Topic: Education and Child Policy

Dear Leo

Leo Casey, an award-winning teacher and a rep for the United Federation of Teachers, wrote a blog post today lamenting what he sees as cherry picking of studies by school choice advocates. Entirely apart from the validity of that claim, it bespeaks a desire on Mr. Casey’s part to look at the broadest possible array of relevant evidence. Good for him. I agree so strongly with his sentiment that I spent the last several months putting together the most comprehensive worldwide review of the evidence on public vs. private school outcomes to date, to be released in a few weeks (“Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence”). It collects and tabulates 115 statistical findings drawn from 55 separate studies conducted in over 20 nations.

Most of these findings favor private provision of education over government provision. But, of course, private schools differ quite a bit in levels of regulation and sources of funding from one nation to another. To address that complication, I included a tabulation that specifically compares the most market-like private school systems (minimal regulation and at least some parent funding) with typical monopoly government school systems. The results of this more meaningful breakdown of the evidence differ noticeably from the vague public vs. private comparison. I’ll wait to mention just how they differ until the study’s official release in early September.

When the study is released, I hope that Mr. Casey will have a look at it, and share his thoughts on its findings. While it is possible that I have missed a few studies here and there, it will be difficult to make the argument that I have cherry picked the studies to favor private schooling, since I include all the studies mentioned by Mr. Casey in his post.

Would Someone Puh-leaze Answer This Question?

About a month ago, I piggybacked on an Eduwonk post asking the critical question that lovers of national academic standards refuse to answer: Why would federal standards — especially with stakes attached — be any less politicized than those established by states or districts? To clarify this a bit, let me rephrase the question: Why would the teachers unions, public-school administrators associations, and education bureaucrats – with their huge presences in and around DC, their outsized political power compared to parents, and their overwhelming interest in low standards and high funding – have any less sway over the feds than they have over other levels of government?

Sadly, no national standards standard bearers have answered these questions, and the leaders of the charge keep on making undefended proclamations. Look no further than today’s Flypaper post by Michael Petrilli. At the same time he rightly calls out the Washington Post for failing to understand that “what’s sorely lacking in Washington isn’t ambition, but hubris,” he asserts that the feds “could… provide greater transparency about how schools are performing—yes, through…national standards and tests.”

To quote Charlie Brown as Lucy pulls the football away: “AAUGH!!!”

Could someone PLEASE answer the question: Why would the feds be any less susceptible to standards-dumbing/avoiding/destroying than any other level of government? Indeed, given Washington’s abysmal track record on education, why should any rational person conclude that the feds wouldn’t be more susceptible to special-interest domination? And while we’re at it, could someone explain why standards from any level of government wouldn’t be more influenced by teachers unions and the like than standards delivered by parent-controlled education dollars for which schools would have to compete?

For national-standards stalwarts it’s easier to just not address political reality. But please, humor me (and Eduwonk): Explain how Washington suddenly got so high above pernicious political powers that federal standards wouldn’t be dragged into the same-old, smothering, education mud.

Even Public School Teachers Support Education Tax Credits!

Neal McCluskey has some serious and valid complaints about the way the recent Education Next/Harvard PEPG survey asks about support for No Child Left Behind. But the survey also has some good questions about school choice and some great news about education tax credits.

I noted last year that their 2007 survey found 53 percent of current and former public school employees support education tax credits and only 25 percent oppose them.

This year, they report that a plurality, 46 percent of public school teachers, support education tax credits and just 41 percent oppose them. As for the general public, 54 percent support tax credits and only 28 percent oppose them.

More public school teachers support education tax credits than oppose them. That’s an amazing little fun-fact.

Pick a category – rich, poor, old, young, white, black, Hispanic, Democrat, Republican, or even public school employees – they all support education tax credits. And credits stand to save states billions of dollars.

Now that’s a winning issue for any politician.

Make that: “Even if We Bus Kids to Mars…”

In my last post I observed that U.S. public schools would save $100 billion annually if they returned to the staff/student ratio that existed in 1970, and that this would be more than enough to erase the budget crunches districts are facing due to higher fuel prices “unless we start busing kids to Mars.”

Well, I’m a tad embarassed to admit I was a little off. Assuming that one could actually drive to other planets, $100 billion would be more than enough to fuel a fleet of three school buses making round trips to Mars every day for the full school year. And the nation’s school districts would still have $13 billion in pocket change left over to cover their higher fuel bills here on Earth. (Numbers crunched below the fold).

Average distance to Mars 143,000,000.00 miles
Savings from 1970 student/staff ratio 100,000,000,000.00 dollars
Bus fuel economy 7.50 miles per gallon
Average price of diesel 4.21 dollars per gallon
Could buy this many gallons 23,752,969,121.14 gallons
Could drive this many miles 178,147,268,408.55 miles
Could make this many trips to Mars 1,245.79 trips
School years of one bus service 3.46 years (two trips per day, 180 school days)

Unless We Start Busing Kids to Mars…

We’ve all been told that school districts around the country are feeling the pinch from higher fuel costs. What’s never mentioned is that districts are supposedly suffering budget crunches despite spending more than twice as much – in real, inflation-adjusted dollars – as they did in 1970.

