Topic: Education and Child Policy

Do You Hear the Footsteps? School Choice is Coming …

Politicians are risk-averse – so risk-averse that they often create risk for themselves by not getting ahead of issues that are building to the tipping point.

Education tax credits are supported by overwhelming majorities, and some recent polls add to the evidence. Politicians should take note before it’s too late for them.

A poll by the Show-Me Institute reveals that in Missouri, support outweighs opposition by almost 2.5 to 1 for both personal-use and business donation tax credits. A poll by the Bluegrass Institute shows that in Kentucky, support for donation tax credits outweighs opposition by 3 to 1.

These numbers are not new, and they are not going away. Critics of these polls have legitimate concerns regarding question order and wording. But tax credits are very popular with the general public no matter how you frame the question.

Even the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls on education, which are notoriously pro-government education, show this kind of lopsided support for education tax credits. PDK mysteriously dropped the tax credit question after their 1998 and 1999 polls showed 2 to 1 support for education tax credits.

My own polling research shows support ranging from 2.5 to 1 up to 4 to 1 depending on the specific proposal. And that dominant support holds across party ID – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Education tax credits are popular because people want control over their child’s education and control over how their education dollars are spent.

The school choice movement needs to start talking to and mobilizing the broad middle class that so overwhelmingly supports school choice. Politicians beware … the support is there.

Is The Economist Right about Vouchers?

The latest issue of The Economist notes that a mounting body of empirical evidence now favors school voucher programs over government school monopolies. This is eminently true, and it’s delightful to see some of the existing school choice evidence getting a hearing in a mainstream publication. So: jolly good show, wot.

That said, a magazine called The Economist should be held to a very high standard for accuracy, incisiveness, and perspective when it weighs in on the subject of market effects in education – to a higher standard than if the subject were taken up by, say, Vogue, Cat Fancy, or the New York Times.

With that in mind, a few corrections and clarifications are in order. Though Milton Friedman can justly be credited with kindling the modern, U.S. interest in vouchers, the idea was not “first suggested” by him in the mid 1950s. Perhaps the earliest explicit description of the idea is in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and it figured in the writings of other notable economists and liberal (in the classical sense) philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Vouchers have, in fact, been in nationwide use in the Netherlands since 1917. This is a useful point to note because it shows that vouchers are not a recent concoction, or exclusively the brainchild of a libertarian economist.

Next, the Economist states that voucher programs “are running in several different countries without ill-effects for social cohesion.” It does seem that vouchers are more conducive to social cohesion than state monopoly schooling. Under vouchers, families can pursue both their common educational goals and their unique cultural and religious traditions, all without having to foist their preferences on their neighbors. This is quite different from the endless “school wars” that result whenever there is only one official school system (viz., U.S. battles over sex ed., school prayer, the teaching of history or reading or math, and the current favorite of pedagogical pugilists: the teaching of evolution vs. “intelligent design”).

But to say that voucher programs have no social ill-effects whatsoever is, perhaps, an overstatement. After the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in the fall of 2004 at the hands of a militant Islamist, one Dutch Muslim voucher school was bombed and another set ablaze. This is only the most violent and extreme manifestation of a broader unease among some Dutch citizens with the government funding of conservative Islamic schools. Over the past decade, there have been periodic efforts to either cap the number of such schools that can be opened, or to craft regulations so as to make their creation unlikely. This, of course, is a zero-sum game. Either law abiding Dutch Muslims can enjoy the benefits of their country’s voucher program, or they cannot. If they can, taxpayers who object to their teachings but are forced to pay for them anyway become frustrated and social tension results. If they cannot, the Muslim minority suffers second-class status and social tension results.

The reason for this lose-lose situation is that while vouchers lessen the amount of compulsion in education (as compared to government monopoly school systems) they do not eliminate compulsion altogether. Taxpayers can still be compelled to support schooling that violates their convictions. It is possible to promote universal access to the education marketplace with even less compulsion than is associated with vouchers, by means of a universal education tax credit program. I describe such a system here.

The Economist’s portrayal of the Swedish voucher program is also overly kind. “The only real restrictions imposed on private schools,” the magazine claims, “were that they must run their admissions on a first-come-first-served basis and promise not to charge top-up fees.” In reality, the regulations are much more onerous. Most notably, voucher schools must follow a state curriculum and are forbidden to charge tuition fees larger than the voucher amount (this is also true of the Dutch program). These restrictions all but destroy the prospects for specialization and the division of labor, and prevent free floating, market-determined prices from arising. These, as The Economist’s editors must well know, are essential components of free markets. Without them, no genuine market can exist.

