Let a Thousand Magnolias Bloom: ESA Enrollment in Mississippi

February 5, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Citing low enrollment and bogus “research” that excludes the mountain of random-assignment studies, one anti-choice group says Mississippi’s education savings account program for students with special needs is a “failure.”

Of the more than 50,000 children with special needs in Mississippi public schools, 251 were qualified and approved to receive vouchers. Of those, only 107 appear to have used them, .0018 of one percent of Mississippi’s children with special needs.

The research claim clearly doesn’t hold water (unsurprisingly, the only gold standard study they cite is the recent one from Louisiana) but what about the low enrollment? Is this a program that parents don’t really want? Or perhaps there just aren’t enough private school seats for parents?

First, it’s pretty rich that a group that opposes educational choice cites low enrollment as a reason it is “failing.” If enrollment was high, do you think they would see that as a sign of success?

Second, the ESA program is still in its first year. As Empower Mississippi demonstrates in this helpful chart, programs that start small can grow significantly over time:

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 10.05.01 AM

As Empower Mississippi notes, detractors were probably quick to declare Florida’s McKay scholarships a “failure” when only two students used them in the first year, but after experiencing 1,505,100% growth in the next decade and a half, I doubt anyone is making that case anymore.

That said, detractors might be right that there aren’t enough private school seats right now. However, one of the purposes of educational choice is to expand the market. Greater demand should spark greater supply, if the price is right. Unfortunately, that’s a big “if.” The Magnolia State’s ESAs are currently funded at only $6,500 per year. Funding is tied to the state’s base student cost rather than the cost for students with special needs, as Arizona does.

If Mississippi lawmakers want to see greater supply in private school seats for students with special needs — and empower parents to use the ESAs to tailor their child’s education using tutors, online courses, educational therapy, etc. — then they should make sure that the ESAs are adequately funded.

[UPDATE: Grant Callen of Empower Mississippi wrote to let me know that I got one very important detail wrong: the image I used originally was of a Japanese Magnolia, not the North American Magnolia that is Mississippi’s state flower. I stand corrected!]

Ravitch releases her own report card on state K-12 policy

February 3, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Diane Ravitch released her own K-12 state policy report card today:

And it is also important to identify states that have weakened public education—by seeking to privatize their schools or turn them into profit-making ventures, as well as states that have aggressively instituted a regime of high stakes testing that unfairly sorts, ranks and demoralizes students, educators and schools.

Unlike other organizations such as The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, whose report cards rank states in  relation to their willingness to privatize public education and weaken the status of the teaching profession, we take another path. We give low marks to states that devalue public education, attack teachers and place high stakes outcomes on standardized tests.

But…..there seems to be no consideration of outcomes going on in Little Ramona‘s report card. She pulled together some University of Arizona College of Education folks and they gave states a grade on various policies like “No High Stakes Testing” and “Resistance to Privatization” and others. “Chance for Success” is my personal favorite: why gather someone’s opinions about the chance for success rather than measure er actual success? In the Report Card on American Education that I have coauthored/authored for the American Education Exchange Council, we rank states according to the overall NAEP scores and NAEP gains for low-income general education students. We think this is a reasonable approach given the large differences between average family incomes etc. between states. Some disagree (and we claim only that the comparison is reasonable rather than perfect) but at least we are looking at student outcomes, which don’t even constitute an afterthought in Ravitch’s Report Card.

Anyway, my home state of Arizona received an overall grade of “F.” Quelle horreur! 

Strangely enough though, if we conjure up the NAEP data and examine academic progress by state for the period in which all 50 states participated (2003 to 2015) this is what you learn about Arizona: in 4th grade math Arizona had the 9th largest state gains, in 8th grade math the 3rd largest. In 4th grade reading Arizona students had the 17th largest gain and in 8th grade reading the 2nd largest state gain.

