Topic: Education and Child Policy

Regulating School Choice: The Debate Continues

Last week, the Cato Institute held a policy forum on school choice regulations. Two of our panelists, Dr. Patrick Wolf and Dr. Douglas Harris, were part of a team that authored one of the recent studies finding that Louisiana’s voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ test scores. Why that was the case – especially given the nearly unanimously positive previous findings – was the main topic of our discussion. Wolf and I argued that there is reason to believe that the voucher program’s regulations might have played a role in causing the negative results, while Harris and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute pointed to other factors. 

The debate continued after the forum, including a blog post in which Harris raises four “problems” with my arguments. I respond to his criticisms below.

The Infamous Education Productivity Chart

Problem #1: Trying to discredit traditional public schools by placing test score trends and expenditure changes on one graph. These graphs have been floating around for years. They purport to show that spending has increased much faster than expenditures [sic], but it’s obvious that these comparisons make no sense. The two things are on different scales. Bedrick tried to solve this problem by putting everything in percentage terms, but this only gives the appearance of a common scale, not the reality. You simply can’t talk about test scores in terms of percentage changes.

The more reasonable question is this: Have we gotten as much from this spending as we could have? This one we can actually answer and I think libertarians and I would probably agree: No, we could be doing much better than we are with current spending. But let’s be clear about what we can and cannot say with these data.

Harris offers a reasonable objection to the late, great Andrew Coulson’s infamous chart (shown below). Coulson already addressed critics of his chart at length, but Harris is correct that the test scores and expenditures do not really have a common scale. That said, the most important test of a visual representation of data is whether the story it tells is accurate. In this case, it is, as even Harris seems to agree. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil in public schools has nearly tripled in the last four decades while the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been flat. 

U.S. Education Spending and Productivity

Producing a similar chart with data from the scores of younger students on the NAEP would be misleading because the scale would mask their improvement. But for 17-year-olds, whose performance has been flat on the NAEP and the SAT, the story the chart tells is accurate.

Hubris Core

It may not seem necessary to say these two things, but here goes: (1) No person or group of people are omniscient, and (2) all people are different. Why do I state these realities? Because Common Core supporters sometimes seem to need reminders.

Writing on his New York Times blog, the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey takes Donald Trump to task for saying that if elected he would eliminate the Common Core. Fair enough, though just as Washington strongly coerced adoption of the Core – a reality Carey deceptively sidesteps by saying states “voluntarily” adopted it – the feds could potentially attach money to dropping it. But that would be no more constitutional than the initial coercion, and the primary coercive mechanism – the Race to the Top – was basically a one-shot deal (though reinforced to an appreciable extent by No Child Left Behind waivers).

Carey is also reasonably suspicious of Trump’s suggestion that local control of education works best. Contrary to what Carey suggests, we don’t have good evidence that state or federal control is better than local – meaningful local control has been withering away for probably over a century, and some research does support it – but it is certainly the case that lots of districts have performed poorly and suffer from waste, paralysis, etc. But then we get this:

But states and localities, in a sense, don’t actually have the ability to set educational standards, even if they choose to. The world around us ultimately determines what students need to learn — the demands of highly competitive and increasingly global labor markets, the admissions requirements of colleges and universities, and the march of scientific progress.

The only choice local schools have is whether they will try to meet those expectations. The Common Core is simply a way of organizing and articulating standards that already exist, for the benefit of students, parents and teachers, so that schooling makes sense when children move between different grades, schools, districts and states.

Good Question: What to Do Before Major Change

“Dean Dad” Matt Reed has responded to my rebuttal to him Tuesday, and I appreciate his engaging me in discussion. His main point now: The student loan default problem is not mainly about big total debts, but smaller debts that are hard to pay off because the students dropped out before getting a degree.

I agree. Indeed, that was pretty much the point of my Wall Street Journal article that kicked off the exchange. As I wrote:

Many dropouts have loans, which are much harder to repay when one fails to finish, or gets a worthless degree. Borrowers on the academic margins, who often attend community colleges and for-profit schools, likely struggle the most to repay even though their debts tend to be relatively small. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 34% of borrowers with debts between $1,000 and $5,000 defaulted, versus only 18% with debts in excess of $100,000, a level of debt associated with advanced degrees.

Where the confusion might lie is that I thought in his response to me Reed was suggesting that a major problem for anyone coming out of community college was that the minimum wage was too low and, connected to that, so were the wages of entry-level jobs. This was based on the following:

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back? Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage. 

Knowing that Reed did not mean to include graduates among “former students” makes his comments about low wages less alarming. Still, his solution – raise low wages instead of requiring evidence of college readiness – seems a broad, slow, and dubious way to deal with the debt problem. “Broad” because it calls for, essentially, overhauling a huge part of the economy as opposed to specifically reforming students loans; “slow” because doing that would take a pretty long time; and “dubious” because there is a lot of evidence that raising the minimum wage has substantial negative effects.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Reed calls for “free (or much less expensive) community college.”

