New research on Louisiana's voucher program revealed mixed results. Yesterday, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (Tulane University) and the School Choice Demonstration Project (the University of Arkansas) released four new reports examining the Louisiana Scholarship Program's impact on participating students' test performance and non-cognitive skills, level of racial segregation statewide, and the effect of competition on district-school students. Here are the key findings:
- Students who use the voucher to enroll in private schools end up with much lower math achievement than they would have otherwise, losing as much as 13 percentile points on the state standardized test, after two years. Reading outcomes are also lower for voucher users, although these are not statistically different from the experimental control group in the second year.
- There is no evidence that the Louisiana Scholarship Program has positive or negative effects on students’ non-cognitive skills, such as “grit” and political tolerance.
- The program reduced the level of racial segregation in the state. The vast majority of the recipients are black students who left schools with student populations that were disproportionally black relative to the broader community and moved to private schools that had somewhat larger white populations.
- The program may have modestly increased academic performance in public schools, consistent with the theory behind school vouchers that they create competition between public and private schools that “lifts all boats.” [Emphasis added.]
The positive impact on racial integration and evidence that competition improved district-school student performance are both positive signs, but the significant negative impact on the performance of participating students is troubling. (Ironically, the evidence suggests that the voucher program may have improved the performance of non-voucher students more than the voucher students.) That said, although the impact on student performance is negative, the second year results show improvement over the first year.
It's late December, so that means it's time for members of Congress to join together and celebrate around their own massive, legislative Christmas tree--the notorious omnibus--with earmark ornaments for nearly every congressional district. Reason's Peter Suderman explains:
The deal is made of two different elements—a 2,009-page omnibus that folds in 12 appropriations bills and calls for $1.1 trillion in spending, and a separate 233-page tax “extenders” bill that continues about $650 billion worth of supposedly-but-not-really temporary tax cuts. All together, the package is worth about $1.8 trillion.Read the rest of this post »
Many of the tax breaks in the extenders bill are the sorts of tax “cuts” that are the sort of targeted, incentives-and-behavior altering tax cuts and deductions that are best thought of as spending laundered through the tax code. (This includes the child tax credit, various business expensing provisions, and a credit to help people under 40 pay for tuition expenses, as well as credits for wind and solar power.)
Broadly speaking, that’s the sort of spending that Republicans tend to like. The other part of the package, meanwhile, contains the sort of spending that Democrats tend to like.
As more North Carolina families are using school vouchers, enrolling their children in charter schools, or homeschooling, some traditional district schools are experiencing slower growth in enrollment than anticipated. The News & Observer reports:
Preliminary numbers for this school year show that charter, private and home schools added more students over the past two years than the Wake school system did. Though the school system has added 3,880 students over the past two years, the growth has been 1,000 students fewer than projected for each of those years.
This growth at alternatives to traditional public schools has accelerated in the past few years since the General Assembly lifted a cap on the number of charter schools and provided vouchers under the Opportunity Scholarship program for families to attend private schools.
Opponents of school choice policies often claim that they harm traditional district schools. Earlier this year, the News & Observer ran an op-ed comparing choice policies to a "Trojan horse" and quoting a union official claiming that "public schools will be less able to provide a quality education than they have in the past" because they're "going to be losing funds" and "going to be losing a great many of the students who are upper middle-class... [who] receive the most home support."
Setting aside the benefits to the students who receive vouchers or scholarships (and the fact that North Carolina's vouchers are limited to low-income students and students with special needs), proponents of school choice argue that the students who remain in their assigned district schools benefit from the increased competition. Monopolies don't have to be responsive to a captive audience, but when parents have other alternatives, district schools must improve if they want to retain their students. But don't take their word for it. Here's what a North Carolina public school administrator had to say about the impact of increased competition:
New Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton said the district needs to be innovative to remain competitive in recruiting and keeping families in North Carolina’s largest school system. At a time when people like choice, he said Wake must provide options to families.
“In the past, public schools could assign students to wherever they wanted to because parents couldn’t make a choice to leave the public schools,” Benton said. “Now we’re trying to make every school a choice of high quality so that parents don’t want to leave
Wake County is not unique in this regard. As I've noted previously, there have been 23 empirical studies investigating the impact of school choice laws on the students at district schools. As shown in the chart below, 22 of those studies found that the performance of students at district schools improved after a school choice law was enacted. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found any harm.Read the rest of this post »
To the extent education policy commentary actually affects policy, it has the potential to do great good or great harm. Several recent commentaries in this field fall into the latter camp, and it's important to understand why -- so that we can avoid similar mistakes in future.