Ah well Arizona’s demographics became more favorable during this period. Nope-economy got drop kicked and the student population moved to majority minority status. Yeah but spending went way up. Er, no, it actually went down after the Great Recession. But maybe the scores would have gone up even more without all of these terrible policies! Mmm hmmm….and maybe there is a breeding population of aquatic dinosaurs in Loch Ness as well. What do you mean no credible evidence? Maybe they eat their dead so dino bodies don’t wash up on shore. I mean it could be something stranger still going on.

Seems legit…

A few years ago I successfully campaigned to receive the first (and as far as I know still only!) Lifetime Bunkum Award from Reactionaries-R-Us. In that same spirit, I can’t wait to see what happens with Arizona’s gains once we earn our way to the first Ravitch F-minus!

UPDATE: I recalled the the University of Arizona College of Education played a large role in the creation of a charter school in Tucson called the Wildcat School. The Arizona Daily Star reported “When it opened, it was lauded as the first charter school to have an affiliation with a state university. Its goal was to provide an academically rigorous math- and science-focused education for low-income students.”

The school closed in 2013 after receiving two “D” grades in a row and facing the prospect of a third, which would have qualified the school for state intervention. The Board President, a professor at the U of A College of Education Professor explained “We just know we weren’t making the achievement test scores that we needed to make. I’m not sure I have an explanation for that,” he said. “We just faced the reality that we needed to act in a way that was best for the families and students in our school.”

Kudos to the board for pulling the plug on something that wasn’t working for kids. If I were a cynic I might note that they made a rational decision after getting themselves in over their heads, facing the prospect of an increasingly embarrassing situation. Thus under this uncharitable view they made the right call to pull the band-aid off rather than have things get progressively worse. You might very well think that, but I of course could never be so cynical. Ever. Ravitch hires University of Arizona ed school profs to grade state K-12 policies, they give Arizona and F. Meanwhile Arizona comes near first in overall NAEP gains. Professors from the same department essentially create their own charter school and it folds. Meanwhile Arizona’s charter schools rock the 2015 NAEP like a New England state.

I’m pretty sure I do have an explanation for that and it’s fairly straightforward- no aquatic dinos eating dead aquatic dino explanations necessary.



Petrilli’s Regulatory Porridge

January 28, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Fordham’s Michael Petrilli offers new taxonomy for school choice tribes dividing the school choice world in three: Purists, Nannies, and Realists.

First, as Matt noted, this is not Mike’s first foray into Hemisphere Fallacy territory. (Or the second. Or even the third.) Like the guy who thinks anyone who is more religious is crazy and anyone who is less religious is a heretic, Mike thinks he has found the Perfect Goldilocksian Mean and everyone else is wrong. In Mike’s view, those who support more regulation than he does are paternalist Nannies, and those who support less regulation are utopian Purists, but the temperature of his regulatory porridge is just right.

Second, as I noted on Twitter, it’s adorable that Mike thinks he’s not a Nanny. He decries their “micromanagement” but he supports forcing private schools to administer the state test (de facto determining what is taught when and even how), as well as price controls that economists will tell you leads to shortages and obliterates the essential price signal (without which we may have competition, but we most certainly do not have a functioning market). He may fancy himself a “Realist” but, if these categories really mean anything, he just has minor disagreements with his fellow Nannies.

Third, Mike is engaging, once again, in the Means and Ends Fallacy. It goes something like this:

I think X is a problem. I believe Solution Y solves X. Group A opposes Solution Y, therefore Group A must not think X is really a problem.

Of course, this is a fallacy because it is entirely possible (as is the case here) that Group A agrees that X is a problem but doesn’t think Solution Y actually solves it. Mike thinks his preferred regulations solve the problem of bad schools, but we think those regulations are more likely to have adverse effects. More on that in a moment.

Mike accuses the “Purists” (those who, like Milton Friedman, conclude based on the evidence from nearly every other industry that markets spur innovation and lead to greater quality and efficiency) of being utopian. He writes:

Start with the Purists. I’m skeptical of all utopian visions, including theirs—one imagining that a full-fledged system of choice (perhaps through universal Education Savings Accounts) will yield greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction—and produce better-educated young people to boot.

