Topic: Education and Child Policy

Anecdotes from Distant Countries Don’t Help the Argument against School Choice in the U.S.

Apparently, if you want to learn about school choice success in the United States, your first move should be to look to countries that are thousands of miles away. Sarah Butrymowicz from The Hechinger Report did just that. She traveled to Sweden, New Zealand, and France, talked to people about their education systems, decided that they were not perfect, and concluded that “real-life examples from around the world provide little evidence that allowing families more freedom of choice improves achievement.”

The worst part is that the conclusion – that school choice does not improve achievement – is not at all scientific.

For example, Butrymowicz pointed out that Sweden enacted a universal voucher program in 1992 and that their international test scores haven fallen since then. First, Sweden’s test scores most recently rose in math, reading, and science between 2012 and 2015. But more importantly, the simple pre-post observation does not in any way establish a causal relationship. Such a claim doesn’t even attempt to consider any control variables. For instance, immigration in Sweden also increased substantially from 1992 to 2012, which may have had a lot to do with their declining test scores. In fact, a study by Dr. Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren found that about 30 percent of the decline in Sweden’s overall PISA scores is explained by immigration patterns alone. Based on strong existing empirical evidence from Sweden, it is more likely that their PISA scores would have fallen even more without the academic benefits accrued from school choice.

We have a 2015 peer-reviewed study on what actually happened as a result of Sweden’s implementation of universal school choice. Böhlmark and Lindahl used strong econometric methods and found that school choice in Sweden improved “average short- and long-run outcomes.” Another rigorous study in a top academic journal, the Journal of Public Economics, found that Sweden’s voucher program improved academic outcomes due to competition.

Butrymowicz deserves credit for pointing out three studies that show positive effects of the Sweden program. But she points out that one of these studies finds “no positive long-term effects for students.” While that may be true, she failed to acknowledge that the same study found positive effects on student achievement.

U.S. Charter Schools Produce a Bigger Bang with Fewer Bucks

The evidence is in. And it’s great news for kids in charter schools. A just-released study by my colleagues at the University of Arkansas and me finds that, overall, public charter schools across eight major U.S. cities are 35 percent more cost-effective and produce a 53 percent higher return-on-investment (ROI) than residentially assigned government schools.

And every single one of the cities examined exhibited a charter school productivity advantage over their district school counterparts. As shown in Figure 1 below, charter schools outperformed district schools in each city on student achievement despite receiving significantly less resources per student. Charter schools in all eight cities studied are getting more bang for the buck. And in places like D.C. and Indianapolis, charter schools are doing more with a lot less.

Figure 1: Charter School Funding and Performance

Our ROI models consider the effect that each schooling sector has on children’s lifetime earnings relative to the total taxpayer investment for children’s K-12 education in each sector. As shown in Figure 2 below, charter schools provide a huge ROI for taxpayers. And D.C. charter schools are knocking it out of the park by producing an 85 percent higher ROI for their taxpayers than district schools.

Let’s make this a bit more concrete. The data show that every thousand dollars spent on education in D.C. district schools translates to around a $4,510 increase in students’ lifetime earnings. That is commendable. But that same thousand-dollar-expenditure produces an estimated $8,340 in students’ lifetime earnings if allocated to a public charter school in the city. And that 85 percent advantage is huge considering that taxpayers spend over $458,000 for each child’s K-12 education in D.C. district schools.

Figure 2: ROI for Charter Schools Relative to TPS (13 Years)

Notably, charter schools in Boston and Indianapolis both produced ROIs that were over 60 percent higher than their neighboring district schools. New York City, San Antonio, and Denver all produced ROIs that were 29 to 32 percent higher than district schools.

But these results shouldn’t surprise anyone. When educational institutions have the incentive to spend money wisely, they do just that. Because residentially assigned government schools do not have to attract their customers, they can spend tons of money on administration and fancy buildings. On the other hand, charter schools must spend money on kids – rather than administrators – if they want to keep their doors open.

Mixed News in the Trump Education Budget

Quickly reading through the overviews of President Trump’s proposed FY 2019 budget, the good news is that funding coming through the U.S. Department of Education would be cut. The bad news is that the budget would potentially include up to $1 billion applicable to private school choice, which would threaten centralized regulation of choice, rendering such choice far less meaningful. Think Common Core for all!

Overall it appears spending by the U.S. Department of Education would decrease by around $3.6 billion—or about 5.4 percent—from 2017, based on quick calculations using the Department’s budget summary and data in an addendum that alters the summary due to the budget legislation enacted last week. As I’ve noted before, eliminating such ineffective—and unconstitutional—undertakings as the $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers would be solid policy, and frankly the evidence is compelling that the overall K-12 and higher education federal endeavor has been an expensive mistake.

