Topic: Education and Child Policy

Good Schools Coming — in 10 or 20 Years (Maybe)

Kaya Henderson has gotten great reviews for her work as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Test scores are up during her tenure, though not as much as the hype. But take a look at this vision in an article on her departure:

Henderson cautions that improving schools that had long struggled does not happen quickly. And even with the school reform efforts over the the past decade, it may still be another decade — or more — before anyone can declare something approaching victory.

“There will be a day when every school in the city is doing amazing work and you won’t have to enter a lottery, you literally could drop your kid off at any school and have them an amazing experience. I believe we’re within reach of that, probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” she says.

Good schools “sometime in the next 10 or 20 years” – “probably”? Can you imagine a private-company CEO promising that his company would be good at its core business “probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” after his retirement?

No wonder Albert Shanker, the first head of the American Federation of Teachers, said back in 1989:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

Indeed, we have in each city in the United States an essentially centralized, monopoly, uncompetitive, one-size-fits-all school system that has been stagnating for more than a century. As I wrote in the book Liberating Schools,

The problem of the government schools is the problem inherent in all government institutions. In the private sector, firms must attract voluntary customers or they fail; and if they fail, investors lose their money, and managers and employees lose their jobs. The possibility of failure, therefore, is a powerful incentive to find out what customers want and to deliver it efficiently. But in the government sector, failures are not punished, they are rewarded. If a government agency is set up to deal with a problem and the problem gets worse, the agency is rewarded with more money and more staff — because, after all, its task is now bigger.  An agency that fails year after year, that does not simply fail to solve the problem but actually makes it worse, will be rewarded with an ever-increasing budget.  What kind of incentive system is this?  

This is ridiculous. Every form of communication and information technology is changing before our eyes, except the schools and the post office. It’s time to give families a choice. Free them from the monopoly school system. Give families education tax credits or education savings accounts. Make homeschooling easier. Let them opt out of the big-box school – and get their money back – and watch Khan Academy videos. 

Children spend 12 years in government monopoly schools. If they don’t get started right in the first couple of years, they’re running behind for life. It’s just not right to tell parents to wait 10 to 20 years for the tax-supported monopoly schools to start educating decently.

The New York Times Misrepresents Charter School Research

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a front-page story purporting to show that “betting big” on charters has produced “chaos” and a “glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students.” (One wonders how many of those low-income families are upset that they have “too many” options.). However, the article’s central claim about charter school performance rests on a distorted reading of the data.

The piece claims that “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” This is a distortion of the research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Although the article actually cites this research – noting that it is “considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country” – it only does so to show that one particular charter chain in Detroit is low performing. (For the record, the “gold standard” is actually a random-assignment study. CREDO used a matching approach, which is more like a silver standard. But I digress.) The NYT article fails to mention that the same study found that “on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.”

As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.

CREDO 2013 Michigan Charter School Study

For-Profit Colleges: Terrible or Target?

The Center for American Progress has a new paper out calling for the demise of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), one of the primary accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges. The paper accuses ACICS of being negligent in its accrediting practices, and as a result enabling loads of students and federal aid dollars to flow to bad schools. And ACICS may well be lax, though there is a big debate about exactly what the role of an accreditor is: college watchdog, or friendly advisor? But ACICS itself is not what I mainly want to discuss here. No, it is the evidence that for-profit schools are perhaps being unfairly targeted rather than being particularly bad actors.

The first bit of evidence is something I’ve hinted at before: lots of suits have been brought against for-profit schools, typically by state attorneys general, but few have ended in findings of guilt. As CAP’s paper helpfully itemizes, most accusations, at least for ACICS accredited schools, have been settled with “no finding or admission of fault by the college.” And in the most notable case of a court finding a for-profit guilty—the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges—the judgement was issued without a trial because Corinthian no longer existed and could not defend itself.

Many of the state AGs who have brought suits—including in California, Kentucky, and Massachusetts—have pursued higher political office. California’s Kamala Harris is running for the U.S. Senate. Kentucky’s Jack Conway unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2015. Former Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley ran for governor in 2014.

