Tag: school choice

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.

The Latest Nobel Prize in Economics… Why It Should Make Us Sad

The latest Nobel Prize in economics has been awarded to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley. They’ve done brilliant work on algorithms for optimally matching pairs of things (such as job vacancies and job seekers), but at least one prominent application of their work should produce a deafening roar of foreheads hitting desktops: public school choice.

As the Nobel organization’s website explains, the original algorithm was developed by Shapley and David Gale to optimally match pairs of individuals who could only each be matched with one other person. For instance, optimally marrying-off 10 men and 10 women based on their relative levels of interest in one another. Over the past decade, it has come to be used to match students to places in local public schools (by Roth).

The problem is that this approach to “school choice” correctly assumes that the better public schools have a fixed number of places and cannot expand to meet increased demand. So it’s about finding the least-awful allocation of students to a static set of schools—a process that does nothing to improve school quality.

Meanwhile, there is something called a “market” which not only allows consumers and producers to connect, it creates the freedoms and incentives necessary for the best providers to grow in response to rising demand and crowd-out the inferior ones. It also provides incentives for innovation and efficiency. But instead of advocating the use of market freedoms and incentives to improve education, some of our top economists are spending their skill and energy tinkering with the increasingly inefficient, pedagogically stagnant status quo.

Forehead… meet desk.

Obama, Romney, Teachers, and Choice

Jay Greene has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal this week revealing that the teacher workforce has grown dramatically over the past forty years—and at enormous cost—without improving student achievement by the end of high school. And he rightly disparages President Obama for arguing that even more teachers would somehow do the trick. Even better, Greene notes that American education will not reverse its productivity collapse and become efficient until we allow it to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace.

But then Jay cites Governor Romney’s goal of “voucherizing federal education funds so that parents can take those resources and use them to send their children to schools of their choice,” and he does so with apparent approbation. Even ignoring the fact that the Constitution does not empower Congress to run education programs, this is a very dangerous idea.

There has been no civilization in the history of humanity in which governments have paid for private schooling without ultimately controlling what was taught and who could teach, erecting barriers to entry and thereby crippling market forces.

For that reason, I recommended against a federal voucher program under the Bush administration. Since then, additional evidence has come to light. When I studied the regulatory impact of U.S. private school choice programs last year I found that even the small existing U.S. voucher programs do indeed impose a heavy and very statistically significant additional burden of regulation on participating private schools.

Perhaps a way will be found to enact and maintain minimally regulated voucher programs in the coming years. Until that time comes, it would be the height of folly to introduce a federal voucher program whose regulations would suffocate educational freedom from coast to coast.

In my statistical study of choice program regulation, I found that K-12 tax credit programs do not impose a statistically significant extra burden of regulation on private schools. But even a national K-12 tax credit program would be far too dangerous. By leaving education policy to the states and the people, we can see which programs flourish and which become sclerotic. We must encourage and learn from that policy diversity, not squelch it with federal programs or mandates.

Another Newspaper Attempts Suicide

Last Friday, the often-respectable newspaper Education Week published a blog post that seems designed to destroy its credibility. The piece makes a claim so egregiously false that it could have been caught by a motivated 10-year-old using a second-rate search engine:

A growing number of countries are surpassing the United States in student performance and are spending less per student than the United States.  Not one has used choice and market incentives to do it.

In fact, according to the latest PISA international test results, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, and Canada all significantly outperform the United States in every subject tested. They also all spend less than the United States per pupil, and make use of choice and market incentives such as competition between schools, to varying degrees. The Netherlands, for example, has had a universal public and private school choice program for the last 95 years, which, according to the National Center on Education and the Economy is “one of the [Dutch] education system’s primary strengths.”

Could the author of the Education Week commentary possibly be ignorant of the Dutch and other examples that flatly contradict his claim? That seems unlikely since he is the president of the National Center for Education and the Economy.

In addition to its central falsehood, the piece also relies on an oversimplified and flawed understanding of how to draw lessons from foreign educational experiences. It fails to consider the very different cultural, demographic, and economic conditions prevailing in different countries and therefore offers no basis for apportioning responsibility for a nation’s educational outcomes between environmental factors and the design of its school system.

That is an unforced error, because there is a reliable way of learning from the educational experiences of other nations: within-country comparisons of different education systems. Many nations have two or more education systems operating side-by-side, sometimes in similar communities and sometimes in the same communities. By comparing the relative performance of these systems within countries (taking into account any differences in student/family background across sectors) it is possible to avoid the confounding variables that plague between-country comparisons.

