Tag: school choice

Education, Standards, and Private Certification

Can there be standards in education without the government imposing them?

Too many education policy wonks, including some with a pro-market bent, take it for granted that standards emanate solely from the government. But that does not have to be the case. Indeed, the lack of a government-imposed standard leaves space for competing standards. As a result of market incentives, these standards are likely to be higher, more diverse, more comprehensive, and more responsive to change than the top-down, one-size-fits-all standards that governments tend to impose. I explain why this is so at Education Next today in What Education Reformers Can Learn from Kosher Certification.” 

Cutting the Tie Between Education and Housing

We already have a market in education: the real estate market. Controlling for other factors, houses in districts with higher-performing government schools are more expensive than those in areas with lower-performing schools. In 2012, the Brookings Institution issued a report finding that in “the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.” The report also found that “the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams.”

Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school. That this is a horribly unjust policy for low-income children is obvious and oft-discussed, but what’s often overlooked is that the negative consequences also extend to middle-income families.

With quality education tied to housing, middle-income parents who desire the best for their children must seek out housing in areas with better government schools or scrape together money for private school tuition. Unfortunately, as a new Brookings report reveals, this too-often means purchasing a home that is just barely within a family’s financial means, creating a situation where millions of middle-income families live “hand-to-mouth” with very low levels of liquid savings though they have considerable non-liquid assets. The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien explains:

This shouldn’t be too much of a mystery. Imagine a couple that’s getting ready to have kids, and wants to buy a house near good schools. Well, that’s expensive. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out in The Two Income Trap, buying a house in a school district you can’t really afford is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcies. Couples can only afford the mortgage with both their salaries, so they’ll get in trouble if either of them loses their job. 

But even if everything goes right, they’ll still be cash-poor for a long time. They’ll probably have to use most of their savings on the down payment, and use a big part of their income on the mortgage payments. In other words, the wealthy hand-to-mouth are parents overextending themselves to get their kids into the best schools possible in our de facto private system.

As O’Brien notes, a system of school choice would sever the ties between housing and education, which is a policy that could keep “many people from becoming cash-poor and wealthy—a precarious thing—in the first place.” School choice also provides a passport out of poverty for those students whose parents could not afford an expensive house at all.

Why Don’t Public Schools Give Parents What They Want?

The Washington Post reports today that it’s “harder to describe” the mission of one of the magnet schools in Arlington County, Virginia: Arlington Traditional School. Not that hard, if you just read the quotes from the principal and parents:

“Our emphasis is on basic education,” Principal Holly Hawthorne said….

“The word ‘traditional’ implies a cachet to us,” said Craig Montesano, a lobbyist for the shipping industry who visited Arlington Traditional with his wife. To him, the word conjures ancient Rome and Greece and the promise that his daughter will be “grounded in the learning that has come down through the ages in Western civilization.”

Some parents say the selective nature and more disciplined culture remind them of private school. 

And it seems to work:

The federal government has twice named Arlington Traditional a National Blue Ribbon School for its academic performance. And its students routinely outscore district averages on the Standards of Learning tests.

And parents like it:

Last spring, 298 families applied for 72 slots.

So why doesn’t the Arlington County School Board expand it, or build more such schools around the county to accommodate all the parents who want their children to get this exotic thing called “traditional” or “back to basics” education? Maybe they just didn’t realize until today – or last spring – how popular it is? Well, as it happens, I live in Arlington, and I recall that the Washington Post has been reporting on the popularity of Arlington Traditional School since the late 1970s. Parents used to camp out overnight to get their children into the school until they created a lottery system. Through the Nexis service, I found some of the stories I recalled. Most of these articles are not online. 

Here’s what the Post reported in September 1982 when the school, then called Page Traditional School, was three years old: 

For Arlington school board member Margaret A. Bocek and her husband, the first day of school this year began late Monday night when they and 40 other parents camped out on the lawn of the county’s Page Traditional School to ensure that their 3-year-old children could attend there on opening day, 1984…. 

In the last three years, such parent stakeouts have become commonplace at Page, a public alternative school that stresses a traditional format of self-contained classrooms, regular homework and strict standards for behavior and appearance. Page parents have been lobbying recently for expanding the program to the eighth grade and for expansion of the school’s program to other schools.

