Weekly Standard Argues, Weakly, for Standards

In the current issue of the Weekly Standard, speech-writer Daniel Casse opines on the school choice debate sparked last month by Sol Stern. Casse begins by uncritically repeating Stern’s claim that the American school choice movement has stagnated for over a decade. In attempting to defend that claim, Stern failed to mention that five new education tax credit programs have been created over that time, harnessing hundreds of millions of dollars and serving a hundred thousand or so children. These programs have grown significantly since their inception and will likely continue to do so. Stern’s omission had already been corrected by several different scholars weeks ago, and for Casse not to mention this shows either poor judgement or poor research on his part.

Casse goes on to dismiss responses to Stern by Robert Enlow, Neal McCluskey and myself as “doctrinaire” in our support for education markets over government school monopolies. But to be doctrinaire is to be impractical and inflexible. I am neither. There are education policies already enacted in several states that, if simply allowed to grow over time, will eventually have very good prospects for creating market forces in education. One example is Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit, which allows businesses to make donations to private scholarship funds that serve low income children, and get a 90% tax credit in return. There are certainly ways to accelerate the advent of real market forces, Cato’s own Public Education Tax Credit model legislation is one, but even the expansion of existing programs could eventually do the trick. That is a practical solution.

And as for flexibility, I would be quite ready to change my position favoring real market reform over central planning in education if the preponderance of evidence changed accordingly. No such change seems iminent. I maintain a spreadsheet of the international research comparing public and private provision of education across 7 or 8 different outcomes (mostly academic achievement and efficiency). These studies span the past 25 years, and of the 91 statistically significant findings I’ve collected, 82 favor private schooling. If these studies are winnowed down so that we look only at those comparing government schools to markets of minimally regulated private schools paid for at least in part by parents, there are 34 statistically significant findings, 32 of which favor market provision. The less intrusive the state is, and the more market-like the schools are, the better private schools work. The latest version of this literature review has yet to be published, but the detailed original 2004 version is available on-line, as is a brief updated discussion at the end of a paper released last year on the No Child Left Behind act.

If anyone is doctrinaire in this debate, it is the advocates of government mandated curricula and educational standards who seldom present any sort of empirical evidence in support of their views, with the exception of an occasional anecdotal reference to some place that has standards they like.

As I pointed out in the Washington Post on-line last year, it is not government standards that produce excellence, but the competitive pursuit of excellence that drives up standards.