Tag: school choice

Not a “Better Way” on Education

Yesterday, the House GOP released a report called A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America. Alas, at least in education, only if you think doing basically the same thing we’re doing right now is a “better way” could this report please you. And there is little to suggest what we’re doing now is working.

Start with pre-k education. While acknowledging the undeniable—“gold-standard” research commissioned by the feds themselves has shown federal Head Start has no discernable, lasting benefits—the report does not call for even decreasing Head Start spending, much less eliminating the program. No, it proclaims that early-childhood programs are very important and what Washington should do—again, with no talk about actually decreasing funding—is “streamline” duplicative programs and fund more research into “what works.” Because states, or local governments, or philanthropists, could never fund such research!

That’s not a better way. That is a way, maybe, to mute attacks that Republicans “don’t care” about little children or the poor. So maybe it’s a politically better way. But it isn’t a better way on policy.

At the elementary and secondary level, the report says nice things about choice, including the DC voucher program, which is all well and good. It also touts the Every Student Succeeds Act—the replacement for No Child Left Behind—before, frankly, we know what it is going to look like in practice. More and more, it seems the law may have given too much power to the U.S. Secretary of Education, which the report warns against in only the broadest terms.

A better way? We’ll see.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the report’s higher education discussion. Basically, the better way is—of course—to “streamline” stuff, including federal regulations, while failing to even mention the mountain of evidence that federal student aid—all $161 billion of it—fuels rampant price inflation and student debt; encourages massive noncompletion; finances credential inflation; and abets demand for on-campus water parks and other extreme amenities.

While we’re on the subject, the report falls all over itself to tout Pell Grants, but it would sure be refreshing if someone, in looking for a better way for everyone—taxpayers included—were to at least note how fundamentally unfair Pell Grants are. A huge benefit of completing college is to greatly increase one’s lifetime earnings—to use a term some people find distasteful, to profit—and what Pell says is you should be able to make that profit with other people’s money and no obligation to pay them back. How’s that fair?

There is one more omission from the report: any mention of the Constitution, and whether it gives the federal government authority to do any of these things. But if whether the programs work doesn’t matter, probably no one is going to care about a minor, abstract thing like the rule of law.

The “better way” on all these issues would be to be frank about the effects of federal policies, what the federal government is constitutionally permitted to do, and act accordingly. But that seems to be asking way too much.

The Evidence Is In: School Choice Works

There are a great many reasons to support educational choice: maximizing freedom, respecting pluralism, reducing social conflict, empowering the poor, and so on. One reason is simply this: it works.

This week, researchers Patrick J. Wolf, M. Danish Shakeel, and Kaitlin P. Anderson of the University of Arkansas released the results of their painstaking meta-analysis of the international, gold-standard research on school choice programs, which concluded that, on average, such programs have a statistically significant positive impact on student performance on reading and math tests. Moreover, the magnitude of the positive impact increased the longer students participated in the program.

As Wolf observed in a blog post explaining the findings, the “clarity of the results… contrasts with the fog of dispute that often surrounds discussions of the effectiveness of private school choice.”

That’s So Meta

One of the main advantages of a meta-analysis is that it can overcome the limitations of individual studies (e.g., small samples sizes) by pooling the results of numerous studies. This meta-analysis is especially important because it includes all random-assignment studies on school choice programs (the gold standard for social science research), while excluding studies that employed less rigorous methods. The analysis included 19 studies on 11 school choice programs (including government-funded voucher programs as well as privately funded scholarship programs) in Colombia, India, and the United States. Each study compared the performance of students who had applied for and randomly won a voucher to a “control group” of students who had applied for a voucher but randomly did not receive one. As Wolf explained, previous meta-analyses and research reviews omitted some gold-standard studies and/or included less rigorous research:

The most commonly cited school choice review, by economists Cecilia Rouse and Lisa Barrow, declares that it will focus on the evidence from existing experimental studies but then leaves out four such studies (three of which reported positive choice effects) and includes one study that was non-experimental (and found no significant effect of choice).  A more recent summary, by Epple, Romano, and Urquiola, selectively included only 48% of the empirical private school choice studies available in the research literature.  Greg Forster’s Win-Win report from 2013 is a welcome exception and gets the award for the school choice review closest to covering all of the studies that fit his inclusion criteria – 93.3%.

