Market Education Debate, Part Three

Sara Mead of Education Sector continues our discussion of education markets here. She rounds out her post by impugning my professional integrity, but not before she has misrepresented my position. I’ll begin at the beginning.

Mead claims that I advocate letting Chilean children languish under its current voucher system which financially discriminates against private schools serving the poor. I said no such thing. Among the many changes I would make to the Chilean system, the first would be to equalize public and private sector funding levels.

Mead then manages to combine two distinct errors into a single sentence: the first, a misrepresentation of the evidence, and the second, a non-sequitur. She writes: “Leave aside that it’s not clear [that expanding Chile’s choice program] would be desirable, since poor students in Chile’s private schools perform less well than those in its public schools.”

First, as I pointed out in my previous post, Chile’s government schools only outperform the private sector when they receive between 150 and 300 percent of the voucher amount – and it is government schools serving the poor that enjoy targeted federal funding programs not available to the private sector. When they receive only about as much as the voucher, or even somewhat more, government schools perform worse. So, by equalizing funding across sectors, Chile could make significantly more efficient use of its educational dollars in serving all its children. This 2002 finding by Sapelli and Vial is discussed in detail in the pieces to which I have previously linked.

Second, the non-sequitur: Even if Chile’s government schools were outperforming its private schools in serving the poor (which, taking funding levels into account, they are not) it would not follow that the choice program lacked value. That’s because the competition produced by the choice program has been improving achievement simultaneously in both government schools and private voucher schools. This result was demonstrated by researcher Francisco Gallego, and is also cited in the pieces I’ve linked to.

Next, let’s turn to the Netherlands. Ms. Mead complains that “Coulson doesn’t even engage with my argument that the situation of the Netherlands is fundamentally different from that of the United States in ways that make it unhelpful as an example here.” Mead presented no such argument. She simply claimed, without rational justification, that because the Dutch adopted a voucher system to end religious strife and ideological dissatisfaction over the content of government schooling, their experience doesn’t apply to us. A claim is not an argument, and this particular claim is simply wrong.

The earlier Dutch conflict over the content of its government schools is not a point of divergence between our countries, it is a point of similarity. St. Augustine’s Church was burned to the ground in 1844 during Philadelphia’s “Bible Riots” which were fought over which version of the Bible, Protestant or Catholic, would be used in government schools. To this day, there is a an ongoing cultural battle between Red and Blue America over what should be taught in public schools. Both our countries are pluralistic, and there is no reason to believe that the general international pattern of supply rising to meet demand under school choice programs would magically take a holiday in the United States.

If Mead wants to attempt an argument to the contrary, she is welcome to do so, but she hasn’t made one yet.

A related point that Mead does not seem to have internalized is that the usefulness of the international data is to be found in the patterns that exist across nations. When a consistent pattern of success or failure can be discerned for some given school system across many different times and places, it suggests that there is something truly systemic at work, and not simply accidents of circumstance – because the circumstances are different, but the results similar. The degree of confidence of such conclusions is proportional to the breadth of evidence across which the patterns are found – so the more evidence we look at, the more sure we can be.

Supply has always risen to meet demand in the private education sector, across nations, except to the extent it has been obstructed by government interference, such as the funding discrimination that exists in most nations, or the regulations imposed on private schools that stifle the specialization that contributes to their appeal. Sometimes it rises even despite these impediments, as in India and parts of Africa today.

This search for patterns across time and place has a name: “natural experimentation,” and it is used by researchers in fields from epidemiology to cosmology. It is also the methodology underpinning Jared Diamond’s fascinating analysis of the fates of human societies in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Ms. Mead, apparently unfamiliar with this analytic technique, is at a loss to understand why I have looked so far and wide to study market forces in education. Unable to discern that reason, she decides to impugn my integrity instead.

Mead characterizes me as a “disingenuous” ideologue who spends a lot of his “time trying to find examples that will support his ideological support for vouchers.” I, she claims, am “much more interested in expanding choice” for its own sake, whereas she, she tells us, is “much more focused on expanding the supply of high-quality schools serving poor kids.”

The truth, as I explained above, is more prosaic: I have studied the evidence of market versus bureaucratic school systems, serving children at all income levels, wherever it is to be found. Far from avoiding the study of conflicting evidence, I have sought it out, in both my historical work and my review of the modern international research. But Ms. Mead wouldn’t know that, because she is, by her own admission, unfamiliar with my work.

To impugn a scholar’s professional integrity by claiming that they cherry pick their data, without actually being familiar with that person’s work, shows poor judgment and a lack of intellectual rigor. Poor kids – all kids – deserve better from the education policy community.