Tag: school choice

Want to Regulate Schools? Use Parents

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:

State-Driven Accountability Is Not Dead, But It Should Be

Private school choice programs have been proposed in state legislatures all across the nation, and public interest in the term “school choice” reached an all-time high earlier this year. Since school choice programs create accountability to parents and children, education scholars have discussed whether state-driven accountability is on the wane. While robust accountability to the state is essential in traditional public schooling institutions, it is inferior to accountability to every single family.

Necessary in Involuntary Settings

Accountability to the public is necessary in schools with compulsory attendance based on age and zip codes. What would happen if state officials did not set minimum standards? Public schools could serve children inadequately and even harm them to a certain degree before parents were forced to decide whether to pay out of pocket for a private institution or move. In many cases, parents would not be able to afford to opt out of the free school due to income constraints.

Suppose you were required to send your child to a residentially assigned public restaurant until they were eighteen years old, because, after all, nutrition may be the most basic right of them all. If your child becomes sick from food poisoning, you may still decide to keep them there based on income restrictions and perceived differences in quality. Of course, the state would need to intervene in order to keep the compulsory public restaurants accountable to minimum safety and, perhaps, taste standards.

Political Process Problems

While state accountability is necessary in the public sphere, we should recognize the shortcomings. First, who is deciding what the standards ought to look like, and how do we keep those people accountable? The commonly cited answer is that state officials are held accountable to the public through the political process. The main problem with that argument is that it assumes that the political process is efficient in holding bureaucrats accountable. 

Inefficiency runs rampant in the political sphere because voters do not have an incentive to become politically knowledgeable. If I am voting in a presidential election, for example, I have around a 1 in 60,000,000 chance of determining the outcome. On the other hand, it is extremely costly to gain information on every policy that a given politician talks about and influences. The counterintuitive result is that voters actually make a rational decision to be politically irrational.

Even if all voters were completely rational, we would still face the problems associated with majority rule. Policies around educational standards result from the most politically powerful groups in society. The consequence is that children from disadvantaged groups are harmed by the uniform set of standards decided by the elites. 

Similarly, suppose we went into the grocery store and voted on the cart that we received. Even if we were in the majority and got the cart that we preferred, we would still end up with some of the things we wanted, and much of what we did not care to have. 

Yes, Randi Weingarten, Public Schooling Is an Innovation “Dead End.” Just Watch School Inc.

Today education secretary Betsy DeVos is paying a visit to an Ohio public school at the invitation of one of her most vociferous critics, and one of the most ardent opponents of school choice: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. The AFT is the second largest teachers union in the country, and Weingarten has repeatedly complained that DeVos has called public schools—institutions heavily influenced by union power—a “dead end.” One purpose of the invitation is to prove otherwise.

So are public schools dead ends? Of course not. Tens of millions of children attend them every year, and most will do fine in their lives. Of course, most likely would do well no matter where they went to school, and probably at a fraction of what we currently pay. But DeVos did not actually say that the schools themselves were dead ends. She said that the public schooling system—a government monopoly—is a dead end for entrepreneurship and innovation. “We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market,” DeVos said in a 2015 speech. “It’s a monopoly, a dead end.”

Is DeVos right? To see for yourself, watch Andrew Coulson’s School Inc., now showing on PBS stations around the country. Why we have so little innovation in education is the central point of the highly engaging documentary. Coulson examines education and other industries both historically and around the modern world, and illustrates that freedom for people who make things, or perform services such as teaching, coupled with paying customers and an ability to make a profit—yes, a profit!—are the keys to unleashing innovation at scale, to the benefit of all.

At the touch of a screen, you and I can now listen to tens-of-thousands of different pieces of music stored on a device that also makes telephone calls, lets you play video games, empowers you to surf the Internet, and much more. That is a quantum leap from how we listened to music even just a couple of decades ago. Yet education is pretty much the same instructor-in-front-of-kids model it has been for centuries.

Apple, HTC, Samsung, all work for profits. Public schools? Not so much.

Essentially, profit shows that something is in demand—that freely choosing people find it of value—and that others could make money by producing something similar, or better. This takes innovation to scale while driving prices down. Not only is that not evil, as emotionally charged critiques of profit imply, it is a classic win-win!

