Topic: Education and Child Policy

Dear Oprah: You Just Visited the Wrong Schools

Oprah Winfrey has plunked down $40 million on a private school in South Africa to offer poor kids there a better education than can be had in their local government schools. When asked why she was investing in students from South Africa rather than, say, South Chicago, Oprah shot back that:

I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city [U.S.] schools that I just stopped going…. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.

Clearly, Oprah has not been visiting the Milwaukee private schools serving low income black and Hispanic students. Having done so recently myself, I can report first hand that those students are so ambitious, motivated, curious, and hungry for learning that they bring joy to the hardest heart and water to the driest eye.

The modern belief that poor urban kids don’t want to learn completely misunderstands the problem. It isn’t the kids. It’s the schools.

Visit independent, parent-chosen schools in America’s inner cities and you will seldom find the disaffection Oprah has apparently seen so often in (presumably) government-run schools. 

And when I say the it’s the schools, what I really mean is: “it’s us.” It’s our fault. If we would only realize that the ideals of public education can best be advanced by a system of universal parental choice, rather than a centrally planned government factory system, we’d see a lot more engaged, energized kids who not only want to go on to college and successful jobs and lives, but who have the educational foundation to do it.

I’ve collected some of the evidence on this point here, for those unfamiliar with it.

Maria Montessori

The Washington Post had an interesting article the other day about the popularity and success of Montessori schools.  The ideas of Maria Montessori are not a trade secret and they have been around for quite some time.  So … why has the education establishment been slow to adapt?  University of Virginia psychologist Angeline Stoll Lillard has a stinging observation.

The psychologist Lillard was at first skeptical of Montessori’s ideas when she started her research 20 years ago. But she found that a strong body of evidence in developmental psychology supports Montessori’s major conclusions – among them, that there is a close relationship between movement and cognition, that the best learning is active and that order is beneficial for children. …

[Montessori] looked for what worked rather than what fit a theory. “If schooling were evidence-based,” Lillard wrote, “I think all schools would look a lot more like Montessori schools.”

Unfortunately, instead of letting parents match individual children with a variety of schools, including Montessoris, that are tailored to kids’ unique and infinitely varied needs, politicians like the new mayor of Washington obsess over controlling current, hidebound, one-size-fits-all public school systems.  Such tinkering, however, won’t fix education.  It will only put someone new in charge.

Market Education: Will India Lead the Way?

Much is made of the fact that some sectors of the U.S. economy face increasing competition from the developing world. India, in particular, is singled out for its proliferation of call centers and computer programmers.

But few people stop to ask how a developing country in which English is only learned as a second language has been able to become such an important international contender for skilled jobs requiring English fluency. The answer, at least in part, is that a large and increasing number of Indian children are being educated in private, fee-charging schools that must compete vigorously for the privilege of serving them. Even in some of the poorest slums and rural villages of India and Africa, majorities of students attend these schools, and are better served educationally than their peers in the government-run sector (and at a lower cost, to boot). Among other advantages – from the standpoint of meeting parental demand – the vast majority of Indian private schools teach all their lessons in English, as opposed to state schools which typically offer English instruction only as a separate course, when they offer it at all.

But despite the considerable size and rapid growth of the private education sector, there are still millions of families in developing countries who find it financially difficult or impossible to gain access to it. But what if those countries kick it up a notch?

A recent story in DNA Mumbai quotes Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani as saying that, “There is an urgent need for the government [to] provide vouchers to parents from the economically backward section. That way they can choose to enroll their children in private schools instead of the government-run schools, which are in a pathetic state.”

Adopting a truly free market approach to education, with financial assistance to ensure universal access, would be an incredible boon to the Indian standard of living, and an excellent lesson for rich countries still languishing under the pall of calcified government school monopolies.

…and None of these Little Piggies Went to Market

How close are we to enjoying truly free educational marketplaces in this country? Not very, according to our newly released Cato Education Market Index (CEMI).

Well over a year in the making, CEMI measures how closely existing school systems resemble free markets and rates education policy proposals on their conduciveness to the rise of markets. The verdict? No state in the nation even comes close. The two top scoring states, Wisconsin and Connecticut, tied with a score of 26 out of 100. 

Why is Wisconsin – with its vouchers, charter schools, and public school choice – rated so low? Why is Connecticut – which lacks vouchers and has few charter schools – rated the same?

The answer to the first question is that Wisconsin’s voucher program enrolls only about 1 percent of the state’s students, while its charter schools only enroll about 3 percent. These numbers are too low to have a significant impact on the level of education market activity statewide. And public school choice just isn’t close to real market activity because public schools are too standardized by state and disctict policies and regulations, can’t be operated for profit, don’t charge tuition, and neither open nor close exclusively in response to consumer demand.

Connecticut has among the most public school choice and the least intrusive public school regulation in the country, along with a truly free private education sector that is larger than the national average. But private schools serve only 11 percent of the state’s population, so it, too, only rates a 26.

Anyone interested in how the numbers were crunched can have a look the paper linked to above. The brave of heart may also want to dig into the uber-Excel spreadsheet that contains all the input data (100 data points per state), the calculations, and the tabulated results.

The full technical report contains regression analyses showing that higher CEMI ratings are correlated with both higher test scores and higher graduation rates.

Brief explanations of all the state ratings can be found here.

Jack Wenders, RIP

Jack Wenders, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Idaho, passed away at the end of November. Jack was a tireless champion of reason and liberty, and was very well known in Idaho for pointing out the shortcomings of the state’s bureaucratic, monopolistic school system, and how they could be overcome through parental choice and market incentives. I met Jack at a conference back in 2004 and was impressed not only by his knowledge but by his passion for the work. He will be missed by everyone at Cato who knew him.

Do We All Support Market Education Now?

Alan Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice, has an interesting op-ed in the OC Register today arguing that the only folks still defending the government school monopoly are those who have a financial stake in its perpetuation.

I’m not quite convinced – I could name quite a few advocates of centrally controlled state schooling outside the government school employee unions – but he makes some thought provoking observations.

The Risible Hand to Meddle further in NY Higher Ed?

Newsday reports that the visible – and clumsy – hand of government is poised to interfere in NY’s burgeoning for-profit higher ed. market. But the Board of Regents’ impending move to impose strict new regulations on for-profit colleges is the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

If students at these colleges were paying their own way, the state would have no compelling interest in regulating them. The only reason the state presumes to interfere is that funding from New York’s Tuition Assistance Program goes to these schools, and it wants more oversight over how that money is spent. Rather than impeding market forces and freedoms by trying to inject central planning into a promising and dynamic part of the higher education sector, New York should replace its current Tuition Assistance program with a system known as “human capital contracts” or “equity loans,” in which the amount paid back by students subsequent to graduation is contingent on their earnings. These loans allow students to finance their own higher education, eliminating the need for the state to intrude in the market process. It’s a better, cleaner solution.