Survey Says: School Choice Improves Student Performance

The meta-analysis found that, on average, participating in a school choice program improves student test scores by about 0.27 standard deviations in reading and 0.15 standard deviations in math. In laymen’s terms, these are “highly statistically significant, educationally meaningful achievement gains of several months of additional learning from school choice.”

Congress Voting to Save School Choice in D.C.

Tomorrow, Congress is scheduled to vote on the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP was scheduled to expire later this year. Back in December, I expressed skepticism about a standalone reauthorization bill because the Obama administration has repeatedly worked to undermine or eliminate the school choice program, even though the OSP has the support of local Democratic politicians such as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of the D.C. City Council. Fortunately for the low-income children attending the schools of their choice through the OSP, the president has signaled that he does not intend to veto the legislation:

“While the administration continues to strongly oppose the private school vouchers program within this legislation, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the administration will continue to use available SOAR Act funds to support students returning to the program until they complete school, so that their education is not disrupted,” the Office of Management and Budget said.

The White House stopped short of issuing a veto threat. But the administration made clear its distaste for the voucher program, which President Obama has tried to kill several times. The measure, a priority of former Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, provides money for some students in D.C. to attend private school.

Predictably, the White House claimed that studies of the D.C. OSP show it has “not yielded statistically significant improvements in student achievement by scholarship recipients compared to other students not receiving vouchers,” ignoring that the OSP achieves those similar results at a fraction of the cost (less than $9,000 per voucher on average versus about $30,000 per district school student), and that the same random-assignment study found that OSP students were 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than the control group. 

Low-income students shouldn’t be condemned to low-quality schools just because their parents cannot afford a home in a wealthy neighborhood. As the Washington Post wrote in a recent editorial, “The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given.” The D.C. OSP was an important step toward breaking the link between home prices and school quality, so it’s encouraging to see that D.C. is not likely to take a step backward. Ideally, though, Congress would take the next step from school choice to educational choice by enacting a universal education savings account program.

New Hampshire Legislators Seek School Choice Solution

New Hampshire legislators are working to end a legal battle between a small town and state education bureaucrats over the town’s school choice program.

The town of Croydon (2010 population: 764) has fewer than 100 elementary-and-secondary-school-aged students. Unsurprisingly, the town found it was not cost effective to run its own K-12 school system. Instead, the town runs a very small K-4 district school and had a longstanding, exclusive agreement with a neighboring district to educate 5th through 12th graders. However, when their contract was nearing expiration, town leaders decided to allow students to take the funds assigned to them to a school of choice.

Sadly, the New Hampshire Department of Education wasn’t about to let a town empower parents to escape the district school system so easily. After a series of meetings and threats to withhold state funds, the department ordered Croydon to end their school choice program, which it claimed violated state law. However, former NH Supreme Court Justice Charles G. Douglas, III, the attorney for Croydon, that the department was misreading state law:

The letter from Douglas and [then-Croydon School Board Chairman Jody] Underwood argues against the state laws [NH Commissioner of Education Virginia] Barry used to support her order to stop school choice in Croydon:

“You cite RSA 193:1 and purport that it says that districts may only assign students to public schools. This is inaccurate. RSA 193:1 defines the duties of parents to ensure school attendance, and neither describes the duties districts have nor restricts the assignment ability of districts. In addition to your inaccurate interpretation, you cite to the portion of that statute that states: ‘A parent of any child at least 6 years of age … shall cause such a child to attend the public school to which the child is assigned.’ You fail to cite section (a) of the statute which clearly states that private school attendance is an exception to attending public school.”

The dispute is now being litigated.

Recently, some NH legislators sought to clarify any ambiguities in the law by explicitly authorizing local authorities to allow local education funding follow children to private schools of choice. As the New Hampshire Union Leader editorialized, this is a step in the right direction. However, the legislation does contain one serious flaw: it limits parental choices to non-religious schools, thereby discriminating against schools based solely on their religious affiliation.

