Tag: school choice

Ed. Policy Reality Check (Now with More Reality!)

The Orlando Sentinel published an article over the weekend titled “Education: Big reforms haven’t yet produced big results.” It seems to have been meant as a reality check, and certainly it does contain a few relevant facts, but it also leaves this statement from “critics” unchallenged: “schools won’t get better without more money.”

Slight problem: Florida’s k-12 scholarship tax credit is raising academic achievement at less than half the per pupil cost of the traditional state-run schools. That’s according to academic studies commissioned by the state of Florida and by the state’s own spending and enrollment data.

Figlio and Hart, 2010, found that the scholarship tax credit program improves academic performance in public schools; and Figlio, 2011, found that students using the scholarships to attend independent schools are also benefiting academically. As for cost, the average scholarship is about $4,000. For comparison, the state’s public school districts spent $27 billion in 2009-10 (bottom of page 21, first column), for 2.6 million students, for per pupil spending of just over $10,000.

Michelle Obama on Personal Responsibility and the Limits of Federal Programs

Yesterday the First Lady addressed high school students visiting Georgetown University for a day. Her message was to encourage students to strive for academic success and college degrees, but her answer to one question said a whole lot more. Here’s the question:

about the community, like, about this violence and teen pregnancy that’s going on…. What could you and your husband do to change or help out us young people?  Because it’s like someone dying every day.  Like, it’s just crazy.

Mrs. Obama answered at length, stressing the need for every individual to take responsibility for his own life and his own destiny, going so far as to add that

there’s all this stuff the President and Congress can do, but trust me, they can’t fix that.  No matter what, they can’t get in your head and change that.  You have to do that.

The First Lady is right that people must take responsibility for themselves, but what she seems not to realize is that government programs often stifle that kind of behavior. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The only way you learn how to behave responsibly is to actually have real responsibilities. Government has gotten in the way of that process in a host of ways, but nowhere so perniciously as in education. Today, the only educational responsibilities most parents have is to get their kids up in the morning and point them in the direction of the school or the school bus. They don’t decide where their kids go to school, who teaches them, or what they’ll be taught. The natural result—the inevitable result—is the atrophy of parental responsibility towards their children’s education and the horrendous cascade of social ills that flows from it.

Most of this is the fault of our state school monopolies that automatically assign children to schools based on where they live. But the federal government has exacerbated that problem by centralizing control over schooling even further. By abolishing their failed k-12 education programs alone, Congress would save the nation’s taxpayers roughly $70 billion annually. And by encouraging states to return power over education to parents instead of leaving it with bureaucrats, they would dramatically increase the exact kind of responsible behavior that Mrs. Obama knows is essential to solving so many of our social and economic problems.

Consider that the state of Florida has a program that cuts taxes on businesses that donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship funds. Those scholarship organizations subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. According to two separate studies, this program improves achievement in public schools, by virtue of the new competitive pressures it introduces, and it improves the achievement of the students who participate. And by requiring parents to make the difficult decisions as to where to send their children to school, and by requiring most parents to contribute at least a small co-payment, this program builds exactly the kind of responsibility and exactly the kind of social capital that Mrs. Obama so rightly yearns for.

Oh, and, by the way, it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, so it makes economic sense in the immediate term as well as in the long term.

But there’s a catch: This practical and proven solution does not seem to fit well with Mrs. Obama’s political ideology—or, more damagingly, with her husband’s. So instead of ending failed federal education programs and encouraging parental choice, power, and responsibility, the president will keep pursuing federal programs that even his own wife recognizes are doomed to fail.

But while it’s hard for a person to change his ideology, it’s easy for a country to change its president.

Government, Education, and Freedom

I did the above interview recently with ChoiceMedia.tv on the subject of education tax credits and vouchers, in which I argued that credits are a better way of ensuring universal access to the education marketplace. Credits can either directly reduce the taxes owed by families who pay for their own children’s education (as in Illinois and Iowa), or they can offset donations taxpayers make to non-profit k-12 scholarship programs that provide tuition assistance to the poor (as in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and several other states).

The interview elicited an important question from a commenter: If financial assistance for the poor comes from scholarship programs, isn’t there a risk that those programs will impose restrictions on how the scholarships can be used, thereby curtailing poor families’ educational options?

Minimizing that problem is actually one of the many reasons to prefer education tax credits over vouchers. Any time someone other than the parents is footing the bill for a child’s education, there is the risk that this third party is going to limit parents’ choices. The worst case, historically, has been when that third party is the government. When governments pay for schooling, there is a single set of regulations on what choices parents can make, and there is no way to avoid those regulations short of rejecting the financial assistance altogether—which the poorest families have difficulty doing. Vouchers bring with them this single set of government rules (and it is often an extensive one as I discovered in this study).

By contrast, scholarship tax credit programs, like the one in Pennsylvania, give rise to a multitude of different organizations that provide tuition assistance to poor families. If any one of those organizations decides to impose a particular set of restrictions on the use of its scholarships, it has no effect on any of the other organizations. Parents looking for financial assistance are thus free to seek it from a scholarship organization that aligns with their needs and values. The multiplicity of different sources of funding is instrumental—in fact it is essential—in ensuring that poor parents’ choices are not curtailed.

I’ve made this argument in a variety of places, most recently in a U.S. Supreme Court brief in the Arizona tax credit case ACSTO v. Winn.