And here’s a report from September 1985:

This year, the line began to form at 10 a.m. on Labor Day, 23 hours before Page Traditional School in Arlington would begin accepting applications for the kindergarten class of 1987.

By the time Principal Frank Miller arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, about 80 parents were waiting on the lawn – more than triple the 25 slots that would be available in the school’s one kindergarten class.

Seven years after its much-heralded establishment as a back-to-basics, structured alternative to the open-classroom schools popular in the mid-1970s, Page is a cause of both enthusiasm and consternation in Arlington.

Each September, eager parents camp out on the lawn at 1501 N. Lincoln St. to put the names of their 3-year-olds on the kindergarten waiting list.

December 1991:

In an effort to stop overnight campouts by parents eager to register their children at Arlington’s three popular alternative schools, county school officials have proposed dropping the first-come, first-served admissions policy in favor of a random drawing.

An October 1999 headline:

School’s Excellence Is in Demand

Now you’ll notice that the 1991 story mentions three “popular alternative schools,” and indeed the other two, Drew Elementary and H-B Woodlawn Secondary, offer a very different alternative, a more informal, individualized style of education reflecting the “alternative” ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. The Post referred in 2004 to Woodlawn’s “quirky, counterculture ways.” In November 1991 the Post reported that “Last weekend, dozens of parents camped in front of H-B Woodlawn to register their children for the 70 sixth-grade slots.”

In 2012 the Arlington school board did vote to expand Arlington Traditional School by 12 classrooms. But why did it take so long? And why not open more “back to basics” schools, and also more “counterculture” schools, if that’s what parents want?

I wrote about that years ago in a book I edited, Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.   

In the marketplace, competition keeps businesses on their toes.  They get constant feedback from satisfied and dissatisfied customers. Firms that serve customers well prosper and expand. Firms that don’t respond to the message they get from customers go out of business. Like all government institutions, the public schools lack that feedback and those incentives.

No principal or teacher will get a raise for attracting more students to his or her school. A successful manager in a private business gets a raise, or gets hired away for a bigger salary. A successful entrepreneur expands his or her store or opens a branch. Can one imagine a public school choice system allowing a successful principal to open another school across town and run both of them? 

If Virginia were even a little bit tolerant of charter schools, or if Virginia allowed real private school choice, parent groups or entrepreneurs could organize to deliver the kinds of schools – from traditional to counterculture – that families want. But in a bureaucratic monopoly, the local paper can run thirty years of stories about parents desperate to get their children into particular types of schools, and the central planners can ignore them. 

The Silver Lining in the Florida School Choice Expansion Loss

Supporters of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship (FTS) program are understandably disappointed that the state senate abandoned legislation to expand the program on Thursday. The FTS assists low-income families that want to enroll their children in private schools by offering tax credits to donors of nonprofit scholarship organizations. This year, the state’s only active scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, was able to aid more than 60,000 students but there were not enough funds to aid the more than 30,000 additional applicants. The proposed expansion would have provided enough funds to aid about 6,000 more students. The bill’s withdrawal therefore leaves 6,000 students without the funds they need to attend the school of their choice.

However, the disappointment should be tempered by a large measure of relief. While the legislation contained several praiseworthy changes and eliminated some red tape (including a requirement that would-be scholarship recipients spend a year in a government-run school first), legislative negotiations threatened to add a poison pill that would have severely affected school autonomy and parental choice.

The FTS currently mandates that all participating schools administer a nationally norm-referenced test. Nevertheless, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz insisted that the FTC expansion bill include a provision requiring that scholarship students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is soon to be replaced by a Common Core-aligned assessment.

While the existing mandate is unnecessary because private schools are already directly accountable to parents, it still allows schools and parents some measure of flexibility in deciding how best to measure performance. By contrast, the proposed state testing mandate would have forced all schools into a uniform testing regime. Since tests dictate what is taught, when, and how, this mandate would have induced conformity at the expense of diversity and innovation. As explained in the open letter on choice and accountability that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others, such mandates undermine the central purpose of educational choice:

Educational choice has also been repeatedly shown to produce far higher levels of parental satisfaction than does centrally planned schooling. That’s because choice empowers parents to find the best education for their children, and test scores are not their only consideration. Research shows that many parents care more about safety and discipline, graduation and college acceptance rates, and moral values.

