Tag: school choice

Thoughts on the New Brookings School Choice Report

A new Brookings Institution report suggests ways for the federal government to promote school choice. On the eve of its release, I voiced some practical and constitutional objections to the idea. Now that the report is out, contributing author Jay Greene asks if I’m still apprehensive. The short answer is yes.

Brookings assembled an impressive group of scholars to write the report, and their education policy recommendations deserve serious consideration. Their goal of ensuring more and better access to more and better educational choices is one that I share, and I hope the following comments will help advance that goal.

Good policy, like good science, is grounded in concrete evidence. Only where evidence is lacking is it wise to fall back on theory. The Brookings report relies on theory in a couple of important areas where extensive evidence is available to show us the way. In particular, the authors acknowledge that U.S. experience with alternative school systems is minimal, but (with a single exception — see below) they do not discuss the vast wealth of evidence from other nations that have more extensive and longer-running experience with school choice systems.                   

Some have argued that we can learn little about school governance from other nations because cultural and economic factors affect educational outcomes too greatly. This criticism does not apply to within-country comparisons of alternative school systems — and virtually all of the literature comparing alternative school systems is within-country. A comparison of government-run, government-funded private, and parent-funded private schools within India, for instance, is not muddied by cultural or economic differences between India and the United States.

What’s more, if we see the same pattern of inter-sectoral results manifested within many different countries, we can be even more confident that the observed differences are truly systemic than if we had inter-sectoral results for only a single nation. A thorough review of the worldwide within-country comparative school governance research is thus essential to optimal education policy design.

It’s also worth noting that openness to non-U.S. research is the norm in engineering and in other scientific fields. If an Indian computer programmer develops an improved sorting algorithm, his American counterparts don’t discount it for cultural reasons. Nor do U.S. civil engineers disregard what can be learned from French bridge projects. Nor do physicians ignore the results of high quality genetic or drug research performed in Iceland or England. As long as the methodologies employed control for cultural and other mitigating factors that might affect the results, American scientists and engineers are not, as a rule, parochial. Education seems the sole exception.

The one bit of foreign school choice evidence discussed in the new Brookings report is a paper by Hsieh and Urquiola reporting results from Chile’s highly regulated voucher-like system. More than a dozen studies of Chile’s voucher system have been conducted, the majority finding that private voucher schools significantly outperform public schools after suitable controls, or that the competition engendered by the program has improved overall academic achievement, attainment, or ultimate earnings of graduates.

Seeming to deviate from this pattern, Hsieh and Urquiola found that the regions in which private school enrollment grew most quickly had overall achievement (of public and private students) that was no better or was even worse than in regions where it grew more slowly. Hsieh and Urquiola concluded from this that increased competition did not improve achievement. But their evidence also supports a quite different conclusion: that regions with bad and worsening public schools drove families more quickly into the private sector.

Hsieh and Urquiola looked at the first 16 years of the program, during which time public schools still enrolled the majority of students (though that share was falling continuously and has since dropped below 50 percent). Overall academic performance was thus still chiefly a function of public school performance, and public schools are protected from private sector competition by receiving extra municipal funding that is not tied to enrollment and to which the private voucher-receiving schools do not have access. So it was never reasonable to expect, based on the design of the Chilean system, that public schools would show significant gains from competitive forces, because those forces never really touched them.

Given the evidence just presented and the fact that the bulk of studies of the Chilean program contradict Hsieh and Urquiola’s conclusion, it seems likely that they did indeed misinterpret their findings.

More importantly, Hsieh and Urquiola’s conclusion is not only an aberration within the Chilean research, it is also an aberration within the worldwide literature on the relative merits of market and monopoly provision of education. When I reviewed this research for the Journal of School Choice last year, I found 65 studies reporting 156 separate statistical comparisons of public and private school achievement. When truly market-like programs are compared to monopolistic ones such as U.S. public schooling, the statistically significant results favoring markets outweigh the results favoring monopolies by a margin of 15 to 1 (and they also handily outnumber the insignificant findings).