On Vergara: Stop Making Parents and Children Wards of the State

I am not a lawyer, and I’m certainly not an expert on California law, but yesterday’s state appeals court ruling in the much-discussed Vergara v. California teacher tenure case seems plausible. While Golden State statutes make it very hard to remove bad teachers, and may lead to the worst teachers being disproportionately assigned to schools serving low-income kids, district administrators could curb that if they really, really wanted to. It would just require very expensive, convoluted dismissal procedures be followed for each unsatisfactory educator. So technically, the law may not violate California’s constitution. But to defend it, in reality, is to defend a system heavily slanted against low-income students.

Vergara has spawned similar cases in other states, and I would guess there is a good chance similar rulings will come down the pike in those places. But there is probably also a good chance of tenure laws being overturned. It doesn’t strike me that, from a legal perspective, either side has a clearly superior case. But again, I am not a lawyer.

What this once again screams is that public policy needs to move away from an education system in which parents are dependent on politicians or courts to protect their children. They need money to be attached to kids and to have the ability to take their children out of schools they do not like and put them into other institutions. And there should be no blanket state seniority or teacher evaluation rules. Educators should be free to get together and set up schools with whatever policies they want, and whether or not those schools survive or those policies are maintained should depend on their ability to attract enough paying customers with the services they produce.

We need to stop making parents and children wards of the state, and instead give them real power.

South Dakota Enacts School Choice (for a Few Kids)

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a scholarship tax credit (STC) bill into law today, making the Mount Rushmore State the 29th state to enact a private school choice law, and the 21st to enact STCs. However, while an important step in the right direction, the number of students who will be able to receive tax-credit scholarships is vanishingly small.

South Dakota’s Partners in Education Tax Credit Program provides tax credits to insurance companies that contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low-income families pay tuition at the school of their choice. According to the Friedman Foundation, nearly four in ten South Dakota families meet the income eligibility requirements (150 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $67,000 for a family of four in 2015-16), but only a tiny fraction of eligible students will actually receive scholarships because the law only provides a total of $2 million in tax credits. With a scholarship cap equal to 82.5 percent of the state’s per-pupil expenditure at district schools, the maximum scholarship value in 2015-16 will be $4,023. That means that in a state with about 147,000 K-12 students–nearly 16,000 of whom are enrolled in private schools–only 500 students could receive scholarships worth $4,000.

That’s great for the one-third of one percent of South Dakota students who might get a scholarship, but it’s hardly revolutionary.

Regulating School Choice: The Debate Continues

Last week, the Cato Institute held a policy forum on school choice regulations. Two of our panelists, Dr. Patrick Wolf and Dr. Douglas Harris, were part of a team that authored one of the recent studies finding that Louisiana’s voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ test scores. Why that was the case – especially given the nearly unanimously positive previous findings – was the main topic of our discussion. Wolf and I argued that there is reason to believe that the voucher program’s regulations might have played a role in causing the negative results, while Harris and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute pointed to other factors. 

The debate continued after the forum, including a blog post in which Harris raises four “problems” with my arguments. I respond to his criticisms below.

The Infamous Education Productivity Chart

Problem #1: Trying to discredit traditional public schools by placing test score trends and expenditure changes on one graph. These graphs have been floating around for years. They purport to show that spending has increased much faster than expenditures [sic], but it’s obvious that these comparisons make no sense. The two things are on different scales. Bedrick tried to solve this problem by putting everything in percentage terms, but this only gives the appearance of a common scale, not the reality. You simply can’t talk about test scores in terms of percentage changes.

The more reasonable question is this: Have we gotten as much from this spending as we could have? This one we can actually answer and I think libertarians and I would probably agree: No, we could be doing much better than we are with current spending. But let’s be clear about what we can and cannot say with these data.

Harris offers a reasonable objection to the late, great Andrew Coulson’s infamous chart (shown below). Coulson already addressed critics of his chart at length, but Harris is correct that the test scores and expenditures do not really have a common scale. That said, the most important test of a visual representation of data is whether the story it tells is accurate. In this case, it is, as even Harris seems to agree. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil in public schools has nearly tripled in the last four decades while the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been flat. 

U.S. Education Spending and Productivity

Producing a similar chart with data from the scores of younger students on the NAEP would be misleading because the scale would mask their improvement. But for 17-year-olds, whose performance has been flat on the NAEP and the SAT, the story the chart tells is accurate.