Tag: school choice

GOP Senators Playing With Federal Education Fire

It’s easy to understand why several prominent GOP Senators, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, are sponsoring federal school voucher legislation. State-level voucher programs have raised student achievement, increased high school graduation rates, and boosted college matriculation. School choice programs are also market-based initiatives that aid and appeal to low-income voters. As Senator Paul argued:

“School choice for low-income parents and students across America is a way out of the poverty cycle,” Mr. Paul said in a statement. “Allowing Title 1 funds to follow the student creates an opportunity for students to get the most out of their education in the best environment possible.”

Moreover, a recent survey from Harvard University’s Program on Education and Governance found a high level of support for expanded school choice programs. All that said, the GOP should resist the temptation of a federal voucher system.

Even setting aside the question of constitutionality (education is not listed in the Constitution as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers), there are practical reasons for being skeptical about increased federal involvement in America’s education system. It is very likely that a federal voucher program will lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. While there’s no law of the cosmos that states that federal dollars must come with strings attached, they most often do. And while the GOP legislators proposing the vouchers will likely keep regulations light at the outset, when the political pendulum swings—as it inevitably will—opponents of vouchers might find that it’s politically easier to add regulations to the program than to kill it outright. Once private schools become dependent on the federal money that their students bring with them, the vast majority will accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

Instead of playing with federal fire, the GOP should embrace federalism. As David Boaz wrote in the Cato Handbook for Congress a decade ago, the case against federal involvement in education:

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

School choice programs have been expanding rapidly among the states in recent years (albeit not as rapidly as I would like). Supporters of school choice should be encouraging that trend, working hard at the state level to expand educational opportunities. Expanding choice all across the fruited plain in one swoop may be tempting in its immediacy, but it’s not worth the price.

Why School Choice Programs Should Not Require Testing

As Georgia’s legislature considers a bill to expand the state’s scholarship tax credit (STC) program and increase transparency, some are calling for additional regulations. Writing in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Adam Emerson of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argued that the Peach State should require private schools that accept scholarship students to administer standardized tests. That would be a mistake.

Emerson argues that parents, educators, and policymakers “deserve to compare the gains that students make in different school environments.” Test scores can be a useful, albeit limited and incomplete, method of comparing the academic effectiveness of different schools. Under the current system, parents are free to choose private schools that administer standardized tests and avoid those that do not or vice-versa. Likewise, donors are free to direct their money to scholarship organizations that only fund schools that do or do not administer standardized tests.

By contrast, a testing mandate would severely limit or even eliminate these choices. Parents who are concerned about the “teach to the test” phenomenon or whose child reacts negatively to testing, and educators who believe that standardized testing gets in the way of real learning will have little to no choice but to participate in the standardized testing regime, as even Emerson agrees.

Emerson argues that the vast majority of private schools would still participate in the STC program even with a standardized testing mandate. He cites a recent Fordham study of the impact of regulation in school choice programs showing that “only 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as the most important reason to opt out.” That’s exactly the problem. The mandate would force private schools to choose between eschewing both the tests and all the students who need school choice scholarships to attend their school, or accepting both. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of schools succumb to the financial pressure.

Researchers tend to support testing mandates because they allow them to evaluate the effectiveness of certain reforms, at least to an extent. But the very act of measurement itself can distort the very thing they are trying to measure. Even aside from the cheating scandals, the tests create strong incentives for teachers to teach differently in order that their students perform well on the test.

Of course, some will argue, “that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!” They support standardized tests as a means of increasing accountability. “If you want to move something, you have to measure it,” they argue, and they have a point. But standardized tests are not the only way to measure learning. Supporters of standardized testing know that, but they want a uniform measures so that they can compare apples to apples. The problem is that uniform measures create a powerful incentive to move toward uniform behavior. As James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute wrote recently:

The fact is that curriculum standards don’t tell teachers how to teach in the same way that a high jump bar doesn’t tell a jumper how to jump. You could theoretically jump over a high jump bar in whatever way you would like; but because of how the jump is structured there is a clear advantage to doing the old Fosbury Flop.

While standardized tests are not as imposing as curriculum standards, what’s on the test can drive what is taught in the classroom, when it is taught, and how it is taught. Professor Jay P. Greene argued along similar lines regarding national standards:

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.

Standardized tests create an incentive for uniformity when we should be fostering a diversity of traditional and innovative pedagogical methods. To the extent that researchers, policymakers and some educators believe that standardized tests are useful, they should make their case in the free marketplace of ideas and encourage parents to choose the schools that administer them. What they shouldn’t do is use the coercive power of government to fashion a top-down system of testing that could squelch diversity and innovation. 

