Tag: school choice

Is an Education Free Market Really ‘Totally Insane’

Matt Yglesias thinks my assertion that we would be better off economically if education money stayed with taxpayers rather than going to public schools and universities is “totally insane.” Ouch!

Now, I can actually understand this, because many people have difficulty envisioning things other than what they’ve always known. But have I really gone all Crazy Eddie? If government didn’t spend taxpayer dough on education, would the poor be much worse off than they are today? Can we never over-invest in schooling because education is just so important? Does the college wage premium mean we should never ratchet down subsidies for college education? And is it at least possible that spending more and more public dough doesn’t lead to more or better education – by which I mean actual, valuable learning – as much as more waste?

Unfortunately, it seems Ygelsias didn’t follow any of the links I provided in the post containing the line he objected to, which furnished some valuable data answering these important questions. And, by the way, it really was just one line he seemed to dislike – the point of the post was to argue against spending yet more taxpayer dough on an education-centered stimulus, not for complete separation of school and state. And, of course, tax-credit-based school choice leaves taxpayers in control of their money without eliminating support for education.

But let’s start answering our questions in more depth so that Mr. Yglesias and others can start to think outside of the “how we’ve always done it” box.

First, let’s hit one critical point: Spending taxpayer money on government schooling does not actually mean you get better education. Let’s look at that graphically:

Here you can see nearly four decades of precipitously increasing expenditures on K-12 education plotted against student performance. And what does it reveal? No correlation between the Death Valley of academic achievement and the Everest of spending. Ever-more taxpayer dollars have gone into the government education system, but the system hasn’t improved at all. Why? Because the educators receiving the money have no need to get better – they’ve gotten ever-more dough no matter what, in large part because many people simply assume that increased government spending on education equals better education. But if you spend hugely greater amounts and get no better results, that seems like it would be an economic drain, no? Which was exactly what I was arguing.

How about higher education?

On a per-pupil basis, over the last quarter-century spending on public colleges and universities has been steady overall, while aid per student at all schools has gone way up. And what do we have to show for that?

The first thing is  incredible tuition inflation – the bane of American higher education. On a per-pupil basis, since 1988 real aid per student has risen 144 percent, while prices have inflated 81 percent at four-year-private schools and 145 percent at four-year publics. It seems, at least in part, that colleges and universities raise their prices because, well, the aid makes sure they can.

Surely, though, the schools use that money to provide more people with ever-better educations? Maybe, but much of the new money seems to have gone just to hiring more administrators, freeing professors from teaching so they can conduct research, and erecting ever more fabulous amenities. Which brings us back to the economic point: Maybe taking money from taxpayers to subsidize all this empire-building and waste might be an economic loss because taxpayers would otherwise spend the money more wisely. Maybe they’d invest in companies that provide better, cheaper products; give money to charities; buy education from stripped-down – but more educationally effective –  schools; or use it for countless other things they need or want.

But what if all this subsidizing – even with its attendant waste – resulted in impressive educational outcomes? Then maybe, just maybe, it would be an economic net gain.  But things look pretty bad: The six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s degree seekers is just 57 percent; roughly one-third of first-year students need to take remedial courses; and literacy dropped (see p. 38) roughly ten percentage points for Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree between 1992 and 2003. Oh, and that wage premium? It could very well include massive credentialism: It might be that you now need a bachelor’s degree for jobs that require only skills or abilities you could have attained on the job or in relatively brief specialized training. But at this point even half-way decent prospective employees would be expected to have gone to a four-year college.

Enough conjecture, though. Let’s go to the videotape – an actual effort to isolate the effect of government higher-ed spending on economic growth. Economist Richard Vedder has done this, and what he has found is that the more a state spends on higher education, the lower its rate of economic growth. Why? Among other possible things, it seems that when education is largely funded by third parties – especially third parties who have no choice in the matter – it decreases schools’ and students’ motivation to act efficiently. So sure, build that on-campus water park – I ain’t really paying for it!

Looking at things this way – contemplating the myriad costs, not just the assumed benefits, of taxpayer funding of education – it seems maybe my ideas shouldn’t be assigned a cell between the Joker and the Riddler quite so quickly.

But what about the equalitarian argument? Forget about economic efficiency – what about justice for the poor?

First off, I’d note that freer, more efficient economic systems tend to be better for everyone, rich and poor alike. You can read all about that here. But we need look no further than American history to see that people – including the poor – will get educated without government help. Before there was widespread government schooling there was widespread education. Indeed, by 1840 – when Mann’s common-school movement was still in diapers – it is estimated that 90 percent of adult whites in America were literate, a very high level relative to Europe. And the nation was hardly the Monopoly Man at the time. In other words, poor people got educated on their own.

