Tag: public schools

Jay Greene’s Great New Manifesto

Education scholar Jay Greene has a great new pamphlet called Why America Needs School Choice. Concise and very readable, it does a fine job of introducing the general public to the arguments and evidence in favor of market forces in education. In the process, it debunks six “canards” put forward by defenders of the status quo school monopoly.

Of particular value is Jay’s explanation of why existing “school choice” policies, while often producing positive results, have not yet transformed American education. He notes that these existing programs are hobbled by enrollment limits and regulations, and thus represent only dim shadows of what truly free and competitive education marketplaces would offer. I couldn’t agree more! In fact, the manifesto might more precisely be called Why America Needs a Competitive Education Marketplace, though perhaps that would have narrowed its appeal.

One minor quibble: On page 46, Jay writes that:

No private school choice program has been eliminated legislatively. Aside from a few adverse state court decisions, every choice victory is permanent, and every defeat is temporary.

The implication is that legislative and court action are the only avenues by which choice programs can be overturned. A third, public referendum, exists–and was responsible for the repeal of a Utah school voucher program in 2007. Would-be reformers should remember that lesson: unless the public understands and accepts the value of a policy, it may well overturn it before the first student ever participates. Manifestos like Jay’s are a good way to help spread that understanding.

A more significant problem with this particular passage is that it seems to imply that every “choice” program is a victory, and it asserts every victory is permanent. There is good reason to conclude that neither is the case.

The worldwide historical and modern evidence indicate that private schools will ultimately accept government funding no matter what strings are attached, and that such subsidized schools can consume the unsubsidized sector. This has happened in the Netherlands, for instance, which no longer has an unsubsidized private school sector after a century of government-funded private schooling. And since subsidized schools may not be operated for profit, it has no entrepreneurial chains of private schools.

So what happens if the subsidies eventually accumulate so much regulation that government-funded “private” schools become indistinguishable from today’s government schools? The result would be a move from the current 90% government monopoly to a 100% government monopoly. Not a victory at all, as the international evidence shows that the least regulated, most market-like education systems enjoy the greatest advantage over centrally planned school systems such as our own.

Last year, I ran a statistical analysis of the level of regulation imposed on private schools participating in voucher and education tax credit programs. I found that vouchers impose a large and statistically significant burden of extra regulation on private schools, whereas tax credits do not.  There are other issues with vouchers and charter schools as well. So all “choice” programs are not created equal.

Still, these concerns aside, Jay has written one of the best introductions to the case for educational freedom I’ve seen. I hope it gets a wide readership.

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Earlier this week I was asked to comment on a new study of an old preschool program. The program in question is one of three well known (but geographically limited and now defunct) programs that have been found to have had lasting positive effects on participants. From their results, the authors concluded that the “impacts which endured [from the Chicago Parent Center program] provide a strong foundation for the investment in and promotion of early childhood learning.” By “investment” they seem to mean either state or federal government spending on pre-K programs.

Here’s the thing: yet another study of one of the few isolated programs already known to have had a lasting impact does nothing to support large-scale government pre-K programs. That’s because we have mountains of very good research that the signature federal pre-K program, Head Start, has been a failure despite nearly half a century of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending. Even the Department of Health and Human Service’s own top-flight, large sample, nationally representative, randomized experimental study revealed that its impact doesn’t even endure beyond the first grade.

Kudos to the reporter for being open to this cold splash of reality. But here’s where the title of this blog post comes in… when it ran the story, the website of U.S. News and World Report adds the following postscript:

More information

For more information on early childhood education, visit the National Education Association.

Gee, I wonder if a national teacher labor union would support the massive expansion of federal funding for… teaching labor? Does USNews.com really not know how ridiculous this makes them look?

Family Friendly DISCO Moves

I like the nightlife, and I’ve got to boogie, so I’m pleased to hear of a new organization called DISCO: Democrats Impatient for School Choice Organization.

There are many ways to shake, shake, shake that education policy booty, however, and if DISCO really wants to be family friendly, they would be better off skipping the voucher element of their choreography.

The organization’s goal is to extend real school choice to low income families. A crucial element in achieving that goal is to ensure that parents, not influential lobby groups or entrenched interests, get to decide the kinds of education they can choose.  Based on both my review of the historical evidence and my recent regression study of modern school choice programs, vouchers are prone to regulatory proliferation. They centralize authority over what a voucher can buy, so that parents who need financial assistance cannot escape whatever limits the politically powerful wish to impose on them.

