Tag: school choice

President Obama and the Case of the Missing Research

One of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical tactics is to claim that there is no serious evidence pointing in any direction other than his preferred policy. The president had occasion to deploy this tactic in an interview earlier this week, when Bill O’Reilly asked him why he opposed school vouchers:

O’REILLY - The secret to getting a … good job is education. … Now, school vouchers is a way to level the playing field. Why do you oppose school vouchers when it would give poor people a chance to go to better schools?

PRESIDENT OBAMA - Actually — every study that’s been done on school vouchers, Bill, says that it has very limited impact if any —

O’REILLY - Try it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - On — it has been tried, it’s been tried in Milwaukee, it’s been tried right here in DC —

O’REILLY [OVERLAP] - And it worked here.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - No, actually it didn’t. When you end up taking a look at it, it didn’t actually make that much of a difference. ... As a general proposition, vouchers has not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities —

The most charitable interpretation of the president’s blatantly false remarks is that he’s simply unaware that 11 of 12 gold-standard studies of school choice programs found a positive impact while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative outcome. Jason Riley summarized the findings of a few recent studies:

School Choice Week Grinches in Colorado

Just before National School Choice Week, Democratic state legislators in Colorado killed a school choice tax credit bill. The legislation would have granted tax credits to families with children in private schools worth up to half of the average per pupil spending at government schools or up to $1,000 for homeschoolers.

Democratic Senate President Morgan Carroll did not even give the legislation a fair hearing in the committee that normally takes up education or tax related bills. Instead he assigned it to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, locally known as the “kill committee,” where it faced certain doom from legislators apparently impervious to the evidence:

Under SB 33, a family’s tax credit for full-time private tuition costs could not be more than half the state’s average per-pupil amount. While revenues to the treasury would decline,the official fiscal note showed that over time the limited credit amount would reduce state spending even more for each student who exercised an educational option outside the public system.

Still, Democrats on the committee were unconvinced. “I think it will actually detract from the funding of our public schools,” said Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville).

Colorado currently has a school voucher program operating in Douglas County.

New SOTU Education Promises Just Like the Old SOTU Education Promises

What should President Obama have said about education policy in this year’s State of the Union address? In a more perfect world, he would have announced his plan to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education in order to restore control of education policy to the state and local governments where it constitutionally belongs.

In that imaginary world, the President also would have called for an expansion of the Washington D.C. school choice program, where the federal government actually has legitimate constitutional authority, and used his bully pulpit to promote state-level educational choice programs across the country as a means of reducing inequality and expanding opportunity. And he would have announced that his administration would no longer seek to keep low-income black kids in failing government schools in Louisiana.

Alas, what President Obama proposed instead were mostly the same tired themes we’ve already heard in previous SOTU addresses. 

Once again, the president called for Congress to enact universal preschool (and threatened to go around them if they did not), claiming that “research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.” The research to which he alludes concerned a very small and high-quality program for disadvantaged children. (It’s notable that the president dramatically scaled down the audacity of his claims since last year’s SOTU.) There’s absolutely no evidence that the government could scale up the program for all children nationwide with the same level of quality.

Indeed, when the federal government has tried to do so, it has failed. The federal government’s own study of Head Start was so negative that the Obama administration released it on the Friday before Christmas, practically guaranteeing that almost no one would ever hear about it. Nearly fifty years and $200 billion later, Head Start produces no measurable, lasting benefits. To argue that “this time will be different” is magical thinking.

And once again, the president claimed that he “[wants] to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.” If so, he should propose phasing out federal student loans and Pell Grants, which are spurring the rapid increases in tuition.

Fortunately, outside the administration’s push for Common Core, few of the administration’s SOTU-promoted education initiatives ever get off the ground.

Is School Choice Worth Celebrating? A Look at the Evidence

In honor of School Choice Week, I’ll be answering questions on Facebook tomorrow (4:00pm, Eastern) about the evidence regarding free education markets. When I began studying education policy back in the early 1990s, parent-driven education markets were generally thought of as a new, radical and speculative adventure—uncharted waters where, heaven help us, “thar be monstars.” That was a mistaken view then, and it’s positively absurd now.