But there’s nothing utopian about that. We see that ESAs have already begun to produce greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction. We don’t yet have any data on test scores or graduation rates, but we have no reason to believe that ESAs will underperform the many voucher programs that have produced positive results. No one in the free-market crowd is expecting miracles. We’re expecting the sort of incremental improvement that the market regularly brings about through the process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

(For that matter, the most utopian schemes in education come from the Nannies. Can you imagine a more fantastically utopian scheme than “No Child Left Behind”? Is there a more utopian slogan than that anywhere in education policy? And did anyone in the administration really believe we’d ever achieve 100% proficiency in any state, let alone every state? Either they set up the nation to fail or they were delusional. Or perhaps they just set up the DOE for a naked power grab. But I digress.)

Mike’s central challenge to the Friedmanite crowd is the Payday Lender Problem. What do we do about bad private schools?

First of all, Mike doesn’t have a whole lot of evidence that the government does a better job ensuring quality than the market. Indeed, the Louisiana debacle should give him great pause about that article of faith.

Second, eliminating the least-bad option doesn’t guarantee a better option. Payday lending serves an important function in the market (in the Third World, we call it “microlending,” a concept for which Muhammad Yunus won a Nobel Peace Prize). Poor people who need funds to cover rent or buy food while waiting for payday often turn to payday lenders. If they repay the loan on time, the fees are generally marginal. If they repay late, the interest rates can be exorbitant, especially if (misleadingly) expressed in annual terms. (The interest is so high both because the loans are so small and because the rate of default is so high, which is why banks generally just refuse to lend to the poor.) But eliminating the payday lenders can have serious unintended consequences that make the poor even worse off. The payday lender may charge a steep fee for late payment, but at least Rocky Balboa doesn’t come break your legs.

Kicking a school with poor test scores out of a voucher program doesn’t guarantee those poor kids a seat at a better school. Rather, the state just eliminates that kid’s least-bad alternative. Even in Louisiana, where the voucher schools appear to be doing much worse on the state test than the district school alternatives, the families who chose those schools may well have had good reasons for doing so. Perhaps they were safer. Perhaps they had higher graduation rates. We don’t know. But those families chose them for a reason and they may well be worse off overall if deprived of that choice.

Third, as Michael McShane explained previously, the market process has proven time and again to significantly improve absolute quality (and efficiency) over time:

Cars today are uniformly better than cars in 1950. They are safer. They are faster. They are more comfortable. They are more fuel efficient.  But it wasn’t a clear upward-sloping line to get here. People bought Edsel’s in the 50’s, Corvairs in the 60’s, Chevettes in the 70’s, Yugo’s in the 80’s, Suzuki Sidekicks in the 90’s, and Pontiac Aztecs in the 00’s. These were bad cars.

But “bad” has two meanings in this case, an objective one and a relative one. There are relatively bad cars out there today. That is, my hail-damaged ’05 Kia Spectra with no cruise control and a blown-out right front speaker is worse than Jay-Z’s Maybach on almost every calculable measure, relatively speaking. But my Spectra, which is still purring like a kitten after over 100,000 miles with darn near nothing more than oil changes, tires, and brake pads is a helluva lot better than the burn-out-after-five-years cars that automakers made for decades.  That’s absolute quality.

Markets work when the spectrum of relative quality drives improvements in absolute quality.  Someone sees my little tin can driving down the road and says “I want to buy a car that doesn’t look like it’s going to blow away in a stiff breeze” and cars get less tin-canny.  Someone buys a Ford Excursion and then gas prices go up and says, “I’m never doing that again” and cars get more fuel efficient. It’s a slow winnowing process, but over time it is superior to centralized systems, that, for example, made the Trabant in an essentially unchanged manner for over three decades.

Rather than thinking we can regulate bad schools out of existence, a better goal is to develop a system that continuously improves what we think a “bad” school is.

