Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Can Litigation Save American Education?

Next week, the case of Vergara v. California goes to trial. The question being litigated is whether or not the state’s laws on teacher tenure (“permanent employment”), dismissals, and last-in-first-out layoffs disproportionately harm poor minority kids, thereby violating California’s constitution.

Plaintiffs in the case feel they have the evidence to prove this point (see the links above), and so far the courts have acknowledged that their view is at least plausible. Certainly these laws are incompatible with efforts to maximize the quality of the teaching workforce. And it does seem as though they do the most damage in districts and schools serving the most disadvantaged kids. But will a victory by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit do substantial and lasting good?

That’s less obvious. For one thing, these employment practices can be found in many places where they are not codified in state statutes.They are employment guarantees and benefits of the sort that are often sought and obtained by teachers’ unions in collective bargaining with districts. So getting rid of the laws won’t necessarily get rid of the practices.

More broadly, over a dozen states have explicit constitutional provisions demanding that they create “uniform” education systems—a more stringent equality requirement than is contained in California’s constitution—and it’s not at all obvious that this seemingly strict legal guarantee has made any difference in the quality of educational opportunity in those states.

It’s easy to empathize with the desire to see state legal precedents enforced, and bad laws overturned. But neither state constitutions nor legal precedents have been able to secure either the uniformity or the quality of American education systems, and there is no reason to expect that to change no matter how the Vergara case is decided. More than half a century after the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, poor African-American kids are  still disproportionately likely to be assigned to lousy schools. I wrote about this 11 years ago, and little has changed since then. Lawsuits can redress specific legal wrongs, like compelled segregation, but they can’t produce educational outcomes that require the coordination and relentless dedication of thousands or even millions of people, year after year.

For those who really want to maximize the quality of education offered to disadvantaged and minority students—indeed to all students—the best hope is to study the different sorts of education systems that have been tried around the world and across history, and then ensure universal access to the best among them: a free educational marketplace.

 

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.

A Governor’s Warped Priorities

The governor of New Hampshire just submitted an amicus brief in the lawsuit against the “Live Free or Die” state’s scholarship tax credit program. Last year, Governor Maggie Hassan unsuccessfully sought its repeal. The brief offers nothing new in the way of legal arguments. As with the ACLU and, unfortunately, the trial court judge, the governor’s brief tries to imagine a constitutional difference between tax credits and tax deductions and absurdly assumes that money that a private corporation donated to a private nonprofit that financially assists private citizens sending their children to private schools is somehow “public” money because the state could have collected it in taxes had the legislature so decided. This claim contradicts both logic and the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in ACSTO v. Winn:

Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding [scholarship] tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.

The Cato Institute submitted an amicus brief defending the constitutionality of the program back in November.

What’s noteworthy here is not the legal reasoning, but the governor’s chutzpah. First, as the Union Leader noted, “Hassan is pushing state-funded, need-based scholarships for college students while trying to eliminate need-based scholarships for students in grades K-12.” The governor’s amicus brief does not explain why direct public expenditures that students can use at a Catholic college are perfectly constitutional but a low-income student using a tax-credit scholarships at a religious elementary or secondary school would, as her amicus brief melodramatically puts it, “jeopardize both the hallowed underpinnings of religious tolerance and freedom, and the prohibition against entanglement made sacred by [the] New Hampshire Constitution.” 

Second, Hassan is a strong proponent of “research and development” tax credits that pick winners and losers among certain types of businesses and business activities, thereby distorting the market. Moreover, by the governor’s faulty logic, these tax credits constitute direct subsidies of public funds to profit-seeking entities. R&D tax credits clearly reduce state revenue to fund activities that businesses are generally doing anyway for their own financial self-interest.  

By contrast, scholarship tax credits expand the market for private education without distorting it. Parents pick winners and losers among schools rather than the government. The corporations who receive the 85 percent tax credits do not benefit financially – indeed, they’d be better off financially had they not donated at all. Moreover, the Josiah Bartlett Center projected that, if fully utilized, the scholarship tax credits would save New Hampshire taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run by reducing state expenditures by more than they would reduce state tax revenue.

In short, Governor Hassan supports corporate welfare but opposes tax credits that assist low-income families seeking the best education for their children.

The Administration’s School-Discipline Push, Cont’d.

As Andrew Coulson explained, the federal Justice Department and Department of Education have sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter discouraging schools from pursuing strict discipline policies against student misbehavior, especially against “routine” or “minor” infractions; Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited tardiness and disrespect as examples of the latter. 

Assuming that the federal government has somehow acquired the legitimate constitutional authority to begin dictating the fine points of disciplinary policy to local schools in the first place—a big if—it might seem at first that much of this is innocuous. Some early press coverage, for example, makes it sound as if the letter is mostly aimed at obtaining a reconsideration of zero-tolerance policies (long criticized by libertarians) as well as the sorts of suspensions and expulsions that are based on far-fetched dangers like finger guns or forbidden hugs.

Unfortunately, there’s much more. The letter represents the culmination of a years-long drive toward imposing tighter Washington oversight on school discipline policies that result in “disparate impact” among racial or other groups. Policies that result in the suspension of differentially more minority kids, or special-ed kids, will now be suspect—even if the rate of underlying behavior is not in fact uniform among every group. (Special-ed kids, for example, include many placed in that category because of emotional and behavioral problems that correlate with a higher likelihood of acting out in misbehavior. Boys misbehave more than girls.)

In 2012 Senate testimony, Andrew Coulson noted:

  1. Compared with the alternatives, the use of out-of-school suspensions appears to improve the learning environment for other (non-disciplined) students by protecting them from disruption.
  2. Zero-tolerance policies were adopted in the first place in part as a way for administrators to try to defend themselves against disparate-impact charges. In other words, the new supposed remedy (disparate-impact scrutiny) helped cause the disease to which it is being promoted as the cure.

If the policy helps speed the correction of some overly harsh, mechanical school policies (both under the zero-tolerance rubric and otherwise), it may have some positive side effects. But the disparate-impact premise is a pernicious one that’s sure to create many new problems of its own.

C/P and adapted from Overlawyered.

Education Guns Fire Blanks in War on Poverty

A lot of federal weapons were created to fight President Lyndon Johnson’s ”War on Poverty,” and some of the biggest were in education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and Head Start are all parts of Johnson’s overall effort to end poverty and create a “Great Society.” They also share two other things in common: pretty damning evidence that they are failures, and Cato videos laying out the bad news.

The first video – which calls for the end of the U.S. Department of Education, but in so doing highlights ESEA and HEA programs – presents the big evidence of K-12 and higher ed failure: massive spending, stagnant test scores, and turbo-charged college tuition inflation. Of course, a lot of variables affect these things, but there is simply no compelling evidence of federal success. 

The second video is of Cato’s recent forum, “Preschool Education: What the Research Says.” While there is a great deal of debate about the effectiveness of preschool generally, there seems to be consensus that Head Start has few, if any, meaningful, lasting, positive effects. Yet not only do we stick with it, President Obama is pushing to expand federal preschool intervention, to the tune of $75 billion over ten years.

What keeps these misfiring, War on Poverty blunderbusses in service? Not their effectiveness, because, well, there is precious little evidence of any. Most likely, it is that it’s very compelling to “help” the young and poor with big programs, while it is cost prohibitive for the average American, with a full-time job and other interests, to research whether these programs actually help. Finally, for most politicians – where the public-sentiment rubber meets the public-policy road – the costs of appearing not to care are much too great to act on the powerful evidence that voters rarely see.

Hopefully, voters will see these videos.