Traditional educators frequently claim that public charter schools are failing, even when evidence indicates that they perform no worse than traditional institutions on student test scores. This logic fails to recognize costs, which are paramount to educational success, primarily because wasted funds could otherwise be efficiently allocated towards further academic achievement. If students are receiving less public funding in charters, then choice schools are significantly outperforming residentially assigned institutions.
I just released a study with Patrick Wolf, Larry Maloney, and Jay May examining disparities in funding between students in charters and traditional public schools in 15 metropolitan areas in the 2013–14 school year. As shown in figure 1 from the report, students enrolled in a public charter school receive substantially less funding than those in traditional public schools in all but one location. In fact, we find that students in charter schools receive about $5,721 less in total annual funding than their peers in district schools.
Source: Wolf, Maloney, May, and DeAngelis (2017). "Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City." School Choice Demonstration Project, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas.
Critics of this type of evaluation often argue that funding disparities are due to differences in types of students. After all, traditional public schools (TPS) may have a larger proportion of students requiring additional educational resources. While the TPS in our study do enroll more special needs children, we find that these differences do not fully explain the funding gap between traditional public schools and public charter schools.
Funding inequity across the two sectors has only gotten worse over time. Eleven years after the research team first revealed that public charter schools receive less funding than their traditional public schools peers, the funding disparity had grown by about 79% in eight cities.
Should these results surprise us? If you could force your customers to buy your product at a high price, would you need to reduce expenses? Perhaps more importantly, if your customers could not leave, how would you know which costs to cut? The traditional system of schooling makes it impossible to allocate resources efficiently, even if local public school leaders are highly competent and benevolent.
Nonetheless, these findings are important for decision-makers to consider, especially if they care about improving student outcomes through efficiently allocating educational funding. Just imagine what would happen to the education sector if families could choose which institution to send their funds to. Schools would be rewarded for quality and efficiency, freeing up the resources necessary to improve the lives of millions of children around the nation.
Results of last week’s DC voucher study, showing some significant negative effects on standardized math tests, has school choice opponents in overdrive writing voucher obituaries. But at least some commentators, like the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, concede that choice works, but only if it is shackled to regulations they like. That choice works if carefully managed is perhaps an inevitable concession with the broad notion of school choice clearly in ascendance. However, the idea that regulated choice produces better outcomes flies in the face of basic economic theory and choice research.
Negative Impacts of Regulation
State requirements often come in the form of standardized test scores or restrictions on the types of teachers that may be employed. These regulations force schools to focus narrowly on state tests, which do not appear to matter in the long-run, and limit the supply of teachers, lowering educational quality while increasing costs.
As I illustrate below, programs with less restrictive voucher laws lead to more impressive experimental evaluations of student math achievement, perhaps because the costs of regulation ward off high quality private institutions:
Parents are more satisfied with their child's learning environment when they choose it. Indeed, as economist Tyler Cowen put it recently, "the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact" about educational choice programs is that "they improve parent satisfaction." A slew of new reports add a number of hefty boulders to the mountain of evidence.
As I explained in greater detail last week, bureaucrats tend to focus excessively on test scores but parents take a more holistic approach to evaluating the quality of an education provider. As Cowen notes, "parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice." Parents know their children are more than scores.
Voters generally tend to reflect the views of parents more so than education technocrats. In a recent survey from Public School Options, only 14 percent of voters said they "consider state standardized test scores the critical factor in assessing a student’s overall success in school" and 78 percent said that schools "should never be closed primarily on the results of that particular school's average" on the state's standardized test. Moreover, 65 percent said they "believe an ongoing summary of each school’s status using a dashboard of multiple measurements would be more helpful to parents and policy makers" than a "system that provides a single letter grade for each school." If we want an education system that considers the individual needs of each child rather than grading schools on a few narrow measures of performance for an imagined "typical" child, then we should entrust parents with holding education providers accountable for academic outcomes.
Education savings accounts (ESAs) are one way to accomplish that goal. With an ESA, parents can customize their child's education, using it to pay for private school tuition as well as tutors, textbooks, online courses, educational therapy, and more. The ESAs are typically funded from a portion of the funds that the state would have spent on a child at his or her assigned district school, but they could also be funded through tax-credit eligible donations. In a 2013 survey, Arizona parents of students with special needs expressed unanimous satisfaction with the educational settings they chose for their children using the ESA funds. Moreover, the lowest-income families were the most likely to express dissatisfaction with their assigned district school (67 percent) and the most likely to say they were "very satisfied" with the education their child obtained through the ESA (89 percent).
Last week, Empower Mississippi released a similar survey of parents of students with special needs using Mississippi's ESA. Participating students had an array of conditions, including autism, hearing or visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, speech impairment, emotional disturbances, and more. The results mirrored those from Arizona. As shown in the two figures below, most participants were dissatisfied with their previous experience in their assigned district school (67 percent) but they overwhelmingly expressed satisfaction with the educational setting they chose using ESA funds (98 percent).
Source: Empower Mississippi
Over the summer, The New York Times published an error-ridden piece on Michigan's charter schools that it has yet to retract. Now, the NYT is doubling down with another piece adding new errors to old ones. The errors begin in the opening sentence:
This is editorializing thinly veiled as "news." In fact, lots of experts disagreed with that statement. The original NYT piece received a wave of criticism from national and local education policy experts, charter school organizations, and other journalists. As I explained at the time, the central premise of the NYT's takedown on Detroit's charter schools was an utter distortion of the research:
The piece claims that “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” This is a distortion of the research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Although the article actually cites this research – noting that it is “considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country” – it only does so to show that one particular charter chain in Detroit is low performing. (For the record, the “gold standard” is actually a random-assignment study. CREDO used a matching approach, which is more like a silver standard. But I digress.) The NYT article fails to mention that the same study found that “on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.”Read the rest of this post »
As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.