Today’s DeVos-Weingarten confab is likely to be a nice show for public schools, illustrating that they are not dead ends. But DeVos did not say they were, and what she did say—a government monopoly suffocates innovation—is grounded in extremely well documented—and documentary—reality.

School Choice War Goes Hot

With a presidential administration that is disliked for myriad reasons openly pushing school choice, what had been kind of a cold war over choice for years has exploded into a hot one. And the tip of the anti-choice spear seems to be the New York Times. Last week it ran a piece by New America education director Kevin Carey suggesting that choice has been “dismal,” and doubled down on that yesterday with an attack on choice as an academic “failure.”

Is it a failure? First, the vast majority of random-assignment studies of private school voucher programs—the “gold-standard” research method that even controls for unobserved factors like parental motivation—have found choice producing equivalent or superior academic results, usually for a fraction of what is spent on public schools. Pointing at three, as we shall see, very limited studies, does not substantially change that track record.

Let’s look at the studies Carey highlighted: one on Louisiana’s voucher program, one on Ohio, and one on Indiana. Make that two studies: Carey cited Indiana findings without providing a link to, or title of, the research, and he did not identify the researchers. The Times did the same in their editorial. Why? Because the Indiana research has not been published. What Carey perhaps drew on was a piece by Mark Dynarski at the Brookings Institution. And what was that based on? Apparently, a 2015 academic conference presentation by R. Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends, who at the time were in the midst of analyzing Indiana’s program and who have not yet published their findings.

Next there is Ohio’s voucher program. The good news is that the research has been published, indeed by the choice-favoring Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And it does indicate that what the researchers were able to study revealed a negative effect on standardized tests. But Carey omitted two important aspects of the study. One, it found that choice had a modestly positive effect on public schools, spurring them to improve. Perhaps more important, because the research design was something called “regression discontinuity” it was limited in what it was able to reliably determine. Basically, that design looks at performance clustered around some eligibility cut-off—in this case, public schools that just made or missed the performance level below which students became eligible for vouchers—so the analysis could not tell us about a whole lot of kids. Wrote the researchers: “We can only identify with relative confidence the estimated effects…for those students who had been attending the highest-performing EdChoice-eligible public schools and not those who would have been attending lower-performing public schools.”

That is a big limit.

Finally, we come to the Louisiana study, which was random-assignment. Frankly, its negative findings are not new information. The report came out over a year ago, and we at Cato have written and talked about it extensively. And there are huge caveats to the findings, including that the program’s heavy regulations—e.g., participating schools must give state tests to voucher recipients and become part of a state accountability system—likely encouraged many of the better private schools to stay out. There are also competing private choice programs in the Pelican State. In addition, the rules requiring participating private schools to administer state tests are new, and there is a good chance that participating institutions were still transitioning. Indeed, as Carey noted, the study showed private school outcomes improving from the first year to the second. That could well indicate that the schools are adjusting to the change. And as in Ohio, there was evidence that the program spurred some improvements in public schools.

Choice advocates should not cheer about the latest research, but in totality, the evidence does not come close to showing choice a “failure.” Indeed, the evidence is still very favorable to choice. And the primary value of choice is not necessarily reflected in test scores: it is freeing families and educators to choose for themselves what education is best.

DeVos Moves On, and So Does Choice vs. “Accountability” Debate

In a committee vote the tightness of which surprised no one, this morning President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was approved on a purely partisan basis by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. DeVos’s nomination now moves to the full Senate.

While the rhetoric surrounding DeVos has been heavily targeted at her competence, the main issue seems to be that Democrats generally oppose private school choice programs while Republicans generally do not. Even questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at DeVos’s confirmation hearing—would she support attaching IDEA rules to public funding that disabled students could take to a chosen school?—were primarily about choice.

Choice is fundamentally different from public schooling. With choice, families have real power—the power to leave a school not serving them and take their education dollars elsewhere. This is why Florida’s McKay scholarship program for children with disabilities—which DeVos tried to defend before being cut off in questioning at her nomination hearing—has very high satisfaction levels among parents using it. Public schools, in contrast, get taxpayer money no matter what, and require seemingly endless political, bureaucratic, and legal combat to hopefully—just hopefully—get improvements made.

