Tag: school choice week

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.

Status Quo Stalwarts, Meet Reality[School Choice Week Blast from the Past, Pt. 2!]

Back in 1993, when Whitney Houston hit #1 with “I will always love you”, there was something that California-based state schooling advocates didn’t love at all: a school voucher ballot initiative. Much was written on the subject, and in 1994 a booklet was published summarizing the arguments for and against (Voices on Choice, K. L. Billingsley, ed.). In today’s School Choice Week installment, we’ll hear from those who were agin’ it.

Maxine Waters, United States Congress (D, Los Angeles):
“Contrary to claims, school choice will be devastating for urban, minority, and poor students who desperately need quality education.”

Delaine Eastin, California State Representative (D, Fremont):
“Having schools without [government] standards won’t improve learning.” Private school choice “won’t teach more kids how to read and write.”

Well, actually… U.S. private school choice programs usually do improve student achievement significantly in one or more subjects, and they have never been shown to have a negative impact on student achievement. The domestic scientific evidence to that effect was collected and summarized last March by Greg Forster, for the Foundation for Educational Choice. I do have one quibble with the report (it doesn’t count the insignificant findings in studies that have at least one significant finding, as is standard practice in literature reviews) but even after addressing it the aforementioned statements would still hold true.

Heck, even the few choice programs that don’t currently seem to be raising test scores are substantially raising students’ graduation rates–and doing it at substantially less cost to taxpayers than the state schools.

What’s more, when we cast a wider net and look at scientific studies comparing government and independent schools within countries all over the world, the results are even more dramatic.  In fact, it is the least regulated, most market-like schools that most consistently outperform state-run monopoly school systems such was we have in the U.S.

Delaine Eastin:
“[T]his initiative allows schools to fail. But it does nothing to protect taxpayers when they do. When public school systems go belly up as a result of the voucher initiative, the courts are likely to rule that taxpayers will be stuck with the tab—and it won’t be cheap.”

Modern private school choice programs have been operating around the country for as long as twenty years, and I know of no case in which they have been found to increase the total burden on taxpayers. In fact, the only systematic studies of the issue find that these programs save taxpayers money—sometimes quite a bit of it. Florida’s legislature has studied the fiscal impact of that state’s k-12 scholarship donation tax credit program, and found it to save $1.49 for every $1 it reduces revenues. That’s a nearly 50% return.

What’s more, the program has been found in two separate studies to both improve achievement of students who remain in public schools and to improve achievement of students who receive scholarships to attend private schools. It’s not hard to fathom why: on average, private schools spend thousands less per pupil than does the public school monopoly.

Warren Furutani, past president, Los Angeles City Board of Education:
“It is no coincidence that dollars are being pulled from our underfunded, overburdened school system at the same time our governor and the president of this nation are pushing vouchers and choice.”

Um… Yeah… About that claim that “dollars were being pulled” from “underfunded” public schools in California. I just happen to have the actual spending trend handy:

So, not only were these Status Quo Stalwarts unable to correctly predict the future, they had some difficulty accurately describing the present. Oh, and while thrifty school choice programs around the country have been improving student achievement and attainment, it’s hard to say the same for the California’s state education monopoly.

‘School Spending Predicted to Climb 50%’*

*by 2005…

Defenders of the educational status quo have long argued that we don’t need wholesale reform because our state-run school system can be fixed. If we simply raise spending, shrink classes, hire more teachers, or wait for the latest government mandate to work, they’ve promised, our problems will be solved. Reformers have predicted the opposite: that pouring more resources into the public school monopoly will only make it more expensive, not better, and so we need to inject real parental choice, get rid of the red tape that hobbles educators, and unleash market incentives. Who’s right?

My colleagues and I at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom normally answer that question with empirical research, but in honor of School Choice Week

we’re taking a different tack. We’re letting the status quo defenders and reformers speak for themselves, by dredging up their predictions of decades past to see who was a Nostradamus and who a Nostradumb—. To kick off this week-long series, here’s our first blast from the educational past:

“School Spending Predicted to Climb 50% by 2005” [Education Week, Sept. 22nd, 1994]

A report published by the American Legislative Exchange Council predicted that public school spending would climb “from nearly $262 billion in 1994 to $386 billion by 2005.” ALEC also warned that the new spending would do little to help children learn, because public schooling is a government-run monopoly and monopolies are notoriously wasteful and inefficient.

Not everyone agreed. The Ed. Week story cautioned that ALEC’s “projections do not square with [substantially lower] federal estimates, and school finance experts have questioned their methodology.”

Who was right? To find out, we first have to adjust ALEC’s prediction to account for inflation (their estimate of what spending would be in the year 2005 was, of necessity, made in 1994 dollars, which were worth a lot more than dollars in 2005). Using the BLS inflation calculator, we find that ALEC’s prediction amounts to $509 billion in 2005 dollars. That turns out to have been… too low. Real U.S. public school spending in 2005 was $529 billion, according to the 2008 federal Digest of Education Statistics.

As for student achievement, ALEC was right about that, too. Tested near the end of their k-12 schooling, students performed no better in 2005 than they did in 1994—or, for that matter, in 1970 (see chart below).

How to Think & Talk About Vouchers & Ed Tax Credits

School Choice Week is here, and there are a lot of people trying to spread the good word about the benefits of increasing educational freedom.

But what benefit of choice is best to focus on?

You can make at most a few points in an oped or on talk radio. On TV, and even in print reporting, you’re lucky to get one point across. And with friends and family, and even politicians, you need to keep the focus where it will do the most good.

So, should you focus on how horrible inner-city schools are, how many lives are destroyed in a failing government system? Maybe. Depends on the person, certainly.

But the evidence suggests that the best message overall is one that focuses on the financial benefits of school choice (and this is even before the financial crisis). People think about vouchers and education tax credits differently. And be careful trying to pull at Democratic heart-strings with arguments that choice will increase educational equity for poor kids … there’s evidence that it backfires!

Take a look at this slide presentation that describes how the public thinks about private school choice, what you should emphasize, and what you should be careful with … it’s not just my opinion, it’s based on evidence from a unique message experiment: