One of President Obama's favorite rhetorical tactics is to claim that there is no serious evidence pointing in any direction other than his preferred policy. The president had occasion to deploy this tactic in an interview earlier this week, when Bill O'Reilly asked him why he opposed school vouchers:
O’REILLY - The secret to getting a ... good job is education. ... Now, school vouchers is a way to level the playing field. Why do you oppose school vouchers when it would give poor people a chance to go to better schools?
PRESIDENT OBAMA - Actually — every study that’s been done on school vouchers, Bill, says that it has very limited impact if any —
O’REILLY - Try it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA - On — it has been tried, it’s been tried in Milwaukee, it’s been tried right here in DC —
O’REILLY [OVERLAP] - And it worked here.
PRESIDENT OBAMA - No, actually it didn’t. When you end up taking a look at it, it didn’t actually make that much of a difference. ... As a general proposition, vouchers has not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities —
The most charitable interpretation of the president's blatantly false remarks is that he's simply unaware that 11 of 12 gold-standard studies of school choice programs found a positive impact while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative outcome. Jason Riley summarized the findings of a few recent studies:
A 2013 study by Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard found that school vouchers boost college enrollment for blacks by 24%. A 2006 evaluation of a school choice program in Dayton, Ohio, found that "after two years, black voucher students had combined reading and math scores 6.5 percentile points higher than the control group." A 2010 study in the Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics found that voucher recipients had math scores 5 points higher than the control group after just one year. A 2008 study of vouchers in Charlotte, N.C., found that "after one year, voucher students had reading scores 8 percentile points higher than the control group and math scores 7 points higher."
What about the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington that Mr. Obama dismissed as ineffective? A 1998 Brookings Institution study found that "After four years, voucher students had reading scores 6 Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) points higher than the control group, and math scores 11 points higher. NCE points are similar to percentile points." And the Obama administration itself released a report on the D.C. voucher program in 2010. "The students offered vouchers graduated from high school at a rate 12 percentage points higher (82 percent) than students in the control group (70 percent), an impact that was statistically significant at the highest level," according to a summary. "Students in three of six subgroups tested showed significant reading gains because of the voucher offer after four or more years."
But even Obama's own faulty reading of the evidence does not warrant opposing school choice. Putting aside the fact that voucher students are more likely to perform better academically and to graduate high school, even if their academic outcomes were roughly the same as government school students, as Obama claims, he should still support school choice because it expands freedom, parents are more satisfied, the schools are safer, and it costs so much less.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Washington D.C. spends nearly $30,000 per pupil annually at its government-run schools, more than double the national average. For this "investment" they get practically the worst schools in the nation. By contrast, the low-income D.C. voucher students receive up to $8,256 for K-8 students and $12,385 for students in grades 9-12.
Perversely, whereas the Obama administration ignores mountains of evidence when opposing school choice programs, the president once again promised universal pre-school in his State of the Union address despite the overwhelming evidence that federal preschool programs do not work. And that's according to the federal government's own research!
It takes a special kind of chutzpah for the Obama administration to repeatedly tout their "evidence-based approach" to policy when they so consistently adopt policies that run counter to the evidence.
Today, the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” proposing private schools be required to administer state tests to all students participating in a school choice program, and publicize the results. Private schools that the state deemed persistently underperforming would be expelled from the program. Fordham argues that such measures have the potential to raise student achievement and provide parents with the information needed to make better decisions about their children’s education. Though Fordham’s plan is well-intentioned, their justifications are unpersuasive and their proposal is more likely to do harm than good.
Little Evidence to Support a Testing Mandate for Private Schools
First, there is scant evidence to support Fordham’s claim that test-based accountability measures “may boost student achievement.” Fordham rests its claim on the results of but a single year in a single study of a single school choice program: the final year of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s five-year analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program.
During the first four years of the study, voucher students took a low-stakes test, but in the final year of the study, policymakers increased the stakes by mandating that the test results be publicized and the scores improved. Fordham argues that this proves that high-stakes testing improves performance but one of the study’s authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, has previously cautioned the Fordham Institute against reading too much into that finding, calling it “enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive”:
As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year. In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.
But even if the was no question that the higher test scores actually reflected increased performance, it would still only be one study. When Fordham cited this study as support for its proposal six months ago, Andrew J. Coulson responded:
A single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.
