Topic: Education and Child Policy

Governments Shouldn’t Even Fund Schools

Education reporters frequently make the claim that government ought to fund and operate educational institutions because schooling is a public good. However, since schooling fails both conditions required for a public good to exist, schools should not be publicly operated.

Schooling is Not a Public Good

According to the economic definition, a public good is non-rival in consumption and non-excludable. The first condition means that one individual’s consumption of the good does not hinder others’ abilities to use the product. Schooling fails this condition since students take up seats when receiving an education. The second condition means that the producer of the good is unable to exclude non-payers. Schooling fails this part of the definition since school leaders can prevent students from attending their institutions, if necessary.

Since schooling is not a true public good, the basic free-rider problem does not exist. This is important because it means that government does not need to operate schools or force residents to pay for them.

A Merit Good?

When journalists claim that schooling is a public good, I believe they actually mean to say that education is a merit good since it produces positive externalities. When an educational product is purchased, both the consumer and the provider benefit, as in all other voluntary transactions. However, the rest of society may also benefit if schooling actually creates citizens that are more educated. This argument leads many scholars to support government subsidization of schooling.

The Problem

Obviously, schooling is only one channel through which people can achieve an education. Since children can learn in various settings, the current system of schooling may actually harm their overall educational levels. In other words, schooling may impose negative externalities on society through providing a less than optimal level of education to all children.

Similarly, schooling likely creates a more obedient citizenry. This generates positive externalities, through less criminal activity, and negative externalities, through less creativity and technological innovation.

Since there are large positive and negative externalities that result from schooling, in theory, it is impossible to determine the overall sign of the net spillover. Consequently, it is unclear whether we ought to tax or subsidize schooling; and even if we could somehow figure out the overall sign, we would not be able to determine the optimal magnitude of the intervention.

We should recognize the fact that externalities do exist in education. However, as the founder of externalities conceded, we must also realize that attempting to reach the socially optimal level of schooling through government intervention may ironically result in much harm. Instead, we ought to limit this probable detriment by allowing individual families to seek ideal educational experiences for their own children.

Still Unhappy with PBS for Airing School Inc.

Before it even hit the fiber-optics, defenders of public schooling were agitated that PBS stations would be airing Andrew Coulson’s documentary School Inc., which takes viewers on a ride through time and around the world to learn how innovation happens, and why it happens too rarely in education. Last Friday a new critique was published, this time on the website of Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association of educators. In the piece, Loyola University Chicago professor Amy Shuffelton asks, “Why did PBS and its local New York affiliate, WNET, agree to broadcast and distribute such an unbalanced, journalistically questionable series on such a controversial and complicated topic as education?”

Perhaps the answer is that PBS officials thought the series had high-quality content, and discerning viewers could determine for themselves whether they accepted its premise. Writes Shuffelton: “According to WNET’s Specter [Shuffelton does not provide a first name], the second part of the series title, ‘A Personal Journey’ is key to understanding the project. ‘When you read that subtitle, you know that you’re going to get a point of view, and we’re not opposed to presenting different points of view.’”

The documentary certainly is clear that you are getting one person’s perspective. And while I don’t watch a lot of television, PBS or otherwise, it seems unlikely that PBS programs such as Bill Moyer’s Journal or Democracy Now! have been committed to strict, equal time for opposing views. As with public schooling, there is good reason to oppose publicly funded television because it is impossible to represent the views of every taxpayer equally. But PBS exists, and points of view seem to be articulated without having to be balanced out.

Of course, the best way to judge the quality and merits of School Inc. is to view it yourself, which you can do here, or by watching this space for future airings in your market. And you should of course read opposing views like Shuffelton’s, though don’t expect objectivity there, either. For instance, Shuffelton says that Coulson quotes Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson out of context, but does not say how. Worse, she suggests that Coulson believes discrimination in government funding is a solution to religious conflicts in education:

Coulson does consider the possibility of civic discord in the last ten minutes of the series, but his answers are not convincing. School Inc. turns to Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer’s dissent in the case Zelman v Simmons-Harris, which upheld an Ohio voucher program. Breyer worried that publicly financed voucher programs, which funnel federal funds to religious schools, raise the possibility of religiously based social conflict.

Coulson’s response should raise concern for anyone worried about First Amendment rights. To show that social conflict is unlikely to follow, he uses the example of a voucher program proposed in New Orleans. One of the schools eager to participate was a Muslim school. When Louisianans got wind of this, controversy followed. So the Muslim school dropped out. In Coulson’s eyes, the problem was thereby solved.

Wait, I found myself thinking as I watched, that’s discrimination, not a defense of First Amendment rights. I expected Coulson to explain why it was not, but the series moved on to clips of jazz performances, which, according to Coulson, demonstrate Americans’ ability to get along.

This is just incorrect. For one thing, Coulson devotes nearly half of the final episode to social conflict, choice, and equality. And far from condoning exclusion of the Muslim school, he explains that a fundamental problem with vouchers is that while they create more freedom and equality than majority-rules public schools, they can still unjustly compel people to furnish funds for teachings they oppose, opening choice up for government discrimination.

The solution, Coulson suggests, are tax credits for people who choose to donate to groups that award scholarships. Want to give to a group providing scholarships for Montessori students? Go ahead! Catholic schools? Sure! Muslim institutions? Absolutely! This maximizes freedom for both families and funders, and minimizes incentives to legally exclude groups.

I think there is a huge amount of value to be found in School Inc., but others can certainly disagree. What they should not try to do is squelch the documentary, or misrepresent what it says. Oh, and if they want to learn even more about Andrew and debate his ideas, they can check out this new book. After all, the more open discussion we have, the better!

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.