Topic: Education and Child Policy

For-Profit Charters Are Effective Too

One of the benefits of school choice is that it allows students with varying needs and backgrounds to choose which schooling model helps them achieve the best educational outcomes. An extensive literature on charter schools, one of the most visible alternatives to traditional public schools, has found that charters with certain characteristics and policies tend to have positive results. Most of this literature focuses on non-profit schools, but a recent study finds that the advantages of charters extend to for-profit schools. 

In their recent paper, University of Michigan economists Susan Dynarksi, Daniel Hubbard, Brian Jacob, and Silvia Robles estimate the educational impact of one of the largest for-profit charter school networks in the country, National Heritage Academy (NHA), which enrolls over 50,000 students in 9 states. Using randomized lottery admissions at NHA schools in Michigan, they find that attending a NHA charter school for one year is associated with an increase in math achievement and positive—though not statistically significant—impacts on other outcomes.

Also of note, the authors find that non-poor, non-urban students benefited the most from one year at NHA. Most of the prior literature has found the opposite, that low-income, urban students receive a larger share of the benefits.  And similar to results for non-profit charters, the authors find that certain key characteristics—such as a “No excuses” culture, providing extra time for core subjects, and frequent diagnostic assessments—are what seem to drive the positive results.

The study is the first evidence on the impact of for-profit charter schools, and it indicates that for-profits can provide similar advantages as non-profits. As non-profit and for-profit charters expand, these benefits will continue to offer different types of students the best opportunities for academic success.

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.

An Education Proposal to Chew on this 4th of July

If government is going to establish public schools, which must be secular, the U.S. Constitution requires that it also provide school choice for religious Americans. So argued Corey DeAngelis and I last week in a Detroit News op-ed, and it’s something you might mull over this 4th of July as you watch over your grilling burgers or, hopefully, even more satisfying smoked brisket or bacon-wrapped hot dogs. (It’s always a good time to raise your outdoor cooking game!) Government must not inculcate religious beliefs, but it also must not elevate non-belief over religion, hence the need for choice.

If you want to seriously grapple with this and have a fair amount time tomorrow between firing up some savory dishes and sparking some dazzling fireworks, read this 2013 Florida Law Review article by Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabresi and attorney Abe Salander. It lays out in great legal detail how equal protection under the law demands equal access to education consistent with one’s values, religious and non-religious alike.

Write Calabresi and Salander, “states discriminate on the basis of religion when they administer secular private schools that are unpalatable to religious individuals and that are funded with taxpayer dollars….religious students are effectively excluded by the character of the public schools, and general atmosphere of public schools.”

If you don’t want to tax yourself—it will be the 4th of July, after all—with too much heavy legal reading, maybe this grilling-relevant analogy will kindle some thoughts. Suppose you love hamburgers (or brisket!) and the government promised neutrality regarding what meat people eat. Then suppose legislators passed a law spending tax dollars to feed everyone, but only on vegetables so as not to favor a meat. What kind of neutrality would that be? The kind that elevates vegetarians over all meat eaters, de facto rendering the latter second-class citizens. Secular public schooling absent school choice does the same, only unlike food, education deals with nothing less than the development of human minds!

None of this, of course, is to say that veggies should have no place on your grill tomorrow. They can be delicious. But favoring them to the exclusion of burgers, brisket, and dogs would be, well, un-American.

Technological Progress Freed Children from Hard Labor

It’s summertime and across the United States, children are away from school. The custom of long breaks in the school year dates to when most Americans worked in agriculture and often needed their children’s help on the farm. Of course, most children simply didn’t attend school, instead helping with housework and grueling farm labor year-round. In 1820, for example, primary school enrollment in the United States was just over 40 percent. That percentage rapidly shot upward in the coming decades, reaching 100 percent by 1870. But even then, many children didn’t make it past elementary school. In 1870, U.S. mean years of schooling stood at just 4.28. That number has risen steadily ever since. What changed? Technology, for one thing.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Harvard University professor Steven Pinker recounts how technology helped get boys off the farm and into the classroom. He quotes a tractor advertisement from 1921:

“By investing in a Case Tractor and Ground Detour Plow and Harrow outfit now, your boy can get his schooling without interruption, and the Spring work will not suffer by his absence. Keep the boy in school—and let a Case Kerosene Tractor take his place in the field. You’ll never regret either investment.”

As more farms adopted efficiency-enhancing agricultural devices like kerosene tractors, more boys attended school instead of working the fields. For girls, the huge time savings brought on by labor-saving household devices played a similar role. As running water, electricity, washing machines, and other modern conveniences spread, time spent on housework plummeted. Pinker’s book also contains a telling chart documenting the change.

