Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Problem with Betting on Every Horse

Dick Komer of the Institute for Justice takes issue today with a recent series of NRO op-eds by Cato’s Adam Schaeffer. I’m sure Adam will want to address some of the legal niceties he raised, so I’m going to restrict myself to explaining why Dick and I see the big picture on school choice policy very differently.

Dick’s position, which is the norm in the school choice movement, is captured by the title of his piece: “Educational Freedom by Every Means Available.” Dick argues that it is “unnecessary” and “premature” to favor some school choice policies over others. I disagree, and here’s why:

Like parents saving for their kids’ college years, advocates of educational freedom have limited resources. And like those parents, we have many different investment options — with different returns and different levels of security. What the “any choice is a good choice” mantra implies is that we should be indiscriminate in the way we invest — that we simply don’t know enough to prefer one school choice policy over another.

That is not the case. In modern times, international experiences with various forms of school choice date back nearly a century. Other relevant precedents in comparative school governance reach back millennia. There is enough evidence – both qualitative and quantitative – to compare our policy options and determine which are most likely to yield real, lasting dividends, and which have serious and as yet unresolved problems. Because that evidence exists, I see it as my duty as a policy scholar to study it and to make recommendations based on it; just as it is the duty of investment advisors to counsel parents on the most suitable investment options for their own children’s futures. If I did anything less I would consider myself guilty of professional malpractice.

Dick is right that states differ and that the legal impediments to vouchers vary among them. In some states, the legal barriers to enacting vouchers appear to be no higher than those to enacting tax credits. But legal barriers to passage are only one of the many respects in which vouchers are more problematic than education tax credits. The central difference between the policies – that vouchers are public funds while non-refundable tax credits are not – leads to a host of substantive differences in their desirability.

As I have already argued at length, and as Adam will argue in a forthcoming policy analysis, the use of government funding has caused existing voucher programs to begin their lives with much more intrusive regulations on participating schools. Direct parent funding is also associated, in the econometric literature, with greater school efficiency and responsiveness to the demands of families. The compulsion of all taxpayers to fund every kind of government approved voucher school also creates social tension over which sorts of schools will be approved, and adds an incentive for interest groups to lobby to exclude types of schooling they find objectionable. Tax credits provide taxpayers with the freedom to direct their educational funding as they see fit, alleviating this problem. Adam has also pointed to polling data and developed political arguments and evidence suggesting that tax credits are more popular with voters and more likely to mobilize constituencies for their long term preservation and expansion.

Finally, Dick is mistaken if he believes that Adam or I want to permanently and universally foreclose on the voucher option. We wouldn’t even if we could. We respect individual freedom, the marketplace of ideas and the laboratory of federalism. States will pursue different school choice policies and will learn from each others’ experiences. But, given the wealth of existing evidence comparing alternative school governance and funding arrangements, we feel it is counterproductive for the school choice movement not to focus its resources where they can best be invested. Betting on every horse, including the ones that you can see limping around the paddock before the start, is no way to invest for the future of American children.

Charter Trade-offs … Is Public Choice Killing Private Schools?

Typically, charter schools are lumped together with the movement for private school choice, but there is increasing evidence that charter schools hurt private schools and may close off the path to educational freedom.

The Washington Post reported this weekend that Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl is proposing to convert 8 of the 12 inner-city Catholic schools known as the Center City Consortium into secular charter schools:

Soon after he arrived in the District in June 2006, Wuerl said he heard from Catholic education officials that the inner-city schools were no longer financially viable. Part of the reason was that many poor families were choosing charter schools, which are free.

“One by one, families left to go to charters … and it was a kind of steady drifting away,” said Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, whose parish school, which dates to the 1920s, would be converted to a charter.

The charter school drain on private school enrollment is not limited to DC. A 2006 report from the National Charter School Research Project, for instance, finds that 20 percent of Michigan charter school students came from private schools.

These results should come as no surprise. Private schools struggle under a massive disadvantage compared with government schools; they have about half the public sector’s per pupil revenue and parents have to pay tuition on top of taxes for the government system. That’s a high hurdle to clear to attract customers.

The big advantages they have are diversity in curriculum and mission and freedom from the counter-productive regulations that often bog down government schools. And because they operate at such a financial disadvantage to government schools, private schools need to make sure they offer something parents can’t get from their state-run counterparts.

Charter schools add significantly to the disadvantages of private schools; charters get most of the higher funding that regular government schools do, but for now, at least, more autonomy and freedom to diversify. In the long term, there is no reason to believe that charter schools will not succumb to the same regulatory ratchet effect that has hamstrung the public schools. The local public schools of the late 1800s had more autonomy than charter schools do today – and look what happened to them….

Supporters of educational freedom – the freedom to choose the best option, whether public, independent, or religious – need to carefully consider the serious trade-offs involved when supporting charter school policies. If they don’t, they may be looking at a 99% government school monopoly in 20 years time, instead of the 90% monopoly that exists today.

Suspicious Standards

The primary belief underlying the No Child Left Behind Act – and much state-driven education reform – is that if governments set academic standards and then test students’ mastery of them, policymakers, parents, and the public will have the information they need to see how schools are doing and act on it. As Andrew Coulson and I explain in a new report on NCLB, however, that’s not how the belief has worked out in practice. Instead, most states have set low standards or used trickery to identify kids as “proficient” in math and reading when they’re really no such thing.

A report in the New York Daily News offers an interesting insight into one way by which such standards sliding can and has occurred, maybe intentionally, maybe not:

When test scores rise, politicians crow that schools are getting better, but a Daily News analysis of recent standardized math exams and a News experiment suggest another reason: The questions might be getting easier.

