Topic: Education and Child Policy

At Cato Unbound: How Best To Reform Child Protective Services?

This month I’m participating in a Cato Unbound symposium on Child Protective Services and family rights. In its lead essay, attorney Diane Redleaf details some of the ways in which CPS agencies can arm-twist parents into so-called interim placements and safety plans that separate families with little or no judicial review.  Participant James G. Dwyer, in a response essay, takes a relatively positive view of the agencies’s work. My essay, by contrast, generally backs up Redleaf’s critique of CPS as a species of government enforcement agency gone wild: far too often, these agencies seize children from parents based on flimsy evidence, second-guess everyday parental behavior and decisions, or act on misguided Drug War zeal. 

Redleaf in her essay then goes on to raise distinctive objections about how the agencies negotiate with parents before a judge has ruled on their cases, which I paraphrase thus: 

…what sorts of policy response should apply to agencies’ practice of proffering to parents ostensibly voluntary interim placements and “safety plans”? What happens when parents regret—the next month, or the next day—having agreed to those conditions? Can they reopen the concessions they made, and how? Does it matter whether the agency has withheld information from them or menaced them with worst-case scenarios?

In my response essay, I argue that the problems with these practices are real but that legal attack on the voluntariness of interim plans is likely to be of at best limited helpfulness because our courts follow a strong presumption of enforcing settlements as written. More promising in the long run, I argue, may be to impose direct obligations on agencies to respect families’ autonomy without attacking the settlement process as such. “Safeguarding every family’s rights will, as one of its benefits, shore up families against unwise surrenders of their rights.”

 

 

Unified by Public High?

If someone told you that public high schools have taken people with political and social power and brought them together, to the exclusion of other people, would you celebrate those schools? Probably not. But that is essentially what a new Atlantic article does in extolling public high schools and attacking school choice.

The piece, by English professor Amy Lueck, asserts that public schools—particularly high schools—have been crucial, unifying institutions. After criticizing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for calling public schools a “dead end” (DeVos actually said monopolistic public schooling is a dead end for innovation) Lueck offers the following:

Far from being a “dead end,” for a long time the public school—particularly the public high school—served an important civic purpose: not only as an academic training ground, but also as a center for community and activity in American cities.

The public high school’s unifying importance, especially compared to private schooling, is very much wanting for proof. Lueck talks a lot about public high school football games, dances, yearbooks, and supporting the country in World War II to back her thesis, but says nothing about whether private schools did the same things. Of course, they did. She also says nothing about whether public high schools were especially effective in forming good citizens, while the research suggests that private schools and other schools of choice actually do better jobs than traditional public schools inculcating civic values such as voting, political tolerance, and volunteering in one’s community.  

More important than ignoring what private schools have done, though, is what Lueck concedes in a few welcome but quick admissions: public high schools have a highly discriminatory history. This is not just with egregious segregation of African Americans, which Lueck mentions, but also in some places Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Public schools have also been demeaning places for immigrants, and from early on in the history of public schooling numerous Roman Catholics felt that they had no choice but to stay out of the often de facto Protestant—and sometimes openly hostile—public schools. Indeed, by 1970 more than 1 million students attended Catholic high schools. But Lueck somehow doesn’t mention Catholics at all, including the recent evidence that Catholic schools are powerful forces for community cohesion. And Catholics have hardly been the only religious dissenters to the coerced uniformity of public schooling.

It is easy to say that public schools are essential unifiers, and that choice threatens cohesion. But what one says, and reality, are not always the same.

Does Private Schooling Affect National Stability?

School choice critics often resort to fearmongering. For example, a Superintendent of Public Instruction in North Carolina contended that citizens “could be in dangerous territory” with the expansion of private school vouchers. After all, she argued, “there is nothing in the [voucher] legislation that would prevent someone from establishing a school of terror.”

The only problem is that the facts don’t support these scare tactics.

My just-published study examines whether fluctuations in the private share of schooling affect national stability within 177 countries around the globe over 16 years. The analysis does not detect contemporaneous effects of private schooling on any of the five measures national stability. However, I find evidence indicating that increases in private schooling improve measures of perceived control of corruption and rule of law – provided by the World Bank – when students become adults.

As shown in Table 1 below (and in the original study), a one-percentage point increase in the private share of schooling enrollment is associated with around a 0.01-point increase in both the perceived control of corruption and the perceived control of the rule of law even after controlling for changes in factors such as GDP, population, and government expenditures.

Table Notes: p-values are indicated in parentheses. * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001. All coefficients are average marginal effects. All models use year and country fixed effects with time-variant controls added and a 7-year lag of the private share of schooling enrollment. Column 5 does not show any results for Coup d’état because the dependent variable did not vary. When the instrumental variable employed by DeAngelis and Shakeel (2018) and DeAngelis (2017)—short-run fluctuations in the demand for schooling—is used, the lag coefficient for Rule of Law remains statistically significant; however, the lag coefficient for Corrupt Control becomes statistically insignificant with a p-value of 0.11.