By contrast, there is a significant body of evidence that school choice programs work without Fordham’s sought-after government regulation. Of twelve randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—eleven found that school choice programs improve outcomes for some or all students while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact. None of these school choice programs studied were designed along the lines of the Fordham proposal.
In fact, Fordham’s preferred policy is undermined by a large body of evidence. A 2009 literature review of the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide revealed that the most market-like and least regulated education systems tended to produce student outcomes superior to more heavily regulated systems, including those with a substantial number state-funded and regulated private schools. In short, the best form of accountability is directly to parents, not government bureaucrats and their tests.
Accountability Should Be To Parents
Fordham argues that school choice programs, including both vouchers and scholarship tax credits, should fall under the same accountability regimes as public schools because they utilize public funds. In Fordham's words, "The taxpayer also needs assurances that schools are producing solid learning results for the children who participate in such programs." This reasoning should not apply to scholarship tax credits which, as the U.S. Supreme Court held in ACSTOv. Winn, do not involve public funds at all:
Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding [scholarship] tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.
But even in the case of direct government subsidies, it's far from clear that accountability to government is necessary or even prudent, as Professor Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas explains:
Most state funded programs require no formal accountability to the state and instead rely primarily on the self-interest of the recipients to use the funds wisely. For example, the largest domestic program, social security, is designed to prevent seniors from lacking basic resources for housing, food, or clothing. But we don’t demand that seniors account for the use of their social security checks. They could blow it at the casino if they want. We’re just counting on the fact that most would have the good sense to make sure that their basic needs are covered first.
Even in the area of education most government programs require no formal accountability. Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and the Daycare Tuition Tax Credit do not require state testing for people using those funds. We just trust that the public purpose of subsidizing education will be served by people pursuing their own interests. [...]
Don’t parents need state testing requirements for consumer protection and to get information to make intelligent choices? Most markets generate consumer information without government mandates for them to do so. For example, I have more information than you can imagine to pick a hotel or restaurant through Trip Advisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, etc… GreatSchools.org and other market sources of information about education are already springing up as choice expands without government mandates. But if you still feel the need to require testing, why not just require choice schools to take any one of a large number of standardized tests? At least that way we place fewer restrictions on the curriculum schools could pursue.
Indeed, a recent Friedman Foundation report showed that parents actively seek out relevant information before choosing a school and are less likely to enroll their children in schools that will not provide them with the information they seek. However, barely more than half of the survey respondents said that standardized test scores are "important" and barely 10% listed "performance on standardized tests" as one of their top five reasons for choosing a school.
Uniform Testing Mandates Stifle Diversity and Innovation
While the benefit of Fordham’s proposal is dubious, the harm is more certain. By forcing every school to administer the same tests, states would induce conformity and stifle diversity and innovation. Fordham partially concedes that this is a concern, noting that if there is “a downside to this proposal, this is it.” However, they minimize the concern by claiming that the standards “only provide an endpoint” but do not prescribe a curriculum.
Though the tests do not dictate curriculum per se, they create a powerful incentive for schools to teach the same concepts in the same order at the same time. This would make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to meet the needs of individual children, rather than expecting that all children who happened to be born in the same year should progress at the same rate across subjects.
Common Core is already moving the nation’s education system toward greater uniformity. If states adopt Fordham’s proposal, they would almost entirely eliminate any viable alternative to the Common Core regime. As Professor Greene explained:
Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn't how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.
Financial Incentives Would Leave Private Schools Little Choice But To Conform
Fordham also downplays the likely effect of their proposed regulations by assuring that they “won’t scare away [private] schools,” citing a previous Fordham study which found that most private schools would participate in a school choice program even if that meant accepting such regulations. But Fordham’s finding actually reveals the gravity of the concern. Again, Coulson addressed this argument months ago:
The problem is not that private schools won’t participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. The problem is that they will. Hold-outs will be in the minority, and will gradually be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts due to the uneven fiscal playing field (much as America’s once-dominant private schools were marginalized by the spread of “free” state-run schools).
We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished.
If state governments follow Fordham’s advice and expand their authority over private schools, even Fordham will likely come to regret it. Ultimately, it won’t be Fordham’s friends who are always and everywhere in charge, but the teachers unions and other vested interests. As Professor Greene warned, “Minority religions shouldn't favor building national churches because inevitably it won't be their gospel being preached.”
