Tag: school choice

It’s the Slingshot, Not the Nuke, That’s the Bigger Danger?

For most of American educational history, government massively discriminated against African Americans, first with some states prohibiting any education for them, and long after that districts maintaining de jure, and to this day de facto, segregated schools. But we are to believe that the big segregation danger is school choice? That’s like saying it’s not the nuke we’ve been using that’s the big threat, but that someone might use a slingshot. It is also what the Center for American Progress is asserting in a new brief: The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers.

This may be a new report, but that modern proposals are a huge danger because some states and districts used choice to evade public school integration after Brown v. Board of Education isn’t a new argument. Some places absolutely did do this, but the argument remains as logically and factually untethered from full history as it has ever been.

For one thing, the large-scale drive to have education dollars follow students to chosen schools did not start with white people trying to escape racial integration, but Roman Catholics—and others—trying to direct funding for their children to schools that taught their religious values, not someone else’s. They wanted to be treated equally, which public schools did not do. Meanwhile, as even the CAP report hints, often private people tried to help African Americans in the face of government discrimination.

Of course, we continue to have segregation in education: if you want to access a “good” district, you have to be able to pay for a home there. That is why most people probably do not think of private schooling when they think of “white flight,” but of families moving out of districts with growing African-American populations into suburban districts that tended to be largely white. This happened most famously in Michigan, not deep in the kudzu of Alabama or Mississippi.

Unintended Impacts of “Quality Control” on School Quality in Louisiana

My colleagues from the School Choice Demonstration Project and I just released the official third year reports on the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP). In addition to the experimental study on student test scores, my coauthors and I released a descriptive analysis of the types of private schools that chose to participate in the voucher program.

Positive Test Score Trend

The main report indicates that the LSP had negative impacts on student math test scores for the first two years of the program. Nonetheless, the program did not have any statistically significant impacts on student achievement by the end of year three. These results can be found in Figure 1 (from the report) below:

Source: Mills & Wolf (2017). “How Has the Louisiana Scholarship Program Affected Students? A Comprehensive Summary of Effects After Three Years.” School Choice Demonstration Project, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas.

This upward trend is not unusual. The recent meta-analysis of 19 experimental voucher studies shows that private school choice programs are better at shaping test scores after a few years. This is likely because children need to adjust to their new educational settings and private institutions must respond to the environmental shift in the market for schooling.

Win for School Choice in Georgia

Lost in all the commotion over the U.S. Supreme Court’s several decisions today is another important decision with ramifications for school choice. The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue that plaintiffs had no standing to challenge the state’s tax-credit scholarship program because the scholarship funds are private funds, not a government expenditure:

We also reject the assertion that plaintiffs have standing because these tax credits actually amount to unconstitutional expenditures of tax revenues or public funds. The statutes that govern the Program demonstrate that only private funds, and not public revenue, are used.

The program allows donors to receive tax credits in return for contributions to qualified nonprofit scholarship organizations that help families send their children to the schools of their choice. Plaintiffs asserted that the program violated Georgia’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the state from giving public funds to religious schools. However, as we explained in our amicus brief, no public funds are involved. “Taxpayers choose to donate voluntarily using their own private funds and receive a tax credit for the amount of the donation; no money ever enters or leaves the treasury.” Neither does the state direct where the funds are used. “The state exercises no control over which scholarship organizations donors choose to support, which students receive scholarships, or at which schools parents choose to use the scholarships.” The Georgia Supreme Court agreed:

Individuals and corporations chose the [scholarship organizations] to which they wish to direct contributions; these private [scholarship organizations] select the student recipients of the scholarships they award; and the students and their parents decide whether to use their scholarships at religious or other private schools. The State controls none of these decisions. Nor does it control the contributed funds or the educational entities that ultimately receive the funds.

“Today’s victory has secured Georgia parents’ right to continue choosing the best education for their children,” stated Erica Smith, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented scholarship parents in the Gaddy case. “This Court correctly recognized that government should promote educational opportunity and choice, not limit it as the plaintiffs proposed.” 

Trinity Lutheran Ruling Only Gets Us Closer to Equality in Education

Today’s Trinity Lutheran ruling strikes a blow against patently unequal treatment of religious Americans under state laws, an inequality felt no more acutely than in education. But it does not yet get us to where we need to be.

The huge impact of today’s ruling is that it says religious institutions cannot be barred from participating in government programs simply because they are religious. The Trinity Lutheran Church could not be ruled ineligible to participate in a grant program to improve playgrounds simply because it is a religious entity. This should have been a simple decision: It is clearly unequal treatment of religious Americans under the law to say “the reason you are ineligible for this benefit for which anyone else is eligible is that you are religious.”

This is crucial, but it is not sufficient to throw open the doors to full freedom and equality in education.

First, as Justices Thomas and Gorsuch note in their concurring opinions, the Trinity decision keeps in place the ruling in Locke v. Davey (2004) that a state could deny a student a scholarship otherwise available to him because he planned to study to become a minister. Trinity supports the rationale of denying funding for someone to learn to propagate religion. But why should someone be barred from accessing otherwise generally available funding only because the profession he wished to follow was religious? From a school choice perspective, if a goal of sending your child to a religious school with a voucher is that he or she will learn to evangelize, precedent still stands in your way.

Second, Trinity says that religious institutions cannot be excluded from funding otherwise available to other groups. It does not state that it is unconstitutional to require people to fund a single government institution—in education, de facto atheist or agnostic public schooling systems—then pay a second time for institutions that are consistent with their beliefs and values. That would be crucial to truly treat religious people equally, and to totally clear the path for school vouchers. (Tax credits, as we see again in Georgia today, are a different, more liberated story!)