Late last year, the Cato Institute published an Education Market Index, which measures roughly 100 characteristics of education systems (or education policies) and rates them on the extent to which a free market currently exists (or on the compatibility of a policy with the rise of a free education market). While the Swedish voucher policy does indeed outscore the Dutch one on this metric, as The Economist’s editors would have predicted, it does so by scoring 40 out of 100 as compared to the Netherlands’ score of 31 out of 100. As currently designed, neither program is conducive to the rise of a genuine education market.

Popularizing the theory and evidence on education markets is an area in which The Economist could well lead the way. If true to its name, the magazine could hold scholars’ and pundits’ feet to the fire when they mischaracterize existing weak school choice programs as markets. The magazine could also continue to draw attention to regions and niches where true free markets in education already thrive – India’s private schools serving the poor, for instance, or the growing worldwide, for-profit, largely unregulated market for after-school tutoring services. Such a rigorous approach to the subject in a mainstream magazine would be a unique and welcome contribution to the debate, and no-one is better equipped to tackle it.

What’s So Special About a Steel Cage Match?

I don’t know how many people reading this are professional wrestling fans – I’m not one – but I would imagine even people who hate wrestling are familiar with the vaunted “steel cage match,” in which the combatants are not only put in the ring together, but the ring is encased in a cage of steel. Wrestling fans love these things. Why?

This description from WWE Bloodbath: Wrestling’s Most Incredible Steel Cage Matches might make it clear:

The steel cage: It’s used as a barrier and as a weapon. It keeps the competitors inside and the interference outside. The Steel Cage Match is the most brutal form of confrontation.

So why’s a steel cage match such a big deal? Because without the cage the Hulkster or Rowdy Roddy might choose not to fight. With it, they have no choice.

OK, so what does any of this have to do with public policy, you ask?

Well, yesterday Sara Mead over at The Quick and the Ed wrote about the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school focusing on Arabic language and culture that the New York City Department of Education is trying to put in the same building as P.S. 282, a traditional public school. Opposition to the plan has been fierce, with objections ranging from concerns by P.S. 282 parents about losing space and services if they’re forced to share room with Khalil Gibran, to accusations that the academy will be a madrassa.

Here’s the passage in Mead’s post that really troubled me:

The most radical and evangelistic school choice supporters like to argue that choice will reduce social conflict around education because people who want schools to serve different social purposes can send their kids to different schools. But this ignores the fact that the mere existence of certain types of schools is offensive to some people, all the more so if those schools get public funding (and, yes, vouchers or tax expenditures in the form of tax credits are public funding). To the extent that greater choice leads to a greater diversity of educational options, we’re going to be seeing more controversy and conflict over these issues–at least in the near term–not less.

Mead’s conclusion makes little sense. For one thing, the history of education, which I lay out in the paper to which Mead links, makes clear that when choice has been allowed to work, it has helped to cool conflict where it has existed, and avoid it where it hasn’t. Government schooling, in contrast, has forced - and continues to force - regular confrontation. Moreover, logic suggests that defusing conflict would be by far the most likely outcome of choice, because with it no one has to fight. Sure, with choice people might fight more about specific schools because there will be a much greater variety of schools in existence, but the overall conflict will greatly decrease. Making this latter point clear is where wrestling comes in.

You see, the difference between education with choice and education without it is like the difference between a regular wrestling ring and a steel cage. With the former, people who have different values, educational goals, etc., might grapple over their differences – in a free society we are, after all, allowed to tell people that we don’t like them or what they are doing – but groups that are at odds with each other can get out of the ring. With the latter, in contrast, there’s no escape. People have to fight.

Of course, how choice is delivered will dictate how high or inflexible the ropes are on the non-cage ring. For instance, a voucher would still force one person to pay for part of another’s educational choices, making it hard for the two to get completely away from each other. A tax credit letting people choose whose education they’d support, however, would offer much more separation.

Unfortunately, Mead uses a situation that involves almost no choice to tar even the freest choice forms, which might explain her irrational conclusion that choice will, at least in the short run, create more conflict than the status quo. The Khalil Gibran Academy is, after all, a public school established by the New York City Department of Education, not a private school. Moreover, the department is trying to jam the academy into the same building as a pre-existing public elementary school. Clearly the problem here is the absence of choice for taxpayers and parents, not too much freedom.

Which brings us back to wrestling. Whenever you find your thinking getting fuzzy about whether school choice will produce less conflict than uniform government schooling, remember the difference between a regular professional wrestling ring and one in a steel cage. With the former, one can always avoid a fight. With the latter, there’s nowhere you can run.

The Real “Reading First” Scandal

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will testify before a House Education Committee hearing tomorrow, and the hottest topic for her appearance on the hot-seat will be the federal “Reading First” program. A centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind act, Reading First is a billion-dollar-a-year initiative to improve language instruction in the early grades. The idea behind the program was to encourage districts to adopt scientifically proven teaching methods, but it seems to have netted roughly a million bucks for people on the Dept. of Ed.’s payroll in the process. The Department’s inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., has made several criminal investigation referrals to the Justice Department as a result.