Tax credits are different. Scholarship donation tax credit programs, such as the one that already exists in Pennsylvania (and which the state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand) create a proliferation of different sources of financial assistance for low-income families. So if one of those sources decides to impose a particular set of rules on how the money is used, it doesn’t affect any of the others. Parents can choose to seek financial assistance from whichever scholarship granting organization most closely matches their own values and preferences, thereby preventing them from being forced into a particular set of choices.

I made this argument in a little more detail in Cato’s amicus brief in the ACSTO v. Winn case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program.

More Fifth Column than Fourth Estate

Citing new Census figures, the New York Times claims that “public school districts spent an average of $10,499 per student on elementary and secondary education in the 2009 fiscal year.” But according to the most recent issue of the Digest of Education Statistics, expenditures haven’t been that low for over a decade. In the last year reported, 2007-08, total expenditures per pupil in average daily attendance were already $12,922 (in 2008-09 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $13,500 in today’s dollars. (Looking at spending per student enrolled, rather than per student actually taught, lowers the total figure, but not by that much).

So what gives? How can the Times claim that public school “spending” is $3,000 lower than it actually is?

They simply exclude a huge swath of expenditures in the number that they call “spending,” without telling readers they have done so. Specifically, they ignore spending on things like… buildings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think American public schools have returned to Plato’s practice of holding lessons in an olive grove. Until they do, they will use buildings. Buildings cost money. They aren’t erected, for free and fully furnished, from the mind of Zeus.

Not only does this arbitrary and unjustifiable exclusion of capital expenditures from the reported “spending” figures wildly mislead the public about what schools are really costing them, it also misleads the public about the trends in spending. As my colleague Adam Schaeffer reveals in the chart below, spending on physical facilities has increased at a far faster rate than other expenditures (remember those Taj Mahal schools?). So by channeling David Blaine and making capital spending disappear, the Times also misrepresents real spending growth. In so doing, they undermine the public’s and lawmakers’ ability to make sound policy decisions regarding education. If the Times prominently corrects this glaring error I will be utterly shocked.

Turns out State Schooling Isn’t Communist after all…

Albert Shanker, long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers union, said back in 1989 that:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

But hang on a minute! Doesn’t the following description sound a lot like the work rules in our public schools:

Promotion was determined by the Table of Ranks…. An official could hold only those posts at or below his own personal rank…. [S]tandard intervals were set for promotion: one rank every three years from ranks 14 to 8; and one every four years from ranks 8 to 5…. This meant that, barring some heinous sin, even the most average bureaucrat could expect to rise automatically with age…. The system encouraged … time-serving mediocrity

That, ladies and gentleman, is not a description of the work rules of the communist-era Russian bureaucracy. It describes the rules in the Tsarist Russian bureaucracy (see Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy,” p. 36).

The funny thing is, according to Figes, “By the end of the [19th] century, however, this system of automatic advancement was falling into disuse as merit became more important than age.”

So the modern U.S. system for promoting public school teachers was discarded as inefficient and unworkable… by the Tsars.

School Officials Can’t Censor Student Speech, Not Even Religious Speech

Everyone knows that students have First Amendment rights, that the Constitution proverbially doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  Yet students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas (against whose speech code Cato previously filed a brief) were prohibited from handing out pencils with messages such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or sending holiday cards to retirement homes that said “Merry Christmas.”

The students, through their parents, sued the district on First Amendment grounds, and were successful through a Fifth Circuit panel ruling that “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that prevents government officials from being held personally liable under certain circumstances for violating constitutional rights, did not apply in this case.  The panel’s holding is as important as it is unremarkable: School officials have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech during non-curricular activities violates the First Amendment.  The government certainly cannot do so simply because the speech happens to be religious.

The Fifth Circuit en banc (as a whole) vacated the panel’s decision, however, and decided to rehear the case.  Cato has filed a brief supporting the students and their parents; not only is it settled law that students have the right to free speech in public schools, but school officials should be held liable for violating those rights on the basis of the content of that speech.

