Topic: Education and Child Policy

India’s CCS on School Choice

The Centre for Civil Society’s Raj Cherubal has an insightful post on the difference between bureaucratic “accountability” and real market accountability in education. He caps it off by pointing out the merits of education tax credits as a tool for providing universal access to the education marketplace.

If the poor have access to the money that the tax payers set aside to help the poor, they can use that money to access far better services that the private sector is able to provide. Instead of funding government services with taxes, empower the poor with it.

(What if the tax payer could give the money directly to the poor person and get a tax credit? No need to send it to the government and then redirect it to the poor with all the leaks in the system. Pay government for the services like defence that government is supposed to do.)

Today, I have choice. You, if you are poor, have none. Soon, thanks to the growing school choice movement in India, this will not be the case.

If the Centre’s national campaign for school choice really gains traction, the 21st century will belong to India. (Hat tip to Kuffir at Blogbharti.)

NCLB: What a Mess

Only two days after a fatally flawed but positive report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) inspired No Child Left Behind (NCLB) fans to declare NCLB a success, two new analyses have come out showing that far from being a triumph, the law has mainly produced just two things: confusion and deception.

The first report comes from the Gannett News Service (GNS), which compared results on state tests to scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading exams. What GNS found is that in many states far more students reach “proficiency” on state reading and math tests – the only ones that “count” for NCLB – than on NAEP. This strongly suggests that states are setting low proficiency bars, probably in order to stay out of trouble under the law.

The second analysis comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). IES’s report makes similar comparisons to GNS, but with more statistical rigor. Essentially, it equates scores on state tests in schools that administered NAEP with those schools’ NAEP results. (NAEP is based on representative sampling of schools and students rather than giving tests to every student in every school). What the analysis reveals is that most states’ “proficient” levels are equivalent to NAEP’s “basic” designation. That is, except in 4th-grade reading, where most state proficiency levels are actually below NAEP’s basic level.

The results of these studies, taken in conjunction with the cavernous data holes and inconsistencies in CEP’s report, make clear that no reasonable conclusions about NCLB’s effectiveness can be drawn using state test scores. Unfortunately, no proof of the law’s effectiveness can be drawn from NAEP, either. As the CEP folks noted in their report, so many reforms have been implemented simultaneously with NCLB that no one could ever tease out which initiative is responsible for which changes in achievement. NAEP is, though, a much more consistent measure than state tests. Unfortunately for NCLB fans, its results have not been too encouraging.

Perhaps one slightly heartening outcome from today’s news is that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who ordinarily seems to declare almost any education news proof that NCLB is working, tempered her rhetoric a bit.

This report offers sobering news that serious work remains to ensure that our schools are teaching students to the highest possible standards. States have made significant strides under No Child Left Behind to close our nation’s achievement gap, as evidenced by the Center on Education Policy study released earlier this week. But today’s report finds that many states’ assessment standards do not measure up to the rigorous standards of The Nation’s Report Card.

Unfortunately, the slight uptick in NCLB sanity coming from Spellings was cancelled out by at least one federal standards advocate, who took advantage of the results to plug his favorite reform. According to the New York Times, after Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation acknowledged that “parents and communities in too many states are being told not to worry, all is well, when their students are far behind,” he went on to conclude that “we don’t need a national curriculum, but we certainly should have national standards for reading and math.”

Of course! We know that state and local politicians are self-serving jerks who will set low standards to keep themselves out of hot water even if it hurts kids, but federal politicians are as pure as the driven snow, and were they able to set standards they’d set them as high as possible, let the political chips fall where they may.

Right.

It’s just this kind of baseless assumption about Washington goodness that got us into this filthy NCLB mess to begin with.

Is NCLB Working? This Sure Doesn’t Tell Us

Yesterday the Center on Education Policy (CEP), a DC-based think tank, released a report that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings declared “confirms that No Child Left Behind has struck a chord of success with our nation’s schools and students….We know that the law is working.”

