Topic: Education and Child Policy

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

Expanding Educational Opportunity in the Bay State

One of the central promises of educational choice is expanding equality of opportunity.  When students are assigned to schools based on where they live, access to higher-performing schools depends on a family’s ability to afford a home in a more expensive community. This disparity between higher- and lower-income families persists even in academically high-performing states like Massachusetts.

Though the Bay State consistently ranks among the very top performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and is internationally competitive in math and science, these aggregate scores obscure the reality that performance varies considerably across districts, particularly along socio-economic lines.

In wealthier towns and cities like Dover and Weston, where the median household income is $184,646 and $180,815 respectively, students perform well. On the 2013 state assessment (the MCAS), 99 percent of Dover-Sherborn Regional High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 100 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. Likewise, 97 percent of Weston High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 99 percent scored proficient or advanced in English. 

By contrast, students from lower-income communities like Chelsea and New Bedford, where the median household income is $43,155 and $37,493 respectively, often do not perform nearly as well. On the most recent MCAS, only 61 percent of Chelsea High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 77 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. So too, only 49 percent of New Bedford High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 76 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. 

This pattern is repeated across the commonwealth – in the 10 poorest cities and towns in Massachusetts, only 40.6 percent of students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ on the MCAS score compared to a statewide average of 65.1 percent. In 2013 the percentage of low-income students who scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English or math in all grades was approximately 33 points below the percentage for higher-income students.

One might assume that the differences in performance across income groups reflect disparate funding levels, yet there is scant evidence that increased school resources lead to increased student performance. Indeed, after adjusting for inflation, K-12 spending in the United States has tripled since 1970, but NAEP scores have remained essentially flat.

Slate Publishes Inaccurate, Fallacious Piece on Sweden and School Choice

Last week Slate published a misinformed piece on Sweden’s school choice program and what we can learn from it. The errors of fact and logic are glaring. Apparently, they don’t have multiple layers of fact checking over there, so I decided to lend a hand and correct the record at Education Next.

Here’s a snippet:

First, [Slate] claims that “more Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in any other developed country on earth.”  In fact, neither of these claims is true. Taking the parenthetical claim first, according to the most recent data of which I am aware (from 2012), the majority of Swedish private schools are non-profit (in Swedish, “Ideella”).

As for overall private sector enrollment among industrialized countries, we can consult the OECD, an association of 34 industrialized nations that administers the PISA test:

“On average across OECD countries… 14% of students attend government-dependent [i.e., gov’t-funded] private schools…. In Sweden, the share of students in private schools increased significantly over the past decade from 4% in 2003 to 14% in 2012…. This brings the share of students in private schools close to the OECD average.”

Slate, in other words, is badly mistaken on this point. How badly? Here are the top five industrialized countries by share of private school enrollment, according to the OECD’s 2012 PISA database:

Belgium 68.4
Netherlands 67.6
Ireland 58.2
Korea 47.5
UK 45.2

 

 

 

 

 

Sweden doesn’t even come close….

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

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.