Free community college would probably solve the problem of community college noncompleters leaving with debt, depending on how one accounted for living expenses, but it comes with its own set of troubles. The first is that we would likely still have lots of people not finishing, only the costs would be borne more by taxpayers and less by students. The second is that, unless “free” were somehow focused on the poor, you would have taxpayers subsidizing well-to-do people. Recent data show about 39 percent of dependent undergraduate students at community colleges, and about 54 percent of independent students, are from the upper half of the income distribution.  About 16 and 28 percent are from the highest income quartile. Then there is the question of how to pay for this, especially if making it free leads to even more people enrolling. And will community colleges be able to handle all of the new students, or will they have to ration spots? What will encourage students to complete their studies as quickly as possible?

Is It Really “Offensive” to Say Don’t Saddle People with Bad Debt?

“Dean Dad” is angry with me. A blogger for Inside Higher Ed and a community college dean, Matt Reed found my argument in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that the federal government should stop giving student loans to people without regard to their demonstrated ability to do college-level work “as offensive an argument as I’ve seen in major media in a long, long time.”

As I wrote in my piece, I absolutely understand the impetus to give anyone who wants it access to college. Apparently, though, you must be utterly heartless to say maybe we should be concerned about the unintended consequences of related policies, which we see with throngs of unprepared people entering college and never finishing, many with loans they struggle to pay off because they don’t have the necessary credentials to increase their earnings.

Mr. Reed thinks that my view is about “getting tough on the poor and badly prepared.” I suppose that’s one way to spin it. But it is not really about “getting tough” with anyone – it is about first doing no harm by providing an external check on people’s potentially damaging borrowing plans. And it is not about “targeting” the poor or anyone else, but protecting the unprepared. Of course, the poor are disproportionately the ones who are inadequately prepared, and that is something we need to deal with. As I wrote, though, that is something we should do at the K-12 level, not compound the problem with debt and no degree.

Reed next delves a bit into caricature, stating, “When someone in the Wall Street Journal suggests getting tough with the poor for their own good, it is worth asking some questions.”  I’d say it’s worth asking questions whenever people propose things in any outlet, but I would also suggest we assume people have good motives. I don’t doubt that Dean Dad has fine motives – he no doubt does work he finds morally fulfilling – but if he is going to suggest extra suspicion of me because I wrote in the Journal, it is perhaps worth a reminder that he is a community college officer, writing in a higher education outlet, calling, among other things, for more money to go to community colleges.

Debating the Impact of Regulations on School Choice

Over at the Brookings Institution’s education blog, Paul Bruno offers a thoughtful critique of Overregulation Theory (OT), the idea that government regulations on school choice programs can undermine their positive effects. Bruno argues that although OT is “one of the most plausible explanations” of the negative results that two studies of Louisiana’s voucher program recently found, it is not “entirely consistent with the available evidence” and “does not by itself explain substantial negative effects from vouchers.”

I agree with Bruno–and have stated repeatedly–that the studies’ findings do not conclusively prove OT. That said, I believe both that OT is consistent with the available evidence and that it could explain the substantial negative effects (though I think it’s likely there are other factors at play as well). I’ll explain why below, but first, a shameless plug:

On Friday, March 4th at noon, the Cato Institute will be hosting a debate over the impact of regulations on school choice programs featuring Patrick Wolf, Douglas Harris, Michael Petrilli, and yours truly, moderated by Cato’s own Neal McCluskey. If you’re in the D.C. area, please RSVP at this link and join us! Come for the policy discussion, stay for the sponsored lunch!

More Mixed Results from Louisiana’s Highly Regulated Voucher Program

New research on Louisiana’s voucher program revealed mixed resultsYesterday, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (Tulane University) and the School Choice Demonstration Project (the University of Arkansas) released four new reports examining the Louisiana Scholarship Program’s impact on participating students’ test performance and non-cognitive skills, level of racial segregation statewide, and the effect of competition on district-school students. Here are the key findings:

  • Students who use the voucher to enroll in private schools end up with much lower math achievement than they would have otherwise, losing as much as 13 percentile points on the state standardized test, after two years. Reading outcomes are also lower for voucher users, although these are not statistically different from the experimental control group in the second year.
  • There is no evidence that the Louisiana Scholarship Program has positive or negative effects on students’ non-cognitive skills, such as “grit” and political tolerance.
  • The program reduced the level of racial segregation in the state. The vast majority of the recipients are black students who left schools with student populations that were disproportionally black relative to the broader community and moved to private schools that had somewhat larger white populations.
  • The program may have modestly increased academic performance in public schools, consistent with the theory behind school vouchers that they create competition between public and private schools that “lifts all boats.” [Emphasis added.]

The positive impact on racial integration and evidence that competition improved district-school student performance are both positive signs, but the significant negative impact on the performance of participating students is troubling. (Ironically, the evidence suggests that the voucher program may have improved the performance of non-voucher students more than the voucher students.) That said, although the impact on student performance is negative, the second year results show improvement over the first year. 

How Teachers Can Earn Millions

Last year, the comedy duo Key & Peele’s TeachingCenter sketch imagined what it would be like if teachers were treated like pro-athletes, earning millions, being drafted in widely televised events, and starring in car commercials. We’re not likely to see the latter two anytime soon, but some teachers are already earning seven figures.


The Key & Peele sketch inspired think pieces arguing that K-12 teachers should be paid more, but without making any fundamental changes to the existing system. Matt Barnum at The Seventy-Four brilliantly satirized this view in calling for pro-athletes to be treated more like teachers: stop judging teams based on wins or players based on points scored, eliminate performance pay in favor of seniority pay, and get rid of profits.