The bad news is that overall cuts would not be greater, while the budget would create a new, $1 billion Opportunity Grants program that would include money for private school voucher programs. The program would be broken into two pieces—Scholarships for Private Schools and Open Enrollment Grants—with only the former open to private choice programs. No specific funding split between the sub-programs is identified in any of the budget materials I’ve seen, so it is unknown how much of the funding would go to private choice. But even a small amount of money relative to overall education spending can be a powerful lever to get states and schools to open themselves to regulation—it just needs to look like a lot in news stories or ledgers—and that is the huge danger of federal school choice. Of course, the Constitution no more authorizes federal choice programs than it does other education undertakings.

The budget is likely dead on arrival, and there are certainly things I missed in a quick once-over. But at the very least it reveals an administration that has sort of the right inclination on education—shrink the federal footprint—but that will curb that inclination when it comes to school choice.

Can We PROSPER and Be Free?

A New York Times article this week tackled the “conservative social agenda” supposedly packed into the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act that recently moved through the House education committee. The 590-page bill is an effort to renew the Higher Education Act, through which massive federal aid—currently around $136 billion—flows to students. The article and bill are reminders of how far we’ve strayed from a basic understanding of how a free society works.

A free society is pretty easy to grasp. Individuals are allowed to freely act, including to join or not join together based on their own decisions, rather than because they were forced to associate or not associate under threat of physical harm. The ability to legally inflict physical harm—even to kill—is ultimately what empowers government, but only so that government can protect against others inflicting harm on you, or you on them. Government is instituted to maximize freedom.

Reading the Times article, it seems some people don’t get this. The bill itself is a little less confused.

Higher education has been roiled lately with accusations of censorship, political correctness, and discrimination, largely by conservatives concerned about speakers such as Anne Coulter being barred from speaking on campuses. But folks on the left have had their own concerns, including Christian colleges firing professors for violating tenets of faith.

What should this mean for government?

Public institutions—government institutions—must not hire or fire based on faith, or discriminate against speech on campus. Ultimately, legalized violence must not be brought to bear for or against people based on their faith or opinions. Similarly, public institutions must not tell students who choose to freely associate in clubs or groups whom they must let in or keep out to get institutional funding or access to space; that is government punishing or rewarding people based on their associations.

The federal government, in contrast, must not reward or punish private institutions over their rules on association or speech as long as when a student enters and pays her bill a college does not deceive her about its rules. The institution’s rules, freely accepted by the student, are a part of free association, while deception is fraud.

How does the PROSPER Act do on keeping these things straight?

First, the bill would protect religious colleges from losing access to government funding if the loss were based on schools having religious policies some view as discriminatory, such as prohibiting homosexual student relationships, or firing faculty for violating articles of faith. In the Act this is explicitly a defense of religious freedom, but any voluntary association deserves protection. Meanwhile, one may absolutely despise and loudly condemn what an association stands for, but government must not punish members for their beliefs.

How about college rules that say student organizations must be non-discriminatory in whom they admit, or allow to serve as officers? Such rules should be unacceptable at public institutions—they are government curbing freedom of association—but at private institutions you exercise your freedom of association when you enroll, and if that institution wants to have rules about clubs within it, that is fine from a government perspective. Freedom of association includes the right to make constricting rules for members.

PROSPER gets this partially right. It correctly requires only public schools to allow religious groups to make their own decisions about who can join or become an officer. But protection, again, should extend to all associations.

Partial correctness also applies to the Act’s handling of controversial speakers and free speech zones. It says colleges, regardless of type, only court trouble for restricting speech if they say they have one speech policy but in practice have one that is more constrictive. That is the right policy toward private institutions—it would only punish fraud—but for public colleges no speech curbs are acceptable.

The bill also gets things only half right when it comes to allowing students to join single-sex organizations such as sororities. It would prohibit schools from taking “adverse action” against students who join such organizations. The impetus for this, according to the Times, is unhappiness with Harvard for punishing students who are in such groups. PROSPER’s provision should absolutely apply to public institutions, but not a private school like Harvard. Again, students freely agree to its rules when they decide to attend.

Of course, there is a gigantic elephant in the room: Taxpayers are compelled to pay for all colleges indirectly through student aid, and directly through government assistance to institutions. But the problem is the forced funding, not the freedom of association. To fully protect freedom of association—which includes deciding what we fund—we must eliminate the subsidies. We must not further curb freedom because of the subsidies, as happens when we conclude, “you take government money, you take its rules.”

