Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Knowing about Segregationist Housing Policy Is the First Step to Justice

In education, there is a widespread belief: the federal government ended segregation. This is, of course, based on the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and subsequent federal efforts to end segregated schooling. But as a sobering new book by the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein makes clear, while all levels of government forced, coerced, or cajoled racial segregation through housing policy, the feds may have been the worst, and the crippling legacy of those actions may be much further reaching than even schooling policy.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America is essentially a catalogue of discriminatory housing policies perpetrated throughout the 20th Century, but peaking from the 1930s through the 1960s. It chronicles local injustices including police ignoring or even stoking mobs that tormented African Americans who dared buy a home in a white neighborhood, and states with segregationist intent mandating local referenda to approve low-income family public housing. But it is the federal government that seems to have had the most powerful hand in it all, if for no other reason than only it could sweep every American into the corners where it decided they did—or did not—belong.

Campus Speech and Progressivism

Jeffrey Herbst, the President and CEO of the Newseum, recently released a report about free speech on campus. It is brief and well worth reading.

Herbst believes we are missing the major problem exposed by recent attacks on free speech at universities.

Systematic public opinion polling and anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the real problem of free expression on college campuses is much deeper than episodic moments of censorship: With little comment, an alternate understanding of the First Amendment has emerged among young people that can be called “the right to non-offensive speech.” This perspective essentially carves out an exception to the right of free speech by trying to prevent expression that is seen as particularly offensive to an identifiable group, especially if that collective is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity. The crisis is not one of the very occasional speaker thrown off campus, however regrettable that is; rather, it is a generation that increasingly censors itself and others, largely silently but sometimes through active protest.

Many people believe university students have adopted a “right to non-offensive speech” under the influence of their leftwing professors who are hostile to libertarian values. But Herbst shows that high school students and their teachers are equally doubtful about protecting speech that offends. He notes, “young adults come to campus with some fairly well-developed views that explain much of what subsequently occurs as they confront challenging speech.”

Jeffrey Herbst notes that young people support free speech in theory but not, as we have seen with Murray and others, in particular cases. In the past polls showed that while the First Amendment in the abstract received near unanimous support, its applications to unpopular speakers sometimes failed to attract a majority. Maybe the boomers were different, and young people now are returning—ironically enough—to views held by pre-boomers.

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.


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?