Topic: Education and Child Policy

Debunking a Misleading Report on School Choice

Today, the left-wing Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA) released a misleading report on school choice programs in Indiana and elsewhere. Among its key findings include the following claims:

  • None of the independent studies performed of the most lauded and long standing voucher programs extant in the U.S.—Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and Washington, D.C.—found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.
  • According to the annual financial report of the Indiana Department of Education, Indiana spent $115 million on its voucher program in the 2014-2015 school year. In context, that means over $115 million of public, taxpayer money annually will be diverted from … the state’s public school system, and instead used to subsidize students attending private schools.

Both claims, while they contain elements of truth, are highly misleading.

Evidence for the Effectiveness of School Choice

To support its claim regarding the supposed lack of evidence for the success of school choice programs, CBTA points to a few studies of school voucher programs.

First, CTBA cites a longitudinal study of Milwaukee’s voucher program by researchers at the University of Arkansas, claiming that voucher students in grades 3-8 “performed statistically similar” to a matched group of district-school peers on standardized tests. Oddly, CTBA relies on the 2008-2009 findings, published in 2010, rather than the most recent 2012 report. In fact, as the study’s coauthor, Dr. Patrick Wolf, explains, the study found “school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”

First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers.

In the final year of the study, voucher students in grades 3-9 performed about 15 percent of a standard deviation higher on standardized reading tests, “a modest but meaningful educational difference.” The achievement growth in math was not statistically significant relative to the achievement growth of the matched district-school students, but the study concluded that Milkwaukee district-school students were “performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” And because the vouchers were worth about half of the cost per-pupil at the district schools, the study found that the voucher program saved the state nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011.

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

The Right and Wrong Ways to Learn Policy Lessons from Other Countries

Back in the mid-1990s, I was often told that Americans had no interest in what other countries were doing policy-wise. As a result, it was purportedly futile to study policy using international evidence. Ignoring that warning, I wrote a book about education around the world, back to ancient times.

Whether or not the warning was valid at the time, there is now a great deal of interest in other nations’ education policies. Well… in one nation’s in particular: Finland’s. In that country, we are often told, every child is a Socrates—except for the ones who are Jane Austens or Hedy Lamarrs—and this is due, we are told, to one or more of its current education policies (the claimer gets to pick which ones).

A recent op-ed at Cleveland.com not only jumps on this Emulate Fantastic Finland bandwagon, it also purports to use the Finnish example to critique “market-based” education policies in general.

Here’s the main problem with the movement that proclaims “Country X is doing well educationally, so let’s emulate its education system!”: there are a lot of factors outside the classroom that affect educational outcomes, and that differ among countries—culture, resources in the home, etc.—and so it’s difficult to know to what extent a given nation’s performance is due to those factors or to its education policies. Fortunately, there’s a technique that not only circumvents this problem, it turns it to our advantage:

Comparing different sorts of school systems within nations. A study that compares public and private schools within India, for example, or that looks at the effects of private sector competition in Sweden on overall outcomes, eliminates international differences as a factor.  Still, the results of such studies, taken individually, have limited generalizability.

Maryland Seizes Kids (Again) For Walking Home From Park

On Sunday afternoon Montgomery County, Maryland police and Child Protective Services seized the free-range Meitiv children, 10 year old Rafi and 6 year old Dvora, after their parents, Danielle and her husband Sasha, had again let them play by themselves at a park in Silver Spring, just outside D.C. The Meitiv family became the center of a national cause célèbre in January when the county charged the parents with child neglect for letting the two kids walk home from a park. In March, CPS found the neglect charge “unsubstantiated” but puzzlingly deemed the parents “responsible” for it anyway. This time, according to news reports, the kids were again walking back from the park and had gotten to within 1/3 mile of home when police intercepted and picked them up pursuant to a 911 call from “a neighbor” who had spotted them walking alone. The kids were supposed to return home by 6; the police held them for hours in the back of a squad car and did not call the by-then-frantic parents until 8 p.m. 

The Meitivs were reunited with their kids after agreeing to “sign a temporary safety plan to take them home, which means they are not allowed to leave the children unattended at all. …Police say after a thorough investigation, a decision about whether or not the Meitivs will face charges will be made.” 

I’m familiar with downtown Silver Spring, but even if I weren’t I could assure you: this is an outrage, and a big enough one that even in the Washington suburbs, where government often gets the benefit of the doubt, there is widespread outrage. One who’s been writing eloquently on the issue is Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak (“Our rapid march toward police-state parenting has got to end,” she writes today) who emphasizes what is obvious to older readers – that kids used to walk on the street as a routine part of childhood – by quoting a checklist from a 1979 book on six-year-olds, on first-grade readiness: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”

State Spending vs. College Prices

Professor Paul Campos, something of an antagonist of our higher education system, caused a bit of ruckus last week when he wrote in the New York Times that skyrocketing college prices cannot be blamed on falling state appropriations to schools. The reality, of course, is that declining public support could explain some of the increase in prices (though not much at private colleges) but it seems unlikely it would explain all of the increases.