As government scandals go, this is tepid stuff. A million dollars? Individual states and school districts around the country have often mismanaged or defrauded taxpayers of comparable or larger sums.

The real Reading First scandal is that anyone would imagine that a bureaucratic school system bereft of competitors and immune to market incentives could be made to adopt and consistently implement effective educational practices on a vast scale, let alone sustain them over time or improve upon them.

Anyone familiar with the research on so-called systemic reform is aware that implementation quality matters as much or more than program selection. If teachers are not committed to and well trained in the selected methods, they will not effectively implement them and will not persevere with them over time.

A case in point is the federal ”Follow Through” experiment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which put a score of different pedagogical methods in head-to-head competition. The number one method, by far, was called Direct Instruction, or Distar. As soon as “Follow Through” officially ended, most of the schools that had been using Distar abandoned it, and their test scores eventually fell back to pre-follow-through levels.

So the real question is, how do you simultaneously achieve all of the following:

  • Encourage the consistent identification and/or development of effective methods
  • Hire, train, and maintain a staff of teachers capable of properly implementing those methods
  • Ensure that, once adopted, effective methods are not displaced by the latest pedagogical fad

The only way to do that is to create powerful incentives that pressure school administrators and teachers to do these things. The only system that consistently creates these incentives is a competitive education marketplace. Until we have a market, dreams of the pervasive use of effective pedagogical methods in American education will remain just that: dreams.

Prospective Teachers: You Too Can Afford College!

As I was sitting at home on Saturday morning, flipping through the TV channels, I came across Education Sector’s Kevin Carey on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. Now, I’m not sure what his main topic was – as I said, I stumbled on him whilst channel surfing – but just as I tuned in he seemed to be offering a stale but unchallenged argument: College student debt is too high, and we know this because there’s no way on his salary a new teacher could comfortably afford to make his monthly debt payments.

Intuitively, my reaction to this all-too-common refrain was “hogwash.” But then, being properly skeptical about all things, including my own knee-jerk reactions, I thought I’d best test out the proposition that a new graduate saddled with an average student debt load couldn’t possibly afford to become a public school teacher.

To run my test, I sketched a rough expense estimate for a new graduate who will be starting off as a first-year teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city I thought seemed like “average” America.

So what would his expenses likely be? Below is a basic list, with bases for estimates:

Monthly Loan Payment: $300. (The State PIRG’s Higher Education Project reports that for a new graduate with $20,000 in debt – roughly the average for a new graduate who has taken out a loan – that must be paid back in 10 years at a 6.8 percent interest, the monthly payment would be $230. For the sake of a “fudge factor,” I boosted the payment to $300.)

Rent: $650 (This is from It turns out rent in Indianapolis is relatively cheap. However, rents are likely at least partially reflective of overall lower living costs, which would in turn be reflected in salaries, evening this out.)

Food: $200 (I just guesstimated this based on my own food expenditures, and then added a bit on the off-chance I eat less than the average recent graduate.)

Transportation: $120 (My notional teacher is both living and working in Indianapolis so I didn’t figure he’d have too great a commute. I estimated that he’d fill his tank up about once a week at $30 a pop.)

Auto Insurance: $90 (Young Mr. Chips drives a 2001 Corolla and has a pretty good driving record. Allstate’s quote estimator reported that this would be close to his monthly premium.)

Renters Insurance: $20 (I got this quote through State Farm. Actually, their quote for an 800 square-foot apartment, about $40,000 worth of stuff, and $100,000 in personal liability was $16.50 per month.)

Clothing/Laundry: $100 (I guesstimated this too. I don’t buy a lot of clothes, but thought it might be a reasonable amount.)

So what’s our recently minted grad’s grand monthly total for all these essentials and student loans? $1480.

Now, let’s see if a first-year teacher working for the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) could afford such a load on their initial salary. Looking at the salary schedule for IPS teachers, one finds that our fresh graduate heading right into teaching will earn – get ready – an annual salary of $34,638, or a monthly salary of $2,887!

At this point I shouldn’t even have to do the math to see my test’s results, but let’s make this formal: If we subtract our new teacher’s monthly expenses from his monthly salary, we find that he has $1,407 left over! That’s right, almost half of the young man’s salary remains after paying off his monthly loan charge and all of his major expenses. That is a lot of beer money! (Or, I suppose, money he could save.)

Of course, there are expenses missing from this calculation – taxes, for one – but there are also major income boosters missing. After all, most teachers only teach for about ten months, and many get temporary jobs to fill the time. That means their teaching salary is generally not their only income. And I didn’t mention such major benefits as the generous loan forgiveness programs for which many teachers qualify.