When I surveyed this within-country scientific literature for the Journal of School Choice I found 150 separate statistical findings reported by 65 papers. The results not only favored private over government provision of schooling, they revealed that the most market-like, least regulated school systems have the biggest advantage over state school monopolies such as are the norm in the United States.

It is disappointing to see Education Week publish such obviously false and confused twaddle. If it wishes to remain a serious publication it should establish some minimal standards for the veracity and coherence of its commentary and enforce them with at least a cursory editorial review.

The Charter School Paradox

Is it possible for charter schools to increase educational options and diversity in the public school system but decrease it overall; to spend less money than regular public schools but cost taxpayers more overall; and to outperform regular public schools but decrease achievement overall?

Unfortunately, it is possible, and this mix of intended and unintended outcomes is the “Charter School Paradox.” But it is only a paradox if we take a narrow view of charter school effects. Rigorous new research concludes that public charter schools are seriously damaging the private education market, adding to the taxpayer burden, and undermining private options for families and healthy competition in the education sector.

Fortunately, we have a solution in education tax credits …

Take a look at the full paper by Richard Buddin, my short companion piece, and our brief video on the findings and implications of this path-breaking new research.

Edu-poll Results, for What They’re Worth

Polls are tricky things, giving a veneer of scientific certainty to an endeavor subject to all sorts of biases, methodological problems, etc. Worse, while they might tell us what people think, they do almost nothing to inform us about what policies actually make the most sense. With those provisos in mind – and they apply heavily here – what follows are the highlights of the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on public education, released this morning. Phi Delta Kappa, by the way, is the self-described “premier professional association for educators.”

I’m not going to hit all the topics – you can catch every question here – I’m just going to cover the ones likely of most interest to libertarian types. And here they are:

School choice:  Using PDK/Gallup’s long favored voucher question – the most loaded one, which asks whether respondents favor or oppose allowing people to “choose a private school at public expense” – 44 percent favored and 55 percent opposed. For whatever reason – maybe seeing choice greatly expand recently, maybe growing disgust with teachers unions – favorability rose from 34 percent last year. Charter schools were favored by 66 percent of respondents, and “laws that allow parents to petition to remove the leadership and staff of failing schools” – roughly, “parent trigger” laws – were favored by 70 of respondents.  This last one is probably the worst way to deliver “choice,” but it must sound good. And how did the best way to deliver choice – tax credits – do? The pollsters didn’t even ask about them, probably because they would have polled very well.

National Standards: Asked several questions about their thoughts on the likely effect of “common core standards” – but not the Common Core standards – most people thought having some commonality would be beneficial. But there seems to be a huge disconnect between the question and reality: only 2 to 4 percent of respondents answered “don’t know” or refused to respond to the common core questions, but 60 percent of voters polled just a few months ago said they knew nothing about the actual Common Core standards being implemented in almost every state. So people seem to like generic commonality, but know little about the actual standards that were, unfortunately, purposely kept under the radar by their supporters.

Biggest Problem Facing Schools: Surprise, surprise, by far the most cited “biggest problem” people said their public schools were facing was ”lack of financial support.” 35 percent picked that, versus 8 percent fingering “lack of discipline,” the next biggest vote-getter. What this likely tell us is that (1) we are very slowly coming out of a recessionary period and some districts probably are making some cuts, and (2) people have no idea how much is actually spent on education, or how much it has grown over the decades. It also shows that propaganda – when you hear people say “the schools are underfunded” enough you believe it – works.

Grading Public Schools: As always, people gave their local public schools decent grades and public schools overall lousy ones. This year 48 percent of respondents gave their own public schools an A or B (though that means a majority graded them C-or-below), while only 19 percent gave high marks to “public schools nationally.” Basically, people – who often heavily considered schools when they bought their homes – tend to affirm their own choices, but see the overall system as crummy.

And so goes another Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll. See you pollsters next year!

Celebrating Milton Friedman

Today is the 100th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s birth and wonderful pieces have appeared all over the Web to commemorate the occasion. I particularly like Stephen Moore’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and economist Bryan Caplan’s brief but thoughtful blog post.

To add to the celebration, we’ve put together a brief interview with Bob Chitester, producer of Milton’s “Free to Choose” documentary series, and provided a link to the site where you can watch the whole thing for free. I’ve also added a few thoughts of my own on Milton’s impact on the school choice movement, and the high standards he set in his life and work.