The annual Education Next gauge of public opinion on numerous education issues is out, and as always it offers lots to contemplate, including special questions this year on the “Trump effect." I won’t hit everything, just what I see as the highlights.
The poll's headline grabber is a big drop in support for charter schools, public schools run by ostensibly private entities but subject to many public school controls, especially state standards and testing. When people with neutral opinions were removed, 52 percent of respondents approved of “formation” of charters—that word likely made some difference—down from a peak of 73 percent in 2012. With neutral answers included, only 39 percent of the general public supported charters.
The good news is that support for private school choice programs—superior to charters because they offer access to far wider options, including religious schools—saw upticks. Scholarship tax credits remain the choice champ, with support (absent neutral respondents) rising from 65 percent to 69 percent. With neutrals, support stood at 55 percent of the general public. For vouchers, a lot depends on question wording, but without a loaded emphasis on “government funds,” support (minus neutrals) stood at 55 percent, up from 50 percent the previous year. With neutrals, support was at 45 percent, with 37 percent opposing. Education savings accounts—basically, money parents can use not just for tuition, but other education expenses like tutoring or buying standalone courses—garnered only 37 support from the general public, but the concept is pretty new and people may just not have wrapped their heads around it yet.
Why the big drop in charter support but improved backing of private school choice? As always, wording, question order, and other artifacts of the poll itself matter, but assuming those aren’t the major causes of the results, perhaps the answer is that charters, as a compromise between empowering parents and maintaining government control, have traditionally tended to have the highest profile bipartisan support of the various choice mechanisms. As a result of Trump-driven polarization, perhaps they have also had the most visible schisms, maybe casting a more negative light on them. Or maybe people have started to perceive, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos borrowed from Rick Hess to warn, charters are becoming “the Man” they were supposed to replace.
It is always instructive to see how much people think we spend on public schools, how much we actually spend, and whether the truth sets people free of the assumption that we need to spend more. As in the past, the poll finds that people greatly underestimate how much their districts spend per-pupil, with respondents guessing only about 69 percent of the actual expenditure. The average respondent thought their local district spent $8,877 per student, when in fact their district shelled out $12,899. When actual spending is not provided, 54 percent of respondents think their districts should increase outlays. When it is furnished, that drops to 39 percent. Of course, none of this actually says what the “right” amount of spending is, because we do not know what that is—we don’t have competitive markets that let us see how efficiently education can be provided.
With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which at least in spirit puts states back in charge of their own standards and tests, and with many states likely loathe to quickly revisit the process of overhauling their systems, this once burning issue has dwindled to smoldering. Perhaps that is why after Core support cliff-dove between 2012 and 2016—with neutral responses removed, it plummeted from 90 percent to 50 percent—it caught a bit of an updraft this year, with support lifting to 52 percent. Add the neutral answers, though, and support sits at just 41 percent, and that’s with a loaded question that states the Core will be used “to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” (Who’s against “accountability”?) Much more disturbing, asked generically about uniform standards, federal tests, and letting parents opt their kids out of testing, the public overwhelmingly supports imposition. For educational freedom fans, perhaps the angel is in the details; once you move to real standards with concrete content, and real imposition, generic support turns to real world disapproval.
From depressing news about imposition, we move to somewhat gratifying news. Agency fees are charges that teachers have to pay a union for bargaining on their behalf, whether they like that bargaining and union or not. These fees likely would have lost in the US Supreme Court in 2016 had it not been for the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. (A new case is on its way that might still strike down these enemies of free speech and association.) The public, it seems, might recognize the injustice of compelled support of hyper-politicized teacher unions, with 44 percent opposing agency fees, 19 percent neutral, and only 37 percent in support.
This became a hot topic a couple of weeks ago when it appeared that the Trump Justice Department would undertake investigations of colleges to see if they were discriminating against white applicants. The Trump effort appears now to be specifically connected to one suit by Asian Americans—not a broad hunt for discrimination against whites—but that could always change. Education Next only asked about minority preferences for hiring professors, not admitting students, and as I wrote recently I would encourage private colleges to undertake some affirmative action. That said, I still find the overwhelming result here—people want professors hired on merit, not goosed by considerations of race, gender, or political opinions—encouraging. It suggests that the public shares a crucial ideal: that people be treated as unique individuals, not members of a group.
As with many polls there is good news and bad news aplenty in this one, and lots to debate about question wording, order, and the why of the results. But the news is not bad for the best form of choice—private school choice—and some other important matters, so I’ll take it. Now go ahead and pore over the whole thing yourself!
A lot of well-intentioned people think it is not enough for families to be able to choose schools. They have to choose “good” schools. Those people often do not think private school choice programs that give parents a lot of control over which schools they select are up to par. Fine. But just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it a “clear flop.”
