Topic: Education and Child Policy

More School Choice, Less Crime

One of the original arguments for educating children in traditional public schools is that they are necessary for a stable democratic society. Indeed, an English parliamentary spokesman, W.A. Roebuck, argued that mass government education would improve national stability through a reduction in crime.

Public education advocates, such as Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman and the American Federation for Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, still insist that children must be forced to attend government schools in order to preserve democratic values.

Theory

In principle, if families make schooling selections based purely on self-interest, they may harm others in society. For instance, parents may send their children to schools that only shape academic skills. As a result, children could miss out on imperative moral education and harm others in society through a higher proclivity for committing crimes in the future.

However, since families value the character of their children, they are likely to make schooling decisions based on institutions’ abilities to shape socially desirable skills such as morality and citizenship. Further, since school choice programs increase competitive pressures, we should expect the quality of character education to increase in the market for schooling. An increase in the quality of character education decreases the likelihood of criminal activity and therefore improves social order.

Evidence

There are only three studies causally linking school choice programs to criminal activity. Two studies examine the impacts of charter schools and one looks at the private school voucher program in Milwaukee. Each study finds that access to a school choice program substantially reduces the likelihood that a student will commit criminal activity later on in life.

Notably, Dobbie & Fryer (2015) find that winning a random lottery to attend a charter school in Harlem completely eliminates the likelihood of incarceration for males. In addition, they find that female charter school lottery winners are less than half as likely to report having a teen pregnancy.

Note: A box highlighted in green indicates that the study found statistically significant crime reduction.

According to the only causal studies that we have on the subject, school choice programs improve social order through substantial crime reduction. If public education advocates want to continue to cling to the idea that traditional public schools are necessary for democracy, they ought to explain why the scientific evidence suggests the opposite.

Of course, these impacts play a significant role in shaping the lives of individual children. Perhaps more importantly, these findings indicate that voluntary schooling selections can create noteworthy benefits for third parties as well. If we truly wish to live in a safe and stable democratic society, we ought to allow parents to select the schooling institutions that best shape the citizenship skills of their own children.

In Education, Democracy Is the Threat

When people hear “democracy,” they tend to get warm, fuzzy feelings. As the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg writes in an article that, among other things, portrays private school choice as a threat to democracy, “public education…was also meant to instill a love of liberal democracy: a respect for the separation of powers, for a free press and free religious exercise, and for the rights of political minorities.” The fundamental, ironic problem is that both democracy and democratically controlled public schooling are inherently at odds with the individual rights, and even separation of powers, that Kahlenberg says democracy and public schools are supposed to protect.

Let’s be clear what “democracy” means: the people collectively, rather than a single ruler or small group of rulers, make decisions for the group. We typically think of this as being done by voting, with the majority getting its way.

Certainly, it is preferable for all people to have a say in decisions that will be imposed on them than to have a dictator impose things unilaterally. But there is nothing about letting all people have a vote on imposition that protects freedom. Indeed, in a pure democracy, as long as the majority decides something, no individual rights are protected at all. The will of the majority is all that matters.

We’ve seen basic rights and equality under the law perpetually and unavoidably violated by democratically controlled public schooling. It cannot be otherwise: At its core, a single system of government schools—be it a district, state, or federal system—can never serve all, diverse people equally. It must make decisions about whose values, histories, and culture will and will not be taught, as well as what students can wear, what they can say, and what they can do, in order to function.

Public schooling since the days of Horace Mann has found it impossible to uphold religious freedom and equality. Mann himself was constantly assailed by people who felt that by trying to make public schools essentially lowest-common-denominator Protestant institutions, he was throwing out religion or making the schools de facto Unitarian (his denomination). Mann, in response, promised that the Protestant Bible would always be used in public schools. Indeed, Protestantism was often thought essential to being a good American, including supportive of democracy, which meant that if the public schools were to serve their civic purpose they could not treat religious minorities equally, especially Roman Catholics, who were suspected of taking their political orders from the Pope in Rome.

Today, after more than a century of even deadly conflict over religion, the public schools are no longer de facto Protestant, but instead may legally have no connection that could appear to be advancing religion, right down, often, to speeches by individual students at events such as graduation ceremonies or athletic contests. This inherently renders religious people second-class citizens—any values are fair game in public schools except for theirs—while also curbing basic expression rights.

