charter schools

Want to Regulate Schools? Use Parents

Results of last week’s DC voucher study, showing some significant negative effects on standardized math tests, has school choice opponents in overdrive writing voucher obituaries. But at least some commentators, like the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, concede that choice works, but only if it is shackled to regulations they like. That choice works if carefully managed is perhaps an inevitable concession with the broad notion of school choice clearly in ascendance. However, the idea that regulated choice produces better outcomes flies in the face of basic economic theory and choice research.

Negative Impacts of Regulation

State requirements often come in the form of standardized test scores or restrictions on the types of teachers that may be employed. These regulations force schools to focus narrowly on state tests, which do not appear to matter in the long-run, and limit the supply of teachers, lowering educational quality while increasing costs.

As I illustrate below, programs with less restrictive voucher laws lead to more impressive experimental evaluations of student math achievement, perhaps because the costs of regulation ward off high quality private institutions:

Want Satisfied Parents? Empower Them to Choose

Parents are more satisfied with their child’s learning environment when they choose it. Indeed, as economist Tyler Cowen put it recently, “the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact” about educational choice programs is that “they improve parent satisfaction.” A slew of new reports add a number of hefty boulders to the mountain of evidence. 

As I explained in greater detail last week, bureaucrats tend to focus excessively on test scores but parents take a more holistic approach to evaluating the quality of an education provider. As Cowen notes, “parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.” Parents know their children are more than scores.

Voters generally tend to reflect the views of parents more so than education technocrats. In a recent survey from Public School Options, only 14 percent of voters said they “consider state standardized test scores the critical factor in assessing a student’s overall success in school” and 78 percent said that schools “should never be closed primarily on the results of that particular school’s average” on the state’s standardized test. Moreover, 65 percent said they “believe an ongoing summary of each school’s status using a dashboard of multiple measurements would be more helpful to parents and policy makers” than a “system that provides a single letter grade for each school.” If we want an education system that considers the individual needs of each child rather than grading schools on a few narrow measures of performance for an imagined “typical” child, then we should entrust parents with holding education providers accountable for academic outcomes.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) are one way to accomplish that goal. With an ESA, parents can customize their child’s education, using it to pay for private school tuition as well as tutors, textbooks, online courses, educational therapy, and more. The ESAs are typically funded from a portion of the funds that the state would have spent on a child at his or her assigned district school, but they could also be funded through tax-credit eligible donations. In a 2013 survey, Arizona parents of students with special needs expressed unanimous satisfaction with the educational settings they chose for their children using the ESA funds. Moreover, the lowest-income families were the most likely to express dissatisfaction with their assigned district school (67 percent) and the most likely to say they were “very satisfied” with the education their child obtained through the ESA (89 percent).

Last week, Empower Mississippi released a similar survey of parents of students with special needs using Mississippi’s ESA. Participating students had an array of conditions, including autism, hearing or visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, speech impairment, emotional disturbances, and more. The results mirrored those from Arizona. As shown in the two figures below, most participants were dissatisfied with their previous experience in their assigned district school (67 percent) but they overwhelmingly expressed satisfaction with the educational setting they chose using ESA funds (98 percent). 

Empower Mississippi: Parental Satisfaction

Source: Empower Mississippi

More Errors from The New York Times on Michigan’s Charter Schools

Over the summer, The New York Times published an error-ridden piece on Michigan’s charter schools that it has yet to retract. Now, the NYT is doubling down with another piece adding new errors to old ones. The errors begin in the opening sentence:

Few disagreed that schools in Detroit were a mess: a chaotic mix of charters and traditional public schools, the worst-performing in the nation.

This is editorializing thinly veiled as “news.” In fact, lots of experts disagreed with that statement. The original NYT piece received a wave of criticism from national and local education policy experts, charter school organizations, and other journalists. As I explained at the time, the central premise of the NYT’s takedown on Detroit’s charter schools was an utter distortion of the research:

The piece claims that “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” This is a distortion of the research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Although the article actually cites this research – noting that it is “considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country” – it only does so to show that one particular charter chain in Detroit is low performing. (For the record, the “gold standard” is actually a random-assignment study. CREDO used a matching approach, which is more like a silver standard. But I digress.) The NYT article fails to mention that the same study found that “on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.”