Let’s look at the trends.

First, note that overall state and local support, at least for general operations at public institutions, is indeed down over the last several years. Using data from the latest State Higher Education Finance report – released just yesterday – total state and local support for general operations at public colleges, adjusted for inflation using a higher education-specific index, fell from a peak of $83 billion in 2008 to $73 billion in 2014, a pretty big drop. That said, in 1989 total spending was only $64 billion, which means it has risen since then.

Alabama’s School Choice Law Needs Improvement

Educational choice laws have the potential to expand educational opportunity and improve quality. However, design matters. Ideally, educational choice laws allow very wide participation and eschew technocratic regulations that can impede or even undermine their success.

Unfortunately, Alabama’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law is far from ideal.

Last week, the Alabama State Senate passed legislation making numerous changes to the state’s STC law. Yet while the legislation includes several improvements, the changes fail to address the law’s most serious flaws, and would further constrain what is already among the most limited private school choice laws in the nation.

Eligibility

Under the Alabama Accountability Act, low- and middle-income students who are zoned to attend a district school designated as “failing” are eligible to receive tax-credit scholarships from a nonprofit scholarship-granting organization (SGO). Sadly, while other states are seeking to expand eligibility, the Alabama Senate is seeking to further restrict it.

The legislation would lower the income eligibility level from 150 percent of Alabama’s median household income (about $65,000 for a family of four in 2014–15) to that of the federal free-and-reduced lunch program, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $44,000 for a family of four). It also eliminates the provision that allowed students to continue receiving scholarships if their parents’ income outgrew the eligibility guidelines, which could contribute to the poverty trap.

Even worse, rather than eliminate the problematic “failing schools” provision, the legislation would narrow the scope of what constitutes a “failing” school. The legislation would restrict tax-credit scholarships to students zoned to district schools scoring in the lowest 6 percent on the state standardized assessment in reading and math, down from 10 percent (among other provisions). However, even schools that perform higher on average might not meet the particular needs of particular students. Educational choice laws should provide opportunities to all students, no matter where they live or how well or poorly their local district school performs on average.

Rule by ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter: The Department of Education’s Stealth Regulation

We’ve noted repeatedly how the U.S. Department of Education, using authority it claims under Title IX and other federal laws, has arm-twisted the nation’s colleges and universities into stripping away procedural protections for faculty and students facing charges of sexual misconduct, sought to regulate speech as “verbal conduct,” and urged colleges to record microaggressive behaviors that do not rise to the level of harassment or assault but might add up in time to some future pattern. The resulting federal pressure has done much to generate a campus atmosphere in which administrators like those at the University of Virginia react even to unsubstantiated and soon-refuted assault claims with harsh crackdowns directed at whole groups of students against whom no misconduct whatsoever has been charged.

The substance of what the feds have been doing in this area has rightly stirred outrage, but another side of it also deserves scrutiny: it’s based on sheer fiat, on a series of “because we say so” edicts. A few recent items:

  • Early this year, the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee released “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” the lengthy report of a group called the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education with assistance from the American Council on Education. The federal government, according to the report, has entangled colleges in a continually expanding “jungle of red tape” (the Department of Education now “issues official guidance to amend or clarify its rules at a rate of more than one document per work day”). Not only does the department’s regulatory process (see pp. 32 et seq.) generate new rulemakings that are not well grounded in statutory authority, but it regularly takes the form of “Dear Colleague” letters, informal field advisories, and other “subregulatory guidance” that dodges the important legal safeguards of actual rulemaking, such as notice and comment to the public and the generating of a decisionmaking record well suited to judicial review (pp. 35–37). The crackdown on college discipline famously has taken the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter and associated guidance, not a formal regulation.
  • Both the task force report and our friend Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute show how the Department now routinely uses these free-floating processes to extend regulatory burdens across a whole range of issues, not just Title IX: rules on for-profit college performance, Clery-law crime reporting, disability-based harassment (on which more, and note the push for school authority over students’ off-campus social media use), race-conscious K–12 discipline, information collection, and on and on.
  • Boston College Prof. R. Shep Melnick, an expert on regulatory procedure, casts a critical eye on the enforcement practices of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in this Liberty Law Forum podcast (and don’t miss Michael Greve’s eloquent reactions here and here, focusing on OCR’s interpretation of “disparate impact” theory to devise new guidance on what it calls “resource comparability” between schools). Relatedly, a symposium in the Federalist Society’s Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy last year examined possible remedies to stealth or back-door regulation [see John Graham and James Broughel’s summary]

All that brings us to the big question: were someone to challenge OCR’s kangaroo-court regulations on college discipline, would they stand up in court? David Bernstein at Volokh Conspiracy in November offered three reasons why they might not. It may be difficult to persuade a college to serve as a test case, given the annihilating possibility of a federal funds cutoff as the penalty of its presumption. But given the spectacular collapse of the University of Virginia allegations, might this not be a good time to try?