Topic: Education and Child Policy

Robert Frank Inadvertently Makes the Case for School Choice

Matt Yglesias points to an article in Sunday’s Washington Post by economist Robert Frank that makes a strong case for school choice. Well, OK, he doesn’t explicitly talk about school choice, but he certainly does a good job explaining the problems caused by the absence of choice:

In the 1950s, as now, families tried to buy houses in the best school districts they could afford. But strict credit limits held the bidding in check. Lenders typically required down payments of 20 percent or more and would not issue loans for more than three times a borrower’s annual income.

In a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided move to help more families enter the housing market, borrowing restrictions were relaxed during the intervening decades. Down payment requirements fell steadily, and in recent years, many houses were bought with no money down. Adjustable-rate mortgages and balloon payments further boosted families’ ability to bid for housing.

The result was a painful dilemma for any family determined not to borrow beyond its means. No one would fault a middle-income family for aspiring to send its children to schools of at least average quality. (How could a family aspire to less?) But if a family stood by while others exploited more liberal credit terms, it would consign its children to below-average schools. Even financially conservative families might have reluctantly concluded that their best option was to borrow up.

This is an eloquent indictment of our perverse system of linking schools to real estate. We don’t generally limit access to hospitals, libraries, or colleges by geography, and there’s no good reason children’s schools should be determined that way either. People should be able to live wherever they want, and then they should be free to send their children to any school that meets their needs. There are a variety of ways to allocate space in the most sought-after schools—academic merit, aptitude in the school’s area of focus, demographic diversity, or by lottery—that would be more reasonable than our current policy of arbitrary geographic boundaries.

And yes, some schools would choose students based on their ability to pay. What Frank’s article nicely illustrates is that our current system of geographically-based school assignment already segregates children by their parents’ income, it just does so in an unnecessarily cumbersome manner. If we had a free market in education, parents who wanted to invest in sending their children to a better school would be able to do so directly, instead of having to buy more house than they might want just so they can get a spot at a better school.

The most important thing to note, though, is that the scarcity of good schools Frank identifies is not an inherent fact about the universe, but a consequence of the public school monopoly. In a competitive education market, a shortage of good schools in a given area would spur people to either start new schools or expand the best of the existing ones. But the public school system has few mechanisms for doing either of those things (charter schools are a very limited mechanism for starting innovative public schools). Which means that the supply of good public schools is artificially limited, leading parents to bid up their price. The way to alleviate the shortage of good schools is not to re-regulate the mortgage market, but to reform the education system so that it’s easier to start and expand high-quality schools. Few things would do that as effectively as a robust program of school choice.

No Student Is an Island

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Yesterday, Thomas Sowell struck a variation on this theme, reminding readers that no man is an economic island, and whatever aid government gives to college students it takes from other people, and whatever it subsidizes distorts the prices that keep us all connected:

The general thrust of human interest stories about people with economic problems, whether they are college students or people faced with mortgage foreclosures, is that the government ought to come to their rescue, presumably because the government has so much money and these individuals have so little.

Like most “deep pockets,” however, the government’s deep pockets come from vast numbers of people with much shallower pockets. In many cases, the average taxpayer has lower income than the people on whom the government lavishes its financial favors.

Costs are not just things for government to help people to pay. Costs are telling us something that is dangerous to ignore.

The inadequacy of resources to produce everything that everyone wants is the fundamental fact of life in every economy — capitalist, socialist, or feudal. This means that the real cost of anything consists of all the other things that could have been produced with those same resources.

Sowell’s is a lesson that everyone should learn who thinks that even the hint of a student-loan crunch means that government should come to students’ rescue. Perhaps even more importantly, as John Merrifield points out in his new policy analysis, prices are a crucial piece missing from our socialized K-12 education system—and many school choice programs—leaving us utterly unable to tell the relative value of any school, program, or teacher.

It’s absolutely true that no man is an island. Too bad no one in politics seems to read John Donne — or Thomas Sowell.

Better Weak than Worse

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposed a slew of regulatory changes to the No Child Left Behind Act she said would throw “families lifelines—and empower educators to create dramatic improvement.”