The News obtained technical details on high-stakes math tests given to fourth-graders across the state over the past six years and found that in every year when scores went up, testmakers had identified the questions as easier during pretest trials.

In years when scores were lower, pretest trials showed the questions were harder.

“That’s pretty strong evidence that something is just not right with the test,” said New York University Prof. Robert Tobias, who ran the Board of Education’s testing department for 13 years.

“If this were a single year’s data or two years’ data, I would say it would be inappropriate to make conclusions,” Tobias said. “But with the pattern over time …that’s prima facie evidence that something’s not right.”

Pretty Bad News in Higher Ed

First, the good news: Yesterday, a congressional conference committee passed legislation that would cut subsidies to lenders participating in federal student loan programs. Terrific! Lenders – especially Sallie Mae, the federally spawned queen of student loans – deserve no taxpayer-furnished profit, and this bill would get us a little closer to that ideal.

Unfortunately, the good news ends there. Only a measly $750 million out of about $22 billion in subsidy cuts would go to the taxpayers who have been forced to enrich lenders for decades – and that will be in the always-questionable from of “deficit reduction” – and the rest will be transferred to the other group on whom taxpayers have long been forced to lavish money through federal aid: students. The bill would cut interest rates on subsidized federal loans, for instance, from 6.8 percent to a minute 3.4 percent over four years; boost Pell Grants from the current maximum of $4,310 to at least $5,400 by 2012; and forgive loans after ten years of making payments for people in “public service” jobs ranging from firemen to prosecutors. And, in the end, the big lenders like Sallie Mae will probably be just fine, because the bill would institute an auction system in which lenders would bid for control over federal loans, giving the big guys huge advantages over little banks and lenders.

Student advocates are, of course, pleased as punch with all this, especially over at the New America Foundation, where for months they’ve been leading the charge against private lenders and for this auction scheme. Ironically, they partly hailed the compromise on the grounds that the auction would use “market forces to set student loan subsidy rates.” This, of course, begs the question: How can you love an auction because it supposedly uses market forces, while simultaneously supporting the gargantuan market distortion that is the overall federal student aid system? Unfortunately, the only possible answers seem to be that (a) you are a politician intent on bribing the college-going population and their parents to vote for you, (b) you are confused about how a real market works, (c) you work in academia and know that the more the government shells out, the better your life will be, or (d) all of the above.

Unfortunately, this legislation seems likely to be signed by president, and if it is, you can ultimately chalk it up to (d) being the answer in Washington.

Arguing Over the Emperor’s New Clothes

According to Alexander Russo at the Ed Week blog, Representative George Miller, chairman of the House education committee, has been going at it with Ed. Sec. Margaret Spellings over his proposed revisions to the No Child Left Behind act. Miller is quoted as saying that Spellings’ criticism that his revisions would “muck up accountability” are ”hokum.” This is very much like two members of the imperial court arguing over whether “the emperor’s new clothes” are fab or fugly. In order for NCLB to be “muck-uppable” it would have to be doing something useful to begin with. It isn’t. As Neal McCluskey and I document in our new study released today, NCLB has failed to fulfill its goals.

The Left Is Half Right on NCLB

Over at the popular leftish blog Crooks and Liars, Bluegal laments the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this month. The nearly 100 comments on her post overwhelmingly echo her negative views. Nevertheless, it seems that she, her commenters, and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress want the law reauthorized. Why?

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that NCLB is only the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has been directing federal tax dollars to public schools since 1965. Leftish critics of No Child want to dilute or repeal most of the testing requirements introduced to the law in 2002, while increasing its funding. They believe that the testing provisions of NCLB are ineffective and likely harmful, but that federal spending is good for American education so long as it is not narrowly channeled into high-stakes testing. They’re half right.

As Neal McCluskey and I demonstrate in our new NCLB study (which we’ll be releasing on the Hill tomorrow), the evidence shows that the law’s testing and teacher qualification regimes have failed to improve achievement or narrow the gaps between groups. So the left’s skepticism on this point is justified. But the left-liberal goal of securing higher federal spending without bureaucratic “accountability” is both unattainable and undesirable.

A perennial blind spot of both major political parties is that they love to seize new powers and revenue streams while they’re in office, failing to realize that those same powers and dollars will inevitably fall into the hands of their ideological opponents. The Democrats gave us ESEA, and the Republicans eventually turned it into NCLB. As long as Republicans are elected they will try to hold schools bureaucratically “accountable” for the federal funding they receive – particularly given that real federal per pupil education spending has risen by a factor of 18 or so since the ESEA was passed in 1965. So even if the left manages to enact a “hands off but wallet open” version of NCLB this fall, it will live a short policy life, succumbing again to federal testing/performance mandates the next time Republicans control Congress.

For the sake of argument, though, would it do any good if it were a realistic long-term goal? Since it took Republicans a long time to get around to imposing the testing standards of NCLB, we actually have nearly four decades of experience with the ESEA with which to answer that question. Did higher spending translate into higher achievement? No. Federal spending went from about $50 per student in 1965 to nearly $900 per student in 2003-04. Total per pupil spending doubled to more than $11,000 over the same period. But at the end of their public schooling careers, students perform no better in reading and math today than they did nearly four decades ago. They’ve actually gotten worse in science (data from the Long Term Trends studies of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for 17 year-olds).

If liberals want to stop Washington from meddling in the classroom, as most claim, there is only one way to go about it: stop collecting and spending federal tax dollars on it. So long as American schools are beholden to the federal purse, they will be puppets on the end of federal purse strings – strings held, on a recurring basis, by Republicans.