Tag: vouchers

The Perils of Publicly Funded “Private” Schools

We support getting publicly funded schools public accountability…. No exceptions, no excuses, no special treatment.

Thus spake John Johnson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, on the subject of a new bill his agency co-wrote with Republican legislators. Among other things, the bill would allow the DPI to kick private schools out of the state’s voucher program if it rates them perennial failures.

Here’s the thing: Way back in … August of 2013, (a.k.a., “this month”), the head of a state department of instruction was forced to resign because, while in that same post in another state, he had personally revised his department’s ranking of a school run by a major political donor. State officials and agencies, contrary to the implicit assumption of “accountability” mavens, are not all wise, objective, beneficent philosopher-kings. They are people–and organizations made up of people–who have political and personal vested interests that do not always align with those of the families they nominally serve.

Fortunately, over the course of human history, a system evolved which tends to align the interests of producers and consumers more effectively than any other. It is the free enterprise system, in which producers must compete for the privilege of serving each and every customer, and consumers have the freedom to easily choose from among many competing providers. Let schools do their best to serve families and let families choose their schools: let the chips fall where they may. Some schools will succeed, others will fail. Those that succeed, grow. Those that fail are prevented from continuing to ill-serve families. It is a system that works not simply in theory, but in practice, as I found when I surveyed the worldwide within-country research comparing alternative school systems. The least regulated, most market-like education systems most consistently outperform state school systems, such as we have in the United States.

Who’s Afraid of School Profits?

Should there be a separation of school and profit? Many opponents of education reform seem to think so.

Case in point, a blog post at the Washington Post yesterday decried “outside forces that want to make big profits on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.” Setting aside that the vast majority of private schools are nonprofit, the author apparently misses the fact that parents choose to send their kids to these schools. (Does it make sense to complain that other businesses are profiting “on the backs” of their paying customers?) In order to persuade parents to switch to private schools, they must offer parents something that the free-to-attend government schools do not. Even when a school choice program covers the full cost of private school tuition, the parents would merely be financially indifferent. To motivate parents to choose something other than the default government school option, private schools still must offer something better.

Moreover, it is absurd to think that profit—in the sense of financial gain—is limited only to the for-profit sector. Do teachers, principals, and other school staff from janitors to bus drivers “profit” from their salaries or wages? What of the profits made by the corporations that publish the textbooks that students read? Or construct school buildings? Or manufacture desks, whiteboards, pens, pencils, and playgrounds? Whether government- or privately-run, nearly every adult involved in the formal education process is earning a “profit” short of the parents who volunteer to chaperone the high school dance.

Those who denounce “profits” in education simply don’t understand the role of profits in a market. Perhaps they are confused because in the government-run education system with which they are familiar, there is little connection between financial gain and meeting the needs of students. In a competitive market, by contrast, profits (and, just as importantly, losses) provide valuable information. As explained in Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast’s excellent book, Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America’s Schools (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary):

In a capitalist economy, profits are the reward earned by firms that maximize the quality of services and goods, minimize overhead and bureaucracy, motivate their workers to achieve high and consistent levels of productivity, and avoid unnecessary expenditures. Successful firms sell better, cheaper, or better and cheaper products and services than do other firms. Customers notice, and business gradually shifts from inefficient to efficient firms. […]

Low-performing government schools don’t gradually lose customers and face the threat of closure, the way an inefficiently run business does. As a result, there is little urgency for reform. Their assets do not move from the control of those who have misused them into the hands of others who could do a better job. (Pages 98-9)

In our existing education system, only the financially well-off can afford to live in the expensive districts with high-performing government schools or to pay for private schooling. Without school choice programs, low-income families are locked out of these markets. Instead, their only option is the local, assigned, government school. If I blogged for WaPo, I might say that these underperforming schools are built on “the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

DOJ vs. School Choice

Claiming that private schools in Milwaukee are discriminating against students with disabilities, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) demanding that private schools participating in the Milwaukee school choice program comply with Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As Professor Patrick Wolf explains over at Education Next, the DOJ is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law.

Wolf is part of a team of researchers that has studied the Milwaukee school choice program over five years. Their statistical analysis “confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage—not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race—was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.” This is exactly what the law requires. Wisconsin law forbids discrimination on the basis of disability and requires schools participating in the voucher program to accept students on a random basis. 

Moreover, the DOJ is wrong on the law in treating private schools participating in the program as though they were government contractors. As Wolf explains:

Private organizations normally are exempt from Title II of ADA but the DOJ argues that the law applies to private schools in the MPCP because the government is contracting with them to provide a public service (the education of K-12 students). This claim flies in the face of the facts and case-law surrounding the program. The voucher program does not involve any contracts, of any kind, between any government organization and the participating private schools. Students need to meet certain eligibility restrictions to participate in the program, as do interested private schools. Once both are deemed eligible by the state, students choose schools and government funds flow to the private schools based on the choices families have made and consistent with the laws governing the program, not based on any “contract.” In fact, the Wisconsin State Statute that governs the MPCP, §119.23, is entirely separate from Wisconsin State Statute §119.235 entitled “Contracts with Private Schools and Agencies.” Nothing could make the point clearer that the MPCP is not a case of government contracting for education services.