We cannot eliminate subsidies overnight, and at best the PROSPER Act would make a tiny dent. (Even if it trimmed $1.5 billion per year, as the CBO estimates, that would only be about 1 percent of total federal student aid). To minimize compulsion short of elimination, student grants—which are not repaid—should be eliminated, and aid delivered in the form of loans or income-share agreements. Students should ultimately fund their decisions themselves. State funding for public colleges should also be transformed into students loans.

This would not be perfect—free association also means you are not forced to lend people money—but it would get us a lot closer to where we need to be: people freely associating and making rules for themselves, not having government decide whose associations do or do not prosper.

Puerto Rico: Don’t Do School Choice Like Louisiana

It appears hurricanes are a catalyst for school choice. Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, spurring a substantial school system reform. Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, and their education secretary, Julia Keleher, recently announced that private school “vouchers will be included.” This could be a great thing. 

But Puerto Rico better not follow the heavily regulated Louisiana model.

In order to participate in the Louisiana voucher program, private schools must administer all of the standardized state tests, maintain a “quality” curriculum, and surrender their admissions processes over to the government. And of course, these state-driven regulations come with unintended consequences. As shown in figure 1 below, only a third of Louisiana private schools choose to participate in the state’s voucher program, while participation is much higher in less regulated locations. Furthermore, my colleagues and I find that the regulations in Louisiana likely reduce the quality of participating private schools. And, unsurprisingly, the participating private schools start to look a lot like government schools.

But that’s not all. The first experimental evaluation in the world ever to find negative effects of school vouchers on student achievement was in Louisiana.

“Accountability” to the government may sound enticing for Puerto Rico. After all, their elites likely wish to prevent poor families from making bad decisions. However, the perceived short-run benefit leads to actual long-run costs. Top-down accountability measures prevent high quality schools from participating at all. And worse, they nudge otherwise autonomous private schools to behave like government schools. Why entice great schools to imitate the very institutions that children are so desperately trying to escape?

Besides, since private schools must attract their customers, they already face tremendously stronger accountability pressures than government schools.

Puerto Rico has a great opportunity here. But they must do this right. If Puerto Rico mimics Louisiana, their natural disaster could very well lead to an educational disaster.

Public Schooling Battles: January Dispatch

January brought a new year to our calendars—more on calendars shortly—but a look at the public schooling values and identity-based battles for the month shows that nothing much has really changed. Some of the big battlegrounds of 2017—and years before that—are still big battlegrounds at the outset of 2018. Which should come as no surprise: A new year doesn’t suddenly make diverse people abandon the cultures, histories, and values they cherish.

DC Private Schooling: A Portrait in Diversity?

Private schools are the preserves of rich, white people, and if they weren’t around education would be more racially integrated. That’s probably the assumption many people have, and it could be what people reading about a recent Shanker Institute report on segregation in Washington, DC, might have gathered.

“It’s no secret that the District’s public schools are highly segregated, with a recent analysis showing that nearly three-quarters of black students attend schools where they have virtually no white peers,” began a Washington Post story on the Shanker analysis. “But a recent report examines the role that enrollment in private schools, which are disproportionately white, plays in the city’s segregation woes.” Similarly, a story on WAMU—a DC NPR affiliate—intoned: “’In a very loose sense,’ the authors explain, ‘D.C.’s private schools serve as the segregation equivalent of a suburb within a city.’ That’s because white students in D.C. tend to enroll in private schools.”

So are the city’s private schools really preserves of white people? And are they a big impediment to integration? The answer appears to be “no” to both questions.

Importantly, the Shanker report, while saying that a disproportionate share of private school students are white, also noted that African-American students in private schools had greater exposure to white students than black children in public schools, an indicator that for African-American kids in private schools the racial mix is less isolating. The typical black student in a DC public school (traditional and charter) goes to an institution in which only 3.5 percent of students are white. For the typical black private schooler, the student body is 24.5 percent white.

Those numbers indicate greater exposure to whites for African American private schoolers, but that the latter is not a much higher number also indicates that many African Americans attend private schools that are predominantly minority, which the WAMU story notes at the very bottom: “While there are fewer students of color in private schools, when they do attend private school it’s usually with students who look like them. 65 percent of an African-American student’s peers in D.C. private schools are also African-American.”

Contrary to what many people likely imagine, DC’s private schooling sector is not lily white: private schools serve all sorts of kids. Breaking down the city’s 63 private elementary and secondary schools using National Center for Education Statistics and GreatSchools.org data indicates that almost half—31 schools—serve predominantly minority student bodies, defined as more than 50 percent black and Hispanic. Roman Catholic schools—which have traditions of serving first dispossessed Catholics, then other poor and marginalized groups—disproportionately serve such populations, with 58 percent of Catholic schools doing so. Catholic schools, especially diocesan institutions, also tend to be less expensive than non-Catholic schools, making them more affordable to African Americans and Hispanics, who tend to have lower incomes.