By offering only the uncharacteristic Hsieh and Urquiola study out of the vast literature just described, the Brookings paper is apt to give readers a mistakenly negative perception of the worldwide evidence. This is particularly true because the authors are avowed supporters of school choice.

In the absence of the international evidence, the Brookings authors are forced to resort to theory on several crucial policy issues, such as the need for and merits of state regulation of the marketplace (e.g., with respect to virtual schools) and state information services to supply a perceived gap in information available to parents. Consulting that evidence leads to the conclusion that government regulatory efforts to improve the quality of educational services are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst (see the paper linked above for the evidence supporting that pattern, and see James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree for an explanation of its cause). It shows, furthermore, that even illiterate parents in the poorest slums of the third world are not only capable of making wise educational choices for their children in the absence of government advice, but that they are already doing so in massive numbers.

In addition to the above concern, the practical and constitutional issues I raised in advance of the Brookings report’s publication still apply now that I have read it in full.

That said, this is one of the most benign sorts of disagreements scholars can have, rooted as it is on our having developed our policy recommendations from different data sets. I look forward to hearing how the authors of the Brookings report think the worldwide evidence bears on school choice policy.

Charters No Substitute for Private Innovation

I wrote about this private school in South Carolina last year. The Voice for School Choice has a new video highlighting the great work of the Eagle Military Academy, which works with many kids the public schools cannot or will not educate.

There’s a lot of talk lately about the transformative power of some charter schools, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many secular and religious private schools have been saving kids all along with no public funds and little or no recognition from the elite opinion class.

We need to open up choice to these schools as well, not just public charter schools that cannot provide the breadth and depth of experiences offered by private schools.

Public charter schools are no substitute for full school choice through education tax credits.

School Choice Advocates: Beware Washington

The Brookings Institution will release a new school choice policy guide on February 2nd, and from the sound of it, children, parents, taxpayers, and the authors themselves should be concerned.  The guide will provide:

a series of practical and novel recommendations for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including national chartering of virtual education providers; expanding the types of information collected on school performance; providing incentives for low-performing school districts to increase choice and competition; and creating independent school choice portals to aid parents in choosing between schools.

The goals these recommendations are meant to achieve are entirely laudable, but there are three reasons for serious concern:

1)  The Constitution delegates to the federal government no power to provide or regulate education services, except in the execution of its explicitly enumerated powers. So the Supreme Court can ensure that state education programs abide by the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, but Congress cannot “charter virtual education providers.” Of course the federal government has been transgressing the limits on its education powers for more than half a century, but no one who supports the rule of law can condone that transgression, much less its expansion.

2)  From a regulatory standpoint, Washington is the worst level of government at which to implement an education program. National education programs impose a single set of rules on every participating provider in the country. Get those rules wrong – either up front or down the road – and you not only hobble the effectiveness of every single provider, but you eliminate the possibility of comparing outcomes between providers operating under different sets of rules. In essence you lose the ability to distinguish between different “treatments” – to determine what helps and what is harmful to the service’s overall success.

3)  We have ample evidence about the quality of education programs implemented by the federal government. For example, after 45 years and $166 billion, Head Start has just been proven entirely ineffective. (See also the NCLB paper linked to in “1)”, above). Once again, this problem is exacerbated by the all-encompassing nature of federal programs. Get them wrong and you get them wrong for every participating student, everywhere in the country. With variation in programs among states, by contrast, we not only have the ability to compare the merits of alternative approaches, we have powerful incentives for states to get their programs right. Just as tax competition drives businesses from one state or nation to another, so, too, can education policy competition. States with better policies will attract businesses and more mobile residents from states with worse ones, eventually compelling the inferior policy states to redress their errors.  We’re just beginning to see the prospects for this now, as school choice programs proliferate and grow at the state level, and introducing national programs that might well interfere with this process would be a disastrous mistake.

I hope that school choice advocates, including those who have contributed to the forthcoming Brookings report, will weigh these concerns.

Head Start EPIC FAIL

Andrew’s earlier post is a great overview of the context for the Head Start findings.

