Tag: school choice

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.

School Choice Enrollment Reaches Record High

Just in time for National School Choice Week, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has released its annual ABCs of School Choice report, detailing every private school choice program in the nation. The number of students participating in school choice programs has reached a record high of more than 301,000 students nationwide, up from about 260,000 in 2012-13. More than half of those students are participating in scholarship tax credit programs.

The Friedman Foundation’s report is an invaluable resource for understanding the dozens of school choice programs and their various rules and regulations. A new feature in this year’s report is an infographic ranking every school choice program along two criteria: eligible population and purchasing power. The Friedman Foundation’s view is that choice programs should have universal eligibility and that the purchasing power of the vouchers or scholarships should be on par with the per student spending at government schools.

Universal access to a variety of schooling options is certainly a noble goal, essential to fostering equality of opportunity. However, it should be noted that wealthier families can already afford school choice. Universal access to school choice does not require universal access to school choice programs. Targeting support to low- and middle-income families is a more efficient way to ensure universal school choice as it directs scarce resources to those who need them most. Of course, measuring access is a lot more difficult than measuring program eligibility, so this is not a deficiency of the Friedman report.

There are other important criteria by which we should judge school choice programs, particularly the amount of regulatory interference imposed on private schools (e.g. - mandating state tests) and the amount of freedom granted to parents to tailor their child’s education (e.g. - New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarships for homeschoolers). Perhaps the Friedman Foundation will consider these and other criteria for future reports.

Fordham’s Confusion Over Means and Ends

On Tuesday, the Fordham Institute released a “toolkit” proposing that all private schools accepting students participating in school choice programs be required to administer the state test. Low-performing schools would be forbidden to participate in the school choice program. As I explained then, that would de facto entail forcing almost all private schools into the Common Core regime, thereby stifling innovation and diversity. The Friedman Foundation pointed to a recent study showing how parents hold private schools accountable already. Matt Ladner highlighted Fordham’s own previous research that exposed state accountability measures as fradulant “illusions.” Greg Forster cast a gimlet eye on Fordham’s assurance that existing private schools don’t really mind the state tests:

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

In response, Fordham’s new president, Michael Petrilli, acknowledges (some of) these concerns, but oddly claims that since we don’t share his proposed government solution, we also must not share his concern about poorly performing private schools. It’s as though Petrilli proposes dousing a burning building with gasoline but when others object that this is a bad idea, he accuses them of thinking that the burning building is a not really a problem.

Sure, as Petrilli notes, there are poorly performing private schools just as there are poorly performing government schools. The question is which system is more likely to reduce the number of bad schools and increase the number of good ones: a system of uniform accountability to the government or a diverse and innovative system where accountability is directly to parents? We believe that the evidence supports the latter and demonstrated why the evidence Fordham relies on lies somewhere between flimsy and non-existent.

Petrilli has at least shown a potential willingness to back down from the worst elements of his proposal:

Maybe the tests that voucher students take need not be the state tests so long as they’re solid measures of achievement. Perhaps we need to let schools point to alternative measures of student outcomes before they are kicked out of choice programs. Possibly we need an accountability regime that’s completely separate from that which governs the public schools. Such compromises might help to ensure that the educational diversity of the private school marketplace isn’t inadvertently diminished.

Unfortunately, he still clings to the notion that what we have now is somehow a “market” in education, concluding: “But the answer cannot be ‘let the market figure it out.’ Because it hasn’t, and it won’t—and somebody must.” But as Forster noted, a system where 90 percent of the “market” is consumed by the “free” government schools is not really a market. If we really want more accountability, then we need more choices. Even Petrilli admits that sometimes families choose a poorly performing private school because it’s the only alternative to a worse performing (or unsafe) government school. Eliminating that alternative by forbidding the private school from participating in a school choice program won’t do any good for those low-income families who will then be shuffled back to the government school.

Instead of government-induced conformity, let’s push for broader education choice programs that give the private schools the space to innovate.

The Common Coring of Private Schools

Today, the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” proposing private schools be required to administer state tests to all students participating in a school choice program, and publicize the results. Private schools that the state deemed persistently underperforming would be expelled from the program. Fordham argues that such measures have the potential to raise student achievement and provide parents with the information needed to make better decisions about their children’s education. Though Fordham’s plan is well-intentioned, their justifications are unpersuasive and their proposal is more likely to do harm than good.

Little Evidence to Support a Testing Mandate for Private Schools

First, there is scant evidence to support Fordham’s claim that test-based accountability measures “may boost student achievement.” Fordham rests its claim on the results of but a single year in a single study of a single school choice program: the final year of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s five-year analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program.

During the first four years of the study, voucher students took a low-stakes test, but in the final year of the study, policymakers increased the stakes by mandating that the test results be publicized and the scores improved. Fordham argues that this proves that high-stakes testing improves performance but one of the study’s authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, has previously cautioned the Fordham Institute against reading too much into that finding, calling it “enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive”:

As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year.  In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.

But even if the was no question that the higher test scores actually reflected increased performance, it would still only be one study. When Fordham cited this study as support for its proposal six months ago, Andrew J. Coulson responded:

A single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

By contrast, there is a significant body of evidence that school choice programs work without Fordham’s sought-after government regulation. Of twelve randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—eleven found that school choice programs improve outcomes for some or all students while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact. None of these school choice programs studied were designed along the lines of the Fordham proposal.

