Topic: Education and Child Policy

How Schooling Affects Culture

Cato’s Brink Lindsey has a good essay in today’s WSJ on how cultural differences between communities (from child-rearing to views and expectations on education) widen America’s socioeconomic gap. The one point where I diverge from Brink is that I am far more sanguine about the feasibility of reducing the cultural gaps that exacerbate the socioeconomic gap. The key is to understand that our educational institutions actually shape our culture.

Our monopoly school system has gradually marginalized parents, removing from them any significant responsibility for deciding where, what, how, when, and by whom their children are taught. This usurpation of traditional parental responsibilities has not only facilitated but fomented an unprecedented level of disengagement from their children’s education. Responsibilities breed responsibility. Powerlessness breeds apathy and disengagement.

When parents are actively involved in choosing their children’s schools, and when they have some measure of financial responsibility for their children’s education, they take a more active role, they are more satisfied with their children’s education, and their children’s achievement and attainment goes up. The most dramatic findings come from the areas most in need of improvement: our inner cities. University of Chicago economist Derek Neal has shown that urban black students attending Catholic schools are far more likely to graduate from high-school, be accepted to college, and graduate from college than similar students who attend government schools. That and other relevant research is digested and linked to here.

Replacing our dependency-producing school monopoly with a free education market that requires all parents to choose their children’s schools, and requires all parents to contribute something to the cost of their own children’s education (in kind rather than cash, where necessary), would not simply minimize the damage done by America’s culture gap. It would significantly shrink that gap, because it would compel parents to once again take a more active role in their children’s education. “Free” monopoly schooling isn’t merely inefficient, it is socially destructive.

Good Whippin’, Lost Teaching Opportunity

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has a great piece today on the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Democratic Party-line on education. Here’s a taste:

The litany of more and more when it comes to money often has little to do with what, in the military, are called facts on the ground: kids and parents. It does have a lot to do with teachers unions, which are strong supporters of the Democratic Party. Not a single candidate offered anything remotely close to a call for real reform. Instead, a member of the audience could reasonably conclude that if only more money was allocated to these woe-is-me school systems, things would right themselves overnight.

He rightly lambastes them for offering more money as their only solution … if $16,000 in DC is not enough, what is? 

And he is correct to focus on the important role that parents play in a child’s education. 

But it’s disappointing that Cohen neglects to mention the one and only solution that actually allows parents to take charge of their child’s education: school choice. 

The education-industrial complex, Big Ed, controls the system and places a brick wall of government-school bureaucracy in the way of parents who want to be involved. Cohen’s and Obama’s call for more parental involvement ring just a wee bit hollow when the government education system is specifically designed to exclude the voices of parents and taxpayers and to dance only to Big Ed’s tune. 

School choice empowers parents, encouraging their involvement in education and making certain that their voices will be heard.   

Cohen would do well to follow his great criticism of the absence of real solutions among the Democratic presidential nominees with an explanation of the only real solution left.

Compulsion: The Only Tool for the Job?

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on race-based student assignment programs is pretty clear: public school districts cannot simply use racial balance targets to determine where children will go to school.

A key point in the ruling is that districts must exhaust racially neutral means of achieving their diversity and minority achievement goals before race-based student assignment can even be contemplated. In both cases before the court, the districts failed to do that.

This central point of the ruling apparently escaped CNN judicial analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who made the following statement in a live interview: “the school districts were told they couldn’t integrate their schools.”

Live TV is an unforgiving medium, especially when covering breaking news, so it’s not entirely clear that this is what Toobin meant to say. What is clear is that it is 100% nonsense.

Integration is a goal. There are many possible ways of achieving it besides government compulsion. As I pointed out in a blog post on Thursday afternoon, it can in fact be much better achieved through voluntary school choice programs that make both public and private schools financially viable options for all families. Summaries of some of the relevant studies, along with links to the full text in several cases, can be found here.

SCOTUS: Public Schools May Not Be Overtly Racist

In a 4 + 1/2 to 4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down today the race-based public school student assignment programs in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky.

Both districts had argued that assigning students to schools based on race was necessary to ensure diversity and improve achievement among minority students. The ruling majority – the Court’s four conservatives plus Anthony Kennedy – said they failed to make that case.

The reason it was a 4.5 to 4 verdict, and not a vanilla 5 to 4, is that Kennedy hedged his bets, subscribing only to part of the majority’s opinion. Kennedy diverged from the conservatives in maintaining that race could theoretically be used for some purposes under some circumstances, and even suggested a few examples. None of them, however, were much like the racial assignment programs at issue in this case.

Pundits may make a big deal out of Kennedy’s “dissentagreement” (tm), but so far many seem to be missing one of its crucial elements. He, like the conservatives, believes that a district needs to prove there is no racially neutral way of advancing the goals of diversity and minority student achievement before they can start moving black and white faces around like pawns on a chessboard.

And you know what? There IS a racially neutral alternative: school choice.

I went through the key relevant evidence on this when oral arguments were heard. The same still applies. A good school choice program including public and private schools would improve residential integration, increase meaningful integration within schools, improve minority student achievement, and improve minority student attainment (i.e., highest level of education achieved). All that in a racially neutral program that benefits all students. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too much longer for policymakers to realize this, for kids’ sake.

