Topic: Education and Child Policy

How to Lie with Statistics: Florida School Spending Edition

Activists in Florida found a way to torture the state’s education spending data to make appear as though Florida is 50th in education spending. The only catch is that their rather unconventional method ranks Washington D.C. as 51st, despite the fact that D.C. spends nearly $30,000 per pupil, putting it in first place for spending per pupil according to the U.S. Census Bureau (page 11, table 11). 

How did they accomplish this literally unbelievable statistical feat? As Patrick Gibbons explains at RedefinED, the activists have inappropriately seized on the U.S. Census Bureau’s “education revenues per $1,000 of personal income” figure. Holding all else constant, Florida could improve its ranking using that figure either by spending more on education or by its citizens becoming poorer. Gibbons crunched the numbers to see what it would take to put Florida in 24th place, just above the median, without increasing spending:

To reach the “above average” point on the spending-per-income statistic, Florida would need education revenues of $49.15 per $1,000 of personal income. Without spending a dime more, or less, on education, Florida could boost its ranking to 24th in the nation if its collective income simply shrank by 26 percent.

Florida would become THE POOREST state in the U.S., but we would have above-average education spending – at least according to this misleading metric. Something tells me nobody will be happy with those results.

Embedded in the activists’ use of this figure is the odd notion that it costs more to educate students from wealthier states than students from poorer states. Indeed, if every state had exactly the same “education revenues per $1,000 of personal income” then rich states would far outspend poor states, yet I suspect that the activists citing this figure would not be pleased.

Equity vs. Excellence. Or…A Crank Phone in Every Home!

Education secretary Arne Duncan has just announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative to improve educational quality for low-income and minority students: pressure states to measure the distribution of “quality” teachers across districts; and then to make that distribution more uniform. The emphasis is on the pursuit of equity rather excellence. In fact, a state could make a massive leap forward on this scale by simply randomizing the assignment of public school teachers to schools. And if it turned out that some districts were badly managed and actually had a consistently negative effect, over time, on the performance of their teachers, well then the randomized teacher assignment process could be repeated every school year—or even every half-year!

But is a uniform distribution of today’s “quality” teachers really the best we can do for low-income and minority students (or, for that matter, everyone else)? Would they be better off today if Arne Duncan’s and Barack Obama’s equity focus had driven, say, the telelphone industry over the last century? Back around 1900, most telephones were hand-cranked, and not everyone had one. Would the poor, minorities, and others be better off today if we had achieved and maintained a perfectly equitable distribution of hand-crank phones?

The alternative, of course, is what we do have: a vigorously competitive phone market that has given rise to cell phones and then smart phones containing super-computers, global positioning satellite receivers, wireless networking, etc. But of course only rich whites have cell phones and smart phones, right? Not according to Pew Research. Based on 2013 data,

92% of African Americans own a cell phone, and 56% own a smartphone… blacks and whites are equally likely to own a cell phone of some kind, and also have identical rates of smartphone ownership.

In fact, Pew’s comparable smart-phone ownership figure for whites is 53%, but the difference is not statistically significant. With regard to income, Pew finds a 9 point difference in smartphone ownership between those making < $30,000 and those making between $30,000 and $49,999. Most of that difference seems to be accounted for by age, however. Among 18-24 year olds, 77% of those making < $30,000 own a smartphone vs. 81% for those making $30,000 to $74,999.

So pretty much everyone who wants one now has a cell phone which is rather more functional than the old hand cranked variety, and the majority of young people, at all income levels, even have smartphones. That’s a relatively high level of equity, coupled with excellence. Brought to you, again, by a competitive industry. Could the federal government’s Lifeline (a.k.a., “ObamaPhone”) phone subsidy programs be helping out? Certainly, to some extent. Though it’s far from true that every low-income American’s cell phone is paid for by Uncle Sam.

Ironically, many of the people who staunchly support subsidized access to the cell phone marketplace are dead set against programs that subsidize access to the educational marketplace. They’d much rather just redistribute teachers within our hand-crank-era public school systems, sentencing everyone—rich and poor alike—to more generations of academic stagnation. We can do better. We can encourage the same dynamism, choice, and entrepreneurship in education that have driven the fantastic progress in every other field, and we can ensure universal access to the educational marketplace via state-level education tax credit programs.

The End of Forced Union Dues?

Defenders of the status quo in education have long used lawsuits to protect themselves from competition and force state legislatures to increase funding. Lately, rather than merely play legal defense, some education reformers have turned to the courts to push reform. In some cases, the long-term prospects of positive reform through litigation are slim, even when the court’s ruling is favorable.

However, one lawsuit currently making its way through the court system has the potential to remove a major obstacle to reform: compulsory union dues. In 19 states, would-be government school teachers are forced either to join the teachers union or to remain a non-member but pays dues anyway—sometimes more than $1,000 per year.

