Tag: vouchers

The Real Problem with Highly Regulated “School Choice”

A Fordham Institute paper released today seeks to answer the question: do private schools really refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs? Its authors tell us that “many proponents of private school choice… take [this] for granted,” citing two examples—one of them being the Cato Institute, whose Center for Educational Freedom I direct. The authors even cite a relevant commentary by former Cato policy analyst Adam Schaeffer.

The only problem is that the cited commentary says precisely the opposite. Describing Indiana’s voucher program, Schaeffer writes: “Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated [non-participating] schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate.” This captures Schaeffer’s concern as well as my own (which I expressed over a decade ago in the political economy journal Independent Review): We do not fear that private schools will refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. We know that they ultimately will participate, or be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts.

We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished. The Dutch enacted a heavily regulated nationwide voucher program nearly a century ago. Unsubsidized private schooling remains legal, but has been reduced to a statistical asterisk—now making up less than one percent of enrollment, compared to roughly 70 percent for subsidized private schools.

Our reason for concern over this pattern is also grounded in empirical evidence: it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. That is the consensus of the worldwide within-country research, which I reviewed and tabulated for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. The Fordham paper does not discuss this evidence.

Despite imputing to Cato scholars the exact opposite of the view we hold, the paper does include some interesting data. In particular, it offers a new corroboration that voucher programs are more heavily regulated than tax credit programs (a difference whose magnitude and statistical significance was previously established here). This will make it even harder for objective observers to cling to the notion that vouchers and credits are functionally equivalent.

Public Prefers Education Tax Credits to Charters, Vouchers

In a recent public opinion study conducted by Harvard University researchers, education tax credits were found to attract more public support (72%) than either charter schools (62%) or vouchers (50%).

The authors seem to find this puzzling, in part due to their belief that “most economists think the difference between vouchers and tax credits more a matter of style than substance.” I have no idea whether this is an accurate assessment of economists’ opinions, but it is certainly a mistaken view, for several reasons.

First, based on a set of regression studies I reported last year in the Journal of School Choice, vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a large and highly significant extra burden of regulation on participating private schools (the link is to an essentially identical pre-publication version). In that study, I offer a suggested explanation for why this pattern may exist.

Second, tax credit programs confer freedom of choice and conscience not just on families but also on taxpayer/donors. As I argued in U.S. Supreme Court amicus briefs in ACSTO v. Winn, and a subsequent op-ed on the Winn verdict, this avoids the compulsion that has plagued state-funded school systems since their inception and has precipitated our endless “school wars.” Vouchers, by compelling all taxpayers to support every type of schooling, perpetuate that compulsion and so perpetuate the conflicts that flow from it.

To my knowledge, in the whole history of the world there hasn’t been a system of government funding for the education of children that has long avoided extensive regulatory constraints. Those constraints defeat the purpose of “school choice” programs, by homogenizing the schools from which parents are permitted to “choose.” There is evidence that tax credits, which make use of only private funds, avoid that fate. Perhaps many economists have not yet become aware of this distinction, but it is one they should take a keen interest in.

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

Would You Let a Quack Treat Your Child?

Cases in which parents deny their children modern medical treatment are increasingly rare. In medicine, the days of snake-oil selling quacks are mostly behind us. Sadly, the same isn’t true in education policy.

Medical researchers precisely define and test their proposed treatments. Compare that to a recent bit of education policy “analysis” in which the writer purports to assess Milton Friedman’s market-inspired proposal (minimally regulated school vouchers) by reviewing the outcomes of charter schooling. This is like testing insulin by administering Flintstones Chewables. Charter schools are opened and closed at the discretion of government authorities, lack market-determined prices, and cannot be operated for-profit or offer religious instruction. In many states, they cannot hire teachers who lack government credentials. Friedman’s voucher proposal shared none of these characteristics, and so to treat the two interchangeably is a sign of ignorance or intentional equivocation.

Even when relevant evidence is presented, the presentation is frequently inaccurate and unsystematic. To see just how serious this problem is, it helps to look at an example in detail. Consider a recent discussion of voucherizing U.S. federal education spending that drew lessons from Chile’s voucher program. Many of its facts are wrong, others are misrepresented, and key pieces of information are omitted.

The author claims that Chilean education spending as a share of GDP shrank between 1980 and today. But, according to the United Nations, it rose from 4.4 percent to 4.5 percent. And, due to the sustained growth of Chile’s economy since the mid-1980s, inflation-adjusted per pupil spending has more than doubled.

The author acknowledges that Chilean students are now the highest-performing in Latin America, but claims that his fabricated “budget cuts have led to overall decline in quality.” In fact, Chile is one of the fastest-improving nations in the entire world on international tests of academic achievement. He goes on to claim, without support, that vouchers have led to growing inequality, benefiting only upper-middle-income families, yet a Yale University study reports that the voucher program has reduced inequality in educational attainment and raised earnings equally for both the poor and the non-poor.