Mike Petrilli is right to be worried about kids who are in bad schools today, but the regulations he proposes to ensure that those students are attending relatively good schools interfere with the market process that could otherwise be driving up absolute quality for everyone (and, as Louisiana has shown, those kids may end up in low-performing schools anyway).

Imagine if government officials, following Mike’s logic, had decided decades ago that every low-income family should have access to a phone. Now, these Realist officials aren’t Nannies — they’re not going to have the government make the phones or micromanage the specs. They’re just going to ensure that everyone has access to a good phone, so they create a phone voucher but prohibit companies selling phones from charging more than the value of the voucher. What would have happened?

Well, there’s the seen and the unseen. We would have seen, perhaps, that everyone would have had access to a phone and many would have applauded that (although given the price controls, it’s likely that supply would not have met demand). But what we wouldn’t have seen was that the iPhone had not been invented. With no way to charge more than the meager voucher, there’d be no market for expensive smartphones. And that wouldn’t just have harmed the wealthy, it would also have harmed the poor. After all, Walmart now sells a $10 smartphone that has better specs that the original iPhone. Innovations that at first benefit the wealthier early adopters tend to benefit even the poor after a while.

In short, Mike’s admirable passion to help the poor immediately through state action may well harm them in the medium-to-long run without any guarantee of actually helping them in the short run. That doesn’t sound very Realist to me.




The New Frontier of School Choice

January 14, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on ESAs as the new frontier of school choice. I point out how ESAs are an improvement on vouchers:

But vouchers have a hitch. They create a perverse incentive for private schools to jack up tuition to the maximum voucher amount. While they create a marketplace for education, they take out half the equation of any good marketplace. With vouchers, schools compete to attract students, but they compete only on quality, not on price.

That may sound good if you have romantic notions about money having no place in education. But, as Milton Friedman would be the first to tell you, prices are a critical source of information that we need to be good stewards of our resources. They tell us about the scarcity of things relative to the demand for them. High prices cry out to providers, “devote more resources to providing this service!” Low prices say, “this isn’t needed as much.”

Part of me is sad to see Milton’s idea eclipsed by something better. Milton himself, of course, would have been delighted. He knew that he didn’t know everything, and that the whole point of freedom is for better ideas to nudge out worse ones.

Still, it’s important to honor the great men of the past, and so:

It’s not every day someone outsmarts Milton Friedman; indeed, people tangled with his brains at their peril. When he argued against mandatory peacetime military service in a public hearing, he was confronted by a general who said, “I don’t want to command an army of mercenaries.” Quick as a wink, Milton replied, “Would you prefer to command an army of slaves?”

That general’s experience was not unique—in fact, it was the opposite experience that was literally unique. When Milton’s wife, Rose Friedman, died, we at the Friedman Foundation included the following sentence in our list of her accomplishments: “She is the only person ever known to have won an argument with Milton Friedman.” Rose was a formidable economist in her own right, but we all considered this her most impressive achievement.

As always, would love to hear what you think!

PS Proof that Milton would be glad!

‘Opposite Day’ Logic on Mandatory Union Dues

January 13, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Don’t miss Dmitri Mehlhorn’s wickedly funny and brilliant takedown of Rich Kahlenberg’s “opposite day” logic on mandatory union dues:

Although Richard Kahlenberg is an acclaimed progressive scholar, I had no idea of his wicked brilliance until I read his recent 5000-word opinion piece on the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. CTA. At first, I thought he was defending the respondents, the California Teachers Association. But as I read his column, I realized that every single point he made was the opposite of reality — often in ways that would be obvious to a well-read high-school student, let alone a Century Foundation Senior Fellow.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that Kahlenberg was engaging in devilishly clever satire.

By setting forth the criteria by which the Friedrichs case should be judged, and then using “opposite day” logic, he was subversively making the strongest possible case for Rebecca Friedrichs. Since his prose is so sincere and subtle, I almost missed it. This column is a public service for those of us who are literal-minded enough to want the actual facts associated with each element of Kahlenberg’s framework.

