Topic: Education and Child Policy

K-12 Schollies = More College

Want to increase college-going while saving some dough? Scholarship tax credit programs may be for you, or so indicates a new report from the Urban Institute.

The report, from co-authors Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn, finds that the low-income students who enrolled in private schools via the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program were about 15 percent—or 6 percentage points—more likely to enroll in college than statistically matched public school students. The effect was greater the longer kids were in the program. There was also a small, more tenuous positive effect on associate degree attainment for scholarship users. Topping it all off, while cost was not the focus of the report, the authors note that the superior outcomes were achieved at a saving to the state: “The positive effects are noteworthy in light of the evidence that the FTC program more than covers the foregone tax revenue through reduced spending on the public schools many participants would have attended.”

There are, of course, important caveats to the findings. First, this was not a random assignment study, so unobserved characteristics such as differing degrees of motivation between scholarship users and matched public school students could not be well controlled for. Next, the study only looked at students entering Florida public colleges, though this might have underestimated the program’s positive effects due to low-income private school students tending more to attend private or out-of-state colleges than their public school peers. Finally, there is good reason to question whether credentials represent much increase in real, useful, learning.

Even with these caveats, this is clearly encouraging evidence for school choice. Alas, some of the early media reports about the study seem to want to temper it with mentions of a few recent choice evaluations, focused on standardized test scores, that have not been so hot. Of course, those studies have important caveats too, but more important, the articles I have seen about the Urban report have mentioned the recent spate of negative reports while ignoring the many positive studies that preceded them. Fortunately, the Urban authors give readers one more useful nugget, noting, “Until recently, this research showed neutral to positive effects of private school choice on student achievement.”

The choice debate will continue, but most of the evidence remains on the side of freedom.

From Little Rock to Trump, Are There Lessons To Be Learned?

Today is the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, a deeply disturbing event for the explosive racism it revealed, but also an inspiring episode for the courage displayed by the children who braved it.

One thing for which it serves as a reminder is that it was public schooling and government generally that for decades forced segregation. Recent attacks against school choice have glossed over this fact, as well as that the absence of choice meant even those who wanted something different were almost certainly hard-pressed to get it.

The anniversary also reminds us that repairing race relations that have been poisoned by centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and still-present hate, racism, and racial suspicion, is not likely something that will happen quickly—would it were otherwise—including with any kind of public policy panacea. Too much history, too many emotions, and increasingly, diversity that makes race relations more than black and white, are all in play. Which may be another argument for school choice: we need to let myriad educational arrangements be offered because no solution might be right for any two people, much less the entire country. Different individuals—and that is what we are, though race is an often crucial component of our identities—may desire different discipline policies, or curricula, and by allowing numerous arrangements to proliferate we can discover which ideas work best, for whom, without education being a zero-sum, winner-take-all contest.

Alas, the Little Rock 60th anniversary has been eclipsed by President Donald Trump’s remark that National Football League owners should fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, resulting, in a few cases, in entire teams this weekend refusing to come out of locker rooms for the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Perhaps this too offers a lesson in the dangers to race relations posed by government, in this case highlighting how politics can amplify divisions and animosity. What had been an ongoing but relatively calm national debate about some players taking a knee during the anthem to protest what they see as racial injustice in the country exploded into a massive, headline-dominating demonstration by players and owners. This is partly because the current president seems to revel in aggravating people. But anytime a politician comments on something it almost inherently becomes a more political—and politicized—issue, and politics by its nature tends to make people act in ugly and divisive ways.

This, too, suggests that the nation would be better off if we looked not for sweeping government solutions to racial divides, but to the maximum extent possible left it to individual people and communities—to civil society—to do the complex, highly personal work of healing and uniting.

More School Competition, Better Citizens

One of the original arguments for establishing a system of common schools was that children from different backgrounds would learn to get along with one another and become proper citizens. However, when students throw rocks at a seven-year-old boy with a rare genetic condition, call him a monster on a daily basis, and push him towards contemplating suicide, we must wonder if our public schools are actually creating good citizens.