Not to rain on the secretary’s parade, but the CEP study doesn’t even come close to confirming that NCLB is working. In fact, once the authors took into account data limitations and the myriad changes that states had made to their standards and testing programs since passage of NCLB, they had usable pre- and post-NCLB achievement data – which is essential for getting any idea if NCLB is working – for only 13 states, and were able to make complete analyses for only seven. In addition, the authors noted that:

We cannot say to what extent test scores have gone up because of NCLB. It is always difficult to tease out a cause-and-effect relationship between test score trends and any specific education policy or program. With all the federal, state, and local reforms that have been implemented simultaneously since 2002, it becomes nearly impossible to sort out which policy or combination of policies is responsible for test score gains, and to what degree.

So Spellings declared a report in which the authors were only able to get complete data for seven states, and made quite clear that their findings are absolutely not proof that NCLB is working, as confirmation that the law is working.

Feel like you’ve heard this before?

Of course you do, because this has been the standard Bush administration response to almost any news in education since NCLB was passed. Either new studies or achievement results have been proof that the law is working, or proof that we need to expand the law. But as I and others have pointed out numerous times, the best, most straightforward evidence that we have about NCLB suggests that the law is not working. The National Assessment of Educational Progress – which evaluates American students on consistent tests, not the constantly changing and gamed state assessments driven by NCLB – has shown stagnant or dropping reading scores in the period covered by NCLB, and slowing growth in math scores.

Now, just as the CEP findings are far from proof that NCLB is working, the NAEP scores aren’t proof that NCLB is a failure. They are, however, clear evidence that no one who is even remotely objective could say that NCLB is a proven success. Yet the U.S. Secretary of Education has repeatedly been doing exactly that.

And people wonder why, when given the opportunity, so many parents jump at the chance to leave government schools behind.

Bee Sensible

The Quick and the Ed’s Sara Mead responds to my post on the dramatic showing of homeschoolers at the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee. She writes:

But here’s an interesting thing: Evan O’Dorney, the Bee’s top finisher, who [sic] Coulson refers to as a “home schooler,” is actually a student of Venture School, a public alternative school run by the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. While most of students’ learning is independent and/or home-based, they attend the school in person and meet with the public school’s teachers weekly, and also take state accountability assessments like other California public school students.

And the fallacy for today is: false dichotomy.

While Mead attempts to create an either/or distinction between homeschooling and the home study program of Venture school, she is mistaken. There are four legal avenues for homeschooling in the state of California. One of them is to be associated with a public school home study program. Evan is not a “public school student” in the normal sense of that term. He is, as a local paper points out: “homeschooled by his mother Jennifer through Venture School.”

I had a nice conversation with Jim O’Brien, the Venture School official who liaises with the O’Dorneys. They meet about once every other week (not every week, as Mead asserts). He is available to consult with the family, but is not Evan’s teacher in the conventional sense of that word. Evan’s mother is his teacher. Mr. O’Brien himself describes Evan as homeschooled.

Mead also misrepresents the significance of homeschoolers’ showings in academic competitions. These showings are not based on “a few outliers” as she claims. In competition after competition, year after year, homeschoolers are overrepresented in the top spots. As I noted, public school students outnumber homeschoolers 40 to 1, but, in the 2007 Scripps Spelling Bee, U.S. public school students captured only 5 of the top slots – the same number as homeschoolers.

Perhaps public schools are teeming with brilliant spellers who mysteriously decided to stay away from the competition in droves. Again. Or maybe it has something to do with the educational freedom homeschoolers enjoy….

Homeschoolers certainly “enjoy” far less of the vaunted ”public accountability” Mead touts than do conventional public school children. Though Evan O’Dorney is registered through a public school, a great many homeschoolers are not. And yet, somehow, they manage to get by pretty well. Why, it’s almost as if this “public accountability” thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

Bee Naturals

A home schooler, 13-year-old Evan O’Dorney, is once again the winner of the Scripps National [sic] Spelling Bee. In fact, home schoolers took fully one third of the top 15 spots in the Bee, utterly out of proportion with their share (about 1/40th) of the U.S. student population. Another two spots were taken by private school students, and three were taken by Canadian public school students (hence the “sic,” above — we’ve yet to anschluss the Canucks so far as I can recall).