But how could this be? Certainly part of the answer was that many poor people emphasized education, and much education occurred in the home. It was also provided by religious institutions, as well as philanthropists. And, of course, poor communities sometimes got together to establish their own schools.

But that was then and this is now, right? Education is much more complex because the world is much more complex. How could poor people get an education today if government didn’t provide it?

Well, for one thing, education need not be nearly as complex and expensive as it is. All those computers and other bells and whistles? There is hardly overwhelming evidence that they do any good – they may just be a huge waste of money. Meanwhile, many relatively barebones private schools seem to do just as good a job or better at educating students. Oh, and there’s that charity thing again: Religious schools provide low-cost education to millions of kids, and it could be lower if they didn’t have to compete with “free” public schools. And despite massive government subsidies to higher ed, private philanthropists give tens-of-billions of dollars to colleges and universities every year – imagine how much they might give if government didn’t say it would do the job! In other words, there is absolutely no overwhelming argument – to say the least – that just because the world is  more complicated government must run schools and pay for education. Indeed, huge, bureaucratic, plodding government is about the least well-equipped entity to handle complication and fast change.

And guess what? There is a profit-motive to furnish education to poor students with demonstrated academic aptitude: If someone lends money to a poor student to go to college so she can get an education that enables her to increase her future earnings, both parties will end up profiting. And let’s not overlook India and numerous other developing countries, where many of the poorest people in the world, using their own money, attend for-profit schools that outperform the free public schools. And why is that? Because the parents whose valuable money is being spent have huge incentives to hold schools accountable, and schools have to respond to parents to stay in business.

But maybe all that’s not enough for Mr. Yglesias. Maybe he needs to also be reminded of what he himself noted:

The current state of schooling in America is already bad enough in terms of ill-serving poor people.

That’s for sure! Currently, wealthy people can choose schools: they do it by buying a house in a good district or paying for private schools. Meanwhile, poor parents are often trapped in awful schools because they can’t afford to buy a McMansion for tuition. In higher education, flagship public colleges and universities have disproportionately middle- and high-income student bodies. And student aid? With creation of tax credit programs you have to have sufficient taxable income to use, as well as loans like PLUS that have no income maximums, aid has been targeted higher and higher up income scales. Meanwhile, the tuition inflation that all that fuels appears likely to scare low-income people away from higher education more than any other group.

Finally, let’s not forget that it was government that for centuries prohibited millions of people – especially African-Americans – from receiving either an equal education, or any education at all.   Without question during those times many private Americans would have discriminated in the provision of education, but government required discrimination by both bigot and good man alike.

So the current education system — which tends to be bent toward the will of the large, voting, middle- and upper-income blocs – already massively underserves the poor, and quite possibly makes it much harder for low-income Americans to compete with rich people than if everyone paid for schooling themselves. The system also injects huge distortions and inefficiencies into education, hurting overall economic progress. Of course, this is not an open-and-shut case – few things are in public policy – but you sure need to do more than just call removing government from education “insane” to counter it. Unfortunately, that’s not something it seems too many people – including Mr. Yglesias – are prepared to do.

South Carolina Gov Race: What’s Haley Thinking on School Choice?

Nikki Haley promises to be a star governor if–most likely when–she’s elected this fall by South Carolina voters. Word is she’s a committed fiscal conservative, and her background is steeped in a successful family business, not large corporations, so she should have an intuitive grasp of what makes our economy grow.

And Haley has a long, solid record of supporting school choice through education tax credits in South Carolina. As recently as August 19th, Haley was reported as saying, “like Sanford, she would veto a bill to expand public education options unless it included help with private tuition. She agreed with Sanford that it must be all or nothing, saying otherwise the Legislature won’t return to the debate.”

Now that’s the stuff.

But Haley has recently put out some concerning and confusing statements on school choice. “Haley said approving private-school choice, which would provide tax credits or vouchers to pay private-school tuition, was not a priority. ‘That is not my focus; my focus is the school funding formula,’ Haley said.”

Changing the funding formula is all well and good. It might save some money. But it will NOT improve education in South Carolina. Education tax credits will improve performance and save much more than any public school reform. School choice should be Haley’s only education issue.

Why is she backing away all of a sudden? Sure, the primary is over, but Haley is leading comfortably in the polls. Education tax credits pull down serious majority support across nearly every single demographic in South Carolina. White voters, black voters, old and young, Republicans and even Democrats. This is a great issue. And backtracking on a signature issue could tarnish her fresh, reformer image.

Most important, school choice is the right policy. Haley always seemed to have a deep understanding that only an education tax credit program can substantively improve education in South Carolina.

