Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Evidence Is In: School Choice Works

There are a great many reasons to support educational choice: maximizing freedom, respecting pluralism, reducing social conflict, empowering the poor, and so on. One reason is simply this: it works.

This week, researchers Patrick J. Wolf, M. Danish Shakeel, and Kaitlin P. Anderson of the University of Arkansas released the results of their painstaking meta-analysis of the international, gold-standard research on school choice programs, which concluded that, on average, such programs have a statistically significant positive impact on student performance on reading and math tests. Moreover, the magnitude of the positive impact increased the longer students participated in the program.

As Wolf observed in a blog post explaining the findings, the “clarity of the results… contrasts with the fog of dispute that often surrounds discussions of the effectiveness of private school choice.”

That’s So Meta

One of the main advantages of a meta-analysis is that it can overcome the limitations of individual studies (e.g., small samples sizes) by pooling the results of numerous studies. This meta-analysis is especially important because it includes all random-assignment studies on school choice programs (the gold standard for social science research), while excluding studies that employed less rigorous methods. The analysis included 19 studies on 11 school choice programs (including government-funded voucher programs as well as privately funded scholarship programs) in Colombia, India, and the United States. Each study compared the performance of students who had applied for and randomly won a voucher to a “control group” of students who had applied for a voucher but randomly did not receive one. As Wolf explained, previous meta-analyses and research reviews omitted some gold-standard studies and/or included less rigorous research:

The most commonly cited school choice review, by economists Cecilia Rouse and Lisa Barrow, declares that it will focus on the evidence from existing experimental studies but then leaves out four such studies (three of which reported positive choice effects) and includes one study that was non-experimental (and found no significant effect of choice).  A more recent summary, by Epple, Romano, and Urquiola, selectively included only 48% of the empirical private school choice studies available in the research literature.  Greg Forster’s Win-Win report from 2013 is a welcome exception and gets the award for the school choice review closest to covering all of the studies that fit his inclusion criteria – 93.3%.

Survey Says: School Choice Improves Student Performance

The meta-analysis found that, on average, participating in a school choice program improves student test scores by about 0.27 standard deviations in reading and 0.15 standard deviations in math. In laymen’s terms, these are “highly statistically significant, educationally meaningful achievement gains of several months of additional learning from school choice.”

Bathroom Battles: Why We Need School Choice

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory (R) has just responded to the federal government’s threat to punish the state over its law prohibiting local governments from allowing transgendered people to choose their bathrooms: We’re suing!

Central to the nation’s bathroom war – which is one among sundry, seemingly endless culture wars – are the public schools. They are mentioned specifically in the Tar Heel State’s embattled law, and schools have been the sites of several lawsuits across the country over who gets to decide where students go to the bathroom or change their clothes. Of course, as Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map reveals in stark detail, just like the nation, our schools are constant battlegrounds in the culture wars, and our children are essentially innocent civilians with political, social, and cultural bombs going off all around them.

At issue in North Carolina are really two things directly applicable to education: level of public school control, and private rights.

The immediate issue is whether a state should be able to make its own laws without the federal government overruling them. The feds have a legitimate claim, under the Fourteenth Amendment, to do what they are doing – attempting to prevent discrimination by state or local governments – but there is also a good case to be made that there are competing rights at stake – privacy versus nondiscrimination – and perhaps neither should take clear-cut precedence. Moreover, even if it has the authority to intervene, it may be best if Washington allowed social evolution to occur gradually rather than imposing it as people deal with what is, it seems, a pretty new idea: a person should choose which restroom or locker room to use. Of course, North Carolina’s law applies one rule to all municipalities, also potentially curbing natural societal evolution.

New Study on K-12 Education

Neal McCluskey has updated an overview study on federal aid for K-12 education, which is posted at DownsizingGovernment.org. Neal reports that K-12 spending under the U.S. Department of Education and its predecessor agencies rose from $4.5 billion in 1965 to $40.2 billion in 2016, in constant 2016 dollars. He notes that the department funds more than 100 subsidy programs, and each comes with regulations extending federal control over local schools.

