Tag: public schools

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.

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.

Public School Spending. There’s a Chart for That!

What better time than back-to-school season to revisit the trends in U.S. student achievement and public school spending? With that thought in mind, I present a newly updated version of my chart showing the total amount spent over the course of a single student’s k-12 career, along with student achievement trends for 17-year-olds. The achievement data come from the Department of Education’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress “Long Term Trends” series, which regularly tests nationally representative samples of U.S. students, drawing from the same pool of questions in use since the tests were first administered around 1970. These are the best data we have on what our kids know by the end of high school and how much it has cost to get them there.

In the past, some readers have wondered if the use of two separate scales ($ on the left and % on the right) might skew the way we perceive these numbers, making the public school productivity collapse look worse than it really is. To allay that concern, I present an alternate version of the chart that places all the data on the same percentage scale. Alas, the second picture is no less bleak than the first.

If music players had suffered the same cost/performance trends we’d all still be lugging around cassette boom boxes, but they’d now cost almost $1,800…. Aren’t you glad we didn’t give tax-funded state monopolies to 19th century Victrola manufacturers?

Is It Good to Have More Kids in the Inefficient and Less-Effective Government School System?

The Los Angeles Times editorializes today on our new research demonstrating the high cost of charter schools in terms of tax dollars and an impoverished private sector in education.

The editors still “see a lot to celebrate” in charter schools and I would heartily agree. Charter schools often provide a safe, better alternative to the existing public schools for many kids who desperately need one.

Oddly, the editors at the LAT seem most celebratory not about choice, empowerment, and competition-driven improvements in education, but about the prospect of “more enrollment and resources,” “more money,” and “more funding” that the formerly private school students will likely bring to the government school system.

But money isn’t the problem with government schools, otherwise the LA school district would be tops. LAUSD spent nearly $30,000 per student in 2008, over $20,000 excluding local bond revenue (they claimed just $10,000 that year).

Government schools, even government charter schools, are inefficient and a poor reflection of the educational diversity possible in the private sector. A Ball State University study estimated that charters received over $9,000 per student in 2007. The average tuition in Catholic schools, where most of the private charter students come from, was just $6,000 in 2008 according to the government’s NCES.

In other words, charter schools cost over 50 percent more than the average tuition at a Catholic school. And the charter school might well be worse for the kid who switches on average. After all, the private school would be that family’s first choice if money weren’t an issue. And because private schools have to charge tuition, they need to provide enough value to compete with taxpayer-funded schools. That means a private school needs to provide a value worth more than $15,000 while charging just $6,000 (the $9,000 parents could get in the charter school plus the $6,000 they have to pay out of pocket for tuition).

Because of financial hardships and a high tax burden to support government schools, many families are choosing to move their child out of the private school that’s best for their child to a newly acceptable, “free” charter school.

If we want the best education for the largest number of kids while lowering the tax burden at the same time, expanding government charter schools isn’t the way to do it. Private school choice through education tax credits is the route to sustainable, continuous improvements in educational achievement and efficiency.

 

The Charter School Paradox

Is it possible for charter schools to increase educational options and diversity in the public school system but decrease it overall; to spend less money than regular public schools but cost taxpayers more overall; and to outperform regular public schools but decrease achievement overall?

Unfortunately, it is possible, and this mix of intended and unintended outcomes is the “Charter School Paradox.” But it is only a paradox if we take a narrow view of charter school effects. Rigorous new research concludes that public charter schools are seriously damaging the private education market, adding to the taxpayer burden, and undermining private options for families and healthy competition in the education sector.

Fortunately, we have a solution in education tax credits …

Take a look at the full paper by Richard Buddin, my short companion piece, and our brief video on the findings and implications of this path-breaking new research.

Class Size, Dropouts, & the Windy Atlantic

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, I argued that America has too many public school employees, and has wasted those employees’ talents on a mass scale. Jordan Weissmann, an associate editor with The Atlantic, disagrees, accusing me of running “roughshod over a lot of important nuance.” As it happens, no nuances were injured in the composition of my piece.

Let’s consider Mr. Weissmann’s cruelty-to-nuance claims in turn. First, he feels that I ignored “significant evidence that smaller classrooms do indeed improve student performance,” citing two sources. The first source is an unsigned web-page by the “Center for Public Education” that is so biased in its selective coverage as to not be worth serious consideration. The second is a scholarly paper by Alan Krueger, author of one of the two best-known literature reviews of the subject.

What Weissmann doesn’t mention is the work of Eric Hanushek, author of the other best known literature review on class size. Krueger contends that class size reduction is usually educationally beneficial and cost effective, Hanushek argues the contrary on both points. It’s easy to compare their evidence and arguments because both contributed at length to the book: The Class Size Debate, published by the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute. It is a testament to how comfortable Hanushek is with the strength of his case vis-à-vis Krueger’s that he links to a full .pdf of that book from his own web pages at Stanford University. I understand why. When Hanushek looked at the most methodologically sound estimates—those that measure changes in student performance over time instead of at just a single point in time—he found that 89% show either no statistically significant advantage or a significant negative effect to smaller classes. To arrive at his opposing conclusion, Krueger had to, among other things, overweight the lower quality studies.

