Tag: school vouchers

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students’ falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday’s Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don’t support that narrative. Here’s the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

Pounding the Table, Not the Facts, on School Choice

There’s an old legal proverb about how to win a court case: “If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither is on your side, pound the table.” In this factually-challenged attack on school choice, two lawyers at the UNC Center for Civil Rights do a great deal of table pounding.

Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, the lawyers charge that school choice programs don’t work and that they increase racial segregation. For example, they claim: 

…in states with [school choice] programs, student achievement at the private schools is no better, and often worse, than in the public schools. In fact, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, whose voucher programs are the country’s longest running, traditional public school students outperform voucher students on available proficiency measures.

Even read in the most charitable light, the lawyers misleadingly compare apples and orangutans. Participants in school choice programs are generally more disadvantaged than the general population, so it is absurd to compare their average performance against the general population, which includes all the students in wealthy “public” school districts (where low-income parents have been arrested for trying to enroll their kids). Government school advocates rightly object when someone compares average private school performance to average government school performance. The private schools outperform government schools on average, but because both parents and the private schools select each other, the comparison breaks down. The same is true here.

A meaningful comparison requires a randomized-controlled trial, which is the gold standard of social science research because the process of randomization allows researchers to compare like against like and to isolate the effect of the “treatment” (in this case, the offer of a school choice scholarship). Fortunately, there have been 12 such studies addressing this very question from highly-respected institutions like Harvard University and the Brookings Institution. Eleven found that school choice programs lead to positive student outcomes, including higher academic performance and higher rates of high school graduation and college matriculation. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact.

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:

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.

Holder’s DOJ Wants a Veto over Parents’ Choice of School

Though the U.S. Department of Justice partially backed down on its lawsuit against Louisiana’s school choice program in November, yesterday the DOJ filed its proposal to oversee the program. The program provides school vouchers to low-income families with children otherwise assigned to failing government schools. Among many proposed regulations, the DOJ wants the state of Louisiana to give the federal government the following information about each school choice applicant: 

1. Name

2. Student ID number

3. Address

4. Grade

5. Race

6. School applicant attends in current school year, if any

7. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (6), above, if applicable

8. Public school district of the school in (6), if applicable

9. District public school applicant would be assigned to attend for the upcoming school year if applicant does not receive a voucher

10. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (9), above

11. Student enrollment in the school in (9), above, for the current school year, by race

2013: Yet Another ‘Year of School Choice’

In 1980, frustrated by the attention given to Paul Ehrlich’s Malthusian doomsaying, economist Julian Simon challenged Ehrlich to a wager. They agreed on a basket of five commodity metals that Simon predicted would fall in price over 10 years (indicating growing supply relative to demand, contrary to the Malthusian worldview) and Ehrlich predicted would rise. In 1990, all five metals had decreased relative to their 1980 prices and Ehrlich cut Simon a check.

In 2011, two education policy analysts made a similar wager. After Jay Mathews of the Washington Post predicted that voters would “continue to resist” private school choice programs, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice challenged Matthews to a wager, which Mathews accepted: Forster would win if at least seven new or expanded private school choice programs (i.e., vouchers or scholarship tax credits, but not including charter schools) were signed into law by the end of the year. That July, the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 to be the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted 19 new or expanded private school choice programs, nearly triple the number Forster needed to win the bet.

Undeterred, the following year Mathews proclaimed that school choice programs “have no chance of ever expanding very far,” prompting another challenge from Forster. Mathews did not take the bet, which was fortunate for him because in 2012 10 states enacted 12 new or expanded private school choice programs.

Now, for the third year in a row, Forster’s prediction has proved true, with 10 states enacting 14 new or expanded private school choice programs, including:

Most of these laws are overly limited and several carry unnecessary and even counterproductive regulations like mandatory standardized testing. Nevertheless, they are a step in the right direction, away from a government monopoly and toward a true system of education choice.

Of course, that’s why defenders of the status quo have made 2013 the Year of the Anti-School Choice Lawsuit.

Pages