Writing at The 74, Richard Whitmire warns that we should beware Trumps bearing school choice gifts. He argues that President-elect Trump’s proposal to spend $20 billion on school choice could be dangerous not because of, say, federal rules that might be attached to unconstitutional largesse, but because the money might not be restricted to “great” schools. “Great,” presumably, should be defined by legislators or bureaucrats. After all, you don’t want to replicate the Milwaukee voucher program:
Those in the school reform movement learned the hard way that choice alone does not produce more seats in great schools. If that were the case, we’d all be praising the early voucher program in Milwaukee and the widespread charters in Ohio and Michigan. But in all those cases, choice alone produced nothing.
In Milwaukee, for example, which I visited repeatedly while researching my book On the Rocketship, about the creation of one best-in-class charter network, the more-than-two-decade-old voucher experiment proved to be a clear flop. (Note that I didn’t say unpopular. Who objects to free tuition for their kid’s parochial schools?)
Set aside the first evidence that Milwaukee’s program isn’t a “clear flop”: It is popular, indicating that the people it is supposed to serve are at least getting something they want. What about other important measures, including test scores, graduation rates, competitive effects, and costs? According to researchers at the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project, who intensively studied Milwaukee:
Our main findings included that the program had a positive effect on a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school and enrolling and persisting in a 4-year college. We found little evidence that the Choice program increased the test scores of participating students, though our final analysis revealed a positive effect of the program on reading scores when combined with high stakes testing. There was no evidence of program effects on math scores. Competition from the Choice program appears to have boosted the test scores of students who remained in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), but those systemic effects of the program were modest in size. Because the maximum value of the voucher...is substantially less than what the government pays to educate students in MPS, the state saves over $50 million per year from the operation of the program.
Is the choice program transformative? No. But a flop? It appears to have produced somewhat better outcomes at much lower taxpayer expense than the public schools. It is also nowhere near a free market, with regulations constraining admissions policies, hours of instruction, and testing. And freedom is the key to unleashing competitive pressures, specialization, and innovation.
The Milwaukee voucher program is not a flop, and making policy based on the idea it is would be a mistake.
The latest 8th grade U.S. history, civics, and geography results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – have been released, and as usual, things seem bleak: only 18 percent of students scored proficient in U.S. history, 23 percent in civics, and 27 percent in geography. These kinds of results, however, should be taken with a few salt grains because we can’t see the full tests, and the setting of proficiency levels can be a bit arbitrary. Also, we don’t...
Oh, the heck with all that. As a fan of school choice, just tell me if private schools did better!
Based on the raw data, they did. 31 percent of private school students were proficient in U.S. history, versus 17 percent of public schoolers; 38 percent were proficient in civics, versus 22 percent of public schools kids; and 44 percent were proficient in geography, versus 25 percent of public schools kids. That said, to really know which broad swath of schools did better – and from a parent’s perspective, it is really only the individual schools from which they might choose that matter – you’d have to control for all sorts of characteristics of their students. From what I’ve seen, what was just released didn’t do that. Thankfully, others have.
What have they found? Controlling for various student characteristics and other factors, private schools beat traditional publics in terms of political knowledge, voluntarism in communities, and other socially desirable outcomes. Why?
There may be many possible reasons, but at least one seems to be intimately connected to choice: autonomous schools select their own curricula, and families willingly accept it when they choose the schools. That means chosen schools can more easily teach coherent U.S. history and civics than can public schools, which often face serious pressures to teach lowest-common-denominator pabulum lest conflict break out among ideologically and politically diverse people. Perhaps ironically – though not if you understand how a free society works – by not being public, private schools may actually serve the public better.
So no, you can’t conclude a lot from the latest NAEP scores. But that doesn’t mean they can’t point you in the right direction.
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.”
In light of the evidence, why has the 21st CCLC likely been spared in the Senate? Almost certainly because it sounds nice – who doesn’t like after-school enrichment? – and because the vast majority of voters don’t have time to research it and discover that the federal government’s own evaluations have found it wanting. And, of course, people getting money through the program likely lobbied hard to keep it. In other words, we’re almost certainly looking at classic concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: For voters and taxpayers, the 21st CCLC is but one among umpteen thousand government programs they could never keep track of and which, on an individual taxpayer basis, costs little. In contrast, for politicians sending an “I care” message, and for those getting money or services through the program, it means much more so they fight to keep it.
This is a major reason it is essential to keep the goal of removing Washington from education squarely in view at all times. Fail to eliminate it completely – to make going to Washington for education cash nearly impossible – and bad programs will be kept, many that seem gone will grow back, and new ones will emerge.
If you don’t want to get stung by the jellyfish, you can’t just cut a few tentacles.
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.