Wolf suspects that the DOJ’s letter came as a result of the Wisconsin DPI’s report that 1.6 percent of choice students have a disability. Since the DPI is not authorized to collect that information, they estimated the number of students with disabilities using the number of choice students given accommodations on the state accountability exam. However, as Wolf explains, that is a highly flawed proxy since only a minority of students with disabilities are given such accommodations. Wolf’s team of researchers estimated that the number of choice students with disabilities between 7.5 and 14.6 percent, with their best estimate being 11.4 percent.

The DOJ’s overreach may be unsurprising in light of other recent scandals, but it also sets a terrible precedent. Parents choosing to use their vouchers at private educational institutions do not render those institutions “government contractors” any more than grocery stores become “government contractors” when citizens use their EBT cards to purchase food there. The Obama administration’s unlawful and misguided attempt to hamper school choice programs with additional red tape should be vigorously resisted.

This Mother’s Day, Give Moms School Choice

A new study this week finds that school mothers overwhelmingly support school choice. According to the Friedman Foundation’s survey, 69 percent of American mothers of school-aged children supported scholarship tax credit (STC) programs while only 19 percent opposed them. Americans in general support STC programs by a margin of 66 percent to 24 percent and non-schoolers support them 64 percent to 26 percent.

School Moms Support School Choice

The survey found even higher support for STC programs among political independents, middle-income families, and African Americans (72 percent each). The greatest opposition (35 percent) came from high-income families who are already financially able to live in a district with a high-performing public school or to pay for their children to attend a private school.

Despite Court Ruling, Louisiana Still Has School Choice

The Louisiana Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s nascent school voucher program today. There were about 5,000 LA students already receiving vouchers and about 8,000 were approved to receive vouchers in the next school year. The court ruled that once public funds are allocated to the state’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), the constitution prohibits reallocating those funds for other purposes.

Fortunately, there is another school choice program that rests on much firmer constitutional ground. Louisiana’s scholarship tax credit program avoids the voucher program’s constitutional troubles because its funds never enter the MFP. Indeed, they actually never enter the state treasury at all. Instead, taxpayers receive a credit for donations to nonprofit “school tuition organizations” that fund low-income students attending the schools of their choice. The program gives priority to students living in districts with failing government schools.

While Governor Jindal and school choice supporters across the Pelican State are disappointed with the decision, they need not despair. Instead, they should channel their efforts toward expanding the scholarship tax credit program. 

School Choice Works

The evidence is in: school choice works. Yesterday, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released their third edition of their report “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice.” The report provides a literature review of dozens of high-quality studies of school choice programs around the country, including studies from scholars at Harvard University, Stanford University, Cornell University, the University of Arkansas, the Brookings Institution, and the Federal Reserve Bank. The studies examine the impact of school choice programs on the academic performance of participants and public school students, the fiscal impact on taxpayers, racial segregation, and civic values.

The report’s key findings included the following:

  • Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
  • Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.
  • Six empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers. All six find that school choice saves money for taxpayers. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.
  • Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.
  • Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.

On the same day, a new study from researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that a school choice program boosted college enrollment among African-American participants by 24 percent.

While many of the findings show only modest improvement, they consistently show that school choice programs produce the same or superior results across a gamut of measures. Moreover, not all the benefits of choice are easily measurable. Some families are looking for a school that better meets a student’s special needs, instills the parents’ values, inspires a lifelong love of learning, or where a student is safe from bullying. These outcomes are sometimes difficult if not impossible to measure in the aggregate, but parents are in the best position to tell the difference for their own children.

WaPo Blogger Still Won’t Let Facts Get In Her Way

There she goes again.

Just a few weeks ago, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post falsely accused scholarship tax credit programs of being “welfare for the rich,” an absurd claim that was easily debunked. Now Strauss is making similarly absurd claims about voucher programs in response to the Indiana Supreme Court’s unanimous decision upholding their constitutionality:

The notion is that families deserve to have a “choice” of schools for their children. The reality is that the amount of money provided in each voucher isn’t enough to cover tuition at a great many private schools, especially the elite ones that get most of the media’s attention, such as Sidwell Friends, which the Obama daughters attend.

The implication is that since school choice programs do not provide enough funding to make all choices affordable for low-income families, they don’t really provide “choice” at all. Moreover, Strauss seems to be arguing that if we can’t afford to send every child to the same school as the children of the president of the United States, then we shouldn’t do anything to expand educational options for low-income families. One wonders if Strauss also opposes food stamps because recipients can’t afford filet mignon every night.

While hiding behind weasel words that are technically correct—a “great many private schools” are too expensive for most low-income families even with vouchers—Strauss ignores the “great many private schools” that school choice programs do make affordable for low-income families. Take, for example, this story from yesterday’s New York Times:

Some parents of modest means are surprised to discover that the education savings accounts put private school within reach. When Nydia Salazar first dreamed of attending St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, for example, her mother, Maria Salazar, a medical receptionist, figured there was no way she could afford it. The family had always struggled financially, and Nydia, 14, had always attended public school.

But then Ms. Salazar, 37, a single mother who holds two side jobs to make ends meet, heard of a scholarship fund that would allow her to use public dollars to pay the tuition.

She is now trying to coax other parents into signing up for similar scholarships. “When I tell them about private school, they say I’m crazy,” she said. “They think that’s only for rich people.”