Tag: school choice

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….


Curricula with an Agenda? It Ain’t Just Big Coal

Today the Washington Post has a big story on efforts by the coal industry to get public schools to teach positive things about — you guessed it — coal. The impetus for the article is no doubt a recent kerfuffle over education mega-publisher Scholastic sending schools free copies of the industry-funded lesson plan “The United States of Energy.” Many parents and environmentalists were upset over businesses putting stealthy moves on kids, and Scholastic eventually promised to cease publication of the plan.

Loaded curricula designed to coerce specific sympathies from children, however, hardly come just from industry, as the Post story notes. Indeed, as I write in the new Cato book Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, much of the curricular material put out at least on climate change is decidedly alarmist in nature, and is funded by you, the taxpayer. In other words, lots of people are trying to use the schools to push their biases on your kids, which is an especially dangerous thing considering how unsettled, uncertain, and multi-sided so many issues are.

In light of the huge question marks that exist in almost all subjects that schools address, the best education system is the one that is most decentralized, in which ideas can compete rather than having one (very likely flawed) conclusion imposed as orthodoxy. And it would be a system in which no level of government — either district, state, or federal — would decide what view is correct, or what should be taught based on the existence of some supposed consensus, as if “consensus” were synonymous with “absolute truth.” What is truth should not be decided by who has the best lobbyists or most political weight, nor should children be forced to learn what government simply deems to be best.

Of course, there are some people who will decide that they are so correct about something that it would be abusive not to have government force children to learn it. If their conclusion is so compelling and obvious, however, no coercion should be necessary to get people to teach it to their children — it should be overwhelmingly clear. More importantly, if there is controversy, efforts to impose a singular view are likely to fail not just with the children of unbelievers, but for many of the children whose parents share the view. As significant anecdotal evidence over the teaching of human origins has stongly suggested — and new empirical work has substantiated — when public schools are confronted with controversial issues, they tend to avoid them altogether rather than teach any side. In other words, efforts at compulsion don’t just fail, they hurt everyone.

Educational freedom, then, is the only solution to the curricular problem. If you want full power to avoid the imposition of unwanted materials on your children, you must be able to choose schools. And if you want to ensure that your kids get the instruction you think every child should have, everyone else must have that ability, too.

Don’t Let the Aphorism Be the Enemy of Thought

I am often told that pointing out the serious shortcomings of government-funded school vouchers and the relative superiority of education tax credits is a case of “making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

It’s isn’t.

That is a misapplication of Voltaire’s famous aphorism. What the aphorism exhorts is that we not pursue an unattainable perfection when a good alternative is within reach. Education tax credits are not only attainable, they are usually easier to obtain than vouchers. Consider a recent example: Pennsylvania’s state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand its existing EITC tax credit program while the state Senate has been deadlocked for weeks looking for the bare minimum of votes to pass a voucher bill.

On top of that, it is dubious to cast vouchers as “the good” when they will expand the scope of compulsion of taxpayers to funding many new types of schooling to which they might well object, impose heavy new regulations on private schools (homogenizing the available “choices”), and more pervasively curtail direct payment by consumers in favor of third party government payment.

Even those who may not be fully convinced that vouchers are inferior should pause before trying to enact them in states that already have education tax credit programs with good growth prospects. Why make the dubious the enemy of the pretty darned good?

Turns out State Schooling Isn’t Communist after all…

Albert Shanker, long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers union, said back in 1989 that:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

But hang on a minute! Doesn’t the following description sound a lot like the work rules in our public schools:

Promotion was determined by the Table of Ranks…. An official could hold only those posts at or below his own personal rank…. [S]tandard intervals were set for promotion: one rank every three years from ranks 14 to 8; and one every four years from ranks 8 to 5…. This meant that, barring some heinous sin, even the most average bureaucrat could expect to rise automatically with age…. The system encouraged … time-serving mediocrity

That, ladies and gentleman, is not a description of the work rules of the communist-era Russian bureaucracy. It describes the rules in the Tsarist Russian bureaucracy (see Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy,” p. 36).

The funny thing is, according to Figes, “By the end of the [19th] century, however, this system of automatic advancement was falling into disuse as merit became more important than age.”

So the modern U.S. system for promoting public school teachers was discarded as inefficient and unworkable… by the Tsars.

Michelle Rhee Endorses Private School Choice…Sort of

Former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee declares in a new op-ed that she endorses private school choice for low-income families, but adds: “I’m not for school choice for its own sake. I am for choice because it can, directly and indirectly, provide better opportunities for low-income children—not simply more opportunities.”

I’m not sure I understand her. Is Rhee saying that given two alternatives: one in which parents have many different educational choices and one in which they don’t, she inherently prefers the option that gives parents no choice if test scores are not impacted either way? Why not prefer choice for its own sake, as well as for its academic benefits?

Rhee then goes on to say that private schools receiving government funding should be under government oversight, and be required to do such things as administer standardized tests in order to ensure “accountability.” But isn’t this precisely the sort of “accountability” to which state-run schools are already subjected in minute detail, and which has coincided with stagnation or decline in academic achievement for two generations (depending on the subject) and a catastrophic productivity collapse? It’s worth noting that it is the freest, least regulated, most market-like education systems that consistently produce the most effective, efficient schools.

It’s a short op-ed, providing little room for Rhee to explain how she came to hold the particular policy views she espouses regarding private school choice. It will be interesting to learn more.

Indiana Voucher Law a Defeat for Educational Freedom

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an expansive new voucher law today. It’s a disaster for educational freedom. Read the full explanation here.

The voucher program has been widely praised as a momentous victory for school choice and Gov. Mitch Daniels on the brink of his long-awaited presidential campaign announcement. In reality, the voucher program is a tactical victory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategic defeat for educational freedom. This program will greatly expand state regulation of and authority over participating private schools.

In our efforts to expand educational choice across the country, we can’t lose sight of what makes that choice valuable: educational freedom and the diversity of choices it allows to develop. School choice is meaningless if all the choices are the same.

Just a teaser … ever heard of Chief Seattle? Private schools in Indiana will know him well if they take a voucher.

Read the piece for these and other shocking details!