Over 90 percent of school-aged children in the U.S. attend public schools. While it is clear that government-run schools have a nearly perfect monopoly on education funding, they do not have a monopoly on producing tolerant citizens. In fact, it isn’t even close. According to the ten experimental or quasi-experimental studies that exist on the topic, none find that public schools outperform private schools on increasing student tolerance or civic engagement. As discussed in a recent Cato Policy Forum, and shown in table 1 below, a majority of the findings reveal that private school choice programs improve civic outcomes.

While the existing evidence may have surprised the father of the common school movement, Horace Mann, I am not all that shocked. Since it is highly costly for families to escape residentially assigned public schools that do not produce proper citizens, public school leaders do not have the incentives nor the information necessary to significantly improve character education. Alternatively, private schools must cater to families’ desires to have their children become functioning members of society.
When students engage in conversations about controversial subjects, they are more likely to understand and tolerate opposing views. But why would public school teachers – or anyone – spend much time fostering difficult debates about sensitive topics if they are incentivized to focus on standardized tests? 

I Hear You, Matt Damon

In school choice circles, a lot of people don’t much care for actor Matt Damon, at least his education politics. (I’m not sure where they stand on The Bourne Identity or Stuck on You.) Damon—son of education professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige—has been a vocal advocate for government schooling, and is the narrator of the documentary Backpack Full of Cash, which you might recall is the film those outraged over Andrew Coulson’s School Inc. say PBS must show to balance out perspectives. But here’s the thing: Damon sends his own kids to private school!

I am supposed to be outraged by the apparent hypocrisy, but I don’t think Damon’s selection falls under that heading. Damon and many progressives love public schooling but don’t like what it has become, especially under the standards-and-testing tidal wave of No Child Left Behind, and the only somewhat less inundating Every Student Succeeds Act. They don’t care for the reduction of education to basically a standardized test score. As Damon, who attended progressive public schools in Cambridge, MA, has said, “I pay for a private education and I’m trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It’s unfair.”

No doubt lots of people—choice fans and detractors alike—who want education to be more than a score sympathize with Damon’s frustration. The problem is that Damon champions exactly the wrong system to get sustainable change. By its nature, public schooling, if not doomed to reduction to simple metrics, is in constant, near-death peril of it.

When people can’t vote with their feet—which is very tough to do in a system in which where you go to school depends on where you can afford a home—their only hope to make schools do what they want is government action. But government is controlled by politics, which is itself driven by soundbites. And what is ideal for a soundbite on whether schools are “working”? Why test scores, of course! “The scores are up,” or “the scores are down,” or “25 percent of the kids are proficient,” and so on.

The key to escaping such peril is not hoping that nick-of-time, death-defying, Jason Bourne-esque political miracles will constantly save us, but basing education in freedom. Attach cash to students—via “backpacks,” if you must—give educators autonomy to teach and run schools as they see fit, and ground accountability in educators providing schools to which parents willingly entrust those backpack-bearing kids.

Of course, there is much more that is problematic about government education than just simplistic standardization. Far more deeply, if it is “unfair” that Damon can’t find the progressive schools he wants in the public system, it also unfair that many religious people—who by law cannot get the education they want in public schools—or Mexican Americans, or countless other people are also unable to access the education they want. Thankfully, the key to getting fairness for them is the same one to getting fairness for Damon: school choice.

Don’t blame Matt Damon for his choices. Blame the choice-killing system he defends.

Does School Choice Have to Wear Shades?

Few people probably remember the post-punk band Timbuk 3, but maybe they can recall that wonder’s one hit: “The Future’s So Bright,” about a kid who was doing so well his future required him to “wear shades.” If a new survey of Millennials is any indication, that song may well apply to school choice.

According to a survey of adults ages 18-34 from GenForward, a project based at the University of Chicago, a whopping 71 percent of Millennials “strongly” or “somewhat support” using “government funds in the form of vouchers to pay some of the tuition of low income students who choose to attend private schools.” Yes, even with the dreaded “v” word—vouchers—in the question, private school choice garners massive support. Unsuprisingly, when broken down by race, the highest level of support is among African Americans at 79 percent, and the lowest is among whites at 66 percent.

Support declines when the proposal opens vouchers to “all students” instead of just “low income,” but it is still pretty impressive. 57 percent of all respondents are at least somewhat supportive, with the range going from 69 percent support among African Americans to 49 percent among whites.

