Topic: Education and Child Policy

Survey Says: Black Voters Support School Choice

The Black Alliance for Education Options released the results of a new survey of black voters in four states on education policy. The poll found that more than six in ten blacks in Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Tennessee support school vouchers.

BAEO Survey: Support for School Vouchers 

Source: BAEO Survey on Education Policy

The results are similar to Education Next’s 2015 survey, which found that 58 percent of blacks nationwide supported universal school vouchers and 66 percent supported vouchers for low-income families.

The survey also asked about black voters’ views on charter schools (about two-thirds support them), “parent choice” generally (three-quarters support it), and the importance of testing. However, it appears that BAEO is overinterpreting the findings on that last question, claiming:

The survey also indicated solid support among Black voters that believe educational standards such as Common Core and its related assessments is essential to holding education stakeholders responsible for student learning outcomes.

If the wording of the survey question was identical to how it appears on their website, then it says absolutely nothing about black support for Common Core. The question as it appears on their website is: “Do you think that testing is necessary to hold school accountable for student achievement?” The question doesn’t mention Common Core at all. For that matter, it doesn’t mention standardized testing specifically, nor explain how the testing is meant to “hold schools accountable.” Perhaps it means publishing the score results so parents will hold schools accountable. Or perhaps it means the state government will offer financial carrots or regulatory sticks. Or maybe it means whatever the survey respondent wants it to mean. 

BAEO Survey: Support for Testing

Source: BAEO Survey on Education Policy

If Acme Snack Co. asked survey respondents, “Do you like snacks that are delicious and nutritious?” and then claimed “two-thirds of Americans enjoy delicious and nutritious snacks such as Acme Snack Co. snacks,” they would be guilty of false advertising. Maybe the survey respondents really do like Acme Snacks–or Common Core–but we can’t know that from that survey. Just as some people may enjoy carrots (delicious and nutritious) but find Acme Snacks revolting, lots of parents may support some measure of testing while opposing Common Core testing for any number of reasons.

BAEO’s question on vouchers was clear: “Do you support school vouchers/scholarships?” Yes, most blacks do. But its question on testing is much less clear, and therefore so are the results. All the BAEO survey tells us is that most blacks support using some sort of testing to hold schools accountable in some undefined way. Interpreting these results as support for Common Core is irresponsible.

An Ostrich’s Review of the Research on School Choice

The overwhelming conclusion of the best research on school choice is that students who receive scholarships to attend the school of their choice perform as well or better on achievement tests on average and are more likely to graduate high school and go to college. The positive effects are particularly found among low-income and minority populations that are presently the most choice deprived.

The only way opponents of school choice get around this inconvenient truth is by ignoring it, which they do with great persistence. They are frequently aided in their willful ignorance by dubious “reports” that claim to evaluate the evidence while inexplicably leaving out numerous gold standard studies by researchers at top universities. The latest such “report” comes from the Center for Public Education, which Professor James Shuls of the University of Missouri-St. Louis methodically exposed over at the Show-Me Institute’s blog

Testing for Core Disruption

It’s been a day since the disappointing “Nation’s Report Card” results came out, and it has given me a chance to crunch some numbers a bit. They don’t tell us anything definitive – there is a lot more that impacts test scores than a policy or two – but it is worth seeing if there are any patterns that might bear further analysis, and it is important to explore emerging theories.

Not surprisingly, while many observers have been rightly hesitant to make grand pronouncements about what the scores mean, some theories revolving around the Common Core have come out. The one I’ve seen the most, coming from people such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Karen Nussle of the Core-defending Collaborative for Student Success, is that the Core will bring great things, but transitioning to it is disruptive and we should expect to see short-term score drops as a result.

That is plausible, and we can test it a bit by looking at the performance of states (and the Department of Defense Education Activity) that have demonstrated some level of what I’ll call Core aversion. Those are states that (1) hadn’t adopted the Core at the time of the NAEP test; (2) had adopted but had moved away by testing time; and (3) were still using the Core at test time but officially plan to move away. They are broken down in the following table, which uses score changes in the charts found here:

Markets and Social Justice in Housing and Education

For decades, discriminatory housing policies in the U.S. restricted the ability of black citizens to purchase homes outside of predominantly black ghettos. From the 1950s through the 1970s, real estate speculators called “blockbusters” made some progress opening up white-only neighborhoods to black families until an odd coalition of segregationists and left-wing activists succeeded in regulating blockbusters out of existence. Tragically, the U.S. housing market has remained largely segregated even until today. Moreover, because a family’s access to a quality education is determined primarily by the location of their home, black children are disproportionately assigned to low-performing district schools, depriving them of opportunity. 