President-Elect Trump's selection of philanthropist and long-time school choice advocate Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has the public education establishment and its allies in panic mode. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted "Trump has chosen the most ideological, anti-public ed nominee since the creation of the Dept of Education." Over at Slate, Dana Goldstein frets that "Trump could gut public education"—even though federal dollars account for less than 10 percent of district school funding nationwide. The New York Times has also run series of hand-wringing pieces about what the Trump administration has in store for our nation's education system.
At the center of the panic over Trump’s nomination of DeVos is their support for school choice. Although light on details, Trump has pledged to devote $20 billion to a federal voucher program. As is so often the case, the most vocal opponents of federal school choice are right for the wrong reasons. Not only does the federal government lack constitutional jurisdiction (outside of Washington, D.C., military installations, and tribal lands), but a federal voucher program poses a danger to school choice efforts nationwide because a less-friendly future administration could attach regulations that undermine choice policies. Such regulations are always a threat to the effectiveness of school choice policies, but when a particular state adopts harmful regulations, the negative effects are localized. Louisiana’s folly does not affect Florida. Not so with a national voucher program. Moreover, harmful regulations are easier to fight at the state level than at the federal level, where the exercise of “pen and phone” executive authority is increasingly (and unfortunately) the norm.
Many of Trump's critics have not addressed very real federalism concerns, but have instead used the DeVos appointment to attack school choice generally, particularly its more free-market forms.
Today, Education Next released the results of its annual survey of public opinion on education policy. The 2016 results are somewhat disappointing for advocates of school choice because support for some types of choice programs has diminished over the last decade, particularly for voucher programs targeted to the poor. However, support for scholarship tax credit (STC) programs -- once again, the most popular type of school choice program -- has remained high and steady.
When asked whether they favored or opposed a proposal to offer a "tax credit for individuals and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools," 53 percent responded favorably while only 29 percent expressed opposition. Respondents were nearly evenly divided over universal vouchers, with 45 percent in support and 44 percent opposed. However, nearly half of respondents opposed targeted vouchers while only 37 percent supported them. Charter schools fared better, but many people don't know what they are. When the survey asked about charter schools without defining what they are, nearly half of respondents were neutral. However, when the survey defined them as "publicly funded" schools that are "not managed by the local school board" that "are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations," the amount of respondents who expressed no opinion dropped to 21 percent while support increased from 34 percent to 51 percent and opposition increased from 17 percent to 28 percent.
2016 Education Next survey results.
Unfortunately, once again the survey failed to ask about education savings accounts.
Support for STCs was even higher among parents (60 percent), African-Americans (64 percent), and Hispanics (62 percent). This is not surprising since minorities are more likely to be low-income and therefore choice deprived. Interestingly, support for STCs was higher among self-described Democrats (57 percent) than Republicans (49 percent), although the GOP has generally been more supportive of school choice than the Democratic Party. Democrats were also more likely to support both universal and targeted vouchers (49 and 42 percent, respectively) than Republicans (41 and 31 percent, respectively).
Previous Education Next surveys also found that STCs garnered the highest amount of support from among the various school choice policies. Since 2009, support has increased from 46 percent to 53 percent, although it is down from a high of 60 percent in 2014. However, at 29 percent, opposition to STCs is also at its highest level since EdNext began including the question in their survey. Neverthess, there is a 24 percentage point advantage for those who favor STCs. (Note: EdNext did not ask about STCs in their 2013 survey.)
Education Next survey results, 2009-2016
With the addition of South Dakota earlier this year, there are now 17 states that have 21 STC programs. Last year, more than 230,000 students used tax-credit scholarships to attend the private school of their choice, compared to about 150,000 students who used school vouchers and about 6,000 who used education savings accounts ESAs. Their high level of public support makes them the most politically viable form of school choice and because they are privately (rather than publicly) funded, they have a perfect record of being upheld as constitutional, making them the most constitutionally viable form of school choice yet devised as well.
Although ESAs have some advantages over both vouchers and traditional STC programs because they allow for greater customization, it is possible to combine the advantages of ESAs and STCs by privately funding the education savings accounts with the assistance of tax credits. For more information, see the report I coauthored with Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute and Arizona Justice Clint Bolick (then of Goldwater): "Taking Credit for Education: How to Fund Education Savings Accounts through Tax Credits."
The EdNext survey also covered topics such as Common Core, testing, merit pay, tenure, teachers unions, blended learning, and more. You can find the full results along with ten-year trend data here.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran a front-page story purporting to show that "betting big" on charters has produced "chaos" and a "glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students." (One wonders how many of those low-income families are upset that they have "too many" options.). However, the article's central claim about charter school performance rests on a distorted reading of the data.
The piece claims that "half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools." This is a distortion of the research from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Although the article actually cites this research -- noting that it is "considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country" -- it only does so to show that one particular charter chain in Detroit is low performing. (For the record, the "gold standard" is actually a random-assignment study. CREDO used a matching approach, which is more like a silver standard. But I digress.) The NYT article fails to mention that the same study found that "on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools."
As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit's charter schools outperformed the city's traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.
Read the rest of this post »