In fact, Fordham’s preferred policy is undermined by a large body of evidence. A 2009 literature review of the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide revealed that the most market-like and least regulated education systems tended to produce student outcomes superior to more heavily regulated systems, including those with a substantial number state-funded and regulated private schools. In short, the best form of accountability is directly to parents, not government bureaucrats and their tests.

A Governor’s Warped Priorities

The governor of New Hampshire just submitted an amicus brief in the lawsuit against the “Live Free or Die” state’s scholarship tax credit program. Last year, Governor Maggie Hassan unsuccessfully sought its repeal. The brief offers nothing new in the way of legal arguments. As with the ACLU and, unfortunately, the trial court judge, the governor’s brief tries to imagine a constitutional difference between tax credits and tax deductions and absurdly assumes that money that a private corporation donated to a private nonprofit that financially assists private citizens sending their children to private schools is somehow “public” money because the state could have collected it in taxes had the legislature so decided. This claim contradicts both logic and the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in ACSTO v. Winn:

Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding [scholarship] tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.

The Cato Institute submitted an amicus brief defending the constitutionality of the program back in November.

What’s noteworthy here is not the legal reasoning, but the governor’s chutzpah. First, as the Union Leader noted, “Hassan is pushing state-funded, need-based scholarships for college students while trying to eliminate need-based scholarships for students in grades K-12.” The governor’s amicus brief does not explain why direct public expenditures that students can use at a Catholic college are perfectly constitutional but a low-income student using a tax-credit scholarships at a religious elementary or secondary school would, as her amicus brief melodramatically puts it, “jeopardize both the hallowed underpinnings of religious tolerance and freedom, and the prohibition against entanglement made sacred by [the] New Hampshire Constitution.” 

Second, Hassan is a strong proponent of “research and development” tax credits that pick winners and losers among certain types of businesses and business activities, thereby distorting the market. Moreover, by the governor’s faulty logic, these tax credits constitute direct subsidies of public funds to profit-seeking entities. R&D tax credits clearly reduce state revenue to fund activities that businesses are generally doing anyway for their own financial self-interest.  

By contrast, scholarship tax credits expand the market for private education without distorting it. Parents pick winners and losers among schools rather than the government. The corporations who receive the 85 percent tax credits do not benefit financially – indeed, they’d be better off financially had they not donated at all. Moreover, the Josiah Bartlett Center projected that, if fully utilized, the scholarship tax credits would save New Hampshire taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run by reducing state expenditures by more than they would reduce state tax revenue.

In short, Governor Hassan supports corporate welfare but opposes tax credits that assist low-income families seeking the best education for their children.

Holder’s DOJ Wants a Veto over Parents’ Choice of School

Though the U.S. Department of Justice partially backed down on its lawsuit against Louisiana’s school choice program in November, yesterday the DOJ filed its proposal to oversee the program. The program provides school vouchers to low-income families with children otherwise assigned to failing government schools. Among many proposed regulations, the DOJ wants the state of Louisiana to give the federal government the following information about each school choice applicant: 

1. Name

2. Student ID number

3. Address

4. Grade

5. Race

6. School applicant attends in current school year, if any

7. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (6), above, if applicable

8. Public school district of the school in (6), if applicable

9. District public school applicant would be assigned to attend for the upcoming school year if applicant does not receive a voucher

10. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (9), above

11. Student enrollment in the school in (9), above, for the current school year, by race

2013: Yet Another ‘Year of School Choice’

In 1980, frustrated by the attention given to Paul Ehrlich’s Malthusian doomsaying, economist Julian Simon challenged Ehrlich to a wager. They agreed on a basket of five commodity metals that Simon predicted would fall in price over 10 years (indicating growing supply relative to demand, contrary to the Malthusian worldview) and Ehrlich predicted would rise. In 1990, all five metals had decreased relative to their 1980 prices and Ehrlich cut Simon a check.

In 2011, two education policy analysts made a similar wager. After Jay Mathews of the Washington Post predicted that voters would “continue to resist” private school choice programs, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice challenged Matthews to a wager, which Mathews accepted: Forster would win if at least seven new or expanded private school choice programs (i.e., vouchers or scholarship tax credits, but not including charter schools) were signed into law by the end of the year. That July, the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 to be the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted 19 new or expanded private school choice programs, nearly triple the number Forster needed to win the bet.

Undeterred, the following year Mathews proclaimed that school choice programs “have no chance of ever expanding very far,” prompting another challenge from Forster. Mathews did not take the bet, which was fortunate for him because in 2012 10 states enacted 12 new or expanded private school choice programs.

Now, for the third year in a row, Forster’s prediction has proved true, with 10 states enacting 14 new or expanded private school choice programs, including:

Most of these laws are overly limited and several carry unnecessary and even counterproductive regulations like mandatory standardized testing. Nevertheless, they are a step in the right direction, away from a government monopoly and toward a true system of education choice.

Of course, that’s why defenders of the status quo have made 2013 the Year of the Anti-School Choice Lawsuit.