School Choice Gains Momentum in Idaho

For the first time in state history, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a scholarship tax credit (STC) bill. Like the bill that the Alabama legislature passed last month, Idaho’s STC legislation is a step in the right direction though it has some limitations.

The Idaho bill would grant tax credits to individuals and corporations in return for donations to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). The SGOs would fund low- and middle-income students attending nonpublic schools. To be eligible to participate, a family’s household income could not exceed 150% of the federal free-and-reduced lunch program’s income threshold ($63,964 for a family of four). According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, that would cover about 59% of Idahoans. The program is limited to students who attended a public school in the previous year or are entering kindergarten or first grade.

The program would be capped at $10 million per year. While the cap would adjust for inflation, there is no “escalator” provision to grow the program over time to meet demand, as in Arizona, Florida, and New Hampshire.

The program would also require participating private schools to administer standardized tests. This is an unnecessary provision that’s intended to provide accountability but could exacerbate the “teach to the test” problem. The most effective form of accountability is the chosen schools’ direct relationship with parents who can choose to leave if their kids’ needs are not met. Most STC programs do not require schools to administer standardized tests, yet many schools voluntarily administer them because parents desire it. However, when the state mandates testing to participate in school choice programs, there are fewer choices available to parents who want to avoid the “teach to the test” issue.

Despite the bill’s limitations, the Idaho House of Representatives just took the Gem State one step closer to having an education system that empowers families to choose the education that best meets their kids’ individual needs.

New Hampshire’s Governor vs. Kids and Taxpayers

In her budget address before the legislature last Thursday, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan pledged to repeal the nascent Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). The law grants tax credits to businesses that help low- and middle-income students afford independent and home schooling.

If the governor’s goal is saving money, as she claims, then she should oppose the repeal. The fiscal note prepared by the governor’s own Department of Education states that repealing the OSA would actually cost the state half a million dollars over the next biennium.

The OSA was designed to aid low- and middle-income families while saving money. The maximum average scholarship size is only $2,500, significantly lower than the more than $4,300 that the state allocates for each public school student, and vastly lower than the total public school spending figure of $15,758 per pupil. Moreover, businesses receive tax credits for only 85 percent of their donations, so even assuming the maximum average scholarship size, the state saves nearly $2,200 whenever a student switches out of the public school system—and the savings for local taxpayers are far larger. 

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy estimates that the OSA would save the state $8.3 million over the next four years. A repeal would eliminate those savings and increase costs.

High-income families already have school choice. They can afford to live in communities that have high-performing public schools or to send their children to independent schools. Low-income families have few, if any, choices besides their assigned local public school.

On the 2011 New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) mathematics exam, eighth grade public school students in Bedford and Windham scored 84 percent and 89 percent proficient and above respectively compared to 55 percent in Claremont and 42 percent in Stratford. Unsurprisingly, the median household income is $121,452 in Windham and $114,681 in Bedford compared to $41,721 in Claremont and $33,571 in Stratford.

But even in high-performing districts, we should not expect that any one school is capable of meeting all the diverse needs of all the students who happen to live nearby. Not all children thrive in the traditional classroom environment. Some students need extra support academically, socially or emotionally. Traditional public schools may work well for most children, but there is no school that is right for all children.

The overwhelming consensus of randomized controlled studies, the gold standard of social science research, have demonstrated that students attending schools of their choice perform as well or better than their public school peers. Moreover, a study of Florida’s scholarship tax credit program also found a modest improvement in the academic performance of public school students in response to the increased competition.

Bill Gates and the Ancient Alexandrian Party Favor

Every year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates drafts a letter charting the course for the foundation he created with his wife, Melinda. This year, the focus is on the value of precise measurement in driving innovation and progress. His inspiration was the book The Most Powerful Idea in the World, “a brilliant chronicle by William Rosen of the many innovations it took to harness steam power.”

Certainly mensuration was important to the development of the steam engine, but there was a much more crucial ingredient, and unless we understand the role that it played, solutions to the world’s most pernicious problems will remain elusive. The key to grasping this missing ingredient is the aeolipile. As shown in the accompanying video, the aeolipile is a hollow metal reservoir with multiple radial “exhaust pipes,” all of whose spouts point off tangentially from the hub. To make it work, you simply suspend it, fill it with water, and light a candle under it. And… Voila! You’ve harnessed steam power to generate rotary motion.

This device is also known as Hero’s Engine, after Hero of Alexandria—who invented it over two thousand years ago…. Despite its seemingly obvious practical applications, Hero’s Engine was never more than a party favor. It had not the slightest impact on the course of human history. Why not?