The one I'll discuss here is this blog post by Matthew Yglesias, in which he draws broad conclusions about the functioning of education markets from a recent study of a tiny school choice program in Milwaukee as well as from some older unspecified research [for the latter, Yglesias linked here, but the body of that page doesn't discuss school choice]. The Milwaukee study is part of a vast literature. Over the past quarter century at least sixty-five studies have compared outcomes in public and private schools around the world, reporting 156 separate statistical findings.
The evidence of this literature is starkly one-sided. The vast preponderance of findings show private schools outperforming public schools after all the normal controls. What's more, when we focus on the research comparing truly market-like systems to state-run school monopolies, the market advantage is found to be even more dramatic (see Figure 2 in the paper linked above). To draw policy opinions from a small, selective handful of those studies while ignoring the rest is policy malpractice, and it is dangerous to children.
Even the recent Milwaukee result described by Yglesias as a failure shows voucher students in private schools performing as well as public school students who receive roughly 50% more government funding. How is a program that produces similar academic results to the status quo at a much lower cost to taxpayers a failure? And what of the research suggesting that students in the Milwaukee voucher program graduate at higher rates than those in public schools?
More importantly from a long term policy perspective, how is a program limited to 20,000 or so children in a single city, being served almost entirely by non-profit entities, a test of market education? Would Apple have spent hundreds of millions developing the iPhone or the iPad if its market were limited to the same customer base? Of course not. The dynamism, diversity and innovation we have come to expect from competitive markets in other fields relies on the prospect of ultimately scaling up to serve mass audiences. Without the prospect of a large-scale return on investment, there is no incentive to invest in the first place.
The Ethan Allen Institute has just published a report suggesting that Vermont could save $80 million a year by voucherizing its education system. What's most interesting is how generous the prospective vouchers would be: $10,000 for K-6, and $14,900 for grades 7-12. How could such a system save money? The main reason is that Vermont was already spending $14,000/pupil on public schools across all grades four years ago. Taking into account the inevitable increase since then and the effects of inflation to 2009 dollars, the state is no doubt spending well over $15,000 per pupil today, so EAI's ample voucher funding would still cost far less than the status quo.
The only problem is that, as the EAI report notes (see p. 10), Vermont's state supreme court has ruled against state funding of sectarian schools. So tax credits would be a better option for that reason, among others.
Speaking to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, education secretary Arne Duncan said that "he would gladly cut federal red tape if institutions, in return, showed greater progress on improving student performance." So the secretary supports less government intrusion in education if schools show improvement.
Except he doesn't. Not at the K-12 level, anyway. Because Arne Duncan has advocated a slow death for the DC voucher program that his own Department of Education shows is... wait for it... significantly improving outcomes while getting government out of the business of running schools altogether.
But maybe that's the problem. Schools work better the smaller the role government plays in them, but that means we don't really need a secretary of education at all, do we?
We've been writing a fair amount over the last several months about increasing support for school choice among members of the Democratic Party. The focus has typically been on legislators, but a new report from the Center for Education Reform give a glimpse into possible widespread support among private-schooling Dems and Dem donors in Washington, DC.
The Trustees delves into the political affiliations of board of trustee members of the "ten most prestigious private schools that support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program." Based on trustees' total donation amounts to the two major presidential candidates in 2008, or to candidates, party committees, and parties themselves, the report suggests that trustees lean Democratic by a ratio of roughly 9 to 1.
Importantly, only about 37 percent of trustees were found to have made any contributions, so the 9-to-1 ratio doesn't necessarily mean that trustees overall are similarly skewed. In addition, the underlying assumption seems to be that if the schools participate in the voucher program their trustees support school choice, which doesn't necessarily follow. A trustee may very well think a school should take some voucher kids but also think the program ought not to exist. And, of course, trustees almost certainly don't all agree one way or the other.
Those things said, this is yet more evidence supporting an increasingly inescapable conclusion: Democrats -- who have historically opposed school choice much more so than Republicans -- are finding that they just can't do it anymore. There is no justification for consigning kids to awful schools.
Of course, members of both parties -- or no party at all -- who support only small, hamstrung programs still have a lot of thinking to do...