Finally, the author notes that lower-income students are more likely to attend public rather than private schools in Chile, but neglects to mention that public schools serving the poor receive a varying amount of additional funding that is not given to private schools serving similar students. Chilean economists Sapelli and Vial report that public schools receiving vastly higher funding per pupil outperform private schools (which explains their appeal), but in the rare cases in which the public sector’s funding advantage is 25 percent or less, it is private schools that perform better.

This is not an exhaustive list of the commentary’s errors, omissions, and misrepresentations, but it should suffice to show the level of quackery being doled out to the public by purportedly serious publications (it was published in the Washington Post’s education blog). We’re not exactly talking House or Doc Martin here.

Few parents would administer the medical equivalent of this claptrap to their children–they are generally protected from such errors by the health-care field’s comparatively careful, systematic research practices. But in education, they still suffer under the ministrations of charlatans. The result can be seen in the virtually unique productivity collapse that has beset American education for generations.

So what can we do about it? A first step would be for well-intentioned education policy analysts to make more systematic use of the high quality research that is available, and to add to that literature. But it is harder to conduct experiments on the impact of state or national policies than on the impact of drugs. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem–one that we also owe, incidentally, to the medical field. I’ll be writing about that soon, and will update this post with a link when it’s available.

Update: My article in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.

Edu-poll Results, for What They’re Worth

Polls are tricky things, giving a veneer of scientific certainty to an endeavor subject to all sorts of biases, methodological problems, etc. Worse, while they might tell us what people think, they do almost nothing to inform us about what policies actually make the most sense. With those provisos in mind – and they apply heavily here – what follows are the highlights of the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on public education, released this morning. Phi Delta Kappa, by the way, is the self-described “premier professional association for educators.”

I’m not going to hit all the topics – you can catch every question here – I’m just going to cover the ones likely of most interest to libertarian types. And here they are:

School choice:  Using PDK/Gallup’s long favored voucher question – the most loaded one, which asks whether respondents favor or oppose allowing people to “choose a private school at public expense” – 44 percent favored and 55 percent opposed. For whatever reason – maybe seeing choice greatly expand recently, maybe growing disgust with teachers unions – favorability rose from 34 percent last year. Charter schools were favored by 66 percent of respondents, and “laws that allow parents to petition to remove the leadership and staff of failing schools” – roughly, “parent trigger” laws – were favored by 70 of respondents.  This last one is probably the worst way to deliver “choice,” but it must sound good. And how did the best way to deliver choice – tax credits – do? The pollsters didn’t even ask about them, probably because they would have polled very well.

National Standards: Asked several questions about their thoughts on the likely effect of “common core standards” – but not the Common Core standards – most people thought having some commonality would be beneficial. But there seems to be a huge disconnect between the question and reality: only 2 to 4 percent of respondents answered “don’t know” or refused to respond to the common core questions, but 60 percent of voters polled just a few months ago said they knew nothing about the actual Common Core standards being implemented in almost every state. So people seem to like generic commonality, but know little about the actual standards that were, unfortunately, purposely kept under the radar by their supporters.

Biggest Problem Facing Schools: Surprise, surprise, by far the most cited “biggest problem” people said their public schools were facing was ”lack of financial support.” 35 percent picked that, versus 8 percent fingering “lack of discipline,” the next biggest vote-getter. What this likely tell us is that (1) we are very slowly coming out of a recessionary period and some districts probably are making some cuts, and (2) people have no idea how much is actually spent on education, or how much it has grown over the decades. It also shows that propaganda – when you hear people say “the schools are underfunded” enough you believe it – works.

Grading Public Schools: As always, people gave their local public schools decent grades and public schools overall lousy ones. This year 48 percent of respondents gave their own public schools an A or B (though that means a majority graded them C-or-below), while only 19 percent gave high marks to “public schools nationally.” Basically, people – who often heavily considered schools when they bought their homes – tend to affirm their own choices, but see the overall system as crummy.

And so goes another Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll. See you pollsters next year!

Obama on DC Vouchers. No ‘June Surprise.’

Reports circulated yesterday that President Obama had reached an agreement with House speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) to not only sustain the DC school voucher program for another few years but to eliminate the legislative cap on student enrollment—theoretically allowing it to grow without limit. Based the program’s performance to date, this would dramatically improve the graduation rate city-wide, likely boost performance academically, and save hundreds of millions of dollars from the bloated DC K12 budget.

But I didn’t write about it, because I didn’t believe it. Sure enough, later in the day, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered a clarification. Far from allowing unlimited growth in the program, the president only intended to allow another 85 students to participate—and still opposes the program in principle.

There is simply no way—no way—that President Obama could support an unlimited expansion in this successful, fantastically cost-effective education program. If he did, he would demoralize the most powerful force within the Democratic Party, the teachers’ unions, in the run-up to this fall’s election. Clearly he has no intention of doing that, given his recent advocacy of using federal dollars to grow the public school workforce (despite the fact that public school employment has already grown 11 times faster than enrollment over the past four decades).

We have a president who, for political reasons, cannot throw his full support behind the only federal education program in the nation’s history that is constitutional, successful, and cost-effective.