Tag: school choice

How Sweden Profits from For-Profit Schools

The brass ring of education reform is to find a way to ensure that the best schools routinely scale-up to serve large audiences, crowding out the mediocre and bad ones. Over the past twenty years, the United States and Sweden have taken two very different approaches to achieving that goal, which I wrote about in a recent op-ed.

In the U.S., our main strategy has been for philanthropists to fund the replication of what they deem to be the academically highest-performing networks of charter schools. In a recent statistical analysis of California, the state with the most charter schools, I discovered that this is not working out particularly well for us. There is no correlation between charter school networks’ academic performance and the philanthropic funding they’ve raised. And, at any rate, charter schools still enroll less than 3 percent of the nation’s students.

In 1992, Sweden introduced a nation-wide public and private school choice program. Private schools went from enrolling virtually no one to enrolling about 11 percent of the entire student population–a figure that continues to grow with each passing year. Moreover, recent research finds that these new private schools outperform the public schools. And which private schools are growing the fastest? The chains of for-profit schools that are in greatest demand, and that have an incentive to respond to that demand by opening new locations. The popular non-profit private schools tend not to expand much over time.

Given that Sweden is universally regarded as a liberal nation, and the U.S. is seen as a bastion of capitalism, one wonders why they got to the brass ring first, and why it is taking us so very long to get there now that they’ve shown us the way.

NCLB Is a Failure. It’s Nothing Personal.

Education writer RiShawn Biddle has offered a spirited response to my blog post yesterday about the failure of the No Child Left Behind act. In it, he asserts that NCLB has advanced school choice, and links to an earlier essay that ostensibly presented his case. Summarizing it, Biddle writes that:

The impact of No Child on advancing choice… starts with the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. Thanks to the data culled, the low quality of education in traditional district schools was exposed for all to see, providing parents and school choice activists with the information they needed  to push for the advancement of choice.

No thanks. The poor performance of U.S. schooling has been evident to a great many people for a very long time. The bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read was first published in 1955. Over the past 40 years, the NAEP’s Long Term Trends (LTT) tests have revealed stagnation in math and reading and decline in science toward the end of high school. In contrast to the consistent and nationally representative results of the NAEP LTTs, the NCLB is tied to state-administered tests that are so often corrupted by tinkering with their content and cut scores that they are largely worthless for measuring achievement at a single point in time let alone for measuring trends.

Biddle also claims that NCLB

exposed the long-running gamesmanship by states looking to define proficiency downward (a fact that Cato has used to its own advantage in arguing against expanding federal education policy); this, in turn, has rallied more reformers to move toward advancing school choice.

In reality, NCLB exacerbated the gamesmanship of state-level tests by giving state officials incentives to show the appearance of progress rather than actual progress. Moreover, it was not NCLB that exposed this fraud that was partially of its own making. For that we can thank… the NAEP. It was by comparing unreliable state test scores to far more reliable NAEP scores that it was discovered just how badly public schools in many states have been lying to families about their children’s performance. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted this fact, saying in 2009 that:

When states lower [their own academic] standards, they are lying to children and they are lying to parents. Those standards don’t prepare our students for the world of college or the world of work. When we match NAEP scores and state tests, we see the difference. Some states, like Massachusetts compare very well. Unfortunately, the disparities between most state tests and NAEP results are staggeringly large.

[Ironically, Duncan seems to have benefited from the absence of such a comparison while he was head of Chicago Public Schools, riding into his current position on the wings of a supposed “Chicago Miracle” that appears, based on NAEP scores, to have been a mirage induced by fanciful state tests.]

Biddle then goes on to praise NCLB’s “focus on graduation rates,” which he claims “forced states to present realistic numbers.” While it is true that many states had been reporting meaningless graduation statistics prior to NCLB, it is not at all clear that the law has improved matters. On the contrary, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman concluded from his exhaustive statistical study of the subject that NCLB appears to have fostered further cheating with graduation rates—what he calls “strategic behavior” by states and districts to present inflated graduation rate figures in order to avoid NCLB penalties. So, once again, it appears that NCLB is obfuscating rather than illuminating educational performance in America.