As I wrote in Market Education, The Unknown History, the education market of classical Athens, in the 5th century BC, was the first time and place on Earth in which education reached beyond a tiny ruling elite. There was no government participation in education. Teachers competed in the town square to attract paying customers, families called the shots, and the city ended up building a thriving economy and the highest literacy rate in the ancient world. During their heyday, the Athenians invented democracy, most forms of Western literature, and some pretty enduring art and philosophy. Simultaneously, 100 miles away, Sparta established a highly organized system of public boarding schools. It’s legacy? One decent action movie and a name for high school football teams.

Over the next 2,500 years, markets continued to outshine state-run school systems in their ability to serve the needs of families, and they also reduced the social tensions created by state schooling. Near-universal literacy and elementary enrollment among the free population were achieved in the United States by the mid-19th century—before the rise of state school systems—chiefly through private and home schools financed by a combination of parent fees and philanthropy. Even the semi-public “district” schools of the early 19th century charged most parents fees, reserving free and subsidized places for the poor.

Granted, historical evidence is subject to interpretation and charges of selectivity, and so it might not be universally persuasive. But, since 1990, scores of within-country scientific studies have compared education systems ranging from state-run monopolies such as our public schools, to state-funded and regulated private schools, to truly market-like systems in which regulation is minimal and parents choose their schools, as well as paying at least some of the cost directly themselves. I reviewed that body of research a few years ago for the Journal of School Choice and found that it shows private schools tend to outperform state-run schools. More specifically, it shows that the freest and most market-like education systems have the most consistent advantage over state schooling.

There is no credible case against this body of research. I could not find a single study that found a public school system to be more efficient than a market system in terms of student achievement per dollar spent. There weren’t even any insignificant findings for this comparison. Every single study that looked at the efficiency question found statistically significant results favoring education markets over state schooling. It’s rare to see such clear results in the social sciences, but perhaps that’s because there are few areas of life that are still under the thrall of state-run monopolies.

Education markets, when coupled with a mechanism to ensure universal access (such as education tax credits) are a better way to serve our individual needs and to advance our shared ideals. Compulsion and state provision are not only unnecessary, they are counterproductive to our most cherished educational ideals.

School Choice Enrollment Reaches Record High

Just in time for National School Choice Week, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has released its annual ABCs of School Choice report, detailing every private school choice program in the nation. The number of students participating in school choice programs has reached a record high of more than 301,000 students nationwide, up from about 260,000 in 2012-13. More than half of those students are participating in scholarship tax credit programs.

The Friedman Foundation’s report is an invaluable resource for understanding the dozens of school choice programs and their various rules and regulations. A new feature in this year’s report is an infographic ranking every school choice program along two criteria: eligible population and purchasing power. The Friedman Foundation’s view is that choice programs should have universal eligibility and that the purchasing power of the vouchers or scholarships should be on par with the per student spending at government schools.

Universal access to a variety of schooling options is certainly a noble goal, essential to fostering equality of opportunity. However, it should be noted that wealthier families can already afford school choice. Universal access to school choice does not require universal access to school choice programs. Targeting support to low- and middle-income families is a more efficient way to ensure universal school choice as it directs scarce resources to those who need them most. Of course, measuring access is a lot more difficult than measuring program eligibility, so this is not a deficiency of the Friedman report.

There are other important criteria by which we should judge school choice programs, particularly the amount of regulatory interference imposed on private schools (e.g. - mandating state tests) and the amount of freedom granted to parents to tailor their child’s education (e.g. - New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarships for homeschoolers). Perhaps the Friedman Foundation will consider these and other criteria for future reports.

