NYT Misleads About School Choice Yet Again

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Once again, the editors at the New York Times have allowed their bias against school choice to get in the way of reporting facts.

On Friday, the NYT ran a blog by Professor Susan Dynarski with the incredibly misleading headline (which, in fairness, she likely didn’t write): “Free Market for Education? Economists Generally Don’t Buy It.

Based on that description, you might think that a survey of economists found that most economists think a market in education wouldn’t work, or at least that there were more economists who thought it wouldn’t work than thought it would. Well, not quite. Dynarski writes:

But economists are far less optimistic about what an unfettered market can achieve in education. Only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreed that students would be better off if they all had access to vouchers to use at any private (or public) school of their choice.

Follow the link to the 2011 IGM survey and you’ll find that 36% of surveyed economists agreed that school choice programs would be beneficial–but only 19% disagreed and 37% expressed uncertainty.

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Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex blog writes:

A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.”

By leaving it at “only a third of economists support vouchers”, the article implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. Heck, it more than implies it – its title is “Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It”. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a large majority are pro-voucher. […]

I think this is really poor journalistic practice and implies the opinion of the nation’s economists to be the opposite of what it really is. I hope the Times prints a correction.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Oddly, Dynarski did not include the results from the more recent 2012 IGM survey, in which the level of support for school choice was higher (44%) and opposition was lower (5%), a nearly 9:1 ratio of support to opposition. When weighted for confidence, 54% thought school choice was beneficial only 6% disagreed.

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We should give Professor Dynarski the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn’t know about the more recent results (though they pop right up on Google and the IGM search feature), but the NYT deserves no such benefit for its continuing pattern of misleading readers about the evidence for school choice.

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6 Responses to NYT Misleads About School Choice Yet Again

  1. Greg Forster says:

    We should give Professor Dynarski the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn’t know about the more recent results

    Why? As a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan, isn’t she under a heightened obligation here? If you or I did something this dishonest we wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

    Edit: I suppose I should add, “nor should we.”

  2. George Mitchell says:

    Jason….you should send this to NYTimes Public Editor.

  3. James says:

    Of course, Jason Bedrick has taken the Dynarski quote out of context. If you go back and read the actual article, it’s not nearly so objectionable. The piece begins by talking about how economists heavily favor free markets, and cites the example of 90% of economists surveyed saying Uber and Lyft make consumers better off.

    In these polls, economists highly favor free markets again and again, so it is surprising and noteworthy that they express so much more uncertainty about free markets in education. And, that is exactly how Dynarski phrases it- “far less optimistic” with “only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreeing.”

    She has done an apples to apples comparison of economists’ strong support of the value of free markets in one area, to markedly less confidence in education. In fact, looking through the different surveys, I was unable to find any similar question on free markets where the level of confidence in free markets was as low as it was for education. (Though I have not checked them all, feel free to correct me if you see one.)

    The article was not misleading at all if you read it in full. What is misleading is taking Dynarski’s statement out of context to set up a strawman.

    • Greg Forster says:

      This is not a responsible way to report survey data even if she uses it consistently across multiple surveys.

  4. pdexiii says:

    More proof to pay attention in math class, especially when you get to stats.
    Of course what Dynarski says is true, but if you view her statement along side even the least recent charts the ‘some benefit’ economists are a significant plurality. Her headline isn’t consistent with the data; it’s not fake news, but certainly skewed news. Is she exploiting that much of her audience would read her headline then parrot in social conversation/social media “most economists don’t by into school choice”? I wonder if she were to report these findings as they are she might not have gotten her article published in the NYT; paraphrasing the late Johnny Cochran: “If it doesn’t fit, we won’t submit.”

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