Though the U.S. Department of Justice partially backed down on its lawsuit against Louisiana's school choice program in November, yesterday the DOJ filed its proposal to oversee the program. The program provides school vouchers to low-income families with children otherwise assigned to failing government schools. Among many proposed regulations, the DOJ wants the state of Louisiana to give the federal government the following information about each school choice applicant:
2. Student ID number
6. School applicant attends in current school year, if any
7. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (6), above, if applicable
8. Public school district of the school in (6), if applicable
9. District public school applicant would be assigned to attend for the upcoming school year if applicant does not receive a voucher
10. Louisiana School Performance Score (letter grade) for school in (9), above
11. Student enrollment in the school in (9), above, for the current school year, by race
12. Public school district for (9), above
13. Student enrollment in the public school district in (12), above, for the current school year, by race
14. Whether applicant is attending a voucher school during the current school year, and if so, the name of the voucher school
15. The list of voucher schools, in order of stated preference, identified on the student’s application form
16. Whether the State determined that the applicant failed to meet the criteria for participation in the voucher program
17. Reason for determination that the applicant failed to meet the criteria for participation in the voucher program, if applicable
18. Reason, if any, for preference in proposed award of voucher (e.g., sibling)
19. School to which the State intends to assign the applicant through the Voucher Program (“proposed voucher school”)
20. Student enrollment of the proposed voucher school in (19), for the current school year, by race
The state would be required to give all of this information over to the federal government at least 45 days before awarding school vouchers and the federal government would have the authority to veto the award of any voucher. Given that the vast majority of students participating in the program are African-American, the DOJ essentially seeks the power to keep low-income black kids in failing government schools.
The state of Louisiana's counter-filing argued that the DOJ's demands are unreasonable since the state already takes steps to ensure that there is no segregation in private schools. The state declared that it is:
willing to share relevant information in its possession on a schedule that does not disrupt the operation of the Scholarship program, the State will not agree to terms that would cede its sovereign authority over the Scholarship program or the public schools, it will not agree to permit the United States to participate in the administration of the program, and it will not agree to demands for information that the State does not have or schedule changes that would disrupt the Scholarship program.
The state's counterfiling also noted that the DOJ fundamentally misunderstands the school choice program. In item #19 above, the DOJ assumes that the state "assigns" students to a given school. The state corrected that error:
Contrary to the repeated claim made by the United States, the State does not “assign” Scholarship students to participating private schools; rather, Scholarship awards are based on parental choice. [...]
Families choose which private school students will attend under the Scholarship program. The State’s role in the Scholarship program is limited to three functions: verifying eligibility, conducting a lottery to determine whether the student will receive an award when necessitated by excess demand, and disbursing the student’s scholarship to his or her school on a quarterly basis. The State never imposes a binding assignment and never prohibits a student from attending a school. The only authority that “assigns” a child to a school is the child’s local school district, which gives every student under its jurisdiction a publicschool assignment. Faced with a public school assignment from the school district and a scholarship award from the State, families decide where their students will attend school.
The counter-filing also took the DOJ to task for wanting to restrict parents' choices of schools based on their race:
[The] United States apparently believes that the State should restrict the choices made by families participating in the Scholarship program based on their race and the racial composition of the schools they wish to attend...
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal responded harshly to the DOJ's demands:
“President Obama’s Department of Justice is continuing its attempt to red-tape and regulate the Louisiana Scholarship Program to death. The Department’s request for a 45-day review period for every scholarship award shows the Justice Department believes bureaucrats in Washington know better than Louisiana parents.
I am also shocked to learn that the Justice Department is now asking for the state to provide an analysis of the racial composition of our states private schools. The federal government’s new request is a frightening overreach of the federal government and shows it knows no bounds.
President Obama’s Department of Justice has admitted it cannot prove that Louisiana school choice is violating desegregation efforts, yet it continues to seek the ability to tell a parent their child cannot escape a failing school because their child is not the ‘right’ race.
The Department of Justice proposal reeks of federal government intrusion and proves the people in Washington running our federal government are more interested in skin color than they are in education.”
In 1980, frustrated by the attention given to Paul Ehrlich's Malthusian doomsaying, economist Julian Simon challenged Ehrlich to a wager. They agreed on a basket of five commodity metals that Simon predicted would fall in price over 10 years (indicating growing supply relative to demand, contrary to the Malthusian worldview) and Ehrlich predicted would rise. In 1990, all five metals had decreased relative to their 1980 prices and Ehrlich cut Simon a check.