Now, maybe I’ve overlooked some big expense, or grossly underestimated something, or my example isn’t representative of the financial challenges facing the average first-year teacher. If none of those things are the case, though, then there’s only one possible conclusion that can be drawn about the “student debt is too high and teachers’ salaries are too low” argument: It is utter hogwash, and ought never, ever, to be repeated again.

I’m not holding my breath.

Government Schools to Parents: Leave Your Money, Your Kid, and Shut Your Mouth

Jay Mathews, ed-beat superstar for the Washington Post, has a story today that perfectly sums up the government school response to involved parents; leave it to the professionals, stupid. 

Across the country, parents hit a solid wall of silence when they question the actions of school administrators.   But these same administrators have the gall to blame uninvolved parents for the sorry state of our government schools.  Mathews reports:

Schools nationwide are calling on parents to get involved. The Maryland State Board of Education endorsed a broad range of family outreach initiatives in a 2005 report that called public education “a shared responsibility.”

Yet some parents in Montgomery County and elsewhere have discovered limits on the get-involved policy when they ask questions about individual teachers, whether those queries are about alleged abuse of students or a decision to fire a popular instructor.

In Montgomery County, beloved third-grade teacher Soon-Ja Kim was bounced on the word of one reviewer despite an outpouring of support from parents who knew what great work she had done with their children.  I can’t say it better than it’s reported:

But a panel of eight teachers and eight principals charged with reviewing Kim’s performance gave little weight to the parent letters when they considered her future in a closed-door meeting, according to panel members.

Doug Prouty, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association and co-chairman of the panel, said in an interview that the strong parental support for Kim was considered only a “secondary data source.”

The good test scores of Kim’s students, he said, were also secondary. The primary sources for the decisions, he said, were the judgments of Principal Elaine Chang, a consulting teacher assigned to evaluate Kim and the panel members themselves that Kim was ineffective in the classroom and hurting her students’ progress.

“That’s a bunch of hooey,” said Elyse Summers, one of the multitude of pro-Kim parents. “Our children went to Mrs. Kim’s class every day, came home and are performing extremely well.”

“We take parent feedback, both good and bad, about teachers very seriously,” Edwards replied. But the Montgomery schools spokesman added that “the final decision about the effectiveness of teachers must come down to those with the professional expertise.”

Thanks to Mathews for pointing out these object lessons in government schooling.  Teachers work for the government school system, not the children or the parents. 

I only wish that Mathews had pointed out the obvious solution to this problem; giving parents the power through school choice.  Otherwise, “those with the professional expertise” will continue to demand more money and less input from parents. 

Back Door Takeover

In September 2005, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the creation of a commission charged with formulating a “comprehensive national strategy” for higher education. The commission was chaired by long-time Bush pal Charles Miller – who’d helped create the Texas predecessor to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) when Bush was governor – and it seemed very likely the commission would recommend federally enforced standardized testing for all colleges and universities. Thankfully, federally mandated testing was not among the recommendations in its final report, an outcome almost certainly attributable to adamant opposition to such lunacy both from within and without academia.

Ah, but in Texas they don’t give up easily!

Unwilling to face what would no doubt be major opposition to publicly trying to force inane, NCLB-esque standardized testing on the Ivy League, Seven Sisters, etc., the Department of Education has chosen a different tactic: it’s tried to sneak it in through the ivory tower’s back door.  Rather than putting testing requirements into legislation that would have to get through Congress, the administration has been quietly trying to rewrite regulations governing accreditation in order to make accreditors force schools to administer standardized tests.

Thankfully, there’s been a lot of resistance among accreditors to this assault on academia, and Education Department negotiators have had to tone down their once explicit demands for testing. As Inside Higher Ed reports:

As the department’s various proposals have evolved over the weeks and months, they have become slightly less intrusive at each turn. Most recently, the department issued draft regulatory language — based, its officials repeated again and again, on a proposal that some of the “non-federal” negotiators had suggested — that would no longer require accrediting agencies to dictate to colleges the levels of performance they must achieve in student learning.

That’s good news, but as IHE continues, it hardly gets schools out of the woods:

But because the government would still require accrediting agencies to judge whether the standards that colleges set for themselves and their success in meeting those goals are sufficient — and because the accreditors would be doing so knowing that the Education Department can (through its process for recognizing accrediting agencies) punish any accreditor who doesn’t set the bar high enough to satisfy department officials — some members of the negotiating panel argued Tuesday that even the less-aggressive changes amount to federal control of accreditation, and ultimately of higher education.

In light of all this, I have a confession to make. When Spellings first announced the creation of her commission, and as the national strategizers conducted their work, I was almost certain we’d see the Bush administration try to assert explicit federal control over higher education, just as it had done in K-12. Well I was wrong. The administration hasn’t tried to do anything explicit in higher education. No, it’s tried to hide what it’s been up to ever since the commission’s final report came out.