Hanushek’s conclusion is also more consistent than Krueger’s with the national U.S. data. The average American classroom has gotten substantially smaller over the past 40 years (by about 7 students) but achievement at the end of high-school is essentially flat. The only way to counter this evidence is to claim—usually without systematic basis—that children must be so much more difficult to teach today that the gains we would have seen from smaller classes have been eclipsed by this reduced “teachability.” The only systematic study of “teachability” trends of which I am aware does not support that claim—finding net “teachability” to have been mostly flat over time, with some improvement in the past decade.

Hanushek’s conclusion has also been supported by new, large-scale research, published after his and Krueger’s reviews. Harvard researchers Antonio Wendland and Matthew Chingos reported in 2010 that Florida’s state-wide class size reduction had “no discernible impact upon student achievement,” but has so far cost the state roughly $28 billion.

Some journalists are aware of the evidence that smaller classes generally do not improve outcomes. Consider, for example, this bit of reporting from last December:

Think of the ingredients that make for a good school. Small classes. Well-educated teachers. Plenty of funding. Combine, mix well, then bake. Turns out, your recipe would be horribly wrong, at least according to a new working paper out of Harvard…. The study comes courtesy of economist Roland Fryer, an academic heavyweight who was handed a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” earlier this year…. Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.

In fact, schools that poured in more resources actually got worse results.

Who is the astute journalist who wrote these words and from whom Jordan Weissmann could learn a few lessons? You guessed it… it was Jordan Weissmann, writing just seven months ago. How soon we forget.

Next, Weissmann claims that “dropout rates, for instance, have fallen by almost half since the 1970s.” Presumably he is unaware that this statement and the table he cites in support of it do not reflect reality. The “dropout rates” published in that NCES table are statistical fabrications of the nation’s education bureaucrats, looking to placate the public with the help of the remarkably credulous education media. You needn’t take my word for it. That is the finding of the left-leaning, Nobel-prize-winning, cited-by-President-Obama-with-approbation economist James Heckman. Heckman’s 2007 study, with Paul LaFontaine, is still the definitive work on the subject (though it was not the first to report the truth). Here is what Heckman and LaFontaine established through a painstaking analysis of the nation’s graduation data:

(a) the true high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the official rate issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics [the one cited by Weissmann]; (b) it has been declining over the past 40 years; (c) majority/minority graduation rate differentials are substantial and have not converged over the past 35 years; (d) the decline in high school graduation rates occurs among native populations and is not solely a consequence of increasing proportions of immigrants and minorities in American society;

They also note that the post-NCLB uptick in graduation rates probably does not imply a genuine improvement in educational outcomes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority retention [a.k.a. “flunking”] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups. A similar pattern is observed following the publication of A Nation at Risk. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., “cheating”].

The italics and the text in square brackets in the above quotations are mine.

The fact that public school systems report falsely rosy “dropout rates” is not a secret. Anyone who spends 60 seconds on Google will discover it. It’s even been reported in such popular media outlets as… Mr. Weissmann’s employer, The Atlantic. That page on the Atlantic’s website actually links to the very same Heckman and LaFontaine study I link to above. Heck, it’s even been mentioned in The New York Times (though they’ve managed to protect their most die-hard readers from cognitive dissonance by restricting coverage of these findings to David Brooks’ column).

Weissmann wraps up his blog post with a foray into the art of mind-reading:

I doubt Coulson truly believes we really have too many teachers in this country. He hints at so much in his last paragraph, writing, “While America may have too many teachers, the greater problem is that our state schools have squandered their talents on a mass scale.” Why the hedge? My guess is….

Kudos to any readers who correctly predicted that both Mr. Weissmann’s belief and his guess were wrong. The reason that I can make no certain statement about the ideal size of the U.S. education labor force is that no one can predict the allocation of human and capital resources that will occur in future in a free market. That said, there is reason to expect fewer teachers will be required under market conditions since our public school monopolies have been on a hiring spree 11 times faster than enrollment growth for forty years. Moreover, on-line learning and educational software options are only getting better and more numerous, and this should lessen demand for classroom teachers. Against those forces we have to consider that families may choose to invest some of the resulting savings from employing fewer classroom teachers in one-on-one tutoring, which is generally accepted as highly effective if, at present, too expensive to be much used.

One thing I can say with some certainty, based on the world-wide research literature comparing different sorts of school systems within countries, is that whatever particular allocation of teachers and capital resources the market arrives at will be more efficient than the gross, unproductive staffing bloat that has been perpetrated by state schooling. And, as I explained in that linked study, the existing small niche of non-profit private schools in the United States does not constitute a free education marketplace. A further explanation of the difference, should anyone find it necessary, can be found in this piece by economist John Merrifield.

To quickly correct some of Weissmann’s remaining errors: I am on record as not faulting teachers’ unions as the cause of our nation’s education woes. Their predations (e.g., contributing to the system’s demonstrably unproductive employment bloat) are a symptom, not the disease. And while some public school teachers are obviously overpaid, others have been equally obviously underpaid. The problem with public school teachers’ salaries at present is that they are allocated based on time-served and credentials (neither of which is consistently related to student achievement) rather than performance. Markets tend to compensate employees based on performance and so this problem, too, will likely be solved by liberalizing America’s education sector through programs like K-12 education tax credits.

This is probably all the time I will have to debunk the various flawed criticisms that were offered in response to my WSJ piece, so I thank Mr. Weissmann for conveniently collecting most of them in one place.