Today’s ruling is a welcome move in a decidedly right direction, but it is not sufficient to achieve full equality in education.

More School Choice, Less Crime

One of the original arguments for educating children in traditional public schools is that they are necessary for a stable democratic society. Indeed, an English parliamentary spokesman, W.A. Roebuck, argued that mass government education would improve national stability through a reduction in crime.

Public education advocates, such as Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman and the American Federation for Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, still insist that children must be forced to attend government schools in order to preserve democratic values.

Theory

In principle, if families make schooling selections based purely on self-interest, they may harm others in society. For instance, parents may send their children to schools that only shape academic skills. As a result, children could miss out on imperative moral education and harm others in society through a higher proclivity for committing crimes in the future.

However, since families value the character of their children, they are likely to make schooling decisions based on institutions’ abilities to shape socially desirable skills such as morality and citizenship. Further, since school choice programs increase competitive pressures, we should expect the quality of character education to increase in the market for schooling. An increase in the quality of character education decreases the likelihood of criminal activity and therefore improves social order.

Evidence

There are only three studies causally linking school choice programs to criminal activity. Two studies examine the impacts of charter schools and one looks at the private school voucher program in Milwaukee. Each study finds that access to a school choice program substantially reduces the likelihood that a student will commit criminal activity later on in life.

Notably, Dobbie & Fryer (2015) find that winning a random lottery to attend a charter school in Harlem completely eliminates the likelihood of incarceration for males. In addition, they find that female charter school lottery winners are less than half as likely to report having a teen pregnancy.

Note: A box highlighted in green indicates that the study found statistically significant crime reduction.

According to the only causal studies that we have on the subject, school choice programs improve social order through substantial crime reduction. If public education advocates want to continue to cling to the idea that traditional public schools are necessary for democracy, they ought to explain why the scientific evidence suggests the opposite.

Of course, these impacts play a significant role in shaping the lives of individual children. Perhaps more importantly, these findings indicate that voluntary schooling selections can create noteworthy benefits for third parties as well. If we truly wish to live in a safe and stable democratic society, we ought to allow parents to select the schooling institutions that best shape the citizenship skills of their own children.

In Education, Democracy Is the Threat

When people hear “democracy,” they tend to get warm, fuzzy feelings. As the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg writes in an article that, among other things, portrays private school choice as a threat to democracy, “public education…was also meant to instill a love of liberal democracy: a respect for the separation of powers, for a free press and free religious exercise, and for the rights of political minorities.” The fundamental, ironic problem is that both democracy and democratically controlled public schooling are inherently at odds with the individual rights, and even separation of powers, that Kahlenberg says democracy and public schools are supposed to protect.

Let’s be clear what “democracy” means: the people collectively, rather than a single ruler or small group of rulers, make decisions for the group. We typically think of this as being done by voting, with the majority getting its way.

Certainly, it is preferable for all people to have a say in decisions that will be imposed on them than to have a dictator impose things unilaterally. But there is nothing about letting all people have a vote on imposition that protects freedom. Indeed, in a pure democracy, as long as the majority decides something, no individual rights are protected at all. The will of the majority is all that matters.

We’ve seen basic rights and equality under the law perpetually and unavoidably violated by democratically controlled public schooling. It cannot be otherwise: At its core, a single system of government schools—be it a district, state, or federal system—can never serve all, diverse people equally. It must make decisions about whose values, histories, and culture will and will not be taught, as well as what students can wear, what they can say, and what they can do, in order to function.

Public schooling since the days of Horace Mann has found it impossible to uphold religious freedom and equality. Mann himself was constantly assailed by people who felt that by trying to make public schools essentially lowest-common-denominator Protestant institutions, he was throwing out religion or making the schools de facto Unitarian (his denomination). Mann, in response, promised that the Protestant Bible would always be used in public schools. Indeed, Protestantism was often thought essential to being a good American, including supportive of democracy, which meant that if the public schools were to serve their civic purpose they could not treat religious minorities equally, especially Roman Catholics, who were suspected of taking their political orders from the Pope in Rome.

Today, after more than a century of even deadly conflict over religion, the public schools are no longer de facto Protestant, but instead may legally have no connection that could appear to be advancing religion, right down, often, to speeches by individual students at events such as graduation ceremonies or athletic contests. This inherently renders religious people second-class citizens—any values are fair game in public schools except for theirs—while also curbing basic expression rights.

Of course, the inherent inequality of public schooling is not restricted to religion. In a public school a teacher, committee, school board, or other government actor must decide what aspects of history will be taught or literature read. This requires that government elevate some peoples’ speech and perspectives, while deeming others’ essentially unworthy. As a result, we have perpetual battles that tear at the social fabric over which books—The Bluest Eye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—should or should not be read in class or over whose history should be taught, and the losers are rendered unequal under the law.

Education Dollars Should Matter—but Do They?

Education reporters such as Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum continue to cling to the idea that pouring exorbitant resources into an inefficient school system can make a sustainable difference in the lives of America’s children. To support the claim, Barnum points to a couple of recent studies examining the association between court-ordered education spending increases and student outcomes.

Jackson, Johnson, and Perisco (2016) conclude that an annual 10% increase in per pupil spending for all 12 years of schooling leads to an increase of about a third of a year of completed education. Similarly, Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach (2016) find that court-ordered spending increases improve test scores for the least-advantaged students by a little under a hundredth of a standard deviation per year.

However, both of these studies suffer from important methodological issues that limit their ability to identify a strong causal relationship between education dollars and student outcomes.

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