Tag: school choice

Power Yes, Trigger No

There is little question that parents have too little power in elementary and secondary education. In fact, they have almost no power: they can vote, but are otherwise usually relegated to being class moms, or holding bake sales, or some other fluffy “involvement” that gives them no real say over how their children are educated. Adding insult to injury, that doesn’t often stop professional educators from blaming parents when students don’t do so well.

To remedy the problem, the trendy thing seems to be “parent trigger” laws that would, generally speaking, allow a majority of parents at a school declare that they want to fire the staff, or bring in a private management company, or some other transformation. It’s been the spark behind some especially heated conflicts in California, as unions and parents of different stripes have been doing battle with each other. It is also the subject of a New York TimesRoom for Debate” exchange today.

While I sympathize—obviously—with those who advocate giving parents more power, I cannot help but conclude that the parent trigger is a very poor way to do this. For one thing, it is inherently divisive: what about the 49 percent, or 30 percent, or whatever percent of parents who don’t want the changes the majority demands? They’ve got no choice but to fight it out with their neighbors. It is also inefficient: individual children need all sorts of options to best meet their unique needs and abilities, but the trigger would just exchange one monolithic school model for another.

The trigger, quite simply, is no substitute for real educational freedom: giving parents control of education funds, giving educators freedom to establish myriad options, and letting freedom, competition and specialization rein.

There is, however, one gratifying thing about the parent trigger: it has made historian Diane Ravitch—who constantly decries the destruction of “democracy” were we to have educational freedom—express outrage about ”51 percent of people using a public service hav[ing] the power to privatize it.”

Um, isn’t majority rule what democracy is all about? Or do government schooling defenders really just invoke the term because it sounds so nice and is such a potent rhetorical club?

The answer, it seems, is getting more clear.

A Soft Surrender to Low Expectations

There is a problem in the school choice community … let’s call it a soft surrender to low expectations.

We are witnessing a race to the bottom on education policy, and the latest case comes from my own state of Virginia. The legislature passed an education tax credit program this week, soon to be signed by the Governor, which means I should be celebrating. Unfortunately, the Virginia tax credit program is a mockery of education reform.

I will lay out my basic list of criticisms, which include some of the program’s  inadequacies along with its grave debilitations. Read more here.

  1. It is a 65% credit, which is terrible policy and will cripple the program (see more on this issue).
  2. It places the program administration and control, including approval of SOs and schools under the state DOE rather than the proper authority for administering a tax credit program, the Dpt. of Revenue.
  3. It exempts the DOE from the Administrative Process Act, which provides for appeal and review of decisions, and explicitly states that all decisions by the DOE and Superintendent are “final and not subject to review or appeal.” In other words, they have been given a blank check of regulatory authority over the program and schools.
  4. The bill will force schools to collect and report detailed student information to the DOE.
  5. The cap is only $25 million, and has no growth provision.
  6. No personal-use credits so that families can use their own money for their own children … they must beg for charity if they are eligible.
  7. No homeschooling or non-traditional education.
  8. And the kicker … the whole thing sunsets in 2018, five years from now (see section 58.1-439.26 A, “beginning on or after January 1, 2013, but before January 1, 2018 …”).

I would celebrate the last provision, a sunset clause, as a chance for Virginia to get it right the second time, if not for the much greater probability that the looming demise of the program will enable choice opponents to make the program even worse in trade for a stay of execution.

If we will accept this, we will accept anything. It will not do what we expect or need in terms of expanding choice and freedom, and the hope that it will be appreciably improved in the next five years is slim at best.

Often, when I insist on higher standards in school choice policy, I am told that we must voice support because it will help some children now. Few seem to consider the hundreds of thousands of children who will not be helped in decades to come, indeed may well be harmed, because of this inadequate policy. Opportunity costs must be considered. All the children yet to be born must play into our utilitarian calculus if that is the measure we use to judge public policy.

And we should not pretend that obviously inadequate programs are bold reforms; it  only serves to encourage yet more inadequate policy. We should push the conversation and educate leaders and citizens about real reform. Instead, the issue of school choice will be set aside for at least four years, as politicians point to their “accomplishment” that will help so few and provide no foundation for future reform. A roadblock to real education reform has just been passed in Virginia, and it is labeled SB 131.

David Brooks, Charles Murray, and Market Education

In a recent column, David Brooks considers Charles Murray’s thesis that “America is coming apart,” and concludes that:

The country… needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires… building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

The first recommendation is reasonable. The second suggests Brooks is not very familiar with the history of education.

For the past century and a half, the biggest single intervention by the government in American lives has been our state school systems. Prior to the mid 1800s, all education in this country was local. The majority of children attended private schools, and those who attended the local “common” or “public” schools usually paid tuition. Even “common” schooling was only free for the truly destitute. Partly as a result of this direct financial responsibility, parents had ultimate control over what and by whom their children were taught.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann and his colleague in the House, James Carter, imagined and ultimately laid the foundation of the state school system we know today. They did so for a variety of reasons, one being their belief that the common man and woman could not be trusted to educate their own children. Their solution was to take educational power and responsibility out of parents’ hands and place it under the control of state-trained, state-appointed experts.

Shockingly, taking responsibilities away from people does not make them more responsible. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it, or lose it. The kinds of  “organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly” are those that actually impose responsibilities upon them. When parents must not only choose but pay for their children’s education, they expect rather more from the system than when they are assigned “free” schooling by the state. And school efficiency rises as a result.