I thought we should also highlight the description of the Head Start Impact Study findings in the report itself (p.215/4-31):

Looking at effects on participants does not change the overall patterns found in the main analysis, which show that Head Start improved children’s language and literacy development during the program year but not later and had only one strongly confirmed impact on math ability in a negative direction. (For the 3-year-old cohort, kindergarten teachers reported poorer math skills for children in the Head Start group than children in the control group.)

This is a devastating report for proponents of government-run early childhood initiatives.

It’s past time we turn to the education reform that has proven itself through multiple random-assignment studies; school choice.

DC Vouchers Solved? Generous Severance for Displaced Workers

Colbert King argues that DC should continue the opportunity scholarships private school choice program on its own dime, instead of complaining that Congress is killing it off. He starts off with a refreshing dose of realpolitik: “It should come as no surprise that Democratic congressional leaders are effectively killing the program. They, and their union allies, didn’t like it in the first place.” Too true. This is what disgusts many Americans about politics, but hey, that’s the reality.

But then he seems to descend into uncharacteristic naivete with this:

If the city likes vouchers so much, why shouldn’t the District bear the cost? The answer is as clear as it may be embarrassing to voucher proponents: D.C. lawmakers don’t want to ask their constituents to shoulder the program’s expense.

That is NOT the answer. DC lawmakers are familiar with DC’s budget. DC’s FY 2009 budget, as I show in this Excel spreadsheet file, allocated $28,170 per pupil for k-12 schooling. And the average voucher amount is not $7,500, as King claims. That’s the maximum. The average is $6,620 one quarter of what the district is spending on k-12 schooling. So operating the voucher program entirely out of the District of Columbia’s own budget would not cost a dime. And if expanded, it would save DC tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.

So DC lawmakers are most certainly NOT afraid of asking constituents to pay for it – it would more than pay for itself. What DC lawmakers must be afraid of is that DC schools have become a massive jobs program instead of an educational program. They must fear that if the voucher program were expanded it would put many non-teaching staff out of work – including perhaps some of their own supporters.

Well how about a realpolitik solution to that problem: offer displaced workers 18 months of severance pay at something like 75% of their current salary. That would give them plenty of time to find other work, and it could be paid for from the savings of students migrating from public schools to the voucher program. This would mean that taxpayers would not see savings in the first couple of years, but after that the District would be able to offer taxpayers generous tax cuts while also offering kids significantly better learning opportunities.

Surely the details of such a deal could be hammered out by experienced politicians and negotiators. Because, really, the status quo is insane. Why keep paying $28,000 for a worse education than the voucher program is providing for $6,600? That is sheer madness.

National Standardizers Just Can’t Win

I’ve been fretting for some time over the growing push for national curricular standards, standards that would be de facto federal and, whether adopted voluntarily by states or imposed by Washington, end up being worthless mush with yet more billions of dollars sunk into them. The primary thing that has kept me optimistic is that, in the end, few people can ever agree on what standards should include, which has defeated national standards thrusts in the past.

So far, the Common Core State Standards Initiative – a joint National Governors Association/Council of Chief State School Officers venture that is all-but-officially backed by Washington – has avoided being ripped apart by educationists and plain ol’ citizens angry about who’s writing the standards and what they include. But that’s largely because the CCSSI hasn’t actually produced any standards yet. Other, that is, than general, end of K-12, “college and career readiness” standards that say very little.

Of course, standards that say next to nothing are still standards, and that is starting to draw fire to the CCSSI. Case in point, a new post on Jay P. Greene’s blog by former Bush II education officials–and tough standards guys–Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman. They are heartily unimpressed by what CCSSI has produced, and think its already time to start assembling a new standards-setting consortium:

The new consortium would endeavor to create better and more rigorous academic standards than those of the CCSSI….

Drab and mediocre national standards will retard the efforts of advanced states like Massachusetts and reduce academic expectations for students in all states.

Yes, it is late in the game. But this should not be an excuse for us to accept the inferior standards that at present seem to be coming from the rushed effort of CCSSO and NGA.

