Tag: school choice

Taking Education Policy from Quackery to Science

I recently bewailed the peddling of education policy snake-oil – advocacy based on non-sequiturs and false/misleading/incomplete data. At the end of it, I teased a forthcoming piece suggesting how the field could be kicked up a notch in seriousness and value. It ran today on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

Feel free to ping me on Twitter or Facebook if you have comments.


A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

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.