Indeed, if the First Amendment means anything, it is that the government cannot suppress speech based solely on its content.  More specifically, when an area of the law is “clearly established,” officials cannot escape liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity simply doesn’t apply to public school officials who suppress speech in a non-curricular setting merely because the school district points to some legal disagreement in a dissent, concurrence, or other non-binding judicial opinion that disagrees with settled doctrine regarding viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech.

The en banc Fifth Circuit will hear the case, Morgan v. Swanson, later this spring.  Thanks to legal associate Michael Wilt for his help with the brief and this post.

Let’s Not Lose Sight of a Real Education Market

Over the last few days Jay Greene, the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, and several other edu-thinkers have been arguing about whether national curriculum standards would destroy a competitive market in education, and a market that already provides the uniform standards Fordham wants Washington to impose. But let’s be very clear: We haven’t had a real market – a free market – in education for a long time.

Sadly, I’m afraid Jay started this whole mess, though he certainly knows what a free market in education would look like and I don’t think he intended to confuse the issue.  Indeed, he doesn’t use the term “free market,” but mainly writes about the “competitive market between communities.” His argument is that Americans over time picked standardized curricula and schools by moving to districts that provided such things. He is no doubt at least partially right, though the case is hardly open and shut. Indeed, there is strong historical evidence that district consolidation and uniformity was often pushed on small districts from outside, especially in urban areas. It is also quite possible that many people moved to districts with uniform offerings not in search of such offerings, but in search of something else that happened to coincide with them. Most notably, industrialization brought many people to cities in search of employment, and school uniformity often came with that. Finally, the economist whose work inspired Jay’s post notes that while he believes small rural districts died largely due to residents abandoning them, he concedes that there is a “lack of direct evidence connecting rural property values with local decisions about consolidation.”

Those caveats aside, Jay’s point is a still good one that I have made before, most notably when discussing schooling and social cohesion: People will tend to have their children learn many ”common” things because that is the key to personal success. People will learn what they need to in order to work effectively and successfully in society.  Moreover, people will simply tend to gravitate toward things that work.

So the main problem in the Greene-Fordham debate is not that Jay’s points are necessarily wrong, it’s that “competitive market between communities” is too easily misconstrued as “free market,” and it fails to acknowledge the gigantic inefficiencies that come from government monopolies, whether controlled at the district, state, or federal level. Those include the massive, expensive waste that fills the pockets of special interests employed by the system; constant conflict over what the schools will teach; and at-best very ponderous competition – if you want a better school you have to buy a new house – that quashes crucial innovation and specialization. Worse yet, it leads to the following kind of crucial, damaging misunderstanding by Porter-Magee:

For more than a decade we have been conducting a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting at the state level. The result? A swift and sure race to the bottom. A majority of states had failed to set rigorous standards for their students—and had failed to create effective assessments that could be used to track student mastery of that content. In fact, the whole impetus behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative was to address what was essentially a market failure in education.

This is wrong, as they say, on so many levels!

First, we do not have real market forces anywhere at work in the current, NCLB-dominated regime. Using the quick list of market basics that John Merrifield lays out in his Policy Analysis on school choice research, a truly free market needs ”profit, price change, market entry, and product differentiation.” None of these are meaningfully at work in public schooling, with profit-making providers at huge tax-status disadvantages; public schools artificially “free” to customers; high legal barriers to starting new institutions that can meaningfully compete with traditional public schools; and requirements that all public schools teach the same things, at least at the state level. 

Moreover, if you want to talk about competition between states – which is more in line with what Jay was discussing – under NCLB all states have faced the same, overwhelming incentives to establish low standards, weak accountability, or both: If they don’t get their students to something called “proficiency” – which they define – the federal government punishes them! In light of that, of course they have almost all set very low “proficiency” bars. But that is about as far from “a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting” as you can get! Indeed, it is a brilliant example not of market failure, but government failure!

Ultimately, Jay’s point is right: People on their own will tend to select educational options that are unifying, as well as gravitate to what appears to work best, so there is no need for the federal government to impose it. Moreover, as Jay points out, there are huge reasons to avoid federal standardization, including that special interests like teachers unions will likely capture such standards. But that problem has been at work with state and local monopolies, and it, along with myriad other government failures, will not be overcome until we have a real market in education – a free market in education.