Were the suits motivated by a desire to raise the AGs’ profiles? No one but the AGs themselves knows their motivations, and they may well have concluded that the schools had intentionally done illegal things. But it is hard not to also see for-profit schools as relatively easy, unsympathetic targets. Moreover, it is possible that many schools settled not because they thought they were guilty, especially of systematic illegality, but because they did not want their names dragged through the mud anymore. In addition, unlike the AGs, they had to use their own money to defend themselves.

The CAP report also largely brushes off a contention that is crucial—but oft neglected—to understanding the seemingly poor outcomes of the proprietary sector: they work with students facing big obstacles in hugely disproportionate amounts. Writes author Ben Miller, “That argument is not necessarily accurate according to detailed reviews of literature around student default, which found that race and ethnicity do matter for default but that degree completion status is typically the strongest predictor of default.”

Of course, the abilities and personal situations of students have a ton to do with degree completion. And this is not primarily about race. Students at for-profit schools are much more likely to be African-American, but also older, low-income, and dealing with children and full-time jobs than students in other sectors, including community colleges. Indeed, a report on accreditors released by the U.S. Department of Education just yesterday reveals that among major accreditors ACICS member institutions have the highest percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, a rough proxy for income. 74 percent of students at ACICS accredited schools receive Pell, versus, for instance, 38 percent among schools accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and 32 percent at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Now, maybe the schools should choose not to work with a lot of students who face too many obstacles. But it is the federal government that gives the students much of the funding with which they pay for these schools, on the general principle that everyone should have access to college. And the feds do this without trying to meaningfully evaluate if the students are ready. So, essentially, the for-profit schools, but also the community colleges and nonselective public and nonprofit private schools, which are all seeing poor outcomes, are just doing what the feds want them to do.

Again, the evidence—all of it—needs to be considered before singling out for-profit schools for censure. Too often, it doesn’t seem to be.

New In the Summer Issue of Regulation

The latest issue of Regulation magazine has been released on the Cato website.

The cover article, by Christopher Robertson and Jamie Cox Robertson of the University of Arizona, examines the extent of over incarceration in the U.S.  Why are so many innocent people convicted of crimes? They review recent scholarship that concludes that many types of evidence introduced by prosecutors to convince jurors of guilt, such as bite mark, fingerprint, and bullet analysis, are not scientifically reliable. The authors suggest various remedies to the wasteful incarceration problem including public rewards for attorneys who demonstrate that a prisoner should be released.

Researchers John Lott and Gary Mauser explore empirical research on firearms. They found that the findings of such research vary systematically with the disciplinary orientation of the authors.  A large majority of articles written by economists find that expanded legal access to firearms reduces crime and does not increase the suicide rate, and that gun owners who are approved for concealed-carry are less likely to commit crimes than ordinary Americans. In contrast Criminologists were more evenly divided on these questions.

Two articles critique regulatory rationales rooted in behavioral economics. In Infantilization by Regulation law professors Jonathan Klick and Greg Mitchell argue that protecting people from the effects of their choices reduces their ability to think critically about them.  Georgetown ethics professor John Hasnas explores how much liberty is preserved under modern “libertarian paternalism.” He then asks whether the insights of behavioral economics apply to public decisions, argues yes, and concludes that U.S. Constitution is an excellent example of choice architecture.

One of the most discussed topics in higher education policy is the rate of inflation in university tuition. Top William and Mary economists find empirical evidence that highly selective schools reduce financial aid to students who receive federal tuition support.

In our Briefly Noted articles economist Ike Brannon argues that cities harm transit riders by over-providing subsidized parking near street corners. Brannon and the American Action Forum’s Sam Batkins question whether expanded family leave policies would harm workers. University of California, Irvine emeritus professor Richard McKenzie shares the results of his survey that found servers at fast-casual restaurants would not support substituting higher hourly wages for the current tipped-wage system. Finally, University of Michigan professor Thomas Hemphill lays out a practical approach to reforming occupational licensing laws.