The unions contend that these compulsory dues are necessary to overcome the free rider problem (non-union members may benefit from the collectively-bargained wages and benefits without contributing to the union), but plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association point out that numerous organizations engage in activities (e.g. – lobbying) that benefit members and non-members alike without giving such organizations the right to coerce non-members to pay. That’s especially true when the individuals who supposedly benefit actually disagree with the position of the organization. Indeed, the plaintiffs argue that the compulsory dues violate their First Amendment rights because collective bargaining is inherently political:

Current federal law allows union workers to opt out of the political portion of union dues — for California teachers that usually amounts to between 30 and 40 percent of the total dues automatically taken from their salaries each year — but in closed-shop states such as California, workers cannot opt out of the rest of the dues, predominantly designated for collective bargaining. However, the plaintiffs argue that collective bargaining is inherently political, involving such debated issues as school vouchers and teacher tenure.

“Since my first years of teaching, I’ve been bothered by the fact that a large portion of my mandatory dues goes to pay for political endeavors of a union whose political positions have nothing to do with my job and have nothing to do with improving education for me, for my students, or for their parents,” Friedrichs tells me. “In fact, often these policies have negative effects.” 

The legal justification for compulsory union dues rests primarily on a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. But as Andy Smarick noted last week, the recent majority opinion in Harris v. Quinn displayed a willingness to revisit and perhaps overturn Abood:

The Abood Court’s analysis is questionable on several grounds. Some of these were noted or apparent at or before the time of the decision, but several have become more evident and troubling in the years since then. 

For example:

Abood failed to appreciate the difference between the core union speech involuntarily subsidized by dissenting public-sector employees and the core union speech involuntarily funded by their counterparts in the private sector. In the public sector, core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues, but that is generally not so in the private sector. 

Justice Alito also wrote that “preventing nonmembers from freeriding on the union’s efforts” is a rationale “generally insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections.”

The Friedrichs case, resting as it does on a First Amendment objection based on the premise the collective bargaining in the public sector is inherently political, appears to match perfectly the majority’s objections to Abood in Harris. It very well may spell the end of compulsory public sector union dues.

Educational Choice Fosters Political Tolerance

As America prepares to celebrate its independence, many Americans are caught up in the political squabbles over several recent Supreme Court decisions. If the SCOTUS decisions and their fallout reveal anything, it’s that too many Americans are willing to use the government to coerce their fellow citizens into behaving a certain way. Such people lack the virtue of political tolerance, which Thomas Jefferson believed was the foundation of “social harmony… the first of human felicities.”

What sort of education system is most likely to foster that political tolerance? 

People often assume that government-run “public” schools are the best inculcators of political tolerance. After all, Horace Mann’s vision of the “common school” involved bringing together students from ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds and training them to be good citizens. By contrast, private schools are not required to take all students and many of them are religiously sectarian. Indeed, even President Obama made this claim when visiting Ireland in 2013:

If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

Surely the common schools do a better job inculcating the value of political tolerance than the sectarian schools… right?

In reality, as my colleague Neal McCluskey has painstakingly demonstrated, government schools often force citizens into political conflict. Parents and educators clash over issues of pedagogy, curriculum, morality, sexuality, etc. Too often, deciding which policies a government school will adopt is a zero-sum game

Moreover, the empirical evidence demonstrates that private schools (including religiously sectarian ones) do as well or better than government schools at inculcating political tolerance. In 2007, Dr. Patrick Wolf conducted a literature review of the research on schooling and political toleration, finding:

The most commonly used method of measuring such political tolerance first asks respondents to either think of their least-liked political group or select one from a list that includes such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis, the religious right, and gay activists. It then asks whether respondents would permit members of the disliked group to exercise constitutional rights such as making a public speech, running for political office, and teaching in the public schools. Other studies simply ask respondents whether they would permit various activities from a group with whom they disagree, without first asking them to choose their least-liked group. In either case, responses are aggregated into a tolerance scale.

With one exception, the findings regarding the effect of school choice on political tolerance are confined to the neutral-to-positive range. Eleven findings—five of them from the more-rigorous studies—indicate that school choice increases political tolerance.

The studies do not tell us why the private schools tend to outperform the government schools at fostering political tolerance. Prof. Jay P. Greene, the author of two of the studies in Wolf’s literature review, offered two potential explanations:

It may be that private schools are better at teaching civic values like tolerance, just as they may be more effective at teaching math or reading. It is also possible that, contrary to elite suspicion, religion can teach important lessons about human equality and dignity that inspire tolerance.

It may also be that private schools recognize the importance of the political tolerance that allows them to operate without government intrusion. The same political tolerance that protects them also protects other institutions and groups, including those with diametrically opposite values. Whereas the government schools force zero-sum conflicts—meaning that some people ultimately prevail at forcing their view on others—a market in education allows parents to select the schools that reflect their values. 

A free society requires political tolerance. The most likely education system to foster that tolerance is one that is rooted in free choice.