Here’s a taste of one of the many claims Mehlhorn eviscerates:

“Schools for Democracy”

Another Kahlenberg headline, that public unions are “Schools for Democracy,” is doubly satirical. The teachers unions are well known to be antidemocratic as both models and actors.

  • Only a small percentage of teachers, roughly 20% and often less, actually vote in internal union elections;
  • Teachers use their political power to push for school board elections to be off-cycle from high-turnout elections, depressing voter engagement so as to ensure their members’ influence over school boards;
  • The unions promulgate codes of conduct, pushing their members not to criticize union stances and often bullying pro-reform teachers;
  • The California Teachers Association, in particular, is known as the 800-pound gorilla of Sacramento, bullying legislators and other interest groups.

See what Kahlenberg did there, by calling them “Schools for Democracy,” when the unions produce terrible results for democracy? They are bad schools! Get it? This guy is a genius.

This guy is a genius indeed — Mehlhorn, that is. Check out the rest of his post over at Citizen Stewart’s “Citizen Ed” blog.

And on a related note, over at The Seventy-Four, Mehlhorn provides a very thoughtful and thorough analysis of the Friedrichs v. CTA oral arguments earlier this week. In short: the unions were dejected and for good reason. The strongest argument that the pro-mandatory union dues side could marshal to peel Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Kennedy away from a pro-Friedrichs majority was that it would overturn a precedent set 40 years ago (Abood) and upon which tens or even hundreds of thousands of contracts rely. However, the Friedrichs petitioners responded convincingly that there is also a mountain of First Amendment jurisprudence that conflicts with Abood, and that siding with the unions would also entail overturning longstanding precedent.

Moreover, as Mehlhorn points out, even a pro-union lawyer conceded during oral arguments that there may be a “need to adjust” where the line is drawn between what counts as political or non-political activities (under Abood, the unions can charge non-members for the latter but not the former), and the need for such judicial tinkering further erodes the case for stare decisis.

Of course, the justices could change their minds between now and when they issue a decision, so the Friedrichs petitioners shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet, but the unions might want to start thinking seriously about how to persuade workers to financially support them in the absence of government compulsion.


Nevada Judge Issues Injunction Against ESA Program

January 11, 2016

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Terrible news today for families that had been hoping to start using education savings accounts to customize their children’s education:

CARSON CITY — A state judge Monday put the brakes on Nevada’s education savings accounts, granting an injunction sought by opponents who said it would drain critical funding resources from Nevada’s public schools and is unconstitutional.

District Judge James Wilson, in a 16-page ruling, said the state constitution requires “the legislature to set apart or assign money to be used to fund the operation of the public schools, to the exclusion of all other purposes.”

Wilson said because Senate Bill 302 diverts some general funds appropriated for public schools to fund private school tuition, it violates sections of the constitution.

“Plaintiff parents have met their burden of clearly proving that there is no set of circumstances under which the statute would be valid …” Wilson wrote.

An appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court is anticipated.

Let’s hope the case reaches the state supreme court speedily and that the justices act justly.

The Folly of Overregulating School Choice: A Response to Critics

January 8, 2016


[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Earlier this week, NBER released the first random-assignment study ever to find a negative impact from a school voucher program. Previous gold standard studies had almost unanimously found modest positive effects from school choice, which raises the obvious question: what makes the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) so different?

In an article for Education Next, I argued that, “although not conclusive, there is considerable evidence that the problem stemmed from poor program design.” The LSP is one of the most heavily regulated school choice programs in the nation, and that burden has led to a very low rate of private school participation.  Only about one-third of Louisiana private schools accept voucher students, a considerably lower rate than in most other states. From a survey of private school leaders conducted by Brian Kisida, Patrick J. Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith for the American Enterprise Institute, we know that the primary reason private schools opted out of the voucher program was their concerns over the regulatory burden, particularly those regulations that threatened their character and identity. For example, voucher-accepting schools in Louisiana may not set their own admissions criteria, cannot charge families more than the value of the voucher (a meager $5,311 on average in 2012), and must administer the state test.

