Topic: Education and Child Policy

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. 

The Folly of Mann

Colleen Wilcox, Superintendent of Schools for Santa Clara County, has an op-ed in today’s San Jose Mercury News critiquing vouchers. There is a great deal wrong with what she has to say. Referring to Horace Mann, the godfather of American state schooling, she writes:

It’s true that the history of our public schools has seen its share of disappointments. At certain times, in certain places, the system undeniably failed the students. But on the whole, Horace Mann’s model has served us well.

At certain times? In certain places? American students perform worse relative to their international peers the longer they stay in school (see the “Global Context” section of that .pdf). When compared across subjects and grades to other industrialized countries by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the Program on International Student Assessment, and the International Adult Literacy Survey, our performance is about average at the 4th grade, below average by the 8th grade, and at or near the bottom among high-school seniors and recent graduates.

And these patterns hold not only for the overall averages, but for our top-scorers as well. Not just at certain times. Not just in certain places. 

Wilcox objects to vouchers on two grounds. First, that they are ostensibly “contrary to our fundamental belief in the separation of church and state.” Not so. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a universally available school voucher that treats parents’ religious and non-religious school choices neutrally is entirely consistent with the First Amendment and the principle it is meant to uphold. Anyone worried about compelled support issues under vouchers can simply opt for tax credits instead, as I recommend here.

Her second objection is that allowing families to chose “private schools would drain precious dollars away from public schools.” But, the thing is, if the children aren’t in the public schools anymore, there is no point in paying them for those children is there? Then we’d be paying them, literally, for doing nothing.

Now, you might counter that, given the number of functionally illiterate and unprepared students graduated by public schools every year, we are already paying public schools for nothing. But this, please note, is entirely by accident. A system of deliberately paying public schools for nothing would not be an improvement.

Educational freedom, and market competition, beat government monopoly provision. The sooner we realize that, the better off our children and our nation will be.

And as for Horace Mann, he predicted 160 years ago that if we “let the Common [a.k.a. “public”] School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Eight generations and trillions of dollars later, color me a little skeptical about the merits of state schooling.

If You Like Goodness, You Should Love NCLB!

Yesterday, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) – which brings you the GRE, SAT, AP, and numerous other dreaded exams – released results of a survey supposedly showing that “Americans say ‘yes’” to reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The ETS pollsters reached this conclusion despite finding that more respondents opposed NCLB than supported it. How’s that possible? It takes a little prodding.

The survey’s first major finding is actually that most people – more than half – report knowing very little about the massive No Child Left Behind Act. It also finds that a plurality dislikes the law, with 43 percent opposing it and only 41 percent backing NCLB. But an accurate snapshot of public knowledge and opinion apparently wasn’t what ETS was after. No, what they wanted to know was what people thought about the law after they were offered a brief – and very positive – description of NCLB:

The No Child Left Behind Act provides federal funds for school districts with poor children in order to close achievement gaps. It also requires states to set standards for education and to test students each year to determine whether the standards are being met by all students. In addition, No Child Left Behind provides funding to help teachers become highly qualified. It also provides additional funding and prescribes consequences to schools that fail to achieve academic targets set by their state.

What a shock! After respondents got that description, support for the law rose to 56 percent. Sort of like if the description were “NCLB fulfills champagne wishes and caviar dreams for every student in America.” I mean, who is going to oppose “highly qualified” teachers, closing achievement gaps, and helping poor children? If anything, it’s a testament to how disliked NCLB truly is that the description only boosted support by 15 points. And imagine how low support might have dropped had ETS offered a little balance by, say, noting that NCLB has caused many states to lower their standards, and has produced no discernable increase in academic achievement despite boosting federal education spending by billions of dollars. Yet one more example of why you should never trust public opinion polls.