Over the years, the states have been happy to receive federal funds, but they have chafed under the mandates imposed by Washington. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act provoked a backlash because of its costly rules for academic standards, student testing, and unrealistic proficiency demands. Neal argues that the new Ensuring Student Success Act of 2016 may have reduced some aspects of top-down control, but we won’t know for sure until all the regulations have been written.

Despite large increases in federal aid since the 1960s, public school performance has not improved much, if at all. Reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 17-year-olds have been stagnant. In addition, America’s performance on international tests has remained mediocre, yet we spend more per-pupil on K-12 education than most countries.

Neal concludes that federal funding and mandates are not the way to create high-quality K-12 education. He notes that Canada has an advanced economy, yet it has no federal department of education. Public education in Canada is almost solely a concern of provincial and local governments. That decentralized approach has resulted in substantial experimentation and innovation, including school vouchers, charter schools, and competing public schools. International comparison tests show that Canadian kids generally outperform American kids in reading, mathematics, and science.

Neal is right that Congress should phase out federal funding for K-12 education and end all related regulations. Federal aid is ultimately funded by the taxpayers who live in the 50 states, and thus it provides no free lunch. Indeed, the states just get money back with strings attached, while losing billions of dollars from wasteful bureaucracy. There is no advantage in federal manipulation of K-12 education, and our school systems would be better off without it.

Neal’s essay.

AFT Message to Pearson: Hands off Our Monopoly!

Today the American Federation of Teachers – the country’s second largest teachers union – is joining “global allies” to protest outside of the shareholders’ meeting of Pearson PLC, a London-based company perhaps best known as a government contractor for standardized tests. What’s irking the AFT and friends? Pearson is heavily involved in government-imposed testing, as well as trying to help make private schooling more affordable in some of the world’s poorest places.

From the AFT’s press release:

The American Federation of Teachers, along with teachers unions and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world, will speak out during Pearson’s annual general meeting Friday, April 29, in London to call for a review of its business model that pushes high-stakes testing in the United States and privatized schools in the developing world.

How the press release sounds:

We oppose testing, and we oppose people having the ability to leave the government schools that impose it. Because, you know, we need to force taxpayers to fund these schools that impose these bad things. Because they also force taxpayers to pay for us.

I’m not a big fan of standardized testing, especially that is used to superficially deem students or schools “good” or “bad,” but I can certainly see the utility in testing. It can supply useful information. I can also understand why testing fans want assessments to have real ramifications for schools, even if I think they over-value test results. Learning should matter, right?

The key to balancing everyone’s myriad desires and judgements – especially when there is no conclusive evidence what works best for all, unique children – is to give individuals real choice and educators real autonomy to set up schools with different policies and focuses. Parents and educators who value standardized testing could work with each other. Parents and teachers who feel differently could do likewise. It’s called “freedom,” which is good in and of itself, but is also crucial for innovation, specialization, and real-but-flexible accountability.

Of course, freedom also makes it much harder to maintain a monopoly over employment terms and labor organization.

To see what this means in real life, I strongly suggest that the AFT and its allies – not to mention Pearson people and defenders of private schools everywhere – read James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree, which documents the existence of abundant private institutions serving many of the world’s poorest people, and doing so better than the public schools.

Why better than the public schools? Maybe because public schooling is so easily subjected to things like blanket standardized testing. Or labor monopolies. Or both.

What’s In a Name? Uproar Over Renaming the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University

The left must be in disarray over at George Mason University. It took the faculty senate almost a month to adopt a resolution expressing “deep concern” over the university’s decision to rename the law school after the late Justice Antonin Scalia, following grants of $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and $20 million from an anonymous donor. That’s slow by today’s academic standards, especially in this year of protests across the country.

What’s worse, the National Law Journal reports today that fewer than 140 faculty members have thus far signed a letter opposing the renaming. Their concerns, however, will surprise no one. It seems that Justice Scalia was less than solicitous of identity politics. Moreover, the resolution claims, he “was a significant contributor to the polarized climate in this country that runs counter to the values of a university that celebrates civil discourse.” And perhaps of greatest concern, this decision reinforces “the external branding of the university as a conservative institution rather than an unaligned body that is a comfortable home for individuals with a variety of viewpoints.” Oh the horror, at intercollegiate colloquia, to have GMU on one’s name tag.