 

This study doesn’t provide any evidence to suggest that private schooling is dangerous to societies around the world. If anything, it appears that private schooling improves the character and citizenship skills necessary for social order. And this study isn’t alone. None of the eleven rigorous studies on the topic find that private school choice reduces social order in the U.S. The majority of these studies actually find positive effects on civic outcomes. But why?

Private schools must cater to the needs of families if they don’t want to shut down. And, of course, families want their children to become good citizens. But government schools remain open whether they teach kids character skills or not. Perhaps supporters of the status quo should consult the evidence – and basic economic theory – before resorting to scaremongering.

Support for Universal School Vouchers Skyrockets

EducationNext just released its 12th annual survey of public opinion. The nationally representative survey, administered in May 2018, finds that 54 percent of the general public supports private school vouchers for all students. This result is up 9 percentage points (20 percent) from 2017. On the other hand, only 43 percent of the survey respondents support income-targeted vouchers. This is great news for all families. Here’s why.

 

While there are 63 private school choice programs in the majority of the United States, less than one percent of the school-aged population actually exercises private school choice. This extremely low participation rate is largely explained by the fact that all school voucher programs are targeted based on student disadvantage. No voucher programs in the U.S. are available to all students.

Of course, universal voucher programs would benefit children from families that earn higher incomes. But universal vouchers would actually benefit the least advantaged children more than anyone. Why?

Let’s use an extreme example. Imagine that a voucher program was targeted to the very least advantaged student in a state. No educational entrepreneur would see one additional student as a big enough opportunity to take the risk of opening a new school. On the other hand, a program giving thousands of new students opportunities to attend private schools would entice several educational entrepreneurs to open new schools.

The result? Even the very least advantaged student has more educational options when school choice is open to all students. Put differently, the least advantaged students are better off when school choice programs are not targeted to them. And because the least advantaged children need better schooling options than anyone else, universal programs would benefit the least advantaged the most.

Maybe the general public is figuring this out. Or maybe people are just figuring out that all families should be able to pick the schools that are best for their own kids. Either way, majority support for universal school vouchers could lead to a lot more educational freedom in the near future.

Examining the Bookends: Public Support for Choice and the Common Core

The 2018 Education Next poll is upon us, probing the public’s feelings about lots of education issues, from grading public schools to thoughts on teacher pay. I’ll just highlight two things here, kind of the opposite ends of the educational freedom spectrum: school choice, and the federally coerced, national curriculum standards known as the Common Core.

School Choice

As we know about any polling, how a question is worded can have considerable bearing on the results it yields. That’s a primary reason to greet any poll with skepticism. Because the fine folks at Education Next are well aware of this, they asked different versions of several questions, including about choice. What do they reveal?

We Shouldn’t Need to Use Science to Grant Educational Freedom

This is getting old. I find myself correcting false claims regarding the scientific evidence on private school choice all too often. For example, using only one correlational study that did not detect any statistically significant effects, Valerie Strauss recently concluded that “private schools aren’t better at educating kids than public schools” in the Washington Post. As I have pointed out many times before, the preponderance of the causal evidence indicates that school voucher programs in the U.S. improve student test scores and more important outcomes such as high school graduation, college enrollment, and tolerance of others.

But science shouldn’t determine whether families are allowed to pick the schools they want for their kids.

Just imagine if we used the scientific evidence to decide whether people should be residentially assigned to their nearest government grocery store. What if we randomly assigned thousands of families to government-run grocery stores and found that, on average, those families consumed fewer calories than the families with the freedom to shop for groceries on their own? Such an empirical finding certainly wouldn’t mean that the government should compel all individual families to accept the grocery basket deemed ideal by the experts. After all, a crude metric such as caloric intake can only tell us so much about how well an individual’s nutritional needs are being met. And, of course, some people may simply value eating appetizing foods more than the benefits of having a lower BMI. It would be a disgraceful limitation of freedom to compel people to consume—and pay for—a basket of groceries they did not want.

Yet this is precisely the type argument often used against freedom in education—that parents are somehow unfit to choose schools for their own kids.

But it’s worse than that with education because most of the random-assignment evaluations find that students are better off when their parents are allowed to choose their schools. And even though the most rigorous scientific evidence available says families should have school choice, less than one percent of the school-aged population in the U.S. uses a private school choice program.

But why shouldn’t society use science to force other people to do the “right” things?

Of course, science can tell us a lot about the world around us. And random assignment (the “gold standard” of scientific research) is the best thing we have available to determine how certain treatments (or policies) affect groups of people. However, even the best methodology has important flaws that do not allow researchers to give central planners enough information to make good decisions for individual families.

For example, since the internal validity of experimental design relies on something called the law of large numbers, the methodology only allows researchers to determine the average effects of policies for large groups of people. In other words, even the best scientific methodology that exists cannot determine the effect of policies on specific individuals. And then there is the external validity problem—even if a school choice program is found to have large positive (or negative) effects on one group of students, on average, it is unlikely that the effects will be exactly the same for the other cohorts of students or in different settings. Similarly, the effectiveness of school choice programs—and the supply of private schools—can change over time.

