Topic: Education and Child Policy

American Public on Education: “We Want It All”

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, back-to-school also means the release of lots of education polling, and Tuesday brought us the yearly Education Next poll, which is one of my favorites. (Of course, I love all you crazy polls!) The Education Next folks do a lot of interesting experimentation with their polls, especially when it comes to funding, and they keep nice longitudinal data. I don’t love every part of the survey—looking at you, Common Core question—but overall I think it is well done and highly informative.

As usual, you should read the whole thing, and I’ll just hit some highlights.

More, more, more!

If there is one repeated theme to the poll, it’s that people generally want more of whatever is being discussed: more spending, higher teacher pay, more school choice, more accountability. People also tend to like their public schools and state colleges, and seem to want more higher ed.

Not especially well informed

While the members of the public express opinions on many education issues, they aren’t always especially knowledgeable, as you would expect of people with regular jobs and lives and not a ton of time to delve deeply into public policy issues, including education. They tend to greatly underestimate how much we spend on public schooling (by about 47 percent), public school teacher salaries (by about 30 percent), and they know either very little or the wrong things about charter schools (no, they cannot charge tuition or hold religious services).

School Choice

As you can see below, support for all sorts of choice—charters, vouchers, scholarship tax credits—rose this year, and scholarship tax credits remain the most popular option. This is probably because a lot of people like school choice and even more like tax credits. Charters have also rebounded after taking a sizeable dive between 2016 and 2017.

Common Core

As we’ve seen before, a significant majority of the public likes the idea of common standards across states that would “be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” How much this question reflects support for common standards, accountability, or both is unclear. What is clear is if you attach the name of specific curriculum standards to it—the Common Core—support drops, though it has been inching up as the battle over the Core, and the Core itself, fades in the public memory.

Free College

“Free” college is a bad idea for numerous reasons we have discussed many times—and apparently a lot of economists agree—but there is no question that the idea, at least in the abstract, is popular. 69 percent of the public favors it for two-year schools, and 60 percent for four-year institutions. Troubling, but who doesn’t like a free lunch?

Again, lot’s more to see here, so check it all out.

School Choice Increases Earnings in Colombia

There’s an ongoing debate about how we should evaluate the effectiveness of school choice policies. Last month, two education professors argued that standardized test scores should be “the measure of success.” Other education researchersincluding myself – contend that we should take a more holistic approach by looking at other relevant long-term outcomes as well. After all, schools can do so much more than shape test scores. Here’s a case in point.

A just-released evaluation found that a school choice program Colombia improved vital long-run outcomes up to 20 years after students applied for private school vouchers in 1994.

The research team, led by Stanford University’s Eric Bettinger, found that winning a lottery to use a voucher to attend a private school in 6th grade increased earnings by 8 percent overall and 11 percent for females by the time the students reached around 33 years of age. In other words, it looks like school choice could help close the gender wage gap in Colombia. The program also increased adult earnings by 17 percent for students who applied to vocational schools.

Higher earnings should be enough to demonstrate this voucher program’s success. But don’t drop the mic just yet.

The study also found that winning the voucher lottery reduced the likelihood of having a child as a teenager by 18 percent. Voucher lottery winners were also 17 percent more likely to complete secondary school on time and 13 percent more likely to enroll in tertiary education than the control group. The authors also reported that these long-run gains “occur at a low or possibly negative cost to taxpayers,” implying the program has a positive return on investment.

We should consider all relevant outcomes when evaluating any education policy, especially since families don’t want schools solely focusing on standardized tests. Families want schools to help their children succeed in life. And it looks like private schools in Colombia are doing just that.

Why Public Schools Can’t Have Nice Values

It’s nearing back-to-school time, and that means in addition to lots of yellow buses, we’ll be seeing the annual spate of education polls. The first one just came out—the 2019 Phi Delta Kappa poll—and it furnishes some interesting information illustrating why it’s so hard for public schools to inculcate values. Short answer: we just don’t agree on them, and a lot of people fear what their kids might be taught.

This edition of the survey—PDK, by the way, is an organization of professional educators—has a special focus on teaching religion, civics, and other values-based subjects, as well as presenting regular fare such as grades for public schools and lists of perceived “biggest problems.” Taken as a whole, it reveals that most people want values taught, but there is major disagreement about what values specifically, and the possible consequences of teaching them. It’s what we see play out in districts nationwide on Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, and no doubt in many places not on the Map because conflicts and concerns don’t make it onto reporters’ radars.

Start with civics. A central promise since the earliest days of American public schooling advocacy was that “common” schools would form good citizens. But to the extent that involves things like teaching how government works, it’s not happening. One reason may be that while those who are supposed to govern public schools—“the people”—overwhelmingly agree that civics should be taught, they don’t think it is nearly as important as other things. When asked what “the main goal of a public school education” should be, only 25 percent of respondents replied “to prepare students to be good citizens.” 21 percent said “to prepare students for work” and 53 percent “to prepare students academically.” The results specifically for parents, in the chart below, were similar.