Of course, the inherent inequality of public schooling is not restricted to religion. In a public school a teacher, committee, school board, or other government actor must decide what aspects of history will be taught or literature read. This requires that government elevate some peoples’ speech and perspectives, while deeming others’ essentially unworthy. As a result, we have perpetual battles that tear at the social fabric over which books—The Bluest Eye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—should or should not be read in class or over whose history should be taught, and the losers are rendered unequal under the law.

School Inc. Under Attack: Milton Friedman, PBS, and the Quixotic Pursuit of “Balance” in Public Broadcasting

Our departed colleague Andrew Coulson spent the last years of his life producing School Inc., a wonderful and informative documentary about the possibilities of private, choice-based schooling. I highly recommend it. Amazingly, at least to me, PBS agreed to air the documentary, and in April it debuted on PBS stations around the country.

Unsurprisingly, a chorus of critics are angered that PBS would air such a program. Media Matters for America seems to call for the outright censorship of any critique of public education on public television by wondering, “why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education?” Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of private schools, complains that “uninformed viewers who see this very slickly produced program will learn about the glories of unregulated schooling, for-profit schools, [and] teachers selling their lessons to students on the Internet,” but “what they will not see or hear is the other side of the story.” Now a petition has been started calling for PBS to air “the other side” of the story by showing the anti-private school film Backpack Full of Cash.

I have nothing against showing the “other side” to Andrew’s series, but we need to put this debate in context. When it comes to PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the “other side” that doesn’t get heard is usually the conservative or libertarian side, and CPB has generally been deeply antagonistic to those ideas. That Ravitch and others are now the ones complaining is at least somewhat ironic.

Critique of School Inc. Illustrates Why Airing It Is Right

Stalwart public schooling defender Diane Ravitch does not like what she saw in School Inc., a three-part documentary series created by former Cato education analyst Andrew Coulson. Of course, she is welcome to disagree with it. But her main complaint—that PBS dared show the documentary in the first place—is concerning from a public debate perspective, while her more substantive critiques of School Inc. illustrate precisely why we need to let all voices engage in debates, not just those with whom we agree.

From the outset, let’s be clear. Neither the documentary itself nor PBS hide one iota what is being presented: the views of Andrew Coulson. Heck, the subtitle of School Inc. is “A Personal Journey with Andrew Coulson.” It leaves it to viewers—not gatekeepers who may just dislike Coulson’s point of view—to decide if the case Coulson makes is persuasive. And if we are after open discussion and truth, what should matter is not who funded the documentary—Ravitch portrays School Inc. sponsors as frightening bogeymen—but the content of the documentary.

Ravitch does address some of the substance of School Inc., but in so doing reveals why it is so crucial that all sides of controversial issues get heard, not just those with which she agrees. Quite simply, many of her knocks on the substance are themselves highly questionable.

Education Dollars Should Matter—but Do They?

Education reporters such as Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum continue to cling to the idea that pouring exorbitant resources into an inefficient school system can make a sustainable difference in the lives of America’s children. To support the claim, Barnum points to a couple of recent studies examining the association between court-ordered education spending increases and student outcomes.

Jackson, Johnson, and Perisco (2016) conclude that an annual 10% increase in per pupil spending for all 12 years of schooling leads to an increase of about a third of a year of completed education. Similarly, Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach (2016) find that court-ordered spending increases improve test scores for the least-advantaged students by a little under a hundredth of a standard deviation per year.

However, both of these studies suffer from important methodological issues that limit their ability to identify a strong causal relationship between education dollars and student outcomes.

Governments Shouldn’t Even Fund Schools

Education reporters frequently make the claim that government ought to fund and operate educational institutions because schooling is a public good. However, since schooling fails both conditions required for a public good to exist, schools should not be publicly operated.

Schooling is Not a Public Good

According to the economic definition, a public good is non-rival in consumption and non-excludable. The first condition means that one individual’s consumption of the good does not hinder others’ abilities to use the product. Schooling fails this condition since students take up seats when receiving an education. The second condition means that the producer of the good is unable to exclude non-payers. Schooling fails this part of the definition since school leaders can prevent students from attending their institutions, if necessary.

Since schooling is not a true public good, the basic free-rider problem does not exist. This is important because it means that government does not need to operate schools or force residents to pay for them.

A Merit Good?

When journalists claim that schooling is a public good, I believe they actually mean to say that education is a merit good since it produces positive externalities. When an educational product is purchased, both the consumer and the provider benefit, as in all other voluntary transactions. However, the rest of society may also benefit if schooling actually creates citizens that are more educated. This argument leads many scholars to support government subsidization of schooling.

