Topic: Education and Child Policy

Want to Regulate Schools? Use Parents

Results of last week’s DC voucher study, showing some significant negative effects on standardized math tests, has school choice opponents in overdrive writing voucher obituaries. But at least some commentators, like the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, concede that choice works, but only if it is shackled to regulations they like. That choice works if carefully managed is perhaps an inevitable concession with the broad notion of school choice clearly in ascendance. However, the idea that regulated choice produces better outcomes flies in the face of basic economic theory and choice research.

Negative Impacts of Regulation

State requirements often come in the form of standardized test scores or restrictions on the types of teachers that may be employed. These regulations force schools to focus narrowly on state tests, which do not appear to matter in the long-run, and limit the supply of teachers, lowering educational quality while increasing costs.

As I illustrate below, programs with less restrictive voucher laws lead to more impressive experimental evaluations of student math achievement, perhaps because the costs of regulation ward off high quality private institutions:

State-Driven Accountability Is Not Dead, But It Should Be

Private school choice programs have been proposed in state legislatures all across the nation, and public interest in the term “school choice” reached an all-time high earlier this year. Since school choice programs create accountability to parents and children, education scholars have discussed whether state-driven accountability is on the wane. While robust accountability to the state is essential in traditional public schooling institutions, it is inferior to accountability to every single family.

Necessary in Involuntary Settings

Accountability to the public is necessary in schools with compulsory attendance based on age and zip codes. What would happen if state officials did not set minimum standards? Public schools could serve children inadequately and even harm them to a certain degree before parents were forced to decide whether to pay out of pocket for a private institution or move. In many cases, parents would not be able to afford to opt out of the free school due to income constraints.

Suppose you were required to send your child to a residentially assigned public restaurant until they were eighteen years old, because, after all, nutrition may be the most basic right of them all. If your child becomes sick from food poisoning, you may still decide to keep them there based on income restrictions and perceived differences in quality. Of course, the state would need to intervene in order to keep the compulsory public restaurants accountable to minimum safety and, perhaps, taste standards.

Political Process Problems

While state accountability is necessary in the public sphere, we should recognize the shortcomings. First, who is deciding what the standards ought to look like, and how do we keep those people accountable? The commonly cited answer is that state officials are held accountable to the public through the political process. The main problem with that argument is that it assumes that the political process is efficient in holding bureaucrats accountable. 

Inefficiency runs rampant in the political sphere because voters do not have an incentive to become politically knowledgeable. If I am voting in a presidential election, for example, I have around a 1 in 60,000,000 chance of determining the outcome. On the other hand, it is extremely costly to gain information on every policy that a given politician talks about and influences. The counterintuitive result is that voters actually make a rational decision to be politically irrational.

Even if all voters were completely rational, we would still face the problems associated with majority rule. Policies around educational standards result from the most politically powerful groups in society. The consequence is that children from disadvantaged groups are harmed by the uniform set of standards decided by the elites. 

Similarly, suppose we went into the grocery store and voted on the cart that we received. Even if we were in the majority and got the cart that we preferred, we would still end up with some of the things we wanted, and much of what we did not care to have. 

Yes, Randi Weingarten, Public Schooling Is an Innovation “Dead End.” Just Watch School Inc.

Today education secretary Betsy DeVos is paying a visit to an Ohio public school at the invitation of one of her most vociferous critics, and one of the most ardent opponents of school choice: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. The AFT is the second largest teachers union in the country, and Weingarten has repeatedly complained that DeVos has called public schools—institutions heavily influenced by union power—a “dead end.” One purpose of the invitation is to prove otherwise.

So are public schools dead ends? Of course not. Tens of millions of children attend them every year, and most will do fine in their lives. Of course, most likely would do well no matter where they went to school, and probably at a fraction of what we currently pay. But DeVos did not actually say that the schools themselves were dead ends. She said that the public schooling system—a government monopoly—is a dead end for entrepreneurship and innovation. “We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market,” DeVos said in a 2015 speech. “It’s a monopoly, a dead end.”

Is DeVos right? To see for yourself, watch Andrew Coulson’s School Inc., now showing on PBS stations around the country. Why we have so little innovation in education is the central point of the highly engaging documentary. Coulson examines education and other industries both historically and around the modern world, and illustrates that freedom for people who make things, or perform services such as teaching, coupled with paying customers and an ability to make a profit—yes, a profit!—are the keys to unleashing innovation at scale, to the benefit of all.