Finally, a note about Biddle’s characterization of my and my colleagues’ work at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom. Apparently discomfited by my criticism of NCLB, Biddle dubs us dogmatic ideological purists, unthinking and blindered, and claims that we praise or attack policies based on our “worldview,” etc. etc. While I can understand becoming exercised as a result of a policy debate, I cannot understand why someone who wants to be taken seriously would stoop to such obviously fatuous ad hominem attacks. My last paper was a regression study of the link between the performance of charter school networks and the grant funding they receive. It has multiple technical appendices, several of them added in response to peer reviews. Anyone who doubts its findings is welcome to repeat it and see if they obtain different results. The paper I wrote before that was a regression study of the regulatory burdens imposed by voucher and tax credit programs. It, too, can be repeated by other researchers if they wish to verify its findings. The term for this kind of testable, repeatable work is science, not “dogma” or “ideology” or “world view.” My colleagues are likewise engaged in empirical research and we derive our policy recommendations from that research. So our conclusions are indeed very narrowly constrained, but not by ideology. They are constrained by what works, and what does not work, in the real world.

Resurrect DC Choice, Bury the Lede

A Washington Post story from a couple of days ago touts survey results showing a majority of DC parents – 53 percent – finally giving the DC public schools a decent grade. That is, to be fair, a big story. But it certainly isn’t the most overwhelming finding in the survey. That you find mentioned deep in the article:

This year, Congress approved an extension of a federal program that provides vouchers to help students from some low-income D.C. families attend private or parochial schools. The survey found that nearly 70 percent of parents with children in the system support such tuition aid. Overall, nearly two-thirds of residents back vouchers, with positive sentiment higher among African Americans.

Perhaps even more interesting is that support for charter schools – the “it” choice reform because charters are still public schools – is downright tepid in comparison:

Residents remain ambivalent about the rapidly growing public charter sector, which serves 28,000 students. Forty-one percent consider the independently operated charters better than regular public schools; 42 percent say they are about the same. The favorable rating rises to a slight majority, however, among residents younger than 30.

The people of DC overwhelmingly want real, private-school choice. That’s the news about DC education that everyone should know!

Are Unions Really Good for Democrats?

Charles Krauthammer’s latest column is titled “The Union-Owned Democrats.” In it, he recounts a litany of economically ruinous actions being pursued by unions around the country, from blocking free trade agreements to hobbling Boeing’s efforts to compete with Airbus. He writes that “unions need Democrats — who deliver quite faithfully,” and that “Democrats need unions.”

Like a hole in the head.

Yes, it’s been a politically and financially symbiotic relationship for many decades. Unions get rents, Democrats get elected. But, as I argue in a cover story for The American Spectator this month (now on-line: “A Less Perfect Union”), it can’t last.

The biggest unions of all are the public school employee unions—the AFT and the NEA—with well over 4 million members between them. As I point out in my Spectator piece, these unions have become too successful for their own good—and for the good of the Democratic party.

In their game of Monopoly with American kids and taxpayers they have created staggering bloat in public school employment (which has grown 10 times faster than student enrollment over the past 40 years), and they have wheedled total compensation packages worth $17,000 more per year than those of their private sector counterparts (who, according to most of the research, outperform them in the classroom).

But the union-led public school spending spree has nearly bankrupted states all over the country. If California’s public schools had just maintained the same level of efficiency they’d had in 1970 (not gotten better, as other fields have, just stagnated), it would turn the state’s $26 billion deficit hole into a surplus.

Americans are rapidly running out of money to pay for their states’ school monopolies, and they are rapidly introducing school choice bills (42 states have done so this year), to give families alternatives. But as families escape the highly unionized monopoly and send their kids to school in the largely non-unionized private sector, teachers union power will implode. And resentment at having been gored for so long by the now bankrupt and discredited system will focus on the party that fought to preserve it until the bitter end… Democrats.

In my Spectator piece, I explain why that would be a bad thing, and what Democrats could do to avoid that fate. “Public schooling” is just a tool, and an ineffective, unaffordable one at that. Public education is a set of goals and ideals that can be advanced much more effectively by other policy mechanisms. The sooner Democrats realize that, the less likely they are to be dragged to the bottom of the political sea by the sinking union-helmed school monopoly.

Ranking the Charter School Networks

Much of the response to the study I released last week has focused on the relative academic performance rankings of California’s charter school networks. That wasn’t the point of the study, which focuses on whether or not philanthropy + charter schooling can replace venture capital and competitive markets as a mechanism for scaling-up the best education services. Rather than try to fight the tide, I thought I’d just share the relevant rankings in an easy-to-link form, and once the debate about them dies down we can return to the larger policy point.