Notice the apposition in that last concern: “a conservative institution rather than an unaligned body that is a comfortable home for individuals with a variety of viewpoints.” We’re invited to believe, first, that the average American university is an “unaligned body”—like Princeton, for example, where in the 2012 presidential election, 157 faculty and staff donated to Barack Obama’s campaign, 2 to Mitt Romney’s—a visiting engineering professor and a janitor. For a broad picture of the ideological complexion of American law schools, see the splendid article by Northwestern University Law School’s Jim Lindgren in the current Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. GMU’s law school is anomalous only in having a fairly broad ideological distribution of faculty members, where any student can find any number of sympathetic professors.

But note also and especially the implication that liberals could not be “comfortable” if GMU were, in fact, a conservative institution. Funny how that concern doesn’t seem to go both ways, as many a conservative student at your average liberal institution can attest—the evidence for which has been richly documented by the scrappy Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). But that concern is deeply revealing as well, and goes far toward explaining why our college and university faculties are so overwhelmingly of the left: They, indeed, are uncomfortable with opposing views. Witness this very incident. Does anyone believe that such conservatives as there are at GMU would come out of the woodwork in protest if a liberal justice’s name were given to the law school?

Res ipsa loquitur.

Congress Voting to Save School Choice in D.C.

Tomorrow, Congress is scheduled to vote on the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP was scheduled to expire later this year. Back in December, I expressed skepticism about a standalone reauthorization bill because the Obama administration has repeatedly worked to undermine or eliminate the school choice program, even though the OSP has the support of local Democratic politicians such as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of the D.C. City Council. Fortunately for the low-income children attending the schools of their choice through the OSP, the president has signaled that he does not intend to veto the legislation:

“While the administration continues to strongly oppose the private school vouchers program within this legislation, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the administration will continue to use available SOAR Act funds to support students returning to the program until they complete school, so that their education is not disrupted,” the Office of Management and Budget said.

The White House stopped short of issuing a veto threat. But the administration made clear its distaste for the voucher program, which President Obama has tried to kill several times. The measure, a priority of former Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, provides money for some students in D.C. to attend private school.

Predictably, the White House claimed that studies of the D.C. OSP show it has “not yielded statistically significant improvements in student achievement by scholarship recipients compared to other students not receiving vouchers,” ignoring that the OSP achieves those similar results at a fraction of the cost (less than $9,000 per voucher on average versus about $30,000 per district school student), and that the same random-assignment study found that OSP students were 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than the control group. 

Low-income students shouldn’t be condemned to low-quality schools just because their parents cannot afford a home in a wealthy neighborhood. As the Washington Post wrote in a recent editorial, “The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given.” The D.C. OSP was an important step toward breaking the link between home prices and school quality, so it’s encouraging to see that D.C. is not likely to take a step backward. Ideally, though, Congress would take the next step from school choice to educational choice by enacting a universal education savings account program.

Philly Pays $1.5 Million to “Ghost Teachers”

The Philadelphia school district is in a near-constant state of financial crisis. There are many factors contributing to this sorry state–particularly its governance structure–but it is compounded by fiscal mismanagement. One particularly egregious example is paying six-figure salaries to the tune of $1.5 million a year to “ghost teachers” that do not teach. Pennsylvania Watchdog explains:

As part of the contract with the School District of Philadelphia, the local teachers union is permitted to take up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The practice, known as “release time” or “official time,” allows public school teachers to leave the classroom and continue to earn a public salary, benefits, pension and seniority.

These so-called ghost teachers perform a variety of jobs for the PFT, serving as either information officers for other teachers or carrying out the union’s political agenda.

“Teachers should be paid to teach,” attorney Kara Sweigart, who is arguing ghost teacher lawsuits for the Fairness Center, a free legal service for employees who feel they’ve been wronged by their unions, told Watchdog.

“At a time when school districts are hurting financially, districts should be devoting every tax dollar to support students,” she said, “not to pay the salaries of employees of a private political organization.”

According to public salary data available through Philadelphia city agencies, the school district is paying 16 ghost teachers $1.5 million this year. All of them are making at least $81,000.