The ultimate causes are contentious (Deirdre McCloskey will give you one answer), but the proximate one is obvious: the aeolipile was never commercialized. There wasn’t a sufficient network of entrepreneurs and investors toiling away in ancient Alexandria to relentlessly seek out, capitalize, and commercialize new technologies and innovations. The steam engine was refined and widely deployed during the Industrial Revolution only because such an entrepreneurial network had come into existence by the late 18th century, first in England and soon thereafter, elsewhere.

And that’s the real key to massively disseminating the benefits of innovation: enlisting the assistance of the free enterprise system. It is not a coincidence that the productivity of elementary and secondary education has collapsed while productivity in virtually every other field has steadily improved. Education has been largely excluded from the free enterprise system for the past 150 years.

So, while precise measurement certainly has its role to play, I hope someday to read an annual letter from Bill Gates that focuses on the need to harness all the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace for the betterment of education the world over.

The Real Problem with Highly Regulated “School Choice”

A Fordham Institute paper released today seeks to answer the question: do private schools really refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs? Its authors tell us that “many proponents of private school choice… take [this] for granted,” citing two examples—one of them being the Cato Institute, whose Center for Educational Freedom I direct. The authors even cite a relevant commentary by former Cato policy analyst Adam Schaeffer.

The only problem is that the cited commentary says precisely the opposite. Describing Indiana’s voucher program, Schaeffer writes: “Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated [non-participating] schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate.” This captures Schaeffer’s concern as well as my own (which I expressed over a decade ago in the political economy journal Independent Review): We do not fear that private schools will refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. We know that they ultimately will participate, or be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts.

We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished. The Dutch enacted a heavily regulated nationwide voucher program nearly a century ago. Unsubsidized private schooling remains legal, but has been reduced to a statistical asterisk—now making up less than one percent of enrollment, compared to roughly 70 percent for subsidized private schools.

Our reason for concern over this pattern is also grounded in empirical evidence: it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. That is the consensus of the worldwide within-country research, which I reviewed and tabulated for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. The Fordham paper does not discuss this evidence.

Despite imputing to Cato scholars the exact opposite of the view we hold, the paper does include some interesting data. In particular, it offers a new corroboration that voucher programs are more heavily regulated than tax credit programs (a difference whose magnitude and statistical significance was previously established here). This will make it even harder for objective observers to cling to the notion that vouchers and credits are functionally equivalent.

Where Will the Senate ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ Hearing Lead?

The Senate hearing at which I testified yesterday, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin, seemed designed to raise support for legislation imposing federal mandates on states or districts to curtail the use of out-of-school suspensions, to make suspension policies uniform across schools, or both.

The motivations for such legislation are understandable. Out-of-school suspensions do little to help the suspended students educationally and they are correlated with arrests and incarceration. The Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, which Sen. Durbin chairs, is particularly interested in these facts because African American students are much more likely to be suspended than whites.

But the facts do not support the kind of legislation that seems to be under consideration. Two recent and highly sophisticated studies by Rochester University professor Joshua Kinsler shed new light on the well-established trends noted above. For the first time, Kinsler factored-in between school variations in discipline policy when looking at the racial disparity in out-of-school suspensions. He discovered that, within any given school, black and white students sent to the principal’s office for a given reason are issued the same suspensions at the same rates. The disparity is all between schools.

Schools with predominantly black student bodies are more likely to issue suspensions, and to issue longer ones, for a given offense. White students at those schools get the same treatment, but most white students are in predominantly white schools that are less severe in their discipline policies. Black students at mostly white schools also get less severe punishments.

Kinsler did find that African American students were more likely to be referred to the principal’s office, which has long been seen as evidence of systemic racism.  To investigate that explanation, Kinsler looked for any relationship between teachers’ referral rates to the principal’s office and the race of those teachers and of the students they refer. He found none. This does not mean that racism plays no role, but it calls into question the view that racism is a dominant factor in referrals to the principal’s office.

In a subsequent empirical study, Kinsler investigated what would happen if all schools were compelled to observe a more lenient suspension policy, to close the black/white discipline gap. He found that this would disproportionately hurt the achievement of African American students, widening the black/white achievement gap.  The reason for this, according to Kinsler’s findings, is that serious suspensions do in fact discourage misbehavior, and that removing disruptive students from the class does improve the achievement of the other students.

Kinsler’s methodology, which jointly models discipline policy, student behavior and student academic achievement, is the most advanced I’ve seen used in this field. Unless and until his findings are found to be in error, or are contradicted by similarly sophisticated research, it would be unconscionable and counterproductive to impose a blanket reduction in suspensions on the nation’s schools.

None of this is meant to defend the cavalier use of out-of-school suspensions. As I explain in my written testimony to the Committee, there are much better alternatives and there are policies that will systematically encourage the use of those superior alternatives. I sincerely hope that Senator Durbin and his Committee do not leap before they look at these alternatives and at professor Kinsler’s findings.