Fordham’s Confusion Over Means and Ends

On Tuesday, the Fordham Institute released a “toolkit” proposing that all private schools accepting students participating in school choice programs be required to administer the state test. Low-performing schools would be forbidden to participate in the school choice program. As I explained then, that would de facto entail forcing almost all private schools into the Common Core regime, thereby stifling innovation and diversity. The Friedman Foundation pointed to a recent study showing how parents hold private schools accountable already. Matt Ladner highlighted Fordham’s own previous research that exposed state accountability measures as fradulant “illusions.” Greg Forster cast a gimlet eye on Fordham’s assurance that existing private schools don’t really mind the state tests:

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

In response, Fordham’s new president, Michael Petrilli, acknowledges (some of) these concerns, but oddly claims that since we don’t share his proposed government solution, we also must not share his concern about poorly performing private schools. It’s as though Petrilli proposes dousing a burning building with gasoline but when others object that this is a bad idea, he accuses them of thinking that the burning building is a not really a problem.

Sure, as Petrilli notes, there are poorly performing private schools just as there are poorly performing government schools. The question is which system is more likely to reduce the number of bad schools and increase the number of good ones: a system of uniform accountability to the government or a diverse and innovative system where accountability is directly to parents? We believe that the evidence supports the latter and demonstrated why the evidence Fordham relies on lies somewhere between flimsy and non-existent.

Petrilli has at least shown a potential willingness to back down from the worst elements of his proposal:

Maybe the tests that voucher students take need not be the state tests so long as they’re solid measures of achievement. Perhaps we need to let schools point to alternative measures of student outcomes before they are kicked out of choice programs. Possibly we need an accountability regime that’s completely separate from that which governs the public schools. Such compromises might help to ensure that the educational diversity of the private school marketplace isn’t inadvertently diminished.

Unfortunately, he still clings to the notion that what we have now is somehow a “market” in education, concluding: “But the answer cannot be ‘let the market figure it out.’ Because it hasn’t, and it won’t—and somebody must.” But as Forster noted, a system where 90 percent of the “market” is consumed by the “free” government schools is not really a market. If we really want more accountability, then we need more choices. Even Petrilli admits that sometimes families choose a poorly performing private school because it’s the only alternative to a worse performing (or unsafe) government school. Eliminating that alternative by forbidding the private school from participating in a school choice program won’t do any good for those low-income families who will then be shuffled back to the government school.

Instead of government-induced conformity, let’s push for broader education choice programs that give the private schools the space to innovate.

The Common Coring of Private Schools

Today, the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” proposing private schools be required to administer state tests to all students participating in a school choice program, and publicize the results. Private schools that the state deemed persistently underperforming would be expelled from the program. Fordham argues that such measures have the potential to raise student achievement and provide parents with the information needed to make better decisions about their children’s education. Though Fordham’s plan is well-intentioned, their justifications are unpersuasive and their proposal is more likely to do harm than good.

Little Evidence to Support a Testing Mandate for Private Schools

First, there is scant evidence to support Fordham’s claim that test-based accountability measures “may boost student achievement.” Fordham rests its claim on the results of but a single year in a single study of a single school choice program: the final year of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s five-year analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program.

During the first four years of the study, voucher students took a low-stakes test, but in the final year of the study, policymakers increased the stakes by mandating that the test results be publicized and the scores improved. Fordham argues that this proves that high-stakes testing improves performance but one of the study’s authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, has previously cautioned the Fordham Institute against reading too much into that finding, calling it “enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive”:

As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year.  In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.

But even if the was no question that the higher test scores actually reflected increased performance, it would still only be one study. When Fordham cited this study as support for its proposal six months ago, Andrew J. Coulson responded:

A single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

By contrast, there is a significant body of evidence that school choice programs work without Fordham’s sought-after government regulation. Of twelve randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—eleven found that school choice programs improve outcomes for some or all students while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact. None of these school choice programs studied were designed along the lines of the Fordham proposal.

In fact, Fordham’s preferred policy is undermined by a large body of evidence. A 2009 literature review of the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide revealed that the most market-like and least regulated education systems tended to produce student outcomes superior to more heavily regulated systems, including those with a substantial number state-funded and regulated private schools. In short, the best form of accountability is directly to parents, not government bureaucrats and their tests.