Evers and Wurman’s piece is an encouraging sign that perhaps once more national standards efforts will be torn apart by fighting factions and spare us the ultimate centralization of an education system already hopelessly crippled by centralized, political control. Unfortunately, the post also gives cause for continuing concern, illustrating that the “standards and accountability” crowd still hasn’t learned a fundamental lesson: that democratically-controlled government schools are almost completely incapable of having rich, strict standards.

Evers and Wurman’s piece offers evidence aplenty for why this is. For instance, the authors theorize that a major reason the CCSSI standards appear doomed to shallowness is that the Obama administration has made adopting them a key component for states to qualify for federal “Race-to-the-Top” money, and states have to at least say they’ll adopt the standards in the next month or so to compete. In other words, as is constantly the case, what might be educationally beneficial is taking a distant back seat to what is politically important:  for the administration, to appear to be pushing “change,” and for state politicians to grab federal ducats. Political calculus is once again taking huge precedence over, well, the teaching of calculus, because the school system is controlled by politicians. We should expect nothing else.

Here’s another example of the kind of reality-challenged thinking that is all too common among standards-and-accountabilty crusaders:

CCSSI’s timeline calls for supplementing its “college and career readiness” standards with grade-by-grade K-12 standards, with the entire effort to be finished by “early 2010.” This schedule is supposed to include drafting, review, and public comment. As anyone who had to do such a task knows, such a process for a single state takes many months, and CCSSI’s timeline raises deep concerns about whether the public and the states can provide in-depth feedback on those standards–and, more important, whether standards that are of high quality can possibly emerge from the non-transparent process CCSSI is using.

Evers and Wurman assert that if standards are going to be of “high quality” the process of drafting them must be transparent. But the only hope for drafting rigorous, coherent standards is actually to keep the process totally opaque.

Phonics or whole language? Calculators or no calculators? Evolution or creationism? Great men or social movements? Transparent standardizers must either take a stand on these and countless other hugely divisive questions and watch support for standards crumble, or avoid them and render the standards worthless. Of course, don’t set standards transparently and every interest group excluded from the cabal will object mightily to whatever comes out, again likely destroying all your hard standards work.

In a democratically-controlled, government schooling system, it is almost always tails they win, heads we lose for the standards-and-accountability crowd. This is why these well-intentioned folks need to give up on government schooling and get fully behind the only education system that aligns all the incentives correctly: school choice.

Choice lets parents choose schools with curricula that they want, not what everyone in society can agree on, establishing the conditions for coherence and rigor. Choice pushes politicians, with their overriding political concerns, out of the education driver’s seat and replaces them with parents. Finally, choice lets real accountability reign by forcing educators to respond quickly and effectively to their customers  if they want to get paid. In other words, in stark contrast to government schooling , school choice is inherently designed to work, not fail.

How Michigan Could Save $3.5 Billion a Year

Michigan is facing a projected $2.8 billion state budget shortfall. As a result, Governor Granholm has cut $212 million from state public school spending – rousing the ire of parents and education officials around the state. But if Michigan merely converted all its conventional public schools to charters, without altering current funding formulas, it would save $3.5 billion.

Here’s how: the average Michigan charter school spends $2,200 less per pupil than the average district school – counting only the state and local dollars. Put another way, Michigan school districts spend 25 percent more state and local dollars per pupil, on average, than charter schools. Sum up the savings to Michigan taxpayers from a mass district-to-charter exodus and it comes to $3.5 billion.

Anyone who wants to check that calculation can download the Msft Excel 2007 spreadsheet file I used to compute it. It contains both the raw data from the relevant NCES Common Core of Data files, and all the calculations. Among other things, it shows total per pupil spending and the pupil teacher ratio for every charter school and every public school district in the state. (Unlike certain climatologists, some of us researchers not only keep our data around, we’re actually happy to share them).

Journalists who have questions about this file are welcome to get in touch. Note that it is also viewable, I believe, with the free OpenOffice spreadsheet program, though I haven’t tested that.