Some parents could not afford to pay for a good education for their children even without the heavy tax burden imposed by the present bloated state school monopolies. For those parents, we could easily provide financial assistance to cover most or (as necessary) all the cost of schooling. This is already being done on a small but growing scale in 8 states, thanks to k-12 education tax credit programs.

If Brooks wants “an organization and structure” that induces people to behave responsibly, he need look no further than the free enterprise system. “Using government” to achieve that end has been tried for 150 years, and the results are not impressive.

School Choice Lowers Crime

New research by Harvard professor David J. Deming studied the crime rates of young adults who participated in a random lottery at the middle or high school level. The lotteries decided whether students were able to attend a school of their choice or whether they were forced to attend their assigned public school. Students who won the lottery committed significantly fewer crimes as young adults than those who lost it. So here is another in the long list of educational outcomes improved by market freedoms and incentives.

Send this to a friend who is still on the fence about the merits of educational freedom.

Catholic Schools and the Common Good

One of the first things you learn when you start to study the comparative performance of school systems is this: on average, Catholic schools are much more educationally effective and vastly more efficient than state-run schools. And then you learn that their impact goes beyond the three R’s. I wrote a little about these facts a few years ago, while I was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and my Mackinac friends have resurrected the post for Catholic Schools Week. I’ve appended an excerpt below, but you can read the whole thing here.

When state-run public schooling was first championed in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, it was under the banner of “the common school,” and it was touted more for its predicted social benefits than its impact on mathematical or literary skills. The leading common school reformer of the time, Horace Mann, promised, “Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Having experienced more than a century-and-a-half of a vigorously expanding public school system, Americans are no longer quite as sanguine about the institution’s capabilities. Nevertheless, there is still a widespread belief that government schools promote the common good in a way independent private schools never could.

Is that belief justified? Scores of researchers have compared the social characteristics and effects of public and private schooling. They have found little evidence of any public-sector advantage. On the contrary, private schools almost always demonstrate comparable or superior contributions to political tolerance, civic knowledge and civic engagement. One group of private schools stands out as particularly effective in this regard: those run by the Catholic Church.

Status Quo Stalwarts, Meet Reality[School Choice Week Blast from the Past, Pt. 2!]

Back in 1993, when Whitney Houston hit #1 with “I will always love you”, there was something that California-based state schooling advocates didn’t love at all: a school voucher ballot initiative. Much was written on the subject, and in 1994 a booklet was published summarizing the arguments for and against (Voices on Choice, K. L. Billingsley, ed.). In today’s School Choice Week installment, we’ll hear from those who were agin’ it.

Maxine Waters, United States Congress (D, Los Angeles):
“Contrary to claims, school choice will be devastating for urban, minority, and poor students who desperately need quality education.”

Delaine Eastin, California State Representative (D, Fremont):
“Having schools without [government] standards won’t improve learning.” Private school choice “won’t teach more kids how to read and write.”

Well, actually… U.S. private school choice programs usually do improve student achievement significantly in one or more subjects, and they have never been shown to have a negative impact on student achievement. The domestic scientific evidence to that effect was collected and summarized last March by Greg Forster, for the Foundation for Educational Choice. I do have one quibble with the report (it doesn’t count the insignificant findings in studies that have at least one significant finding, as is standard practice in literature reviews) but even after addressing it the aforementioned statements would still hold true.

Heck, even the few choice programs that don’t currently seem to be raising test scores are substantially raising students’ graduation rates–and doing it at substantially less cost to taxpayers than the state schools.

What’s more, when we cast a wider net and look at scientific studies comparing government and independent schools within countries all over the world, the results are even more dramatic.  In fact, it is the least regulated, most market-like schools that most consistently outperform state-run monopoly school systems such was we have in the U.S.

Delaine Eastin:
“[T]his initiative allows schools to fail. But it does nothing to protect taxpayers when they do. When public school systems go belly up as a result of the voucher initiative, the courts are likely to rule that taxpayers will be stuck with the tab—and it won’t be cheap.”

Modern private school choice programs have been operating around the country for as long as twenty years, and I know of no case in which they have been found to increase the total burden on taxpayers. In fact, the only systematic studies of the issue find that these programs save taxpayers money—sometimes quite a bit of it. Florida’s legislature has studied the fiscal impact of that state’s k-12 scholarship donation tax credit program, and found it to save $1.49 for every $1 it reduces revenues. That’s a nearly 50% return.

What’s more, the program has been found in two separate studies to both improve achievement of students who remain in public schools and to improve achievement of students who receive scholarships to attend private schools. It’s not hard to fathom why: on average, private schools spend thousands less per pupil than does the public school monopoly.

Warren Furutani, past president, Los Angeles City Board of Education:
“It is no coincidence that dollars are being pulled from our underfunded, overburdened school system at the same time our governor and the president of this nation are pushing vouchers and choice.”

Um… Yeah… About that claim that “dollars were being pulled” from “underfunded” public schools in California. I just happen to have the actual spending trend handy:

So, not only were these Status Quo Stalwarts unable to correctly predict the future, they had some difficulty accurately describing the present. Oh, and while thrifty school choice programs around the country have been improving student achievement and attainment, it’s hard to say the same for the California’s state education monopoly.