We also know from the NBER study that the participating and non-participating private schools differ in at least one important respect. Whereas the non-participating schools experienced modest growth over the decade before the voucher program was expanded statewide (about 3 percent, on average), the participating schools had been experiencing a significant decline in enrollment (about 13 percent, on average). In other words, schools that were able to attract students tended to reject the vouchers while voucher schools tended to be those where enrollment had been dropping.*

The difference in enrollment trends suggests that the LSP’s regulatory burden had the opposite of its intended effect: discouraging higher-performing schools from participating, leaving only the lower-performing schools that were so desperate to reverse their declining enrollment and increase their funding that they were willing to do whatever the voucher program required.

Several other researchers and education reform advocates reached similar conclusions, including Matthew Ladner, Adam Peshek, Michael McShane, Lindsey Burke, and Jonathan Butcher. However, others expressed skepticism about what I shall call the Overregulation Theory, and proposed alternative explanations for the LSP’s poor results.

Writing at Education Week, Douglas Harris of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans concedes that “regulation probably does reduce the number of private schools, especially the number of higher-performing private schools,” but he still believes the Overregulation Theory is “premature.” Harris instead offers two potential alternatives: 1) the improved public/charter school performance in New Orleans made the performance of the private sector look relatively worse; and 2) the curriculum at most private schools may not have been aligned to the state test, so the poor performance merely reflects that lack of alignment rather than poor performance.

Harris’s first theory is explicitly rejected by the NBER study. On the third page of the study, the authors write: “Negative voucher effects are not explained by the quality of public fallback options for LSP applicants: achievement levels at public schools attended by students lotteried out of the program are below the Louisiana average and comparable to scores in low- performing districts like New Orleans.” In other words, the public school alternatives are not so great and the performance of the participating private schools is considerably worse.

That said, Harris’s second theory, which Jason Richwine also suggested, is plausible as a contributing factor. However, it is no more plausible than the Overregulation Theory. Indeed, whereas the differences in enrollment trends between voucher and non-voucher private schools provide some suggestive evidence for the Overregulation Theory, Harris provides no evidence to support the Nonaligned Test Theory. How many voucher schools were already aligned with the state curriculum and/or administered the state test? At this point, we do not know. Moreover, to the extent that testing nonalignment explains some of the very large 0.4 standard deviation difference in math scores, it is unlikely that it explains all or even most of that difference. Then again, Harris stated that he will be releasing the results of his own research on the LSP, so it’s likely he knows something that I do not.

Harris also notes that the NBER study only examined the results of one year of one program. He is certainly correct that we need more data over time to draw firmer conclusions, which is one reason I presented my interpretation as “not conclusive” and wrote that “the regulationsmay have had the opposite of their intended effect” (emphasis added). And, indeed, there is some evidence that voucher schools improved slightly in the third year since the statewide expansion (although if the voucher schools were their own district, they’d still be the fifth-worst of 76 in the state).

Nevertheless, such strongly negative results should give reform advocates great pause about the regulatory strategies employed in Louisiana. We know the regulatory burden chased away most private schools, and we have evidence that the voucher-accepting schools had been struggling with declining enrollment. If we want to better understand the LSP’s atypically disastrous performance, its program design is the logical place to start.

*UPDATE: Prof. Josh Goodman of Harvard University points out that the NBER study’s “estimates show consistent negative impacts irrespective of previous enrollment trends.” If there had been wide variation in enrollment trends among the participating schools, that would count as evidence against the Overregulation Theory. However, if the enrollment trends among participating schools were consistently negative, with the variation mostly limited to how fast the participating schools had been losing students, then it would still be consistent with the Overregulation Theory.

[Originally posted at Cato-at-Liberty.]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,015 other followers