The Problem

Obviously, schooling is only one channel through which people can achieve an education. Since children can learn in various settings, the current system of schooling may actually harm their overall educational levels. In other words, schooling may impose negative externalities on society through providing a less than optimal level of education to all children.

Similarly, schooling likely creates a more obedient citizenry. This generates positive externalities, through less criminal activity, and negative externalities, through less creativity and technological innovation.

Since there are large positive and negative externalities that result from schooling, in theory, it is impossible to determine the overall sign of the net spillover. Consequently, it is unclear whether we ought to tax or subsidize schooling; and even if we could somehow figure out the overall sign, we would not be able to determine the optimal magnitude of the intervention.

We should recognize the fact that externalities do exist in education. However, as the founder of externalities conceded, we must also realize that attempting to reach the socially optimal level of schooling through government intervention may ironically result in much harm. Instead, we ought to limit this probable detriment by allowing individual families to seek ideal educational experiences for their own children.

Still Unhappy with PBS for Airing School Inc.

Before it even hit the fiber-optics, defenders of public schooling were agitated that PBS stations would be airing Andrew Coulson’s documentary School Inc., which takes viewers on a ride through time and around the world to learn how innovation happens, and why it happens too rarely in education. Last Friday a new critique was published, this time on the website of Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association of educators. In the piece, Loyola University Chicago professor Amy Shuffelton asks, “Why did PBS and its local New York affiliate, WNET, agree to broadcast and distribute such an unbalanced, journalistically questionable series on such a controversial and complicated topic as education?”

Perhaps the answer is that PBS officials thought the series had high-quality content, and discerning viewers could determine for themselves whether they accepted its premise. Writes Shuffelton: “According to WNET’s Specter [Shuffelton does not provide a first name], the second part of the series title, ‘A Personal Journey’ is key to understanding the project. ‘When you read that subtitle, you know that you’re going to get a point of view, and we’re not opposed to presenting different points of view.’”

The documentary certainly is clear that you are getting one person’s perspective. And while I don’t watch a lot of television, PBS or otherwise, it seems unlikely that PBS programs such as Bill Moyer’s Journal or Democracy Now! have been committed to strict, equal time for opposing views. As with public schooling, there is good reason to oppose publicly funded television because it is impossible to represent the views of every taxpayer equally. But PBS exists, and points of view seem to be articulated without having to be balanced out.

Of course, the best way to judge the quality and merits of School Inc. is to view it yourself, which you can do here, or by watching this space for future airings in your market. And you should of course read opposing views like Shuffelton’s, though don’t expect objectivity there, either. For instance, Shuffelton says that Coulson quotes Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson out of context, but does not say how. Worse, she suggests that Coulson believes discrimination in government funding is a solution to religious conflicts in education:

Coulson does consider the possibility of civic discord in the last ten minutes of the series, but his answers are not convincing. School Inc. turns to Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer’s dissent in the case Zelman v Simmons-Harris, which upheld an Ohio voucher program. Breyer worried that publicly financed voucher programs, which funnel federal funds to religious schools, raise the possibility of religiously based social conflict.

Coulson’s response should raise concern for anyone worried about First Amendment rights. To show that social conflict is unlikely to follow, he uses the example of a voucher program proposed in New Orleans. One of the schools eager to participate was a Muslim school. When Louisianans got wind of this, controversy followed. So the Muslim school dropped out. In Coulson’s eyes, the problem was thereby solved.

Wait, I found myself thinking as I watched, that’s discrimination, not a defense of First Amendment rights. I expected Coulson to explain why it was not, but the series moved on to clips of jazz performances, which, according to Coulson, demonstrate Americans’ ability to get along.

This is just incorrect. For one thing, Coulson devotes nearly half of the final episode to social conflict, choice, and equality. And far from condoning exclusion of the Muslim school, he explains that a fundamental problem with vouchers is that while they create more freedom and equality than majority-rules public schools, they can still unjustly compel people to furnish funds for teachings they oppose, opening choice up for government discrimination.

The solution, Coulson suggests, are tax credits for people who choose to donate to groups that award scholarships. Want to give to a group providing scholarships for Montessori students? Go ahead! Catholic schools? Sure! Muslim institutions? Absolutely! This maximizes freedom for both families and funders, and minimizes incentives to legally exclude groups.

I think there is a huge amount of value to be found in School Inc., but others can certainly disagree. What they should not try to do is squelch the documentary, or misrepresent what it says. Oh, and if they want to learn even more about Andrew and debate his ideas, they can check out this new book. After all, the more open discussion we have, the better!

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