Senator Jim DeMint has a great short video plug for school choice out … let’s hope Haley takes a look at this, remembers what reform really matters, and does the right thing in office.

PDK: Charter Schools Finally As Popular as Education Tax Credits Have Been Since Before Clinton’s Impeachment

The new PDK/Gallup education poll for 2010 is out, with the standard problems we can expect from this pro-government school/anti-choice outfit. Randi Weingarten even gets some column space! Oh Randi, you proud yet humble teacher. The “Commentary” sidebars in general were cringe-inducingly hackish and treacly.

It is interesting that there was a big spike in the percentage of people saying the biggest problem schools must deal with is a lack of funds. They’ve done a great job convincing folks there’s no money.

Of course, the way the question is worded, it encourages respondents to think about the difficulties schools are facing, which despite their flush accounts probably is dealing with funding issues. I’d like to see the answers to “What do you think are the biggest problems preventing the public schools of your community from increasing student achievement?” or some such question. And they certainly should ask how much people think is being spent. “The Research Organization formerly known as Friedman Foundation,” or TROFKAFF, has some great state polls showing how horribly misinformed most people are about the spending issue.

PDK is still boycotting the voucher question for a few years running.

But what is really indefensible is that they haven’t asked about education tax credits since 1999, just when the policy took off. There are now 12 credit programs in 9 states. Maybe support was far too high for their taste? In 1999 support was in the high 60’s, even after a battery of questions about vouchers and pitting public reform against private choice.

Good news for charter schools, which have finally pulled ahead of the support credits enjoyed during the Clinton administration, thanks no doubt to an increase in support among Dems/liberals courtesy of Obama lip-service. PDK; update please.

Weakonomics

An anonymous contributor to the NY Times Freakonomics blog asks “How much does school choice matter?” And answers in much the way you might expect:

Probably less than you think, as [economist Stephen] Levitt has previously argued. Now, in an analysis of seven years of test-score data from 6,000 Los Angeles teachers, the L.A. Times and the Rand Corp. have found teacher effectiveness to be three times more influential than [choice of] school… on student performance.

The author of this posting makes no effort to differentiate between “public school choice” and actual free education markets, and in the process grossly misrepresents what is known and has been repeatedly shown: that the freest and most market-like education systems overwhelmingly outperform monopolisitic school systems such as we have in the United States.

To his credit, Stephen Levitt did make this distinction in the 2007 posting linked in the blockquote above. But even Levitt refered to the evidence on this subject as “hard to find.” Should anyone else be experiencing difficulty in finding this evidence, they are encouraged to click on the link immediately above, where they will find a peer-reviewed paper digesting the results of 65 studies on this subject.

Taxpayer Choice + Parental Choice = Good, Constitutional Education Reform

Arizona grants income tax credits for contributions made to school tuition organizations (“STOs”).  STOs must use these donations for scholarships that allow students to attend private schools.  This statutory scheme broadens the educational opportunities for thousands of students by enabling them to attend schools they would otherwise lack the means to attend.  Still, several taxpayers filed a lawsuit challenging the program as creating a state establishment of religion.

Although the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that increasing educational opportunities is a valid secular purpose for a legislative act, it found that the tax credit program nonetheless violates the Establishment Clause because many of the STOs—as it happens, a decreasing majority—provide scholarships for students to attend parochial schools.  Earlier this year, Cato filed a brief supporting the request for Supreme Court review filed by the various parties defending the program.  The Court granted cert.

Now Cato (led by Andrew Coulson and myself) has filed another brief, joined by four education reform groups, urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision because it was based on faulty reasoning:  It equated the private and voluntary choices of individuals who donate to religious STOs with state sponsorship of religion.  The lower court also made the dubious assertion that Arizona parents feel pressured to accept scholarships to religious schools, in spite of the fact that the share of STO scholarships available for use at secular schools is almost twice as large as the share of families actually choosing secular schools. Moreover, the tax credit scheme is indistinguishable from similar charitable tax deduction programs that the Court has previously held to pass constitutional muster.

We urge the Court to reaffirm its longstanding jurisprudence—especially the 2002 school-choice case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris—whereby instances of “genuine and independent choice” are insulated from Establishment Clause challenge. Far from being an impediment to parental freedom, the autonomy Arizona grants to taxpayers and STOs is ultimately essential to it.  More generally, should the lower court’s opinion be allowed to stand, the progress made to broaden the educational opportunities of students across the country will be stifled.

The case of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn will be heard by the Court this fall, probably in November.