Government Makes Things Worse, Not Better

In this column, John Stossel eviscerates David Brooks, the ostensibly conservative columnist for the New York Times. Brooks has argued for big new government initiatives to boost human capital. Stossel correctly explains, though, that Brooks wants to expand failed government programs when the right approach is to move in the other direction:

David Brooks is a bright guy, so I wonder how he can blame the free market for failing in this way. He continues, “Despite all the incentives, 30 percent of kids drop out of high school and the college graduation rate has been flat for a generation.” Excuse me, but why is that the market’s fault? Government dominates education in America. K-12 education is a coercive, often rigidly unionized government virtual monopoly that fights every attempt to experiment with free-market competition. Brooks writes that Hamiltonians like him “think government should help people get the tools they need to compete.” But when has government ever been good at that? He claims the state can “increase the quality of human capital” by, for example, providing “Quality preschool [to] help young children from … disorganized homes. … ” Really? What is the chance that it would be “quality” preschool if government runs it? Even the acclaimed Head Start has not been shown to have any lasting effect on academic performance. …When I asked Brooks why a government that performed as ineptly as FEMA did after Hurricane Katrina will be better at running preschools, he said, “Some lives are so screwed up, it’s hard to make them worse.” Government coercion almost always makes things worse. It discourages individual effort, and sucks capital away from more productive uses. …America became an economic power despite, not because of, Hamiltonian intervention. Hong Kong and much of East Asia went from abject poverty to affluence in a few decades not because their governments gave people “tools they need to compete” – they didn’t – but because they exercised limited powers.

Deja-vu All Over Again

The Wall Street Journal reports today (subscription barrier) that Philadelphia’s experiment with contracting out the operation of public schools to private providers is in jeopardy. Despite showing improvement since the contracting arrangement was introduced six years ago, a budget crunch is now being used as an excuse by district officials to demand that the program be shut down.

This is EXACTLY what happened to the school management firm Education Alternatives Inc. in Baltimore during the early 1990s. EAI was awarded a contract to run some of the city’s schools, the city subsequently spent itself into insolvency, refused to pay EAI what it was owed, and unilaterally cancelled its contract. I wrote about it all here.

For both practical and political reasons, contracting arrangements like these are dramatically inferior to real market reforms like universal education tax credits or school vouchers. Under these arrangements, schools are still bound by districts’ collective bargaining agreements, and sometimes even remain employees of their districts rather than of the private management firms. Students often continue to be assigned to schools based on their place of residence, rather than having a choice, so instead of creating an educational marketplace these programs simply subcontract the existing monopoly.

Politically, such programs are under constant threat of termination on the slightest pretext – usually budgetary as in the cases mentioned above. For any school choice program to create real, lasting market forces, funding has to be attached to the children and not pass through political or bureaucratic hands before making it to schools. The ideal such program is a tax credit (see link above) that avoids having education funds collected by the state in the first place, while still ensuring universal access to the marketplace.

Voucher Use in Washington Wins Praise of Parents

 The headline for the New York Times article on the first review of the D.C. voucher program (summary, full report) is the headline I use here for this post. I’m pleasantly surprised, I have to say.

The NYT lead paragraph was almost correct as well, losing marks for lack of context. It mentions that parents who can choose a school for their children are much more satisfied, and that the choice students did not have consistently statistically significant academic gains. 

The vital context for this is that treatment effects from major education changes just aren’t expected in the first year. The NYT unfortunately also repeats the false claim that the evidence on voucher effects is not consistent. 

All scientific assessments of choice programs show positive gains, and nearly all of those studies show statistically significant gains. But it takes some time to get results, especially after a switch in schools that can be disruptive in various ways in the short-term. We have plenty of evidence that school choice improves student performance, and improves government schools as well.

The real news here is the immediate and very significant improvement in parental satisfaction across the board. The Washington Post, of course, buries the real news 14 paragraphs into the story.

In the one effect that should be expected in the first year, the voucher program has been a wild success. But that’s not the line the Post is helping school choice opponents push.

The Post prints a headline today that’s a lesson in how to slant the news while appearing on the surface to remain neutral. Here’s their headline: “Voucher Students Show Few Gains in First Year.” No one expected them to! Again, studies show choice has an effect, but it’s not magic fairy dust that makes students savants after the average of seven months they spent at a new school. And the numbers involved in this tiny program are, well, tiny. 

But the subtitle is the kicker, and combined it’s a despicable exercise in political activism masquerading as journalism; “D.C. Results Typical, Federal Study Says.” Here’s the trick; suggest, falsely, that it’s newsworthy that vouchers don’t immediately and massively increase student achievement, then suggest that choice programs typically don’t lead to improvements.

Chairman of the House education committee, George Miller (D-Calif.), echoed the Post and the NYT in a statement: “This report offers even more proof that private school vouchers won’t improve student achievement and are nothing more than a tired political gimmick.”

Miller should be ashamed of himself. And so should the education reporters who fail to give their readers context and crucial facts.

The D.C. voucher program is a life-line for low-income children. It’s sad to see their hometown paper helping handmaidens for the education-industrial complex in Congress try to cut that line to a better future.