Dictating uniform standards and tests threatens those other valued features by redirecting educators’ focus from serving families to catering to bureaucrats. It also contributes to a culture of “teaching to the test” that has already resulted in several large-scale public-school cheating scandals.

Children are not interchangeable widgets that can be beneficially fed through their education on the same conveyor belt. Even within a single family, children often learn different subjects at different speeds. Myriad new options are arising in response to that reality that allow students to learn at their own pace in every subject, helping all to fulfill their individual potential — the very antithesis of uniform government mandates.

Fortunately, the FTS already contains an “escalator” provision that allows it to grow over time, albeit not as quickly as it would have under the expansion bill. Hopefully, Florida legislators will take a second look at some of the important reforms that would have expanded access to the program. Meanwhile, other states that are considering scholarship tax credit legislation should learn from Florida’s experience. Design matters.

WaPo Blogger Wrong About School Choice… Again

Once again, the Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Strauss, failed to do her due diligence before posting a hit piece on school choice. A year ago, she falsely claimed that scholarship tax credit programs benefit corporate donors and wealthy recipients. In fact, donors break even at most and the best evidence suggests that low-income families are the primary beneficiaries even in the few programs that are not means-tested. Unfortunately, Strauss has still failed to issue a correction.

Now Strauss has posted an op-ed from an anti-school choice activist in Florida that contains numerous additional errors, which the good folks at RedefinED.org have thoroughly debunked, including the following canard:  

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

Not only did the op-ed’s author fail to correctly explain the law, she failed to understand that school choice is accountability. As explained in an open letter that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others: “True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs.” 

Moreover, the claim that “private entities receive public tax dollars” is also false. The money flows from private donors to private nonprofits to private citizens to spend on their children’s tuition at private schools. That the donors receive a tax credit does not transmogrify their donation into “public” money. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this view erroneously “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.” Likewise, neither tax deductions for donations to a church nor the church’s own property tax exemption mean that churches are therefore funded by “public tax dollars.”

The Washington Post has an in-house fact-checking team. They should not have to rely on RedefinED.org or others to ensure the veracity of what their bloggers post. 

Educational Choice IS Accountability

There’s been a lot of confusion over what constitutes “accountability” in education lately. In response, representatives of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, and the Center for Education Reform have issued a joint open letter explaining why the best form of accountability is directly to parents.

To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced and their prescription is inimical to the most promising development in American education: parental choice.

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.

This confusion about accountability is not limited just to tests. It even extends to personnel management. An example of this confusion comes to us today from a Republican legislator in Tennesee:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, a voucher critic, has filed an amendment that would tweak Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill by requiring private schools that take public scholarship dollars to use the controversial Tennessee Evaluator Acceleration Model [TEAM] to grade its teachers.

The reason government schools need such heavy-handed evaluation systems is because tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “School and Staffing Survey,” during the 2010-11 school year, only 1.9 percent of Tennessee teachers were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to poor performance, up from 1.1 percent in 2007-08.

By contrast, private schools have greater flexibility than government schools over hiring, firing, and evaluating teachers. They’re also held directly accountable to parents, so there is market pressure not to retain teachers who perform poorly.

Moreover, the legislator’s argument that the government should force its evaluation system on private entities because they are accepting students who are publicly subsidized is patently absurd. It’s like arguing that all employees at grocery stores that accept food stamps or hospitals that accept Medicaid must be evaluated according to the same metrics as DMV employees.

State and local governments have the prerogative to devise whatever accountability measures they deem necessary to operate their schools and manage their employees. Private schools should continue to enjoy the freedom to set their own goals and to determine how best to measure their own performance and we should empower parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.

Live Free and Learn

Earlier this week, the Show-Me Institute released my study “Live Free and Learn,” the first analysis of New Hampshire’s trailblazing scholarship tax credit program, which is the first in the nation to include homeschoolers. The study found that participants in the program were overwhelmingly low-income and nearly universally satisfied. Some of the key findings include:

  • 97 percent of parents of scholarship recipients are satisfied with their chosen private or home school.
  • 68 percent of parents reported that they noticed measurable academic improvement in their child since receiving the scholarship.
  • 91 percent of scholarship recipients had a household income that would qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch program under the federal National School Lunch program (185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $43,568 for a family of four).
  • 74 percent of private school parents reported that they would have been unable to afford tuition without the scholarship.

I discuss the findings of the study in greater detail at the Education Next blog.