Reading over the proposals, one is thoroughly underwhelmed because, as is typical for federal education involvement, they’re big on paper compliance while leaving more space than exists between Mercury and Pluto for states and districts to avoid real “accountability.” Almost all the new regs rely on terms open to wide interpretation like “close scrutiny” or “significantly more rigorous,” and even if they were specific, they’d be very hard to enforce, especially if they proved politically unpopular.

This said, we are better off with the toothless regs the administration is offering than a counter proposal put forth by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. According to Congressional Quarterly, Emanuel said “we need bolder steps to make sure that Americans can compete. We should mandate a year of post-high school education for every American, while providing the necessary financial help. And we should institute a national policy…to suspend the driver’s licenses of teens who drop out.”

I guess things could actually be a lot worse than more regulations that no one is likely to follow. We could get laws that make everyone stay in our failing schools one year longer, and takes the keys from those who just want out.

No District for Fishermen

The Washington Examiner reports on how carefully your taxpayer dollars are spent by both federal and local governments:

The District of Columbia has agreed to pay $1.75 million to head off a lawsuit alleging that the city bilked the federal government out of money to educate children who didn’t exist, The Examiner has learned.

For decades, District schools took in millions of dollars in grants to educate the children of migrant farmworkers and fishermen. But, as first reported by The Examiner in August, a 2005 audit discovered there were no such children in the system.

Government Involvement Should Be Expelled

On Friday, I went to see Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the new Ben Stein movie about a perceived Darwinist conspiracy to crush Intelligent Design and its adherents. Of course, I went to the film because of public schooling’s tendency to amplify conflicts over hot-button issues such as ID, and no, the fact that going helped me to fulfill a life-long Ebert-wannabe dream of watching movies for “work” really had nothing to do with it. Honestly.

So what does Expelled have to say about the problem of public schooling—including public higher education—forcing all taxpayers to pay for schools which only those who can exert the most political power will ultimately control?

Not much, at least not directly. Stein and company seek to portray a Darwinist conspiracy throughout all of science, whether practiced in settings public or private, secular, or even religious. So, for instance, at the beginning of the film Stein meets with several presumptive victims of ruthless Darwinist orthodoxy, a group that got drummed out of institutions ranging from the very public Iowa State University, to private, Baptist, Baylor University, for their ID thoughts. The problem of government choosing which science to promote is touched on—one pro-ID interviewee mentions getting locked out of National Academy of Sciences grants—but barely.

Despite this inattention to the government-science nexus, there is a useful public policy lesson that can be teased out of the film. Expelled’s climax—the Luke-Darth Vader showdown, if you will—shows Stein grilling noted atheist and God Delusion author Richard Dawkins on whether he believes in a god and how he thinks life on Earth originated. The former exchange comes across as pure time-filler as Stein hectors Dawkins about whether he believes in a litany of deities and to each one Dawkins replies in the negative. The latter bit, however, shows Dawkins conceding that there is no firm conclusion about how life on earth—the very first cell—originated. It exemplifies a simple truth: There are still big, open questions in the study of human origins, just as there are mammoth open questions in all fields of science.

So what does this mean? It means that in our huge ignorance no supreme human power—no government—should ever declare one unproven answer completely unworthy and another officially correct. It means government should not demand that one unproven answer be taught in schools (though as I’ve written that is impossible as long as government runs schools), nor should it decide for all taxpayers what broad research will get funded and what won’t. Not only does that tend to put all our eggs in a single scientific basket that might turn out to have a gaping hole in the bottom, it too often makes political, not scientific, considerations supreme. Indeed, it has been politicization of science that has often allowed questionable scientific theories to survive.

But does this mean we should force all schools to teach about, and governments to fund, alternatives to evolution, like Intelligent Design, or for that matter such dubious fields as alchemy, or divining-rod theory? Of course not! Some scientific theories have much more merit—and supporting evidence—than others. But it must be scientists, along with voluntary, private backers, and parents and college students with free educational choice, who decide what science is good enough to learn and fund. In other words, it must be “natural” scientific selection—not selection driven by politics, or the slickest, most rabble-rousing documentary—that determines which theories live, and which die.

A Nation at Risk

Cato Unbound is right now hosting a discussion about the legacy of A Nation at Risk, the report that 25 years ago this month famously warned that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education was threatening “our very future as a Nation and a people.” The report also, by the way, was invaluable in setting the political stage for the subject of a Cato forum to be held tomorrow, “Markets vs. Standards: Debating the Future of American Education.”