And education technocrats frequently use faulty measures of success—standardized test scores—because it is extremely difficult for researchers to get their hands on more important long-term outcomes such as earnings, crime, and character skills. The main problem is that effects on math and reading test scores often do not predict effects on more important long-term outcomes. For instance, a recent American Enterprise Institute review of the evidence found that 61 percent of school choice programs’ effects on math test scores—and 50 percent of effects on reading test scores—did not predict effects on high school graduation. And at least 11 other studies have found divergences between private schools’ effects on test scores and their effects on more important long-term outcomes. For example, a peer-reviewed evaluation found that private school vouchers in Ohio had no effect on test scores but increased students’ charitable donations by 23 percent. In other words, focusing too much on standardized test scores could compromise the character skills necessary for true lifelong success.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many evaluations do not use random assignment—and the problems only get much worse when weaker empirical methods are used. Put simply, central planners face a severe knowledge problem with education today—just as central planners faced severe knowledge problems with five-year plans in the Soviet Union.

The fact is that families have more information about what their individual children need than education bureaucrats and scientists sitting in offices—hundreds of miles away. Families are also more interested in their own children’s lifelong success than anyone else.

The strongest scientific evidence we have on the subject suggests that private school choice works. But that really shouldn’t even matter. Just as people have the right to pick their own groceries, people should have the right to pick the schools that they believe will work best for their own kids. And just as government officials cannot force families to eat at particular restaurants, government officials shouldn’t be able to force families to send their kids to failing government schools.

Is Green Energy Competitive?

The declining cost of solar panels and the widespread adoption of rooftop solar in California lead to many cocktail party discussions about the competitiveness of green energy. While at first glance it may seem that solar power and other renewable energy sources are able to compete with conventional resources, a closer examination of the characteristics and costs of electricity systems demonstrates that current renewable technologies are not economically competitive.

The fixed costs of electricity systems, the capital costs of transmission and distribution systems, are large. Actual electricity tariffs do not typically recover fixed costs explicitly and separately from electricity use. Instead they recover them through use charges per kWh. If electricity pricing were more efficient, customers would pay a large fee for the use of the transmission and distribution systems disconnected from the amount of electricity they use and would be charged a separate variable fee based on actual consumption. (See this article by Ahmad Faruqui and Mariko Geronimo Aydin in the Fall 2017 issue of Regulation for a more thorough discussion of electricity pricing.) Thus, current bills do not inform consumers about how high the fixed costs of the system really are.

Understanding the significance and recovery of fixed costs is important because of the manner through which customers with solar panels on their roof are reimbursed for the power they generate.  Solar production in many states, especially California, is reimbursed at full retail rates. But when a household produces solar power and reduces the use of system-generated electricity, the system saves only the marginal costs of the power that it did not have to produce, which is usually much less than the retail rate. None of the large fixed costs are saved.

In California, because of its tiered retail rate structure, the discrepancy between the retail rate and the amount the system saves because of rooftop solar production is large. The marginal cost of power generation is about 6-10 cents per kWh, but customers are reimbursed at full retail rates (many at over 30 cents per kWh) rather than the lower marginal costs of system generation. Reimbursement at full retail rates shifts the fixed costs of the electric system from solar panel households to other users. Without the excessive payments, decentralized solar would not be competitive.

Other renewable generation sources would appear to be competitive with natural gas generation. According to estimates of the total costs of various generation technologies over their operating lifetime, large-scale centralized solar generation in the deserts of the American southwest and large-scale onshore wind generation both have costs that are competitive with new natural gas generation. (Offshore wind is much more costly. See my blog on Cape Wind, a failed plan to build a wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts.)

However, even if the lifetime average costs of wind and solar are the same as coal or natural gas, the equivalence needs to be qualified. Different electricity generation technologies are very imperfect substitutes. The marginal value of electricity varies across time because demand varies by time of day and space because of transmission constraints. For example, wind power supply is greatest during winter nights, when demand is low, and lowest during summer when demand is highest. Wind is also most plentiful far from where people live and consume electricity, meaning it incurs additional costs to transport the electricity to people. At least solar output is large during the summer afternoon peak demand period. But both solar and wind are not dispatchable. That is, their output cannot be made to vary up or down.

Until cost-competitive green energy that is dispatchable is available, renewable sources of electricity require backup conventional generation. Because the sun eventually sets, and the wind stops blowing, natural gas generation whose output can be varied (sometimes quickly) must be available as backup. The fixed and variable costs of the backup must be paid by someone. These hidden costs need to be considered in any calculation of “cost competitiveness.”

Future technological breakthroughs, such as more efficient batteries to store electricity and more cost effective dispatchable solar power sources, may make green energy a better substitute for conventional generators. But for the time being, without governments putting their thumbs on the scale, green energy is not competitive. 

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.

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