Of course, there has been a huge increase in public college enrollment since 1989, rising from 7.5 million full-time equivalent students to 11.1 million. So, as you can see from the blue line in the chart below, appropriations per student have definitely dropped. But do those drops explain rising prices?
Here is where the red line comes in. Note, the line is revenue received per full-time equivalent (FTE) student after accounting for state and institutional aid to students. What it shows is that net revenue per student has been going up, as expected. But look at the black, linear trend lines, which enable us to get a sense for what the overall trends have been. They show that while public institutions have lost roughly $70 per year, per student, in public appropriations, they have increased their net tuition revenue per-student $101 a year, for an annual net gain of $31.
The SHEEO data, however, are not the most damning when it comes to the Cheap States Made Us Do It hypothesis. Data from the most recent College Board pricing report, which capture state appropriations per FTE student and the cost not just of tuition and fees, but also room and board, show a much greater gap between rising college prices and what would be needed to make up for lost public funding. The College Board also uses a standard price index for calculating inflation instead of one tailored to higher ed, the latter of which would overstate past spending were all higher education costs artificially inflated faster than a “normal” basket of goods. Say, perhaps, by huge subsidies to consumers.
As the chart below illustrates, while public institutions have lost about $72 per FTE student each year using College Board data, they have increased published tuition, fee, room and board charges about $357 per year. That’s a hefty net gain of $285 per student, per year.
So what do these charts show us? What I have written before, and what Campos just argued: More is going on in rampantly inflated college pricing than just lost state funding. Almost certainly much more.
In a Washington Post op-ed laying out his thoughts on the federal role in education, Gov. Jeb Bush wrote, “We are long overdue in setting the lines of authority so clearly.” Alas, the lines he offered would furnish just the sort of “clarity” that has led to nearly limitless federal control over schooling without any meaningful evidence of lasting improvement.
The true heart of what Bush wrote was not his declaration about setting lines, but the three justifications he offered for federal intervention. Washington, he wrote:
should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help.
All of this is what has gotten us to the de facto state of federal control we are currently in:
- “Transparency” has come to mean federally driven tests and curriculum standards – the Common Core – because under No Child Left Behind states had been defining “proficiency” for themselves, and it wasn’t sufficiently “transparent” for some people whether “proficient” kids in Mississippi were as educated as those in Massachusetts. Of course, you can’t have much more complete federal control than Washington deciding what students are taught.
- Supporting policies with “a proven record” opens the door for any policies politicians declare “proven.” See, for instance, the rhetoric vs. the reality of pre-K education programs.
- Making sure states “can’t ignore students who need extra help” has also been used to justify national standards and tests. Indeed, it underlies everything Washington does. Sayeth federal politicians, “Some groups aren’t doing so well, and since we spend money to end that we’d better dictate terms. So let’s connect all that money to school nutrition guidelines, teacher evaluations, English and math content, school opening times...”
Quite simply, in setting his lines, Gov. Bush set no lines. Thankfully for him, lines of federal authority have already been drawn. Indeed, they were set centuries ago: the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to impose transparency, offer help, or anything other than prohibit discrimination by state and local governments and govern federal lands.
As I’ve noted before, obeying the Constitution would save folks like Gov. Bush a lot of reinventing work. More importantly, it would save everyone else expensive, ineffectual trouble.
If you like feeling conflicted, you’ll love being a libertarian thinking about President Obama’s recent proposal – and even more recent rescinding of that proposal – to essentially end 529 college savings plans. The President proposed killing the ability to use funds saved under a 529 plan tax free to pay for college, which would have gutted the program’s real value.
On one side, a libertarian should be aggravated by such a proposal. The goal certainly seemed to be income redistribution, generating new revenues from relatively well-to-do Americans and giving it to (presumably) less well-to-do Americans with free community college and expanded “refundable” tax credits. It also seemed intended to support a divisive, rhetorical war of the “middle class” vs. “the rich” (though certainly many people who use 529s consider themselves middle class). And unlike federal grants, loans, and those refundable credits that are often essentially grants for people who don’t owe much in taxes, 529s are about people saving their own money to pay for college, not taking it from taxpayers.
On the other side, libertarians – heck, everyone – should want a simple tax code that isn’t riven with special breaks, loopholes, and encouragements to do things politicians decide are worthy but which have massive negative, unintended consequences. And when it comes to higher education, those consequences are huge, including rampant tuition inflation, awful completion rates, major underemployment, serious credential inflation, and a burgeoning academic water park industry. And where does the federal government get the authority to incentivize saving for college in the first place? Not in the Constitution.
So how should libertarians feel about the demise of the President’s 529 plan? I guess a little sad, because the Feds simply shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging college consumption. Even more, though, they should feel angry, because we are so deep in a federally driven, college-funding quagmire.