Sadly, misguided suspicions about the market led left-wing leaders to support paternalistic regulations that harmed the very people they intended to help – a disastrous mistake that many modern progressives are now repeating in education policy.

In a recently updated version of his 1998 paper, “A Requiem for Blockbusting,” Dmitri Mehlhorn of the Progressive Policy Institute details the sordid history of discriminatory housing policy in the U.S. When Southern agricultural jobs dried up in the early 20th century, black workers began migrating to the industrial North. The response was ugly:

White Americans mostly reacted to this migration with coordinated and violent hatred. Driven by xenophobia, they used physical, political, and economic power to drive blacks into strictly circumscribed ghettos. The ugliness was a team sport, including local governments, state and federal agencies, courts, businesses, and the media.

At the federal level, the Federal Housing Administration encouraged racial covenants, stating that they “provide the surest protection against undesirable encroachment and inharmonious use.” These covenants contractually prohibited homes from being resold to black families. By the 1940s, integrated neighborhoods had ceased to exist in every major city in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against racial covenants in housing, but racists found workarounds. As Mehlhorn details:

For instance, both federal and local agencies encouraged white flight by steering resources to whites seeking segregated suburban houses and schools, while cutting those resources for black families. So-called “urban renewal” laws were used to raze expanding black neighborhoods that threatened white institutions. Federal funds were used to construct massive public housing projects for the displaced black residents.

We are still feeling the effects of these discriminatory policies today, particularly in education, which is intimately linked with housing policy. According to a 2012 study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools (50-100% minority), and 43% of Latinos and 38% of blacks attend intensely segregated schools (those with only 0-10% of whites students) across the nation.”

“Nation’s Report Card” Rapid Reaction

This morning the latest scores from the 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – came out, and the story isn’t very good, at least upon first examination. Average scores in 4th and 8th grade math, and in 8th grade reading, were down from 2013, and essentially stagnant in 4th grade reading.  

Of course, there is a lot you cannot tell about school systems from looking just at NAEP scores. Numerous variables that affect academic outcomes, ranging from demographic changes to cultural shifts, can have important impacts on scores. But it is sobering to see national test scores stagnate or drop, and at the very least the scores should put a damper on some of the declarations of success we’ve seen in the past from people like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in 2013 credited state transitions to the Common Core national curriculum standards for upticks that year.

Perhaps a look at Kentucky, which has been held up as a success story for adopting the Core ahead of all other states and seeing increases on its state tests, is telling. Kentucky may well be seeing improvements, but the NAEP exams, for many people, serve as something of an external audit to see if states’ own tests are producing deceptive information. Of course there can be legitimate disagreements about what test is better – and if testing is even a good way to measures success – but many people who support the Core see state tests as dishonest if they differ markedly in their results from NAEP. So NAEP is important to them. Well, now, while seeing rising scores in 4th grade reading, Kentucky has seen falling scores in 8th grade math and reading, and stagnant scores in 4th grade math. Does that mean the Common Core, or anything else they are doing in Kentucky, necessarily doesn’t work? No. But it does furnish evidence that contradicts the simplistic message of, “Look at Kentucky – the Common Core works!”

There is much that NAEP is too limited to tell us definitively, but the same goes for any single measure of education. And we should be concerned whenever we see scores go down.

Do Non-Profits Criticize Foundations? Or Are They Too Frightened to Do So?

Earlier this year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) issued a report titled “Philamplify Poll Results: Nonprofits Don’t Criticize Foundations Because of Funding Fears.”

The report seeks to explain a phenomenon whose existence it does not bother to establish. Rather than presenting evidence that non-profits are in fact intimidated into silence by grantors, the report instead simply assumes that they are. Its first paragraph declares that “Given the power imbalance between foundations and grantees, grantees are often wary of providing foundations with constructive criticism.”