Of course, choice needs freedom from stultifying rules and regulations to be meaningful. Specialization, competition, innovation—none can meaningfully exist without educators having the freedom to engage in new and different ways of delivering education.

The powerful inclination to wrap programs in incapacitating layers of red tape…er, “accountability”…is a major reason that the federal government should not try to deliver school choice, or govern education at all. (The Constitution is the other big one.) It is simply too dangerous to have one government—the federal government—supply choice nationwide. But there is good reason to fear that the Trump administration will try to do it nonetheless, based on Trump’s promise to make a  $20 billion choice “investment.”

Empowering parents with choice is the right way to deliver education. But the clear and present danger of freedom-smothering rules and regulations, as we’ve seen brightly illustrated by the debate over DeVos, accompanies any government funds. Which is why choice must not be delivered by Washington.

Will 2017 Be Another Year of Educational Choice?

It’s National School Choice Week, so it’s a good time to survey the countryside and see what’s in store for the year ahead.

Last year was relatively quiet in terms of school choice legislation. South Dakota enacted a relatively limited tax-credit scholarship program and Maryland enacted a small voucher program, but there wasn’t much progress otherwise. 

By contrast, 2015 was the Year of Educational Choice. Not only did 15 states adopt 21 new or expanded educational choice programs, three of them enacted education savings account (ESA) laws. As I’ve noted previously, ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Already, several states this year are considering ESA legislation. Last week, legislators in Arkansas introduced a universal-eligibility, tax-credit funded ESA similar to what Jonathan Butcher and I described in our report last year, “Taking Credit for Education.” Donors would receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that would fund the ESAs. According to a just-released study from Julie Trivitt and Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas, if enacted, the ESA would expand educational choice while saving taxpayers an estimated $2.8 million.

This week, the Missouri Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to create tax-credit funded ESA, similar to the Arkansas bill described above. Missouri will also consider publicly funded ESAs, as well as other choice proposals.

Other states considering publicly funded ESAs include Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas. I’ve also heard that Arizona legislators are considering expanding their ESA, possibly to include all Arizona students. Meanwhile, in Nevada, Gov. Sandoval is looking to find ways to fund his state’s ESA after the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the program but struck down its funding mechanism

Several states will also be considering tax-credit scholarship programs, including Kentucky, Nebraska, and (likely) Texas. In addition, South Carolina is looking to expand its tax credit.

I’m likely missing a number of proposals, and it will be tough to top 2015, but 2017 very well might be the Year of Educational Choice, Jr.

Victory for Kids: School Choice Safe in Florida

This morning the Supreme Court of Florida declined to hear McCall v. Scott, the Florida teachers’ union lawsuit against the state’s popular scholarship tax credit, which helps nearly 100,000 low-income students attend the school of their choice. That means the lower court’s decision dismissing the lawsuit stands, and the law is safe from further challenge on these grounds.

As I wrote back in August, the union and its allies had alleged that the scholarship program unconstitutionally supported a “parallel” system of public education and violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits publicly funding religious schools. However, the trial court judge rejected this claim, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because the scholarships were privately (not publicly) funded and that they were unable to prove that the scholarship program adversely impacted the district school system. The union appealed but the appellate court unanimously upheld the lower court decision. (For a more detailed explanation of the history of the case and the tax credit, see here.) Today’s state supreme court decision is the proverbial nail in the coffin for the union’s legal challenge.

Supporters of the scholarship program expressed their satisfaction this morning:

“The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children,” Doug Tuthill, [president of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization], said in a statement. “We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”

After the lawsuit was filed in 2014, supporters of the program — including parents and clergy members — waged a full-court press supporting the program. Almost exactly a year ago, they staged a massive rally in Tallahassee.

“On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law,” Reverend R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with all parties to improve the educational outcomes of low income children in our state.”

School choice is safe in Florida. But just north of the panhandle, Georgia’s scholarship tax credit faces a similar legal challenge. Oral arguments in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue are scheduled for next week, which just happens to be National School Choice Week. For justice to prevail, the Georgia Supreme Court should dismiss that case as well.