At the touch of a screen, you and I can now listen to tens-of-thousands of different pieces of music stored on a device that also makes telephone calls, lets you play video games, empowers you to surf the Internet, and much more. That is a quantum leap from how we listened to music even just a couple of decades ago. Yet education is pretty much the same instructor-in-front-of-kids model it has been for centuries.

Apple, HTC, Samsung, all work for profits. Public schools? Not so much.

Essentially, profit shows that something is in demand—that freely choosing people find it of value—and that others could make money by producing something similar, or better. This takes innovation to scale while driving prices down. Not only is that not evil, as emotionally charged critiques of profit imply, it is a classic win-win!

Today’s DeVos-Weingarten confab is likely to be a nice show for public schools, illustrating that they are not dead ends. But DeVos did not say they were, and what she did say—a government monopoly suffocates innovation—is grounded in extremely well documented—and documentary—reality.

Policy Trade-offs: D.C. Child Care Edition

Last week The Washington Post reported that D.C. will be “among [the] first in [the] nation to require child-care workers to get college degrees.” This jumps on a bandwagon gathering pace in recent years: that child care should be seen as formal pre-school education rather than whatever parents decide is best for their children.

The logic behind the move is simple. Development gaps between poor and middle-class kids arise early, in part due to the failure for many children to experience an environment imbued with the knowledge of how best to deliver early learning. By setting the requirement for “lead teachers” to have an associate degree, child care directors to obtain a “bachelor’s degree” and for home carers to have the Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential, it is believed a better-educated workforce will raise the “quality” of care when children do experience it, in turn improving child outcomes.

Yet the push for professionalization and “improvements in quality” has led to child care becoming increasingly expensive in other countries, such as the U.K., with little evidence of the development objectives being achieved.

Regulatory restrictions such as these, which make becoming a child carer more expensive and time-consuming, will (other things equal) reduce the number of people opting for this type of job. Even though there is evidence it may raise some measure of the “quality of care”, this reduces the number of child care options available to parents overall and increases its price. Mercatus Research estimates requiring “lead teachers to have at least a high school diploma [note: a much lower standard] is associated with an increase in child care costs for infants of between 25 and 46 percent, or between $2,370 and $4,350 per year, per child.”

Given D.C. already has the highest cost of care in the country (the average annual cost of infant care in D.C. is $22,631, taking up close to 36% of a typical family’s income), reducing accessibility to care for low-income families seems a particularly dumb idea. It may reduce the payoff to returning to work for many individuals, or else result in substantial reductions in post-care disposable incomes, which could be used for other positive purposes.

Misconceptions in Raj Chetty’s “Fading American Dream”

Raj Chetty, the head of Stanford’s “Equality of Opportunity” project, recently released a paper called “The Fading American Dream” co-authored with another economist, a sociologist, and three grad students. It claims that “rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s.” [Though the study ends with 2014, when most of those “born in the 1980s” were not yet 30.]

The title alone was sure to attract media excitement, particularly because the new study thanks New York Times columnist David Leonhardt “for posing the question that led to this research.” 

Leonhardt, in turn, gushed that Chetty’s research “is among the most eye-opening economics work in recent years.”  He explained that he asked Chetty to “create an index of the American dream” which “shows the percentage of children who earn more money… than their parent earned at the same age.”  The result, he concludes, is “very alarming. It’s a portrait of an economy that disappoints a huge number of people who have heard that they live in a country where life gets better, only to experience something quite different.”

“Another Chetty-bomb just exploded in the mobility debate,” declared a Brookings Institution memo: “Only half of Americans born in 1980 are economically better off than their parents. This compares to 90 percent of those born in 1940.”

At Vox.com,  Jim Tankersley proclaimed “The  American Dream [is] collapsing for young adults.”

“Sons born in 1984 are only 41 percent likely to earn more than their fathers, compared to 95 percent of sons born in 1940,” wrote USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey.  “If the American dream is defined as earning more money than your parents,” said Bomey, “today’s young adults are just as likely to have a nightmare as they are to achieve the dream.”

The Chetty study proved to be a politically irresistible story, since it appears to confirm a popular nostalgia for the good old days and belief that it has become more and more difficult to get ahead. But that is not what the study really shows.  What it really shows is:

First: Incomes were extremely low in 1940, so it was quite easy to do better 30 years later.