Childcare Regulation and Quality

David Boaz blogged today on the Washington Post story about a lawsuit regarding DC childcare regulations. DC is set to require directors of child-care facilities to obtain a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development, and assistant teachers and home-care providers to have Child Development Associate (CDA) certificates in the same subject.

The WaPo write-up follows the usual boilerplate for these discussions: on the one hand, providers say complying with the regulations will be burdensome and increase costs; on the other hand, the government talks up the educational benefits of the new regulations. This all implies there is a trade-off between quality and cost.

But is there? Actually, this is a classic example of the government’s argument not considering the market for childcare as a whole.

Yes, requiring child-care workers to achieve higher qualification levels could result in more highly trained formal caregivers, who can help children to develop from an educational perspective. Such a regulation might also provide a “quality assurance” effect for some particularly conscientious parents.

But the effect on the quality of care faced by the whole population of children is ambiguous. By restraining the supply of formal care via regulation, the price of formal care will rise. If the price of formal childcare rises, then some parents will decide to substitute to more informal forms of care or even have to stay home to care for their own children. According to the government’s definitions of “quality” (which may be quite different from parents’ own perception) there will be substitution into lower quality settings as a result of childcare becoming more expensive.

Previous academic work suggests the price effects of these types of regulations are large. Diana Thomas and Devon Gorry estimated that even the more modest requirement for lead teachers to have a high school diploma increases childcare prices by between 25 and 46 percent. Hotz and Xiao likewise find that increasing the average required years of education of center directors by one year reduces the number of child care centers in the average market by between 3.2% and 3.8%. This effect manifests itself overwhelmingly in low income areas, with quality improvements (proxied here by accreditation for the center) occurring in high-income areas.

In other words, the real trade off is not quality vs. cost, but better quality for those rich enough to still be able to use formal care vs. less accessibility to care and higher prices for the poor. And that means lower quality and fewer options for the least well off – widening, rather than narrowing, supposed educational inequalities. Given average annual full time infant care in DC already costs $23,000 plus per year, one would think the government would be sensitive to these concerns about affordability.

Could Inefficiency Balance Out Overregulation?

The top left-hand story on the front page of the Metro section of today’s Washington Post:

Lawyers for the District argued Wednesday for the dismissal of a lawsuit that challenges city regulations requiring some child-care workers to obtain associate degrees or risk losing their jobs….

The requirements … stipulate that child-care center directors must earn bachelor’s degrees and assistant teachers and home-care providers must earn Child Development Associate (CDA) certificates.

Meanwhile, just across the page, in the top right-hand space:

About 1,000 teachers in D.C. Public Schools — a quarter of the educator workforce — lack certification the city requires to lead a classroom, according to District education leaders.

So how about this compromise: the child-care licensing requirement will go into effect, but it will be enforced by the crack management team at DC Public Schools?

Public Schooling Battles: May Dispatch

Some people want schools to have lighthearted, warm environments. Some want them to delve into social commentary, even if it is uncomfortable. Some students just want to wear what they want to wear. And some people either don’t want any of those things, or disagree when lines have been crossed. Here come the battle trends for May.