The next problem is, if you do teach civics, what do you include? 27 percent of respondents, and 29 percent of parents, were at least “somewhat” concerned that “civics classes might include political content” with which they would disagree, with 35 percent of Republicans feeling that way. That’s less stark than one might expect if one thinks of such heated showdowns as those in Michigan and Texas over the core word “democracy,” but having more than one in four people fearing political bias means there’s a good chance of polarizing disagreement in lots of schools, making even basic civics something of a minefield to avoid.

Even more precarious is religion, but many Americans are religious, and we have seen several states pushing to include religious content, especially on the Bible, in schools. The PDK poll shows that while almost everyone thinks civics should be taught, if not prioritized, feelings are more mixed on religion. On whether comparative religion classes should be in public schools, only 7 percent of respondents said they should be required, 70 percent supported them as electives, and 23 percent did not want them at all. Bible classes were more polarizing, with 6 percent wanting them to be mandatory, 58 percent electives, and 36 percent nowhere in the schools. (Again, as the chart below shows, parents were similar to the general public.) Tracking with this, about one in four respondents feared comparative religion classes would cause students to question their families’ beliefs or change their faith, and more than one in three feared Bible classes “might improperly promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.”

Again, those numbers may feel a little low, but having any sizable share of families potentially object to what is taught is a powerful deterrent against presenting the material. Indeed, while the pollsters found nearly unanimous approval for teaching generic “honesty” and “civility,” nearly 40 percent of respondents said it would not be possible to get people in their community “to agree on a set of basic values.”

All of this points to an inherent problem for public schools in a diverse society: It is very difficult get diverse people to agree on what to teach, especially on highly personal matters such as religion, or highly volatile such as politics. The result is that public schools often spark social conflict, downplay anything potentially controversial, or first do one and then the other, harming social cohesion and academic rigor. Of course, there is an educational arrangement that avoids the zero-sum nature of public schooling, fostering peace and rigor: school choice. This year, PDK did not ask about that.

Universal Childcare Could Have Terrible Social Consequences

Some Democratic presidential candidates want to introduce government-funded, universal childcare programs.

The stated rationale is usually the need for targeted financial help for families with children. But this reasoning is usually buttressed by a faith that government-funded care or preschool would improve the life chances of the children using it.

Such assertions are based on extrapolating research findings from more limited programs targeted at those on low incomes, such as Head Start, the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project. But assuming these results apply to more universal programs is fraught with danger. Wise heads, such as Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, have previously warned that:

A much more careful analysis of the effects of scaling up the model programs to the target population, and its effects on costs, has to be undertaken before these estimates [of their impact] can be considered definitive.

A new paper on the effects of the universal childcare program in Quebec (by economists Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan) shows why Heckman was right to be cautious. The results are devastating for the case for universal care.

On a sweep of evidence of universal programs around the world, the paper concludes that “there is a little clear evidence that these programs provide significant benefits more broadly,” than for some disadvantaged children.

The results in Quebec were even worse. The government there introduced heavy subsidies for care for all children from ages zero through four in the 1990s, alongside regulations designed to improve “quality.” Maternal labor supply unsurprisingly rose, and child care services were used more heavily than in the rest of Canada.

Disturbingly, though, “there was a large, significant, negative shock to the preschool, noncognitive development and health of children exposed to the new program, with little measured impact on cognitive skills.” This included “increases in early childhood anxiety and aggression.”

Proponents of universal care usually say, to paraphrase, that “a good start in life is crucial to future wellbeing.” It stands to reason then that interventions that harm children can likewise have enduring scarring effects. When it comes to Quebec, this is exactly what the economists found.

Though their results find “no consistent evidence of a lasting impact of the Quebec program on cognitive test scores,” the rest of their findings are extremely worrying:

We do, however, find a significant decline in self-reported health and in life satisfaction among teens. Most strikingly, we find a sharp and contemporaneous increase in criminal behavior among the cohorts exposed to the Quebec program, relative to their peers in other provinces. We illustrate graphically a monotonic increase in crime rates among cohorts with their exposure to the child care program, and we show in regression analysis that exposure led to a significant rise in overall crime rates. We also report that these effects are primarily for boys, who also see the largest deterioration in noncognitive skills [the later includes aggression and hyperactivity].

The economists charitably conclude that their results confirm that early life interventions can have sustained impacts on life chances (implying the importance of doing childcare policy “right”).

A more pessimistic reader would foresee potentially disastrous social consequences from adopting the sorts of universal programs that Democratic candidates are pushing.