As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.

CREDO 2013 Michigan Charter School Study

Markets in Education Work, But Keep the Feds Out of It

President-Elect Trump’s selection of philanthropist and long-time school choice advocate Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has the public education establishment and its allies in panic mode. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted “Trump has chosen the most ideological, anti-public ed nominee since the creation of the Dept of Education.” Over at Slate, Dana Goldstein frets that “Trump could gut public education“—even though federal dollars account for less than 10 percent of district school funding nationwide. The New York Times has also run series of hand-wringing pieces about what the Trump administration has in store for our nation’s education system.

At the center of the panic over Trump’s nomination of DeVos is their support for school choice. Although light on details, Trump has pledged to devote $20 billion to a federal voucher program. As is so often the case, the most vocal opponents of federal school choice are right for the wrong reasons. Not only does the federal government lack constitutional jurisdiction (outside of Washington, D.C., military installations, and tribal lands), but a federal voucher program poses a danger to school choice efforts nationwide because a less-friendly future administration could attach regulations that undermine choice policies. Such regulations are always a threat to the effectiveness of school choice policies, but when a particular state adopts harmful regulations, the negative effects are localized. Louisiana’s folly does not affect Florida. Not so with a national voucher program. Moreover, harmful regulations are easier to fight at the state level than at the federal level, where the exercise of “pen and phone” executive authority is increasingly (and unfortunately) the norm.

Many of Trump’s critics have not addressed very real federalism concerns, but have instead used the DeVos appointment to attack school choice generally, particularly its more free-market forms.

The New York Times Misrepresents Charter School Research

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a front-page story purporting to show that “betting big” on charters has produced “chaos” and a “glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students.” (One wonders how many of those low-income families are upset that they have “too many” options.). However, the article’s central claim about charter school performance rests on a distorted reading of the data.

The piece claims that “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” This is a distortion of the research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Although the article actually cites this research – noting that it is “considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country” – it only does so to show that one particular charter chain in Detroit is low performing. (For the record, the “gold standard” is actually a random-assignment study. CREDO used a matching approach, which is more like a silver standard. But I digress.) The NYT article fails to mention that the same study found that “on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.”

As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.

CREDO 2013 Michigan Charter School Study

Understanding Disappointing Charter School Results

Here are two things that everyone interested in education should know: some of the top performing schools in the country are charter schools, and, on average, charters do not perform significantly better than traditional public schools. The former point is exemplified by the likes of the American Indian Public Charter Schools in Oakland (which the local board recently voted to shut down), and the second by the latest national report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

There is no necessary contradiction between these two findings. It could simply be that there is higher variance in charter schools than in regular public schools, which would cause charters to be over-represented among top and bottom performers without necessarily differing from regular public schools on average. 

Charter optimists believe that to be the case, and they expect that consumer choice and the ability of low-performing charters to fail and close down will gradually raise average performance as good charter networks crowd out bad ones. There is even some evidence that things may be moving in that direction—results of the latest Stanford U. study are less bleak than those of the previous one. 

The most dedicated charter school optimists are perhaps the philanthropists who are subsidizing their growth. But this is where the problems become most visible. A couple of years ago, I studied the many dozens of California charter school networks to measure the correlation between their academic performance and the amount of philanthropic funding they had attracted. In a nutshell, there isn’t one. There is, in fact, a stronger correlation between the length of a charter network’s name and its academic performance than there is between its grant receipts and its performance.

Philanthropists are indeed helping to scale-up charter school networks, but they are doing so effectively at random—much like the lotteries by which over-subscribed charters must admit their students.

This should not be too surprising. Many philanthropists talk about getting a return on their investments, but, in practice, they lack the incentives to do so that characterize for-profit investors. Philanthropists are in the business of giving money away. Investors are in the business of bringing it in. The former do not expect a financial return on their investments; the latter do.

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