That left five spots for U.S. public school students — the same number taken by home schoolers whom they outnumber by 50 million or so kids. And it isn’t as though the homeschoolers are fabulously wealthy and able to hire special tutors. The winner’s father is a subway train operator and his mother oversees his education.

Homeschoolers excel in such competitions because they enjoy more educational freedom than any other category of learner. They can pursue their interests and competitive drives (spelling isn’t even O’Dorney’s favorite subject) without being constrained by the pace of a classroom targeted at the “average” student — a pace that must be, by definition, too fast or too slow for the majority.

Private school students — whose showing was also disproportionately good for their share of the population — also have more educational freedom than those in public schools because they and their parents have chosen their schools from a minimally regulated, though currently small, private sector.

Public school students have the least educational freedom because public schools are explicitly or implicitly constrained to offer a uniform education to their charges. Even when parents “choose” a public school by choosing the neighborhood in which they live, their educational “choices” are artificially homogenized.

Imagine what heights America could achieve if every family had the freedom to choose from among homeschooling, public schooling, independent schooling, or some combination of the three, without facing a financial penalty for doing so. It would be an easy thing to accomplish through a program of personal use and scholarship donation tax credits.

Reno 411

Mike Reno, a Michigan blogger and elected school board official, critiques my recent study of school district size and spending here. My 411 on his analysis:

His chief objection to the study is that I use per capita income as a proxy for a community’s level of demand for education. Mr. Reno “cannot agree that all wealthier communities have higher standards than less affluent communities.”

This is a non sequitur. The fact that income has been found to be strongly correlated with educational demand does not mean that all wealthier communities will have higher educational demand than all low income communities. It simply means that, on the whole, the correlation between the two is strong and positive. There are surely exceptions.

I use income per capita as my main proxy for a community’s demand for educational services because that has been the norm in econometric research on school district spending since such studies got going in the late 1950s. It is not, however, the only such proxy that I used. I also control for the share of the district’s population actually enrolled in public schools (which captures the extent to which community members and their relatives are personally affected by the system – and hence stand to gain from higher spending on it). In addition, I tested out a control variable which was an index of parental level of education, also commonly used as a proxy for educational demand (the more education you have, the higher your expectations for the education of your children).

As I explain in the paper, the coefficient for the public school enrollment per capita term is unexpectedly negative, and the parental level of education term was statistically insignificant and so dropped from the final model. Hence, after controlling for the other dozen or so variables in the model, no proxy for educational demand explains a substantial share of the variation in district spending, and one actually has a negative relationship to spending.

A second of Mr. Reno’s concerns is my observation that student achievement is not, on average, related to per-pupil spending, after controlling for other factors. He observes that spending can matter when the stars align and a public school district has efficient leadership. This is not an objection to the overall pattern. It simply illustrates that, on the whole, public school districts do not have efficient leadership. The lack of substantial correlation between public school spending and student achievement is a very well established research finding. In most cases, public schools are simply not efficient. As I explain in my paper, the evidence suggests a reason for that pattern: the current system provides incentives for public officials to spend as much as they can, and, on the whole, they apparently heed those incentives.

Mr. Reno’s final concern is that I do not deal with any systematic variation in the service mix offered by districts of varying size. Presumably, he is suggesting that larger districts are able to offer a wider range of services, and that this explains their somewhat higher spending. A key conclusion of my paper, however, is that size does not matter all that much in determining district spending. Realistically, breaking up large districts would reduce total spending by about 1 percent (that would be for a hypothetical savings of $200 million from district breakups, out of a budget of about $20 billion).

As I point out in the paper, what really determines district spending is the ease with which officials can raise per pupil revenues. The easier it is, the more they spend. Is it any wonder spending is out of control?

Of Tax Credits and Government Subsidies

Previously on Cato-at-Liberty, Michael Cannon (post 1, post 2) and Andrew Coulson (post 1, post 2) argued with Jason Furman (on health care) and Sara Mead (on education) about the nature of tax credits and tax breaks.