With that in mind, the first table below lists the top 15 charter school networks in terms of performance on the California Standards Tests, adjusted for student factors and peer effects. For comparison, two non-charter schools are included: the academically selective elite public prep schools Gretchen Whitney and Lowell–both of which feature in most lists of the top public schools in the country. There are 68 networks with the necessary data, but the lowest grant rank is 61 because eight of the networks received no philanthropic funding at all.

Next is a list of the charter networks that philanthropists have invested-in most heavily, with a view to replicating their models. Notice the minimal overlap? I repeat this comparison in the study with Advanced Placement test performance, and find the same pattern (it’s just slightly worse).

Every one of the above networks received substantially more grant funding individually than the top three highest achieving networks… combined.

Jay Greene’s Great New Manifesto

Education scholar Jay Greene has a great new pamphlet called Why America Needs School Choice. Concise and very readable, it does a fine job of introducing the general public to the arguments and evidence in favor of market forces in education. In the process, it debunks six “canards” put forward by defenders of the status quo school monopoly.

Of particular value is Jay’s explanation of why existing “school choice” policies, while often producing positive results, have not yet transformed American education. He notes that these existing programs are hobbled by enrollment limits and regulations, and thus represent only dim shadows of what truly free and competitive education marketplaces would offer. I couldn’t agree more! In fact, the manifesto might more precisely be called Why America Needs a Competitive Education Marketplace, though perhaps that would have narrowed its appeal.

One minor quibble: On page 46, Jay writes that:

No private school choice program has been eliminated legislatively. Aside from a few adverse state court decisions, every choice victory is permanent, and every defeat is temporary.

The implication is that legislative and court action are the only avenues by which choice programs can be overturned. A third, public referendum, exists–and was responsible for the repeal of a Utah school voucher program in 2007. Would-be reformers should remember that lesson: unless the public understands and accepts the value of a policy, it may well overturn it before the first student ever participates. Manifestos like Jay’s are a good way to help spread that understanding.

A more significant problem with this particular passage is that it seems to imply that every “choice” program is a victory, and it asserts every victory is permanent. There is good reason to conclude that neither is the case.

The worldwide historical and modern evidence indicate that private schools will ultimately accept government funding no matter what strings are attached, and that such subsidized schools can consume the unsubsidized sector. This has happened in the Netherlands, for instance, which no longer has an unsubsidized private school sector after a century of government-funded private schooling. And since subsidized schools may not be operated for profit, it has no entrepreneurial chains of private schools.

So what happens if the subsidies eventually accumulate so much regulation that government-funded “private” schools become indistinguishable from today’s government schools? The result would be a move from the current 90% government monopoly to a 100% government monopoly. Not a victory at all, as the international evidence shows that the least regulated, most market-like education systems enjoy the greatest advantage over centrally planned school systems such as our own.

Last year, I ran a statistical analysis of the level of regulation imposed on private schools participating in voucher and education tax credit programs. I found that vouchers impose a large and statistically significant burden of extra regulation on private schools, whereas tax credits do not.  There are other issues with vouchers and charter schools as well. So all “choice” programs are not created equal.

Still, these concerns aside, Jay has written one of the best introductions to the case for educational freedom I’ve seen. I hope it gets a wide readership.

New Cato Study: Philanthropists Are Replicating Charter Schools…at Random

In December of 1993, Bill Clinton remarked that figuring out how to consistently replicate great schools was the central education policy problem of our age. A generation later, it still is.

As someone obsessed with solving that problem, I wanted to know how well our current strategies for achieving it are working. One strategy in particular has attracted the bulk of the funding and attention over the past decade: philanthropists teaming up with what they consider to be the best networks of charter schools, and funding their growth. To find out how well they’ve been picking the winners, I compared the total amount of grant funding received by each of 68 California charter school networks over the past 8 years to the academic performance of those networks. The study is available here.

The correlation between grant funding and performance on the California Standards Tests turns out to be negligible (0.1). In fact, it’s half the size of the correlation between performance and the length of the networks’ names. As a check on those findings, I also ran the numbers on AP test performance. Those results are slightly worse: though the correlations are also negligible in magnitude, they’re actually negative in sign—more grant funding is associated with minutely worse AP performance.

In a nutshell, it’s as if philanthropists have been doling out funding to charter school networks by the same random lottery process by which oversubscribed charters are obliged to accept new students. While this will of course be viewed as a great disappointment by a great many people, it is better to have this information than to continue to labor in ignorance. There are places where excellence in education does routinely scale-up, and documenting them is the subject of my next project….