In 2011, two education policy analysts made a similar wager. After Jay Mathews of the Washington Post predicted that voters would "continue to resist" private school choice programs, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice challenged Matthews to a wager, which Mathews accepted: Forster would win if at least seven new or expanded private school choice programs (i.e., vouchers or scholarship tax credits, but not including charter schools) were signed into law by the end of the year. That July, the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 to be the "Year of School Choice" after 13 states enacted 19 new or expanded private school choice programs, nearly triple the number Forster needed to win the bet.
Undeterred, the following year Mathews proclaimed that school choice programs "have no chance of ever expanding very far," prompting another challenge from Forster. Mathews did not take the bet, which was fortunate for him because in 2012 10 states enacted 12 new or expanded private school choice programs.
Now, for the third year in a row, Forster's prediction has proved true, with 10 states enacting 14 new or expanded private school choice programs, including:
- Alabama: new scholarship tax credit program and new tax credit rebate program
- Arizona: expansion of education savings account program
- Georgia: expansion of scholarship tax credit program
- Indiana: expansions of voucher program and scholarship tax credit program
- Ohio: new statewide voucher program
- North Carolina: new low-income voucher program and new special needs voucher program
- Iowa: expansion of scholarship tax credit program
- South Carolina: new special needs scholarship tax credit program
- Utah: expansion of special needs voucher program
- Wisconsin: new statewide voucher program and new tuition tax deduction
Most of these laws are overly limited and several carry unnecessary and even counterproductive regulations like mandatory standardized testing. Nevertheless, they are a step in the right direction, away from a government monopoly and toward a true system of education choice.
Of course, that's why defenders of the status quo have made 2013 the Year of the Anti-School Choice Lawsuit.
Last week I noted that it was "long past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its embarrassing lawsuit which would keep black kids in failing schools." The Louisiana Department of Education released a study that completely undermined the DOJ's case against the state's school voucher program, showing that the program increased racial integration in most of the schools under federal desegregation orders and had a miniscule impact in the remainder.
Today, Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard reports that the DOJ has dropped part of its fight against school choice in Louisiana:
The Obama administration's Justice Department has dropped a lawsuit aiming to stop a school voucher program in the state of Louisiana. A ruling Friday by a United States district court judge revealed that the federal government has "abandoned" its pursuit of an injunction against the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a state-funded voucher program designed to give students in failing public schools the opportunity to attend better performing public or private schools.
"We are pleased that the Obama Administration has given up its attempt to end the Louisiana Scholarship Program with this absurd lawsuit," said Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in a statement. "It is great the Department of Justice has realized, at least for the time being, it has no authority to end equal opportunity of education for Louisiana children."
The move may have resulted from the bad press or a sudden acceptance of common sense, but more likely it was a simply legal maneuver to prevent the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Goldwater Institute, representing parents of voucher recipients, from intervening in the lawsuit as defendants. As Warren reports:
On Friday, Judge Ivan Lemelle of the U.S. district court of the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled the parents could not intervene in the case because the feds are "no longer seeking injunctive relief at this time." Lemelle explained that in the intervening months since the Justice Department filed suit, it had made clear both in a supplemental filing and in its opposition to the parent group's motion to intervene that it was not seeking in its suit to end the voucher program or take away vouchers from students.
Lemelle continued: "The Court reads these two statements as the United States abandoning its previous request that the Court 'permanently enjoin the State from issuing any future voucher awards to students unless and until it obtains authorization from the federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case.'"
Lemelle will hold an oral hearing on Friday, November 22, during which Justice will make its case for the federal review process of the voucher program. In his statement on Friday's ruling, Jindal criticized the federal government's efforts.
“The centerpiece of the Department of Justice's 'process' is a requirement that the state may not tell parents, for 45 days, that their child has been awarded a scholarship while the department decides whether to object to the scholarship award. The obvious purpose of this gag order would be to prevent parents from learning that the Department of Justice might try to take their child’s scholarship away if it decides that the child is the wrong race," said Jindal. “The updated Department of Justice request reeks of federal government intrusion that would put a tremendous burden on the state, along with parents and teachers who want to participate in school choice."
In other words, the DOJ is still seeking the legal authority to prevent low-income kids from escaping failing public schools if the feds say they have the wrong skin color.
It's long past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its embarrassing lawsuit which would keep black kids in failing schools.