  • Lighthearted or Wrong-Headed? “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” is a warning I heard a lot when I was a child. But it turns out we don’t all agree when fun and games turns into something more serious. In May we saw three conflicts that revolved around when someone trying to have fun may have crossed lines, and public school authorities punished them. In South Carolina a white teacher was recorded in a viral video standing on the desk of a sleeping, African-American student and pulling his hair, among other things. The district reportedly forced the teacher to retire, to the consternation of many parents and even the student’s father, who said he “felt like the incident was done in humor.” The teacher was reinstated after her lawyer and district council met to discuss the matter. In Texas, a principal had a tradition of having children come to her office on their birthdays to receive a voluntary, symbolic spanking. It elicited at least three objections, and the principal discontinued the practice. Parent Heather Redder liked the tradition, and said some people are “not used to a small town community… People that move here from the big city, they don’t realize, and they’re not used to this.” Finally, a senior prank went wrong in Independence, Missouri, when a student posted a Craigslist ad selling his high school “due to the loss of students coming up.” The ad was referring to graduating students, but district officials saw it as a potential threat and punished the prankster, forbidding him to walk at graduation. The ACLU came to his defense. “In the hometown of U.S. President Harry Truman and in a place named after one of our nation’s key principles, ‘freedom,’ we hope that the district reconsiders its position and encourages the freedom of speech of our nation’s next generation of leaders,” said ACLU Missouri legal director Tony Rothert.
  • Social Commentary, Or Promoting Violence? Since the horrific Parkland school shooting, gun violence has become a scorching political topic. But where is the line between commenting on violence and promoting it? Two districts saw division over the appropriateness of art commenting on gun violence. In Leander, Texas, some parents objected to the middle school showing the video for the social commentary song “This is America” by Childish Gambino, in which among other targets Gambino is shown shooting a church choir. One father said, “a lot of stuff that’s shown is true but it’s just not right to show to a middle school environment.” In Tacoma, Washington, a principal who is also a rapper was the focus of conflict over lyrics that some thought promoted school shootings. “Give me a reason just to load up a rifle, Pull the fire alarm in the lobby of my high school,” went some of the words. “Leave the halls bloody like a high noon tycoon.” Objected one parent: “No one in a position of authority who is mentoring or monitoring our children, my children, anyone’s children, should be glorifying shooting up a school.” The principal said he wasn’t trying to glorify violence, but to tell a “story of something that happened to a young person that inspired and caused him to commit acts of violence.”
  • Dress Codes: Contending over what is acceptable to wear in school is constant, and remained so in May. In two states we saw officials telling girls to cover up lest they be distracting to boys, or maybe just not live up to community norms of propriety. We also saw a student get punished—and subsequently sue his district—for refusing to remove a t-shirt that read, “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” and “The Wall Just Got 10 Feet Taller.” The shirt violated the dress code prohibiting “clothing decorated with illustrations, words, or phrases that are disruptive or potentially disruptive, and/or that promote superiority of one group over another.” Said the student’s lawyer, “If people are offended by his shirt - that’s their right to be offended. But it’s also his right to have his opinion, as well.” In Montana, there was a lengthy standoff over a Confederate flag sweatshirt. Finally, May saw a battle over a student who had enlisted in the Army and wanted to wear an Army sash at graduation. The request was denied, but not without a struggle. It came down to the student’s pride in her accomplishments and country versus a school’s need to maintain order. While defending the district’s patriotism, the district superintendent said “the rule is in place to prevent student’s writing the silly ‘Hi, Mom’ on the hat and goofy things. We’re trying to keep our graduations somewhat dignified.”

As always, the monthly battles weren’t restricted to these trends. We also witnessed trouble over revolutionary themed prom tickets, disposing of pest animals, evolution, and more. And we had two surveys on our Facebook page. The first asked whether pulling the sleeping student’s hair was “OK” for the teacher to do. 21 percent of respondents said yes, 79 percent no. The second asked about constantly contested territory, the student vaeldictory speech that exalts God, stemming from this skirmish. We asked, “Should valedictorians be able to thank God in a public school graduation speech?” Three quarters of respondents answered yes, one quarter no.

Back in a month with the June Dispatch, then maybe the fighting will subside during summer vacation. Maybe…

Negative DC Voucher Results Still Don’t Mean Choice Has Failed

It’s not a good thing when a random-assignment study—the research “gold standard” because it controls even for unobservable variables like motivation—finds that using a voucher tends to result in lower standardized test scores. All things equal, we’d like scores to go up. But in the second of the latest evaluations of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, we saw almost exactly the same results as last year: using a voucher resulted in lower math scores that were statistically significant, and reading scores that were lower, but that could have been due to chance.

Last year I wrote about several reasons the first evaluation in no way condemned school choice, and you can read that here. To quickly reiterate, given both DC’s close proximity to other school systems, and the abundant forms of choice within its borders—a huge charter sector and lots of choice among traditional public schools—the voucher program is but a choice minnow in a lake full of largemouth bass. The breakdown of where students in the control group—families who applied for a voucher and did not get one—ended up going to school starkly reveals this. Even without knowing how many went to chosen traditional public schools, we know a majority still attended schools of choice; 43 percent attended charters and 10 percent private schools.

It is also crucial to note that the voucher program has been repeatedly threatened and stifled politically so it has never had real stability, and it is funded at a small fraction of traditional public schooling in DC, getting well less than half of the per-pupil allocation of traditional public schools. As the report states:

The combination of elements—a program whose funding and support has shifted over time at the federal level, operating within a city that offers ample options for parents to choose schools—makes findings from this evaluation challenging to generalize to other settings, such as voucher programs operated statewide or in settings that currently have limited choice options.

There was one standout bit of good news for the program: As my colleague Corey DeAngelis tackles in depth in an upcoming piece in The Hillbe on the lookout for it in the next few days!—parents and students who used vouchers were much more likely than the control group to perceive that their schools were safe. And the negative test score effects come at a time of burgeoning attention to an apparent disconnect between test scores and other outcomes such as how much education students actually complete. And all of these outcomes ignore the most fundamental reason that choice is crucial: in a plural society, with diverse religions, cultures, ethnicities, and philosophies, true freedom and equality can only be achieved when all people can pursue on an equal basis education consistent with their identities and cherished values. A tiny, inequitably funded voucher program is but a halting shuffle in that direction.