Book reviews include Free Market Environmentalism reviewed by Timothy Brennan, Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism and Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth reviewed by David R. Henderson, and Phil Murray’s review of Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules.

 

My Working Papers column describes papers on cigarette taxes and food stamps, e-cigarettes and adolescent smoking, corporate inversions, and public housing and crime.

Feds Love Higher Ed Scapegoats

For-profit colleges. Accreditors. Endowments. Loan servicers. Debit card companies. Federal policymakers have blamed just about everyone associated with higher education but themselves for the Ivory Tower’s myriad problems. The most recent target just happens to be one specific accreditor: the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), which accredits lots of those icky proprietary schools.

Now, ACICS might be as bad as its detractors say. I don’t know because, frankly, I don’t have the time or resources to launch a full and fair investigation into the group. Of course, that is itself a huge problem: Unless you have umpteen free hours on your hands, it is very hard to know whether “bad actors” are really bad, their accusers are jumping to conclusions or are political opportunists, or some combination of those things.

Here is what I do know: Washington gives out big sums of money to people to pay for college without meaningfully determining whether those people are prepared for higher education. That fuels rampant price, credential, and luxury inflation, and seriously mutes incentives for students to think critically about their higher education choices. In other words, “caring and generous” federal policy – policy that lets politicians telegraph how “concerned” they are with education, the poor, and the middle class – is very much at the self-defeating root of all of higher ed’s biggest problems.

So go after ACICS, the openly for-profit schools they accredit, and anyone else you think looks bad (while ignoring crucial context needed to see reality). But don’t expect doing so to fix higher ed. Expect it to just lead to other hunts when these scapegoats are dispatched, and the Ivory Tower getting no better.

NH Governor Vetoes School Choice Bill

For a few years now, the town of Croydon, NH (population 651) has been fighting with the governor and state board of education over their school choice policy. The town isn’t large enough to sustain its own K-12 district school, so it contracts with a neighboring town to educate most of its residents’ children starting in 5th grade. But when its contract was approaching expiration a few years ago, the town decided to give local parents the option of sending their children to private schools as well, and the town would cover tuition up to the amount that it was spending per pupil at the neighboring district school (about $12,000).

That’s when the governor and state education bureaucrats got involved. They objected to the town’s use of tax revenue at non-government schools, though they had difficulty pointing to exactly which law or statute the town was violating. They’re currently embroiled in a lawsuit to sort out whether Croydon has the authority to decide how to spend its local tax dollars, but meanwhile the state legislature passed a bill clarifying that Croydon and similar towns have the authority to enact their own school choice policies. 

Last week, NH Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed that bill citing two arguments I had already refuted in a Union Leader op-ed earlier in the week. In her veto message, Gov. Hassan wrote:

House Bill 1637 diverts taxpayer money to private and religious schools with no accountability or oversight, a clear violation of the New Hampshire Constitution, which states, ‘… no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.’ Not only is the bill unconstitutional, it also has no mechanism to ensure a student’s constitutional right to the opportunity to receive an adequate education and would undermine the state’s efforts to ensure a strong and robust public education system for all New Hampshire students.

“Under current New Hampshire law, public schools are required to provide the opportunity for an adequate education, as defined by the Legislature, and are held accountable through laws and rules that require monitoring and review by the Department of Education. Additionally, as required by statute and as a result of Supreme Court decisions requiring a statewide education accountability system, New Hampshire schools are required to participate in the Statewide Educational Improvement and Assessment Program. If House Bill 1637 is enacted, public funds would be used to send students to private schools – which are only approved by the Department of Education for attendance and not curriculum, without the same accountability standards as the public schools – violating the requirements of state law and the state Constitution.

There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Public’ School

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about our nation’s education system is the notion that “public schools have to take all children.” Last year, when criticizing charter schools that she claimed, “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” Hillary Clinton quipped, “And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody.” 

No, in fact, they do not.

At best, so-called “public” schools have to take all children in a particular geographic area, although they can and do expel children based on their behavior. They are more appropriately termed “district schools” because they serve residents of a particular district, not the public at large. Privately owned shopping malls are more “public” than district schools.