The DOJ sued Louisiana earlier this year, claiming that its school voucher program may be negatively impacting desegregation efforts. When it became apparent that the DOJ's evidence amounted to the thinnest of gruel, everyone from Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Eric Cantor to the Washington Post called on the Obama administration to drop its frivolous lawsuit. Even after two PhD students at the University of Arkansas released a study estimating that Louisiana's school voucher program had a positive impact on racial integration, the DOJ refused to back down. I wrote then:
If the DOJ’s case was already like a house of cards resting atop a rickety stool, then the new University of Arkansas study kicked out the stool. The study, “The Louisiana Scholarship Program,” by Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills, finds that the transfers resulting from the LSP vouchers statewide “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” Moreover, in the districts that are the focus of the DOJ litigation, the “LSP transfers improve integration in both the sending schools and the private schools participating students attend (receiving schools).”
Now a study sponsored by the state of Louisiana finds that the voucher program improves racial integration in 16 of the 34 districts under federal desegregation orders while having little to no impact on the remainder. Whereas the University of Arkansas study produced estimates based on publicly available data, the Louisiana study reflects the actual effect of the program during the 2012-13 school year. Politicoreports:
Louisiana hired Boston University political science Professor Christine Rossell to analyze the effect of vouchers in 34 districts in the state under desegregation orders. Rossell found that in all but four of the districts – some of which are majority white, some majority black and some more evenly split – vouchers improved or had no effect on racial imbalance. And in the districts where racial imbalance worsened, the effects were “miniscule.”
Louisiana’s voucher program allows students to transfer out of failing public schools into private schools using public funds. The majority of the students participating in the 2012-13 school year — almost 76 percent — were non-white. A total of 551 students used the vouchers.
In the 2013-14 school year, more than 85 percent of the nearly 6,800 voucher students were black. So long as the DOJ refuses to drop its lawsuit — which would have opposite of its supposedly intended effect — the Obama administration's message to these students is: "If you don't like your school, you can't leave your school."
School choice advocates have been winning in the halls of state legislatures and in the court of public opinion, so opponents have taken to the courts of law. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that school vouchers are consistent with the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, opponents of choice have been scrambling to find novel reasons to challenge school choice programs. Here's a brief summary of school choice lawsuits around the nation:
1) In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to halt the state's school voucher program, arguing that it hurts the desegregation effort. The DOJ's already weak case was further undermined by a new study released today showing that school choice actually improves integration. Since 90 percent of the voucher recipients are black, the DOJ's lawsuit would have the effect of keeping low-income blacks from attending the schools of their choice.
Earlier this year, Louisiana's state supreme court ruled that the voucher program was unconstitutionally funded, but otherwise left the program intact. The governor and state legislators adjusted the funding mechanism in response.
2) Two days ago, a group of activists in Oklahoma sued the state over its special needs voucher program, arguing that it violates the state constitution's ban on using public funds at religious schools. Last year, the state supreme court tossed out a challenge to the program by public school districts, ruling that they did not have standing since they are not taxpayers.
3) On the same day, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the state's education savings account program, the first in the nation, is constitutional. Anti-school choice activists had argued that it violates the state constitution's ban on publicly funding religious schools. The court held that students are the primary beneficiaries and that any "aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents." The decision will likely be appealed to the state supreme court.
4) In Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center is challenging the state's school choice tax credit program, absurdly arguing that if the program can't help every child, it shouldn't be allowed to help any child. The state supreme court recently dismissed a second lawsuit by the Alabama Education Association, though the teachers union has filed an additional suit on Blaine amendment grounds.
5) In New Hampshire, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are challenging the state's scholarship tax credit program, arguing that it violates the state constitution's ban on using public money at religious schools. Their case is weak because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tax credits are not "public money." A citizen's money only becomes the government's once it has reached the tax collector's hands. Nevertheless, in a flawed and unprecedented decision, the lower court ruled that the program could not include scholarships to students attending religious schools. The Institute for Justice, which is representing a scholarship organization and several scholarship recipients, has appealed the decision to the state supreme court.
6) The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the Douglas County School District's school voucher program is constitutional earlier this year. Opponents argued that it violated the state constitution's prohibition against using public money at religious schools. The case is being appealed to the state supreme court.
In addition, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the state's voucher program is constitutional earlier this year. For more information on some of the cases above, as well as numerous prior school choice lawsuits, see the Institute for Justice's School Choice page.