Tag: school choice

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.

‘School Spending Predicted to Climb 50%’*

*by 2005…

Defenders of the educational status quo have long argued that we don’t need wholesale reform because our state-run school system can be fixed. If we simply raise spending, shrink classes, hire more teachers, or wait for the latest government mandate to work, they’ve promised, our problems will be solved. Reformers have predicted the opposite: that pouring more resources into the public school monopoly will only make it more expensive, not better, and so we need to inject real parental choice, get rid of the red tape that hobbles educators, and unleash market incentives. Who’s right?

My colleagues and I at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom normally answer that question with empirical research, but in honor of School Choice Week

we’re taking a different tack. We’re letting the status quo defenders and reformers speak for themselves, by dredging up their predictions of decades past to see who was a Nostradamus and who a Nostradumb—. To kick off this week-long series, here’s our first blast from the educational past:

“School Spending Predicted to Climb 50% by 2005” [Education Week, Sept. 22nd, 1994]

A report published by the American Legislative Exchange Council predicted that public school spending would climb “from nearly $262 billion in 1994 to $386 billion by 2005.” ALEC also warned that the new spending would do little to help children learn, because public schooling is a government-run monopoly and monopolies are notoriously wasteful and inefficient.

Not everyone agreed. The Ed. Week story cautioned that ALEC’s “projections do not square with [substantially lower] federal estimates, and school finance experts have questioned their methodology.”

Who was right? To find out, we first have to adjust ALEC’s prediction to account for inflation (their estimate of what spending would be in the year 2005 was, of necessity, made in 1994 dollars, which were worth a lot more than dollars in 2005). Using the BLS inflation calculator, we find that ALEC’s prediction amounts to $509 billion in 2005 dollars. That turns out to have been… too low. Real U.S. public school spending in 2005 was $529 billion, according to the 2008 federal Digest of Education Statistics.

As for student achievement, ALEC was right about that, too. Tested near the end of their k-12 schooling, students performed no better in 2005 than they did in 1994—or, for that matter, in 1970 (see chart below).

Back When Democrats Cared Enough to Advocate What Works

Many, if not most, of the stated goals of the Democratic Party have universal appeal in the United States. Foremost among those would be reducing poverty and ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education.

The problem with the Democratic Party today is that its leadership seems not to understand the kinds of policies that will achieve those goals. Instead of finding out what works and implementing it, they simply call for new government programs on the assumption that those programs will work (or, if you’re jaded, on the assumption that doing so will get them re-elected).

It wasn’t always like that. There was a time when one of the most prominent Democrats in the nation was so deeply committed to these goals that he was willing to advocate the policies that would achieve them—special interests be damned.

Scott Walter has a little of that story at Philanthropy Daily.

To plagiarize Instapundit: more like this, please.

And the Other Washington Is Messed Up, Too

In a new op-ed, I have the regrettable task of pointing out to my fellow Washingtonians (of the PNW rather than D.C. variety) that we have increased public school spending in the past decade by $1.6 billion and gotten _________ in return. Nothing. Nada. Rien du tout, mes concitoyens.

NAEP scores are pretty much flat at the end of high school, as are SAT scores. It is hard to argue that we really care about children’s education when we’re willing to waste $1.6 billion that is purportedly meant for that purpose. If politicians and voters in the Evergreen State do decide, at some point, to do something for children, the first step would be to stop wasting that $1.6 billion. The next step would be to follow the lead of other states, like Florida, that have found ways to improve student achievement while _lowering_ taxes.