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a former New York Times education columnist, penned the lead Cato Unbound essay, which is responded to by FLOW CEO Michael Strong, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess. I encourage you to read all the essays, and just thought I’d throw in my two cents.

I should begin by saying that I think Rothstein is right on a couple of points.

First, I agree that A Nation at Risk started a flood of ill-considered railing that the United States was heading to economic irrelevance as a result of our education system. As Rothstein notes, this simple correlation—mediocre education equals nation of burger-servers, great education equals everyone a CEO—ignores myriad variables outside of education that influence economic success. Unfortunately, Rothstein identifies mainly bits of economic kryptonite as the real keys to economic success, especially beefing up protections for labor unions, but his basic point that education is far from the only force shaping the economy is a fair one.

Rothstein is also right to declare that the extent to which American education was in decline in the years leading up to ANAR was somewhat exaggerated, based mainly on a drop in SAT scores that could at least in part be attributed to wider ranges of kids taking the test. In contrast to the impression Rothstein gives, however, slumping SAT scores was far from the only evidence ANAR offered to back its assertion not that American schools were stuck in reverse, but in hopelessly mediocre neutral. ANAR offered a long list of indicators of educational woe, including poor American standing in international comparisons, functional illiteracy among adults, and numerous indicators that 17-year-olds—the final products of American education—were in very poor educational shape, a condition that remains today.

Clearly, stubborn mediocrity and decline are two different things, with the former perhaps a bit more tolerable than the latter. But stagnation is bad, and especially hurts because, as Michael Strong points out, not only have we gone nowhere, we’ve stood pat while hugely increasing education funding:

Richard Rothstein cites evidence that public schools have improved math scores at age 9 and 13, but not age 17. Thus whatever gains are being made in elementary and middle school are being lost in high school. Since 1973, K-12 educational expenditures have more than doubled; on a per-dollar basis, “investing” in public education now shows a thirty-five year trend of steadily decreasing returns.

So while Rothstein is probably right that ANAR—or, more accurately, many of the people reacting to it—somewhat overstated our educational decline, the report’s conclusion about immovable mediocrity is much harder to refute, and the dreadful return on investment undeniable.

One of the highest-profile movements focused on overcoming this seemingly permanent state of mediocrity is school choice, which at its most basic level would let parents choose where their children are educated and attach education money to the kids. Were this universally applied, our recalcitrant, regulation-strangled, special-interest-dominated public schooling system would be bypassed and schools would be forced to compete and innovate. In practice, however, choice has been implemented in very hamstrung forms: choice only among public schools, charter schools that must be approved by government and often remain shackled to rules and regulations, and voucher programs open only to relative handfuls of kids. As a result, choice has not come close to creating the real, innovation-driving, educational free market necessary to truly transform American schooling

In perhaps the most interesting wrinkle of the Cato Unbound debate, Hess offers what seems to be a not-so-veiled critique of co-respondent Sol Stern, whose recent City Journal piece pushing choice to the reform margins has caused a big stir in education policy circles. Hess appears to rebuke Stern for failing to consider all that is needed to get a real market up and running, a problem that bedevils school choice supporters and detractors alike:

[S]ome who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.

Hess is absolutely correct that for too long choice supporters have touted each and every little voucher or charter school proposal that’s come down the pike, and some have lost their choice enthusiasm when those little programs have produced little change. But the problem is not choice itself. The problem is that choice must be big to overcome well-nigh immovable American public schooling, and getting people to realize that is going to take a lot of time and, probably, a lot more failure.

It’s Hard to Compete with ‘Free’

The Fordham Foundation has just released a new report documenting the closure of 1,300 Catholic schools since 1990 — shifting some 300,000 kids into the public sector at a cost to taxpayers of about $20 billion. 

It’s hard to compete when the other guy (read: state-run schools)  spends about twice as much per pupil but gives his service away for “free.”

A proper education tax credit program would level the financial playing field between government and independent schools, dramatically increasing parental choice and saving taxpayers a bundle in the process.

And wouldn’t it be nice if we gave parents the means to escape schools like this?