If this holds up as millennials age, and if such support is replicated in the generation to follow, school choice will, indeed, have to start wearing shades. Hopefully, those super dark eclipse ones…

Should We Subsidize Schooling?

Public schooling monopolists such as the President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, argue that private school choice programs undermine our democratic society. One of the frequently made fundamental arguments is that, if given the opportunity to do so, self-interested individual families would choose a “less-than-socially optimal” level of schooling since education may be a merit good.

In other words, if my children receive an education, the rest of society benefits from the transaction without having to pay for it directly. After all, other members of society will benefit if my children grow up to be well-informed voters and law-abiding citizens. The conclusion made by some economists is that the government ought to be able to force the rest of society – the free-riders – to subsidize schooling so that the collective could reach some “socially optimal” level of education.

However, such a conclusion assumes that having a more educated populace is the only externality associated with traditional schooling. In order to better understand the overall effect, I have created a list of possible positive and negative externalities associated with government schooling.

Positive Externalities:

  • A more educated citizenry – the rest of society benefits when they have educated people to interact with. Also, democracy might function more effectively with highly educated and informed voters.
  • Obedience – public schools were originally designed to create more obedient citizens. If a person is more obedient to the state, they may be less likely to break the law. As a result, third parties benefit from not having their property damaged or stolen.

Negative Externalities:

  • A less educated citizenry – third parties are harmed if the compulsory levels of schooling do not maximize children’s education levels. After all, schooling is but one channel to achieve an education, and government schools do not have an incentive to provide children with optimal educational experiences.
  • Obedience – if citizens are trained to be obedient, they may be less likely to invent technologies that benefit the rest of society. In addition, obedient employees may be less productive if their job requires them to think on their feet.
  • Legitimized coercion through voting – the voting booth allows advantaged groups to exercise coercion over less fortunate members of society. Politically powerful groups can mobilize and extract resources from third parties, producing, at best, a zero-sum game.
  • Opportunity costs of the political process – citizens must use excessive amounts of time and effort in order to become politically knowledgeable about various educational policies. These scarce resources could be more efficiently allocated towards generating an income or spending time strengthening bonds within the family.
  • Inefficiency – government schools do not have an incentive to spend taxpayer resources efficiently. Consequently, we have observed public school spending increase substantially without discernible effects on observed student outcomes.

Odds of Horace Mann Being Right? About 1 in a Million

Last night I was reading AEI president Arthur Brooks’ excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed on the lottery, that seemingly ubiquitous government revenue scheme targeted at the poor, and it brought to mind Horace Mann, the “father of the common schools.” Did Mann pop into my brain because he was also the father of the “Diamond Dollars” scratcher, or “Pick 6 XTRA”? In a way, yes.  

Mann actually hated the unproductive, greed-fueled lottery, which he wrote “cankers the morals of entire classes of the people.” As was the case for seemingly every social ill perceived by Mann, he had a cure for the canker: universal public schooling. Lotteries, he wrote, “await the dawning of that general enlightenment which common schools could so rapidly give, to be banished from the country forever.”

Fast forward to the present day, and what do we have? Roughly 90 percent of school-aged Americans attending public schools—and all children with access to them—while slickly advertised state lotteries pull in $70 billion annually, according to Brooks, with a disproportionate amount coming from low-income Americans who have little chance of breaking even, much less striking it rich.

Contra Mann’s promise, common schooling did not doom the lottery. Far, far from it. Today, perhaps the primary justification for the lottery is that it provides money for the public schools!

Frankly, Mann, who pronounced with assumed authority on everything from proper chewing to the number of “bodies” in the solar system, should have seen this coming. He certainly identified the supposed beneficiaries of lottery proceeds in his day: “the erection of public works,–to build a bridge, a canal, or a church [italics in original].” Mann was especially incensed by the latter, decrying, “When a church is built by a lottery, can there be any doubt which has the best side of the bargain, the Evil Spirit or the Good?”

Today, the “churches” conceived by Mann—the public schools—are themselves enriched by lotteries. Maybe that’s because they could never spread the universal enlightenment that Mann confidently promised. Maybe it is also because, like most of us, those employed by the public schools want as much money as they can reasonably get, and government schemes like the lottery enable them to bring in more.