Tag: school choice

Colorado Court Halts School Voucher Program

Last Friday, a Colorado District Court halted the new and unique Douglas County school voucher program with a permanent injunction. School choice legislation is a little like the Field of Dreams: pass it, and they will sue–and we all know who “they” are. So there’s a tendency to dismiss legal setbacks for the choice movement as purely the result of self-serving monopolists exploiting bad laws or partisan, activist judges. There are certainly cases that fall into that category, but this Colorado ruling isn’t one of them.

Oh, the self-serving monopolists and opponents of educational freedom are no doubt cheering it, but the ruling does not read like the work of a rube or an ideologue, and not all of the state constitutional provisions on which it was based can be dismissed as outdated examples of religious bigotry. The state’s “compelled support” clause, in particular, seems to uphold a fundamentally American idea: that it is wrong to coerce people to pay for the propagation of ideas that they disbelieve. Thomas Jefferson, in his Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, called this: “tyranny.”

Obviously, conventional public schools have been a source of such coercion for a very long time–everyone has to pay for the public schools, despite profound objections they may have to the way those schools teach history, literature, government, biology, or sex education. That’s why we’ve had “school wars” as long as we’ve had government schools. And obviously vouchers offer the advantage of giving parents a much wider range of educational options for their children than do the one-size-fits few public schools. But despite this advantage, vouchers require all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling, including types of instruction that might violate some taxpayers’ most deeply held convictions. That’s a recipe for continued social conflict over what is taught.

If there were no alternative to vouchers for providing school choice, perhaps it would make sense to have a debate over which freedoms should take precedence: the freedom of choice of families or the freedom of conscience of taxpayers–and then to sacrifice whichever one was deemed less worthy. But there is an alternative, and it does not require anyone to be compelled to support any particular type of instruction. I discuss this alternative, education tax credits, in a recent Huffington Post op-ed.

Education Tax Credits More Popular Than Vouchers & Charters

As Neal wrote about earlier, Education Next has released their new poll, and there are some interesting results.

Surprisingly, the authors buried the lede in their writeup; education tax credits consistently have more support and less opposition than any other choice policy.

This year, donation tax credits pulled in a 29-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 25-point margin of support.

The authors added a new, less neutral voucher question that boosted the margin of support to 20 points. They couched the policy in terms of “wider choice” for kids in public schools, and the implication was that it was universal. All three of these additional considerations tend to have a positive impact on support for choice policies.

The standard low-income voucher question showed a big jump this year from a -12 in 2010 to a 1-point margin of support. The last time Education Next asked a low-income tax credit question, it garnered a 19-point margin of support.

Last year, tax credits had a 28-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 22-point margin of support and vouchers for low-income kids went -12 points (more respondents opposed).

Public opinion is consistently and strongly in favor of education tax credits over vouchers and even charter schools. And thankfully, they’re a much better policy as well.

Public Right on Choice, Wrong on Standards, But Always Well Intentioned

Today the good folks at the journal Education Next released their annual survey of education opinion. What follows is a quick summary of many of the things the pollsters found, followed by a little commentary about the national-standards results.  (Adam Schaeffer, I have it on good authority, will be flogging the tax credit and voucher findings in an upcoming post.) Bottom line: The public usually has the right inclinations, but gets some answers wrong as a result.

One note: As is always the case with polls – but I won’t go into great detail with Education Next’s questions – remember that question wording can have a sizable impact on results.

So what did Education Next find?

  • Almost everybody reports paying at least some attention to education issues
  • 79 percent of Americans would grade the nation’s public schools no better than a “C”
  • 54 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of parents, would grade their communities’ public schools no better than a “C”
  • Even when told how much their district spends per pupil, 46 percent of respondents think funding should increase. But that’s down from 59 percent when the current expenditure isn’t given
  • Pluralities of Americans favor charter schooling and government-funded private-school choice (without mention of the sometimes toxic word “voucher”), and a close majority supports tax-credit-based choice   
  • A huge majority, even after having been given the average teacher salary, thinks teachers should get paid more or about the same as they currently do
  • A plurality thinks teachers should pay 20 percent of the cost of their health-care and pension benefits
  • Large pluralities – and for one question a majority – support judging and rewarding teachers based on performance, as well as easing credentialing and tenure rules
  • The public is about evenly split on whether teachers’ unions are good or bad for their districts
  • Big majorities support federal testing demands (without mention of the often-toxic No Child Left Behind Act) as well as states adopting the “same set” of standards and tests (without mention of federal incentives to do so)
  • A plurality of Americans oppose taking income into account when assigning students to schools
  • Only 16 percent of respondents think local taxes for their district should decrease

All of these results demonstrate good reflexes by the public. They know, for instance, that overall the public schools are performing poorly, but they are a little happier with the districts they often chose when selecting homes. They want to spend more money on schooling because education is generally a good thing, but that drops when they are told how much is actually being spent (a slippery figure few hard-working Americans have time to pin down themselves). They recognize the need for choice, something they benefit from in almost every other facet of their lives. They believe in judging and rewarding people based on their performance. They oppose forcing physical integration – in this case based on income – on students and communities. And they even, reasonably, want all states to have the same academic standards.

About that last point: Intuitively, it seems to make sense. Why should kids in Mississippi be asked to learn less than those in Massachusetts? If I didn’t get paid to analyze education policy – if I had to do other work for 40-plus hours a week – I, too, would probably support national standards because I wouldn’t have time to look at the evidence, or cogitate over the politics behind such a fair sounding proposal. But I do analyze education policy full time, and I know that (1) there is little evidence supporting calls for national standards; (2) many states have adopted national standards mainly in pursuit of federal money; (3) even if you can get initially high standards, they’ll be dumbed-down by politics; and (4) states can perhaps be standardized, but unique, individual students never can be.

Of course, the good-intentions problem is not unique to education. The huge opportunity costs – among other disincentives – that keep members of the public from being able to sufficiently analyze complicated political issues is a major problem in all public policy matters. That’s why good intentions – which the public demonstrates in spades in this poll – can often lead to bad outcomes. But we cannot blame the public for that. We must, instead, inform the public as best we can.

People Think of Something as Their Business When It Is Their Business

A WSJ interview with Bill Gates includes this pivotal observation:

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

While it’s true that public school districts don’t spend a lot on R&D, a vast army of academics has been cranking out research in this field for generations. The Education Resources Information Center, a database of education studies dating back to 1966, boasts 1.3 million entries. So the problem is not a lack of research, but rather that most of the research is useless and that the rare exceptions have been ignored by the public schools.

Why? Because, as Bill Gates correctly observes, hardly anyone thinks of education as their business. And how do you get masses of brilliant entrepreneurs to think of education as their business? You make it easy for them to make it their business. When and where education is allowed to participate in the free enterprise system, entrepreneurs enter that field just as they do any other–and excellence is identified and scales up. It is a process that happens automatically due to the freedoms and incentives inherent in that system. More than that, it is the only system in the history of humanity that has ever led to the routine identification and mass replication of excellent products and services.

So what happens if you want market outcomes but reject the market system that creates them? You are left to re-invent the wheel… without the only value of pi that makes a circle.

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!