More on childcare, and a better way of helping families, here and here.

Sen. Warren’s Debt Cancellation May Stir Resentment

On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released more details to her proposal to transfer approximately $640 billion in student debt to taxpayers. With total student debt at about $1.6 trillion, and annual college tuition and fee increases outpacing inflation for decades, many Americans might welcome policies that seemingly make college more affordable, including student loan “forgiveness.”

The program would benefit many responsible students repaying their loans as scheduled. However, it would also reward students who used college as a consumption good (playtime) as opposed to an investment opportunity (acquiring skills), and those who borrowed for degrees they didn’t need, or degrees that delivered big earnings, like doctors and engineers.  

Consequently, the transfer of student debt from those who took it on voluntarily to hard working taxpayers may not resonate well with those Americans who had to make difficult decisions regarding college affordability. Those who might understandably feel resentful are:

  1. Students who chose an affordable higher education route, as opposed to debt financing, by working while in school, attending community college for two years, living off campus, commuting from home, or other means.
  2. Students who sacrificed to repay their student loans.
  3. Parents who sacrificed to pay their children’s college expenses.
  4. Students who chose more lucrative majors, over their desired field, for the sole purpose of repaying student loans.
  5. Those who wanted to attend college but chose not to, believing it too costly.

The broader message sent to all Americans is also not a good one, but one that discourages responsible personal finance. Why should you pinch pennies, minimize debt, and pay your bills when those who don’t get bailed out?

Policy should be geared toward encouraging and rewarding responsible behavior. This does the opposite. 

Senator Sanders’ Not So Great Free College Proposal

Sen. Bernie Sanders proposes free college for all and the cancellation of all student debt.

Americans have watched the price of four-year college rise faster than inflation for several decades. This phenomenon is complex and can be attributed to several factors. Two of the most important factors are:

  1. the rising cost of education and campus amenities (keeping technology current, expanding physical education facilities, more administrative positions, improved meal plans, and so on).
  2. students’ increased willingness and ability to pay higher prices, owing to easy access to government subsidies.

The first point is enabled by the second, and Sen. Sanders’ proposal will simply exacerbate the problem.

President Reagan’s then-Secretary of Education William Bennett famously articulated the second point in a 1987 New York Times op-ed, saying: “If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.”

Free college and debt forgiveness are the motherlode of aid to colleges and universities, which under Sen. Sanders’ plan will fuel rising costs that will be redirected from students to taxpayers. Massive federal education funding will join other unsustainable “third-rail” entitlement programs and grow, adding to federal spending, the deficit, and debt.

If student loans are forgiven, those who borrowed—in some cases irresponsibly—are rewarded, whereas those who paid for their education by making sacrifices are punished. If anything, this would cause resentment and may discourage future responsible financial behavior. If Americans believe that debt is something that can magically be eliminated by government, why not maximize mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt?

And worst of all, education quality and accountability will suffer. We’ve seen this play out for decades in free public K-12 schools, where per-pupil cost rises continuously and student performance stagnates or falls. Underperforming schools remain open and continue to provide inadequate education to many children.

DC Vouchers: Bang for the Buck

Standardized test scores aren’t what they used to be. From A Nation at Risk in 1983 to Common Core around 2010, they were close to exclusively how we assessed whether students and schools were succeeding. But over the years the monomaniacal focus on test scores increasingly grated on schools and families, and with the Common Core threatening to put everyone on the road to the exact same standards and tests, there was a political revolt. At about the same time an empirical revolt was brewing, with increasing evidence that schools’ test scores may not correlate all that well with other important outcomes, ranging from college attendance to health. Which brings us to the latest evaluation of the Washington, DC, voucher program.

After the first two reports in the three-installment series found negative test score effects it was easy to be disappointed, even while realizing that test scores are very cramped measures, and the DC voucher program was functioning in a district where choice, once you add in charter schools and choice among traditional public schools, was the norm. Choice is still the norm—78 percent of students who applied for vouchers but did not receive them nonetheless went to schools other than those to which they were assigned—but now test scores for DC voucher students are statistically indistinguishable from those of applicants who did not receive vouchers.

So DC vouchers are a test-score wash. But they are a plus in many other areas, including reducing chronic absenteeism (see chart above), increasing student satisfaction, and making students feel safe. Meanwhile, they have no overall negative impacts. And all this at a fraction of the cost of traditional DC public schools. The voucher cap is $9,022 for grades K-8 and $13,534 for 9-12, while traditional DC publics spend around $27,000 per student.

All in the world of school choice test scores is not good – see the most recent assessment of Louisiana’s particularly troubled voucher program. But more and more we are seeing that test scores are not the super-measures we thought—or at least acted like—they were, and school choice is—and must be—about much more.

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