Tag: school choice

Controversial Subjects in Involuntary Educational Institutions

Last week, the Cato Institute hosted a policy forum on teaching controversial subjects such as sex and religion in k-12 educational institutions. All of the panel members pointed out that schools needed to do a better job at improving student civic outcomes such as character skills and tolerance of others’ views; however, a couple of the speakers claimed that the issue is not a result of our traditional system of public schooling.

This assertion fails to recognize the scientific evidence and, more importantly, the clear logic of incentives.

While families have a diverse set of values and goals for their children, the political process regurgitates a uniform educational environment. Further, since children are forced to attend schools based on zip codes, the government perhaps rightfully protects various family values by avoiding controversial discussions altogether. After all, if public schools were teaching that evolution was not real, many parents would obviously be very upset.

Of course, it is not the fault of public school employees. If you or I were held accountable to standardized test scores, we would probably not allocate a lot of time towards fostering friendly debates on provocative topics. In fact, it would be a risk to do so if we taught in a state that had laws attempting to protect individual family values. It is completely rational that traditional public schools are not spending much time on controversial issues.

On the other hand, if families had the ability to opt into or out of schools based on their values and goals, the state would not need to protect them. In addition, if parents cared about civic skills such as citizenship and tolerance, they would be able to reward schools for improving the lives of their children. Further, schools would not have the perverse incentive to focus on standardized tests if they were accountable to parents instead of public officials.

The scientific evidence largely supports the theory. Dr. Patrick Wolf’s review of the evidence finds that school choice increases civic skills. Moreover, my forthcoming review of fourteen rigorous studies also shows that private school choice improves civic outcomes such as crime and tolerance.

We must not pretend that the scientific evidence is mixed on such an important topic. We also must not pretend that school systems have nothing to do with shaping skills that will impact children and societies for years to come. If we wish to live in a more tolerant society, we ought to listen to scientific evidence, clear logic, and the needs of all families.

About That Private School Disability “Discrimination”

Everyone wants what’s best for children with disabilities. So it is not surprising when private schools—and hence school choice programs—are criticized because they do not have to accept all children with disabilities. We’ve heard the concerns before, and we heard them again in an NPR story yesterday taking the Indiana voucher program to task for private schools turning away kids with disabilities.

How could they be so cruel, we might ask, and choice supporters so callous?

Let’s start with a simple reality: Educating children with disabilities is generally more expensive than educating children without them, and private schools often struggle just to pay for educating the latter group. That should be no surprise: In the 2011–12 academic year—the most recent with public and private data—public schools spent $13,398 per pupil. Private schools, which rely on families paying tuition after they have paid taxes for the “free” public schools, charged on average $11,170, and many private students receive tuition discounts and aid. For Roman Catholic and other religious institutions—the most numerous private schools—tuition was even lower: $7,170 and $9,040, respectively. Private schools do sometimes receive subsidies from parishes, dioceses, and donors, but it is herculean task to overcome public schools’ big funding and pricing advantages.

But in Indiana there is a voucher program, so surely private schools there have no excuse.

Set aside that for most of the life of Hoosier private schools there was no voucher program—it only started in 2011—so they were hard-pressed to compete for non-disabled students, much less establish robust special education programs. Is the funding equitable now?

No. As the NPR story notes, “the poorest students qualify for a voucher that’s worth roughly 90 percent of what the state would have spent in a public school, but now some middle class families actually qualify for a half voucher.” So no one using a voucher gets their full state allotment. And the state is only one funder of public schools; altogether, Indiana public schools spent over $10,000 per student. What’s the biggest average voucher? Only about $5,700.

Attention Students: Choose a Charter, Receive $5,700 Less Per Year

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.

Educators Ought to Embrace Educational Choice

The discussion around private school choice legislation is almost always framed as an intense battleground with teachers on one side and families on the other. Political scientists are quick to point out that teachers win the skirmish more often than not because their interests are concentrated amongst a few, while their enemies, the parents, bear costs that are widely dispersed. While the political theory behind the claim is strong, the argument that school choice programs are at odds with the interests of professional educators is feeble.

Discouragement & Hostile Work Environments

The traditional public school system has utterly failed teachers in the United States. Educators operate in a system that does not reward them for performance or determination. Instead, their motivation levels are shattered after they find out that time served and meaningless credentials, rather than effort, lead to career success.

Perhaps even worse, public school teachers must function within a hostile environment where children are compelled to attend and parents are forced to pay. If citizens were forced to read my blog posts, I am sure that many of them would stress and complain. It would be impossible to please the diverse set of required readers, especially if they were grouped primarily by their zip codes. Alternatively, if families could choose their educational services, they could match with educators based on interests and learning styles, creating a friendly and feasible work environment for teachers.

Compensation

As critics of the U.S. education system often contend, current levels of teacher pay do not entice large quantities of highly skilled labor to enter the field. Perhaps more importantly, the uniform pay scale does not incentivize teachers to perform above minimal levels. Alternatively, as Andrew Coulson pointed out in School, Inc., high quality teachers in places like South Korea can earn millions of dollars each year through the system of voluntary exchange.

Private school choice can benefit teachers through increasing motivation levels, improving work environments, and rewarding high performance. In an educational system of voluntary schooling selections, institutions would need to compete for high quality talent through improving job satisfaction and compensation levels. Instead of searching for enemies within the education sector, we should realize that teachers ought to embrace school choice as tightly as possible.

The Problems with Centrally Planning School Choice

Even strong proponents of private school choice programs often disagree on who ought to have access. Many people that view private school choice as a means for social justice argue that programs should be targeted to the least-advantaged members of society. Alternatively, I have claimed that a universally accessible program could benefit the least-advantaged in society more than anyone because of amplified market entry. Other education scholars argue that program access should be determined based on the empirical evidence on student test scores. While we gain important information from scientific experiments, we should not make program access decisions based on them.

Experiments Can Only Tell Us about Groups

As a social scientist performing quantitative analyses on school choice programs across the United States, I have realized one thing that is particularly frustrating. Even the strongest quantitative scientific experiments do not tell us much about the individual children that we are studying. Since our statistical results rely on the law of large numbers, there is no way around this issue. We must group the people we are studying together in order to calculate a statistically significant treatment effect.

Sure, we can perform subgroup analyses to determine if there are heterogeneous effects for different types of individuals. Nevertheless, these subgroup analyses suffer from the same systemic flaw; they rely on grouping people to calculate average effects. While subgroup analyses give us important information about groups of people, they are often erroneously used by decision-makers to determine which specific children in society ought to have access to school choice programs. A large positive result for advantaged members of society and an insignificant result for the disadvantaged may lead one to solely support access for the advantaged.

The problem with this decision is that it assumes all members within the subgroup will respond to the treatment in the same way. This is far from true. An average overall result of “zero” for disadvantaged children likely means that the program worked for some of them and did not work for others. Why prevent disadvantaged students from accessing a program simply because they looked like those that did not benefit previously?

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.