College Board’s SAT Drop Spin Doesn’t Hold Up

Nationwide verbal SAT scores fell to their lowest level in years on the most recent administration of the test, and the College Board, which administers the SAT, has an explanation:

Average SAT scores fell slightly for 2011 high-school graduates, as the number of test takers and the proportion of minority students grew, according to a report released on Wednesday by the College Board, which owns the test.

The idea—which has been offered as an explanation of earlier declines—is that the overall average score can fall even if the performance of every participating group was stable or improving—if the groups that tend to score lower comprise a larger share of the total test-taking population than they did in the past. And, indeed, minority students (who often score below white students) now comprise a larger share of the test taking population than ever before.

So: case closed? Nope. If you actually look at the score breakdown for the major race/ethnicity groups (see chart) you’ll notice that only white students’ scores held constant from last year. The scores of all the minority groups declined. And, since 1996, white students’ scores have been flat, those of Asian students have risen appreciably, and those of Hispanic and African American students have declined.

Since there has not been any government program targeted exclusively at improving the achievement of Asian students, these data don’t exactly bolster confidence in the effectiveness of either state or federal education policy. If we want to see improved educational productivity, we might just want to look at more free enterprise education systems that offer schools the freedoms and incentives that actually make it happen.

‘Back to the Future,’ or: ‘The Math of Khan’

Oklahoma has just enacted a law that requires students to be held back a year if they are not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. The inspiration is sound: poor readers cannot keep up with their classmates as the curriculum becomes more sophisticated and relies more heavily on reading comprehension across subjects. But this particular approach doesn’t begin to tackle the larger problem of age-based grading itself. Kids are not all identical widgets who learn every subject at the same rate. Individual children even learn different subjects at different rates. So the idea that all children should be grouped by age and, by default, moved through every subject at the same pace is ludicrous on its face.

More than that, it is a retrogression from the pedagogy of the early 1800s. In an early 19th century one-room schoolhouse, children of different ages and aptitudes progressed through the material at their own paces. It wasn’t unusual for an 11 year old girl to be on McGuffey’s or Elson’s 4th Reader while her older brother was still on the 3rd. It wasn’t unusual, and it wasn’t a problem. Age-based grading is a problem. Fortunately, technology will dump it on the scrapheap of history within a generation, as services like Khan Academy and software like Dreambox allow children to progress at their own rate through the material.

We can’t get back to the future soon enough.

The Sodom and Gomorrah of Public Schooling?

I was tied up when the massive Atlanta School District cheating scandal broke last month, and so didn’t get around to blogging it. [Recap: nearly 200 teachers and principals in half of the district’s 100 schools were involved]. But, with other large-scale cheating investigations still on-going, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked about the problem yesterday during a video-taped “Twitter town hall” (minute 12:00). Specifically, he was asked if the high-stakes tests mandated by NCLB are to blame (minute 16:50). Though Duncan made an off-hand comment that high-stakes NCLB-required tests may have contributed to the pressure that lead to the cheating, he repeatedly blamed the cheating on a uniquely “morally bankrupt culture” in Atlanta’s public schools. That didn’t convince interviewer John Merrow, who cited several other cities where cheating investigations are underway—nor should it convince you.

The problem is not that Atlanta is the Sodom and Gomorrah of public schooling. The problem is that state schooling separates payment from consumption. The accountability mechanism of competitive markets—the only such mechanism that actually works—requires the payer to also be the consumer, because the central incentive for any service provider is to please the payer. So if the consumer isn’t paying, he or she is rendered relatively unimportant in the eyes of the provider. Atlanta parents want their children to be well educated, but a lot of work is required to meet that goal. State and federal bureaucrats just want high scores on NCLB-mandated tests—that’s much easier to achieve by cheating than by doing an excellent job teaching. So there is an incentive for school officials to cheat because they are paid by the bureaucrats, not by the parents. Not every teacher succumbs to this incentive, of course, but the incentive is very clearly putting pressure in the wrong direction.

Now consider the incentive structure of schools paid directly by parents in tuition. The incentive in that scenario is to give parents what they want, which is usually a high quality education for their children. Certainly schools could try to lie to parents about how well their children are doing, but this is much harder than lying to bureaucrats. A great many parents will notice a discrepancy if their illiterate children are awarded A’s. And parents considering a school will notice a discrepancy if the “A”-graded graduates of that school somehow cannot gain admission to, or often drop out of, the next higher level of education. Word of mouth—and now word-of-social-networking-apps—is a powerful thing. So it’s much harder for parent-funded schools to get away with cheating, even if they were predisposed to use that strategy.

This is why no system of education that relies exclusively on third-party payment will ever match the quality and progress that we have come to expect in every other field. Indeed, it argues for finding ways of ensuring universal access to education that rely, as much as possible, on direct payment of tuition by parents. Of all the currently viable education policies, the one that fits that description best is the education tax credit—particularly direct credits for families’ own education expenses. And, among third-party payment methods, scholarship tax credits also have advantages over the alternatives.

This is a reality many folks will not want to hear or accept, but reality is not optional.

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Here’s Where Better Schools HAVE Scaled Up…

Earlier this summer, I released a study comparing the performance of California’s charter school networks with the amount of philanthropic grant funding they have received. The purpose was to find out if this model for replicating excellence was consistently effective. The answer, regrettably, was no.

But a new study we are releasing today finds that there is at least one place where better schools HAVE consistently scaled-up: Chile. Thanks to that nation’s public and private school choice program, chains of private schools have arisen, and they not only outperform the public schools, they also outperform the independent “mom-and-pop” private schools.

For anyone interested in replicating educational excellence, this study by a team of Chilean scholars is worth a look.