Schools on Film

AEI’s Rick Hess worries that school choice advocates are moving into the public messaging arena with “brazenly manipulative” flicks that rely on shallow “sound bites.” He cites the screening of five documentaries at an upcoming national conference in San Franscisco to argue his point.

I can’t comment on them as a whole–I haven’t seen them all–but I would like to point out that there will actually be at least eight screenings at next month’s conference. Among them will be a brief sample of a proposed six-part documentary series called School, Inc.  Taking Educational Excellence from Candle to Flame. This series, inspired by James Burke’s Connections and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, would take viewers on a world-wide quest to answer one very important question: why is excellence routinely replicated and spread on a massive scale in every field except education?

The series hasn’t been shot yet, and perhaps distributors today won’t think viewers are still interested in the kind of challenging, thought-provoking documentary series that so captivated me (and millions of others) in my teen years. But the project’s advisory board includes Jay Mathews, Paul PetersonJames Tooley, and Michael Horn, my co-producers and co-writers (Patrick Prentice and Tim Baney) have more than half-a-century of documentary filmmaking experience between them, and I’ve been studying school systems around the globe and across history for the better part of two decades. We’re confident that this series will be both substantive and entertaining, and think that American (and foreign) audiences are very interested in the subject matter. As we start to pitch to distributors in the coming months, we’ll find out if they agree.

Stay tuned….

There’s More to Market Education than School Choice

Nick Gillespie drew attention yesterday to an op-ed Charles Murray wrote on school choice. Murray’s thesis was that the dominance of family environment and genetics in determining student achievement is such as to allow little room for schools to affect academic outcomes. That said, Murray goes on to argue for school choice anyway, on the grounds that families differ in their educational preferences, and the best way to match families to schools is to allow the former to choose the latter. This, he says, “should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice.”

Certainly Murray’s point about the value of choice is true, so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. First, there are other compelling non-academic arguments for school choice (e.g., they minimize social conflict by allowing families to get the sort of education they want for their own kids without imposing it on everybody elses, as happens of necessity when there is a single official government organ of education.) Second, there is very good reason to believe that true market education would lead to higher student achievement.

Murray cites the pathbreaking work of James Coleman, who revealed that home-related factors explain more of the observed variation in student achievement than does choice of school, to argue that schools can’t have much effect on achievement. This is a non sequitur. While Murray’s inference is consistent with Coleman’s evidence, it does not necessarily follow from it. It is possible that since 90 percent of U.S. students are enrolled in government monopoly schools, and since those schools operate on similar lines not just within states but between states, variation in schools’ contributions to student learning have been artificially curtailed.

Furthermore, even in a highly competitive and free education marketplace, variation in student achievement between schools wouldn’t necessarily be very large, since the very best schools would be emulated by many of their competitors, and the very worst schools would go out of business.

But, and this is the point that Murray did not address, the mean level of student achievement in the competitive marketplace could well be much higher than the mean level in our current monopoly system despite the fact that, within each of these systems, school-to-school variation might be low.

From our previous exchanges on this topic, it seems Murray is skeptical of that possibility–skeptical that markets could lead to a substantial increase in mean academic achievement above the mean we observe the existing school monopoly. I offered some counter-evidence in those earlier exchanges, but here’s another reason to expect a higher market mean: the abandonment of rigid age-based grading.

Age-based grading is arbitrary and pedagogically counterproductive. Market education systems, such as the Asian after-school tutoring industry, often group students based on their performance in each subject, promoting them to the next level of the curriculum as soon as they have mastered the current one. This allows students to progress at their own pace. Empirical studies have shown that performance based grouping helps students at all levels of performance to learn more quickly, and it would almost certainly contribute to a boost in the overall average even if nothing else changed.

But the existing research on performance based grouping fails, I think, to capture the full extent of the difference that it can make when allowed to operate unfettered. It is not at all uncommon to see kids who take an avid interest in some pursuit leap well ahead of the typical adult expectations of what they can achieve. Music is a good example, as are strategy games like chess and go (a.k.a. weiqi or baduk). There are 11 and 12 year olds who play these games well above the level that most adult players ever reach.

Furthermore, it does not seem that we can fully attribute the stellar achievement of these youngsters to stratospheric IQs. The research on chess and IQ is surprisingly sparse, but what there is does not point to a strong linear relationship between the two. My (admittedly incomplete) reading of it suggests that there might be an IQ floor below which high-level strategy game performance is unlikely, but that above this floor assiduous practice and access to high level players (and/or books on the game) seem more important. The latter are the kinds of things that performance based grouping allows across academic subjects. There’s no reason that kids with an affinity for math couldn’t be learning calculus in middle school or early high-school, for example.

So there is much more value in market education reform than simply letting families choose the flavor of curriculum they prefer.