected…

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has a helpful column on the WaPo’s “Answer Sheet” blog. In it, he notes that DC Public Schools advises its employees to teach to students’ ”diverse learning styles” (e.g. “auditory learners,” “visual learners,” etc.) despite the fact that research shows these categories are pedagogically meaningless.

But what really grabbed my attention was this comment: “a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.”

As cognitive scientists have been collecting and analyzing evidence on “learning styles” for generations, social scientists and education historians been doing the same for school systems. What these latter groups find is that it is perfectly normal for public school districts to be unaware of or even indifferent to relevant research and to make major pedagogical errors as a result. Furthermore, there is no evidence that large districts are any better at avoiding these pitfalls than smaller ones. If anything, the reverse is true.

Not only are such errors to be expected of public school systems, we can actually say why that is the case with a good degree of confidence: public schooling lacks the freedoms and incentives that, in other fields, both allow and encourage institutions to acquire and effectively exploit expert knowledge.

Districts such as Washington DC can persist year after year with abysmal test scores, abysmal graduation rates, and astronomical costs. That is because they have a monopoly on a vast trove of  government k-12 spending. In the free enterprise system, behavior like that usually results in the failure of a business and its disappearance from the marketplace. So, in the free enterprise sector, it is indeed rare to see large institutions behaving in such a dysfunctional manner, because it would be difficult if not impossible for them to grow that big in the first place. Long before they could scale up on that level, they would lose their customers to more efficient, higher quality competitors.

So if we want to see the adoption and effective implementation of the best research become the norm in education, we have to organize schooling the same way we organize other fields: as a parent-driven competitive marketplace.

Research Shows $100 Billion Ed. Stimulus Likely Hurting Economy

Tomorrow morning, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers will release a report assessing the short and long-term effects of the stimulus bill on the U.S. economy. As with previous iterations, this report will attempt to forecast overall effects of the stimulus across its many different components and the different economic sectors it targets. In doing so, it ignores the clearest research findings available pertaining to a key portion of the stimulus: k-12 education.

The president has committed $100 billion in new money to the nation’s public school systems, and required that states accepting the funds promise not to reduce their own k-12 spending. The official argument for this measure is that higher school spending will accelerate U.S. economic growth. But a July 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Sciences finds that, to the authors’ own surprise, higher spending on public schooling is associated with lower subsequent economic growth. Spending more on public schools hurts the U.S. economy.

How is that possible? There is little debate in academic circles that raising human capital – improving the skills and knowledge of workers – boosts productivity. So an obvious interpretation of the JPS study is that raising public school spending must not increase human capital. While this possibility surprised study authors Norman Baldwin and Stephen Borrelli, it is consistent with the data on U.S. educational productivity over the past two generations.

Since 1970, inflation adjusted public school spending has more than doubled. Over the same period, achievement of students at the end of high school has stagnated according to the Department of Education’s own long term National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate has declined by 4 or 5%, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. So the only thing higher public school spending has accomplished is to raise taxes by about $300 billion annually, without improving outcomes.

The fact that more schooling without more learning is not a recipe for economic growth is confirmed by the independent empirical work of economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. Their key finding is that academic achievement, not schooling per se, is what matters to economic growth.

Based on this body of research, the president’s decision to pump $100 billion into existing public school systems is likely slowing the U.S. economic recovery.

I Would Rather You Just Said “Thank You, Private Schools,” and Went on Your Way…

Some well-known bloggers are being terrible bullies, beating up on private schools.

Felix Salmon kicks things off by hoping the government tightens the definition of a “charitable” organization and begins taxing private schools who don’t “do a bit more to earn it.” Matt Yglesias agrees that private schools are mooching deadbeats and ups the ante, calling them actively harmful as well. Finally, Conor Clarke at The Atlantic agrees, but makes the other two look like panty-waists by proposing the government radically narrow what is considered a charity in the first place.

Yglesias even has the temerity to indict private schools for the failure of NYC public schools:

And as best one can tell, their main impact on the common weal is negative, drawing parents with resources and social capital out of the public school system and contributing to its neglect. You’d have to believe that New York City’s public schools would be both better funded and free of this kind of nonsense if a larger portion of the city’s elite were sending their kids to them.

Really? Would we have to believe what Yglesias says? No, it’s not “the best one can tell.” According to the evidence, Yglesias’ breezy, offhand accusation is demonstrably wrong. Increased competition from private schools actually improves public school performance.

And the more kids who leave public to go private, the more money the schools have for the kids who remain.

What ingrates. They complain about the lost tax revenue while dismissing out of hand the billions of dollars that parents and donors spend every year to educate children outside the government system. They dismiss the fact that these parents and donors are saving taxpayers in the neighborhood of $60 Billion a year based on current-dollar public school spending and the number of kids in private schools.

Finally, if this is all about rich people getting a free ride, why aren’t these guys screaming about means-testing public schools? Why shouldn’t we charge rich parents tuition to attend public schools? If a charitable deduction for private schools is so bad, why isn’t a free public education even worse?