Second: Doing better than your parents is not defined by your income at age 30, but by income and wealth accumulated over a lifetime (including retirement).

Third: A rising percentage of young people remain in grad school at age 30, so their current income is lower than that of their parents at that age but their future income is likely to be much higher.

School Choice War Goes Hot

With a presidential administration that is disliked for myriad reasons openly pushing school choice, what had been kind of a cold war over choice for years has exploded into a hot one. And the tip of the anti-choice spear seems to be the New York Times. Last week it ran a piece by New America education director Kevin Carey suggesting that choice has been “dismal,” and doubled down on that yesterday with an attack on choice as an academic “failure.”

Is it a failure? First, the vast majority of random-assignment studies of private school voucher programs—the “gold-standard” research method that even controls for unobserved factors like parental motivation—have found choice producing equivalent or superior academic results, usually for a fraction of what is spent on public schools. Pointing at three, as we shall see, very limited studies, does not substantially change that track record.

Let’s look at the studies Carey highlighted: one on Louisiana’s voucher program, one on Ohio, and one on Indiana. Make that two studies: Carey cited Indiana findings without providing a link to, or title of, the research, and he did not identify the researchers. The Times did the same in their editorial. Why? Because the Indiana research has not been published. What Carey perhaps drew on was a piece by Mark Dynarski at the Brookings Institution. And what was that based on? Apparently, a 2015 academic conference presentation by R. Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends, who at the time were in the midst of analyzing Indiana’s program and who have not yet published their findings.

Next there is Ohio’s voucher program. The good news is that the research has been published, indeed by the choice-favoring Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And it does indicate that what the researchers were able to study revealed a negative effect on standardized tests. But Carey omitted two important aspects of the study. One, it found that choice had a modestly positive effect on public schools, spurring them to improve. Perhaps more important, because the research design was something called “regression discontinuity” it was limited in what it was able to reliably determine. Basically, that design looks at performance clustered around some eligibility cut-off—in this case, public schools that just made or missed the performance level below which students became eligible for vouchers—so the analysis could not tell us about a whole lot of kids. Wrote the researchers: “We can only identify with relative confidence the estimated effects…for those students who had been attending the highest-performing EdChoice-eligible public schools and not those who would have been attending lower-performing public schools.”

That is a big limit.

Finally, we come to the Louisiana study, which was random-assignment. Frankly, its negative findings are not new information. The report came out over a year ago, and we at Cato have written and talked about it extensively. And there are huge caveats to the findings, including that the program’s heavy regulations—e.g., participating schools must give state tests to voucher recipients and become part of a state accountability system—likely encouraged many of the better private schools to stay out. There are also competing private choice programs in the Pelican State. In addition, the rules requiring participating private schools to administer state tests are new, and there is a good chance that participating institutions were still transitioning. Indeed, as Carey noted, the study showed private school outcomes improving from the first year to the second. That could well indicate that the schools are adjusting to the change. And as in Ohio, there was evidence that the program spurred some improvements in public schools.

Choice advocates should not cheer about the latest research, but in totality, the evidence does not come close to showing choice a “failure.” Indeed, the evidence is still very favorable to choice. And the primary value of choice is not necessarily reflected in test scores: it is freeing families and educators to choose for themselves what education is best.

No Side Is ‘Shameful’ in Trump’s Change to Transgender Bathroom Policy

President Trump’s administration has rescinded the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter requiring that public schools let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. It was probably the right thing do, and there was nothing “shameful” about the decision: equally decent people can, and do, have competing views of what is good.

There is no reason, of course, to believe anything other than that the Obama administration’s initial guidance was well-intended, driven by a desire to see transgender students empowered to make decisions for themselves about who they are. It is also absolutely a legitimate worry that school districts might discriminate against transgender students.

But equally decent people could feel very uncomfortable sharing a bathroom or changing room with someone of the opposite biological sex — sex-based privacy has been a time-honored norm — and could also have religious objections to such mixing. What about their rights? There were also legitimate worries about the legality of the order, delivered as a sudden reinterpretation of long-standing regulations.

Finally, societal evolution takes time. It may well be better to let smaller units (states, communities, families) grapple with and adjust to social change than suddenly impose one vision of the good on everyone.

Of course, there may be no solution in a diverse school or district that equally respects the values and desires of all. This is a major reason that school choice is so crucial: it enables families and educators to freely choose the values they want taught and respected, rather than government choosing one side to win and the other to lose.