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, districts spent an average of $5,247 per pupil in 1970 (in 2008 dollars). Today, the average is about $12,000. How is it possible that districts could have trouble covering higher gas prices when they have an extra $6,500 to spend per pupil? One reason is that the public school bureaucracy has been doing what bureaucracies do best: growing. Since 1970, total public school employment has nearly doubled to over 6.1 million people, while total enrollment has increased by less than 9 percent. It is to support this army of new public school employees that taxpayers are being asked for more and more funding each year. If the public schools were to return to the student/staff ratio they had in 1970, they would have an extra $100 billion per year with which to fill the tanks of the nation’s school buses. And unless we start busing kids to Mars, that should probably cover it.

Of course, taxpayers might be willing to foot this lavish bill if the smaller class sizes and larger bureaucracies of recent years had led to improved student outcomes. They haven’t. Students at the end of high school score no better in reading and math today than they did in 1970, according to the Long Term Trends tests administered as part of the National Assessment of Education Progress. In science, their scores today are lower.

Taking a Poll…and Some Salt

It’s hard to care much about polls; they’re easily gamed, the questions are usually too narrow to give any real insight, and just because a majority thinks something doesn’t make it right. That said, a new poll from Education Next deserves a bit of comment.

First, I have to repeat a beef I had with last year’s Education Next survey: Why load the No Child Left Behind questions? While the pollsters attempted “survey experiments”—tinkering with question wording to see how it affected results—they just replaced “No Child Left Behind Act” with “federal legislation” in the experimental version of this question:

As you may know, the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not. This year, Congress is deciding whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act. What do you think Congress should do?

The results are pretty damning for NCLB. When it’s identified by name, 50 percent of respondents think the law should either undergo “major changes” or not be renewed at all, versus 42 percent thinking the same way about semi-anonymous “federal legislation.” Worse, last year’s results were significantly more positive about the law; the percent of respondents with favorable views of NCLB has dropped by seven percentage points.

Of course, none of this gets to the public’s true opinion about the law because neither version of the question gets rid of the description of NCLB as, essentially, Clarence the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, intervening to make all schools do well!

So how would the law have fared were people asked what they thought just of NCLB, not “NCLB: The Standardsmaker”? Since I registered this same complaint last year I haven’t seen any polls that have asked about NCLB straight-up. But suppose the same changes in NCLB support found by Education Next were applied to the Educational Testing Service poll I mentioned last year, a poll that asked about NCLB unadorned (slide 11 in the link). In 2007, ETS found that only 41 percent of respondents had a “very” or “somewhat favorable” attitude about the law. Drop 7 percentage points from that, and you’re down to a measly 34 percent.

And to think, some people think it’s “foolish” to even consider that NCLB should be scrapped!

Unfortunately, assuming the order of questions in their write-up is the same as was presented to respondents, the Education Next folks chose to ask about national standards right after greasing the skids with their encouraging description of NCLB. Not surprisingly, they found that large majorities favored having the feds establish standards and tests for the whole country.

Here we encounter almost all of polling’s shortcomings. For one thing, it’s hard to pin down the effect of the question order, but it certainly seems reasonable to conclude that describing the federal roll as demanding high standards would lead people to conclude that the feds ought to set the standards. But what if the pollsters had described NCLB as a law “that requires states to set standards while safeguarding local control”—which President Bush would tell you it does—or something like that? And what if the national-standards issue were explored in some depth, with questions about how the standards would actually be set and what they would be? Suddenly, different thinking would probably kick in. Of course, even with all that it’s possible that a majority of Americans would still support federal standards. Which brings us to the polling problem that majority support doesn’t necessarily mean good policy….

On school choice, the poll offers mixed news: Vouchers keep on struggling, but tax credits seem to have a very bright future. Nationally, only about 40 percent of people support vouchers, versus 54 percent who support tax credits. This is not to say that vouchers are dead—there’s only 40 percent opposition to them as well, meaning you’ve got two evenly-matched armies and 20 percent unclaimed territory—but compared to tax credits, vouchers have a long slog ahead. And tax credits fare even better when opposition as well as support is considered; only 28 percent of respondents opposed tax credits.

Of course, wording could have a lot to do with these results as well (for instance, the term “voucher” never actually appears in a question, but the almost as emotionally freighted “government funds” does), and all the other caveats about polls still apply. Even with that, though, the tax credit news, if nothing else in this poll, has to be a little encouraging.

How Can They Deny Freedom?

Maybe those people who constantly spew the mantra against school choice that it would “destroy public education” have never considered what putting some faceless, bureaucratic system above actual human beings really does. Well, there’s a great piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution today by Lydia Glaize, a parent who’s struggled mightily to keep her children out of atrocious public schools, that directly attacks this sorry, but all-too convenient, excuse for denying parents freedom. There’s only one critique I’ve got for Ms. Glaize: She doesn’t make the distinction between public schooling, which is the real problem, and public education, into which a school choice system would fit very nicely. But that’s a distinction we’re just starting to get people to recognize.

So how will the public-schooling-at-all-costs crowd respond to Ms. Glaize? I suspect, sadly, with more of the same.