Furman and Mead claim that tax credits and breaks, because they represent forgone tax revenue, are little different than government subsidies (with a raft of implications). Cannon and Coulson (for various reasons) disagree.

The great “a-ha” moment of the discussion came when Mead pointed to Cato scholars’ criticism of ethanol tax credits as subsidies or “tax expenditures.” Even other Cato scholars agree that ‘tax credit’ equals ‘government subsidy,’ she says.

Surprisingly, up to this point, the argument has largely ignored the use of the credited money/forgone government revenue. I would argue the use of the credited money is fundamental to determining if the credit/tax break is a subsidy.

In the case of an education credit, it is true that government would lose revenue because of the credit. But government has also assumed the obligation to educate the nation’s children, and government would be released from that obligation in the case of the child whose schooling is funded by the credited money. Is the credit, thus, a subsidy?

Consider: If Joe owes his bank a $10 fee for its services and, instead of sending Joe a bill, the bank simply deducts that amount from his account, we wouldn’t describe Joe as subsidizing the bank (or the bank as subsidizing Joe). Likewise, if government has assumed the obligation to educate little Johnny, but instead Joe pays Johnny’s tuition and receives a government tax credit as a result, it seems incorrect to say that Joe has received a subsidy. Instead, just as with the bank and Joe, the education credit represents a net adjustment of Joe’s obligation to government and government’s obligation to little Johnny.

Now, there may be reasons why government should not make this adjustment, but those reasons would not include that the adjustment is a subsidy to Joe. The only subsidy in this system is government’s taking on the obligation to provide little Johnny with schooling — a subsidy that I assume Mead finds acceptable.

Parenthetical #1: I suppose there is one condition under which Joe’s education tax credit should be considered a subsidy: if government education expenditures aren’t about educating Johnny, but about providing jobs for unionized public school workers. Thus, Joe’s paying for Johnny’s tuition at a private school wouldn’t be fulfilling government’s intended obligation. But surely, no one thinks that government education policy is about benefiting unions and bureaucrats instead of educating kids, right?

Health care tax benefits (e.g., HSAs, tax deductions for medical expenses, the tax-free status of employer-provided medical coverage) are a murkier subject. There is no explicit government financial obligation to provide the entire nation with health care (though supporters of socialized medicine claim there should be such an obligation — and, I assume, they are intellectually consistent and support tax breaks and credits for the private provision of health care).

There are, however, legally established government obligations to provide health coverage to the poor (Medicaid, SCHIP, et al.), the elderly (Medicare, Medicaid, et al.) and to guarantee everyone access to care. It may be that the various medical tax credits and insurance tax breaks help government to fulfill those obligations at lower cost than other policies. If that is the case, then tax breaks and credits may be part of the optimal policy for fulfilling that obligation (and Furman would be arguing for a policy change detrimental to welfare).

Parenthetical #2: Full disclosure here — I’m of the camp that health care expenditures should be treated no differently, tax-wise, than other expenditures, and that government has no special a priori obligation to provide health care or health coverage.

Now, juxtapose the above two situations with ethanol tax credits and the other sorts of tax breaks that Cato scholars regularly decry. While there are legally established government obligations to provide schooling for children and health benefits to certain sub-groups of the population, there is (that I’m aware) no government obligation to provide American citizens with corn-based energy for transportation.

Parenthetical #3: I ignore the wacky claim that the U.S. government has an obligation to provide ”energy security” so the nation is protected from evil Canadian and Mexican oil sheiks.

This means that there is no government obligation that ethanol producers can fulfill privately, and thus receive a tax credit or tax break. The ethanol industry’s tax breaks and benefits are not simply “squaring accounts” in the manner as Joe, little Johnny, and the government. The ethanol tax benefits seem to be clear cases of government subsidy, and they should be criticized as such.

Where does this reasoning leave the discussion between Cannon and Coulson on the one hand, and Furman and Mead on the other? At the very least, it seems Coulson’s position is fully consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies. Further, given the premise that government has some special obligation to provide health care, Cannon’s position also seems consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies.

I am curious, though, whether the Left’s sudden concern over subsidies is consistent with positions they take on health care, education, and other policy areas….