Tag: public schools

Schools of Choice Promote Civic Values

As Americans celebrate our independence this Fourth of July, we should reflect on the institutions that sustain a free society. Chief among these is an education system that instills the civic knowledge and values necessary for self-government. While our freedom was won on the battlefield, it must be nourished in the classroom.

The Founders cherished education as the surest means to preserve liberty. James Madison, considered the father of the U.S. Constitution, proclaimed that:

Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. […] What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?

 Likewise, Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to a friend that a proper education was the best safeguard against abuse of power:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

For over a century, the “common school” has been hailed as the cornerstone of democracy. Where else will students learn what it means to be an American citizen but at a government school? What other institution is better suited to inculcate the civic values of our constitutional republic?

Of course, this is an empirically testable question, and it has been tested. A literature review from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice published earlier this year finds that private schools outperform government schools in teaching civics:

Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.

The largest and most comprehensive of these studies, Dr. Patrick Wolf’s “Civics Exam,” found that private school students are, on average, more politically tolerant, more knowledgeable about our system of government, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more politically active than their government school peers.

 Unfortunately, over the last few decades, civic education in government schools has significantly declined:

When asked whether they are “very confident” that students have mastered important content and skills, only 24% of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15% think that their students understand concepts such as federalism and the separation of powers, and 11% believe their pupils understand the basic precepts of the free market.

Indeed, earlier this year, Washington D.C. education officials considered a proposal to drop the requirement that high schools students in our nation’s seat of government learn anything about that government.

On average, schools of choice outperform government schools at instilling the civic knowledge and values necessary to preserve a free society. The Founders’ vision depends on an educated populace, but it does not depend on the government to educate them. 

Understanding Disappointing Charter School Results

Here are two things that everyone interested in education should know: some of the top performing schools in the country are charter schools, and, on average, charters do not perform significantly better than traditional public schools. The former point is exemplified by the likes of the American Indian Public Charter Schools in Oakland (which the local board recently voted to shut down), and the second by the latest national report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

There is no necessary contradiction between these two findings. It could simply be that there is higher variance in charter schools than in regular public schools, which would cause charters to be over-represented among top and bottom performers without necessarily differing from regular public schools on average. 

Charter optimists believe that to be the case, and they expect that consumer choice and the ability of low-performing charters to fail and close down will gradually raise average performance as good charter networks crowd out bad ones. There is even some evidence that things may be moving in that direction—results of the latest Stanford U. study are less bleak than those of the previous one. 

The most dedicated charter school optimists are perhaps the philanthropists who are subsidizing their growth. But this is where the problems become most visible. A couple of years ago, I studied the many dozens of California charter school networks to measure the correlation between their academic performance and the amount of philanthropic funding they had attracted. In a nutshell, there isn’t one. There is, in fact, a stronger correlation between the length of a charter network’s name and its academic performance than there is between its grant receipts and its performance.

Philanthropists are indeed helping to scale-up charter school networks, but they are doing so effectively at random—much like the lotteries by which over-subscribed charters must admit their students.

This should not be too surprising. Many philanthropists talk about getting a return on their investments, but, in practice, they lack the incentives to do so that characterize for-profit investors. Philanthropists are in the business of giving money away. Investors are in the business of bringing it in. The former do not expect a financial return on their investments; the latter do.

School Funding System Not Broken… It Just Doesn’t Work

We do not claim that the school funding system… is fundamentally flawed, only that there is no correlation at all between the level of per pupil funding and educational outcomes. —Deloitte

Hahahahaha! Ha! Haha! Haaaaaah. Okay. Now a little context.

Last November, the British government “published” a study of its state school system that it had commissioned from the accounting firm Deloitte. Maybe “published” is too strong a word, since there was apparently no press release, no news conference, no effort of any kind to make the public or the media aware of its existence. Perhaps that’s because the study found no correlation between spending and achievement in Britain’s state schools, and the current government’s policy is to increase spending on state schools in an effort to be seen to be doing something.

The sad thing is, the same fundamentally flawed funding systems and dysfunctional political incentives exist in the United States, too… and with much the same effect:

Chart of trends in U.S. public schooling

Hat tip: Joanne Jacobs.

Scientology in the Public School Classroom

Are charter schools uniquely susceptible bad ideas?

Yesterday, NPR reported that a group of charter schools in Arizona are employing a teaching method called “Applied Scholastics,” which is based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the eccentric science fiction author and founder of Scientology. A teacher at one of the schools described the training sessions as “very weird.” Last year, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a charter school in Clearwater, Florida was also using the Scientology-influenced teaching method. 

Some charter school critics leapt on these stories to discredit the entire charter school movement. Responding to the Clearwater revelation last year, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post argued that the use of Applied Scholastics “underscores continuing oversight problems with some charter schools across the country.” Apparently Strauss would prefer students to attend traditional government schools that have lots of oversight, like Prescott Middle School in Baton Rouge:

Inside the industrial looking brick walls of one of Louisiana’s poorest performing middle schools, Scientologists finally have achieved a longtime goal.

A study skills curriculum written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is being taught as mainstream public education.

All the eighth-graders at Prescott Middle School are being taught learning techniques Hubbard devised four decades ago when he set out to remedy what he viewed as barriers to learning.

The state eventually took over Prescott and now a charter school organization is seeking to make it a charter school.

The reality is that no entire group of schools – public, private, or charter – are immune from adopting silly education fads or outright quackery. We should hold schools accountable for their performance, but using such examples to smear large swaths of unconnected schools without even attempting to demonstrate a systemic problem is intellectually dishonest.

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

86ing the Arguments for California Props 30, 38

Californians are being asked to raise their taxes by between $7 billion (Prop 30) and $10 billion (Prop 38) to prop-up public school budgets. If they don’t, backers warn, public schools will face “devastating cuts.” That’s the fear mongering. This is the reality:

Over the past four decades, real per pupil spending in California has roughly doubled. In dollar terms, Californians are spending $27 billion more today on K-12 education than they did in 1974, when Gov. Jerry Brown was first elected to office—and that is after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation.

The last dashed spike on the spending line is the increase if Prop 30 passes, as Governor Jerry Brown has been assuming. If it doesn’t pass, per pupil spending will still be up more than 80 percent over this period, after controlling for inflation. What’s more, there is no evidence that the fantastic spending increases of the past have done anything to improve student achievement.

The only state-level achievement data we have that go back this far are the SATs, and, taking into account the renorming that occurred in the mid 1990s, they have actually declined by five percent. None of the customary excuses can explain away this dismal record. A larger share of students participated in 1972 than do so today, so if a shrinking test-taking pool is the sign of a more elite subset of students taking the test, then scores should be higher today, not lower. And while state-level breakdowns by race and ethnicity are not available that far back, the national trend is similar and it shows stagnation in the scores of majority white students—which excludes changing demographics as an explanation.

As I wrote earlier this year:

It is true that a $7 billion tax increase would at least preserve a certain number of public sector jobs, even if those jobs have not, and likely will not, improve educational outcomes. But if that $7 billion is not taxed out of the free-enterprise sector of California’s economy, it will preserve or create private-sector jobs when it is spent or invested. And, contrary to the pattern shown in the accompanying chart, jobs in the free-enterprise sector do produce things that people value: from movies and music to citrus fruits and cellphones—thus generating new revenue. Tax away that money and you take away those private-sector jobs and revenue.

The final question boils down to this: Can Californians afford to tax $7 billion out of the productive sector of the economy and get nothing in return for the damage it would do?

That’s the question California voters must ask themselves on November 6th.

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.