The Coming School Choice Tidal Wave

Last week I reviewed the latest survey on education policy from the Friedman Foundation but I missed something that should warm the cockles of the hearts of everyone who supports greater choice in education: each generation is progressively more favorable and less opposed to educational choice. 

Scholarship tax credits (STCs) remain the most popular form of educational choice. Even among the 55+ cohort, there is a 20 point spread in favor of choice, 53 percent to 33 percent. Support increases in each cohort by 8 to 13 points. Meanwhile, opposition falls precipitously from 33 percent to only 14 percent. The 35-54 cohort has a 39 point spread in favor of educational choice and the 18-34 cohort has a whopping 60 point spread, 74 percent to 14 percent.

Friedman Foundation survey: popularity of scholarship tax credits

Vouchers are the second most popular of the three reforms. While the oldest cohort is slightly more pro-voucher than pro-STC, opposition is 7 points higher at 33 percent, for a spread of 16 points. The margin widens considerably to 32 points for the middle cohort (65 percent support to 33 percent opposition) and 44 points for the youngest cohort (69 percent support to 25 percent opposition), which is 16 points narrower than the spread for STCs.

Americans Underestimate Government School Spending

In addition to showing that American parents favor educational choice and are skeptical of Common Core, the new national survey on education policy from the Friedman Foundation demonstrates that Americans still vastly underestimate how much is spent per pupil at government-run schools. 

According to the latest National Center for Education Statistics data, the average total per pupil expenditure in U.S. public schools was $12,136 in the 2009-10 school year. However, 63 percent of respondents thought that government schools spend less than $12,000 per pupil, including 49 percent who estimated that they spend less than $8,000 per pupil. Those findings are consistent with the 2013 Education Next survey, in which the average guess was $6,680 per pupil, barely more than half of what is actually spent.

Like the Education Next survey, the Friedman survey asked respondents whether they thought public school spending was too high, about right, or too low, after first randomly assigning the respondents into two groups: one that first heard a prompt explaining that the average U.S. public school spends $10,658 per pupil (this is average operating expenditure per pupil), while the other group was not given any prompt. Whereas 56 percent of the uninformed group thought spending was too low, only 47 percent of the informed group agreed. (It’s likely that the shift would have been even more pronounced had the Friedman Foundation cited the higher total per pupil expenditures in the prompt rather than the partial figure. Indeed, a previous Friedman survey found that the public prefers to know the total figure.) Those findings are consistent with the 2013 Education Next survey, which found that 63 percent of uninformed respondents wanted to increase public school spending but only 43 percent of informed respondents agreed.

At an American Enterprise Institute event discussing the findings, AEI’s Ramesh Ponnuru observed that politicians could loudly promise to spend $9,000 per pupil and most voters would think that they were calling for an increase in school funding rather than a significant cut.

Maybe Deceive-and-Denigrate Isn’t Such a Great Strategy

Yesterday, I wrote about new survey results from the Friedman Foundation showing that the Common Core, if even close to fairly presented, has either negative, or thinly positive, levels of public support. But I posted that too soon; not long after I wrote it, two new polls came out showing even bigger trouble for the Core.

The first was a Rasmussen survey that revealed plummeting support for the Common Core effort among parents of school-aged children. Support dropped from 52 percent in November 2013 to just 34 percent in yesterday’s release. Opposition now outweighs support 47 percent to 34 percent. Assuming the question was unchanged between surveys, that is a huge drop.

The second survey was a University of Southern California poll of Golden State residents. The Core hasn’t been as controversial there as in many states–at least, there doesn’t seem to be a major groundswell to dump it–but it’s getting drubbed there, too. The USC research showed a marked increase in the percentage of Californians who claimed to know about the Core since the survey’s 2013 administration, and among those who reported knowing something only 38 percent had a positive feeling about the Core. Some 44 percent had negative impressions. Presented with pro- and anti-Core statements, a larger percentage of respondents–41 percent to 32 percent–agreed more with the negative statement. In 2013, the pro statement got the plurality, 36 percent to 25 percent.

The Core has clearly been taking a public relations beating. Why? No doubt largely because most people only started to become aware of the Core a couple of years ago as long-silent implementation hit districts and schools. And the more aware they became, the more they disliked what they saw and learned about how the Core ended up in their schools.  

It is also quite possible that the primary strategy Core proponents have employed in the face of mounting opposition–deceive the public about everything from the federal role in moving the Core, to its impact on curricula, and denigrate opponents as misinformed, loony, or both–has blown up in their faces. Perhaps it has amplified the impression that the Core has been foisted on Americans by a relatively small, well-connected group of elites who hold regular people in contempt. I don’t think that most supporters actually are contemptuous of the average American, but it is almost impossible not to feel they are given how many have used the tactic of belittling Core opponents, who are, in many cases, just concerned citizens.

I have long thought Core supporters should publicly admit the truth about the Core–it is heavily federalized and intended, along with related tests, to direct curricula–and apologize to the public for having dodged those basic truths. Maybe now, for their own cause’s sake, they’ll do that.