Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Public Schooling Battles: June Dispatch

The “fighting season” for public schools, not surprisingly, is roughly September through May, with summer vacations in June through August keeping the clash-rate down. So June doesn’t have as many new values and identity-based battles as most other months—15 were added to the Map—and we won’t be posting dispatches for August and September, unless something surprising happens. Of course, you can follow the Battle Map Twitter feed@PubSchoolFights–for new and updated conflicts whenever news breaks, and you can also search #WWFSchool, or post battles you find using that hashtag. And while the Facebook page will also slow down a bit, we’ll post interesting tussles we find there, too.  

Despite the waning action, June produced a few battles exemplifying the problems of forcing diverse people to fund a single system of government schools.

There is no bigger stage in the country—including in education—than New York City, with its 8.6 million residents and more than 1.2 million school-aged children. It is also very diverse ethnically and racially, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to change how students are admitted to the city’s eight top high schools, from using test scores alone to admitting anyone finishing in the top 7 percent of their middle school class, sparked a battle not just about admissions, but race. While many African Americans and Hispanics, whose children have disproportionately low representation in the highly competitive schools, saw the proposal as at least a first step toward equity, many Asian Americans, whose children have disproportionately high representation, vigorously objected.

“The mayor is pitting minority against minority and that’s really messed up,” said Kenneth Chiu, president of the New York City Asian-American Democratic Club. “New York City has taken our money for several years and no one has provided help for us.”

When government controls access to schools for which everyone must pay, especially competitive admissions schools, it often creates a zero-sum game: if my child gets in, yours doesn’t. It’s a war waiting to happen, and when race is involved—indeed, when admission based on race is explicitly at issue—it stokes racial conflict, in this case primarily pitting different minority groups against each other.

In June we also saw high-profile throwdowns over what is taught in schools, especially history and sex education, subjects inextricably linked to race, moral values, politics, and other highly personal identities and values. In Michigan new social studies standards were being debated that, at least in draft form, removed some material on gay rights, Roe v. Wade, and took “democratic” out “core democratic values.” Of course, accusations of bias were lobbed back and forth.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-7th Dist.), who worked for many of the changes, said, “When I saw the bias inherent in those standards, I wanted to make changes.” Meanwhile, State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-23rd Dist.) called the proposed revisions a “thinly veiled attempt to push an ultra-conservative agenda.”

In Fairfax County, Virginia—the nation’s 11th largest district—an on-going war over its Family Life Education program produced a new battlefront, as proposed standards reportedly removed “clergy” from a list of trustworthy adults. Religion, then, was directly involved in the battle, even though the public schools are supposed to be religiously neutral. Of course they can’t be, which the perpetual sex education debate in Fairfax County and countless other districts has made crystal clear. Religious values are unavoidably entangled with matters of sex.

Speaking of impossible religious neutrality, check out the op-ed Corey DeAngelis and I wrote a couple of weeks ago presenting the case that, constitutionally, true religious neutrality requires school choice, then read this blog post—and the law review article to which it links—to get a much deeper treatment of the matter. If nothing else, it will help you pass the time, and contemplate a sustainable path to peace, as September inevitably approaches.

For-Profit Charters Are Effective Too

One of the benefits of school choice is that it allows students with varying needs and backgrounds to choose which schooling model helps them achieve the best educational outcomes. An extensive literature on charter schools, one of the most visible alternatives to traditional public schools, has found that charters with certain characteristics and policies tend to have positive results. Most of this literature focuses on non-profit schools, but a recent study finds that the advantages of charters extend to for-profit schools. 

In their recent paper, University of Michigan economists Susan Dynarksi, Daniel Hubbard, Brian Jacob, and Silvia Robles estimate the educational impact of one of the largest for-profit charter school networks in the country, National Heritage Academy (NHA), which enrolls over 50,000 students in 9 states. Using randomized lottery admissions at NHA schools in Michigan, they find that attending a NHA charter school for one year is associated with an increase in math achievement and positive—though not statistically significant—impacts on other outcomes.

Also of note, the authors find that non-poor, non-urban students benefited the most from one year at NHA. Most of the prior literature has found the opposite, that low-income, urban students receive a larger share of the benefits.  And similar to results for non-profit charters, the authors find that certain key characteristics—such as a “No excuses” culture, providing extra time for core subjects, and frequent diagnostic assessments—are what seem to drive the positive results.

The study is the first evidence on the impact of for-profit charter schools, and it indicates that for-profits can provide similar advantages as non-profits. As non-profit and for-profit charters expand, these benefits will continue to offer different types of students the best opportunities for academic success.

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.

An Education Proposal to Chew on this 4th of July

If government is going to establish public schools, which must be secular, the U.S. Constitution requires that it also provide school choice for religious Americans. So argued Corey DeAngelis and I last week in a Detroit News op-ed, and it’s something you might mull over this 4th of July as you watch over your grilling burgers or, hopefully, even more satisfying smoked brisket or bacon-wrapped hot dogs. (It’s always a good time to raise your outdoor cooking game!) Government must not inculcate religious beliefs, but it also must not elevate non-belief over religion, hence the need for choice.

If you want to seriously grapple with this and have a fair amount time tomorrow between firing up some savory dishes and sparking some dazzling fireworks, read this 2013 Florida Law Review article by Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabresi and attorney Abe Salander. It lays out in great legal detail how equal protection under the law demands equal access to education consistent with one’s values, religious and non-religious alike.

Write Calabresi and Salander, “states discriminate on the basis of religion when they administer secular private schools that are unpalatable to religious individuals and that are funded with taxpayer dollars….religious students are effectively excluded by the character of the public schools, and general atmosphere of public schools.”

If you don’t want to tax yourself—it will be the 4th of July, after all—with too much heavy legal reading, maybe this grilling-relevant analogy will kindle some thoughts. Suppose you love hamburgers (or brisket!) and the government promised neutrality regarding what meat people eat. Then suppose legislators passed a law spending tax dollars to feed everyone, but only on vegetables so as not to favor a meat. What kind of neutrality would that be? The kind that elevates vegetarians over all meat eaters, de facto rendering the latter second-class citizens. Secular public schooling absent school choice does the same, only unlike food, education deals with nothing less than the development of human minds!

None of this, of course, is to say that veggies should have no place on your grill tomorrow. They can be delicious. But favoring them to the exclusion of burgers, brisket, and dogs would be, well, un-American.

Pages