No evidence is presented to substantiate or quantify this claim. How often? How wary? Says who?

Assumption in hand, the NCRP is off to the races, asking its website visitors to speculate on this hypothetical question “What is the top reason why a nonprofit would choose not to openly criticize a foundation?”

Of course those speculations would be of dubious value even if the report had bothered to establish this phenomenon’s existence. The poll answers would not tell us if even one actual non-profit had held its tongue for the reason alleged, merely that some anonymous website visitor(s) thought it plausible.

Even if we grant that it might be difficult to collect hard evidence on cases of non-profits refusing to criticize prospective donors, it does not excuse publishing a “report” devoid of relevant facts.

Consider, too, that it might be comparatively easy to collect data on non-profits that have criticized foundations. An advantage of this flip-side approach to the question is that the critics themselves can be asked why they published their criticisms. I say this as the author of an empirical study whose findings were deeply unflattering to philanthropies seeking to scale-up charter school networks.

Why did I do it? It’s my job. I study comparative education policy, seeking to understand which policies are most effective in delivering the outcomes that families value. A key question within that field is to determine which policies lead most consistently to the “scaling-up” of educational excellence—which is to say the replication and/or imitation of best practices. Since that has long been a goal of donors to charter school networks I felt it important to determine empirically the extent to which their efforts were proving effective. It being an empirical study based on a large dataset (all the charter networks operating in the state of California) there was no way to predict the outcome prior to crunching the numbers. Nor was there any need for such a prediction.

Contrary to the speculations of NCRP’s website visitors, my highest priority as a think tank researcher is not to avoid antagonizing potential donors, it is maintaining my personal integrity and guarding my reputation and that of my employer for producing reliable, useful empirical research. I am certainly not alone in holding these priorities among think tank scholars. With that observation in mind, dear reader, please contact me if you have another example in which a non-profit published work critical of foundations/potential donors. I will relay the results to NCRP in the hope that they may wish to make amends for their earlier baseless, question-begging speculations.

Bernie Sanders and the Missing GI Bill Evidence

As I’ve written before, the case for “free” college is decrepit, and Bernie Sanders’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post does nothing to bolster it. It sounds wonderful to say “everyone, go get a free education!” but of course it wouldn’t be free – taxpayers would have to foot the bill – and more importantly, it would spur even more wasteful over-consumption of higher ed than we have now.

Because I’ve rehearsed the broad argument against free college quite often, I’m not going to go over it again. But Sen. Sanders’ op-ed does furnish some “evidence” worth looking at: the notion that the post-World War II GI Bill was a huge economic catalyst. Writes Sanders:

After World War II, the GI Bill gave free education to more than 2 million veterans, many of whom would otherwise never have been able to go to college. This benefited them, and it was good for the economy and the country, too. In fact, scholars say that this investment was a major reason for the high productivity and economic growth our nation enjoyed during the postwar years.

I’ve seen this sort of argument before, as I’ve seen for government provision of education generally, and have always found it wanting, especially since we have good evidence that people will seek out the education they need in the absence of government provision, and will get it more efficiently. Since Sanders links to two sources that presumably support his GI Bill assertion, however, I figured I’d better give them a look.

Surprisingly, not only does neither illustrate that the GI Bill spurred economic growth, neither even contends it did. They say it spurred some college enrollment growth, and one says veterans ended up being better students than some high-profile college presidents expected them to be, but neither makes the Sanders’ growth claim. Indeed, in line with what we’ve seen broadly in education, one says that at least 80 percent of veterans who went to college on the Bill would likely have gone anyway, and in seemingly direct opposition to what Sanders would like to see, the other notes that the Bill disproportionately helped the well-to-do, not the working class. As the Stanley study says right in its abstract: “The impacts of both programs [the World War II and Korean War GI Bills] on college attainment were apparently concentrated among veterans from families in the upper half of the distribution of socioeconomic status.”

If we really want to do what’s best for the nation – not just what sounds or feels best – we need to ground our policies in reality. In education, as in Sanders’ op-ed, that often doesn’t happen.