Would School Choice Segregate Well-Off Students?

April 12, 2017


(Guest post by Martin Lueken)

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the nation’s Secretary of Education is shining a national spotlight on educational choice. It has also drawn attention from school choice skeptics and opponents and a flurry of criticisms about choice with it.

A recent report by Halley Potter of the Century Foundation claims that educational choice increases ethnic segregation. Never mind that it misinterpreted a study on Louisiana by Anna Egalite, Jonathan Mills, and Patrick Wolf (you can find Egalite’s rejoinder here).

But ethnic segregation is not the only kind of segregation about which concerns are raised. Opponents also argue that choice policies will lead to “creaming,” in which well-off students disproportionately choose to participate in choice programs, leaving public schools worse off.

These claims are making a prediction about which students and families will respond more to the offer of an ESA or voucher. Economists use the term elasticity to describe this responsiveness. In the context of school choice, for a given change in the price of private schooling (which is what ESAs and vouchers essentially do), a higher elasticity means that a larger number of students will respond by enrolling in or leaving a given school.

The analytic challenges involved in estimating elasticities of demand for private schooling are substantial because it is difficult for researchers to obtain causal estimates. Fortunately, a team of researchers conducted a study which speaks to the issue of school choice’s probably effects on this kind of segregation, and its analysis produced some interesting findings.

Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan, Higgy winner Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Danielle Li of Harvard estimate the price elasticity of demand for private schooling. This team of researchers could observe differences in responsiveness to price among families with different backgrounds.

In a finding with huge relevance to the school choice debate, they conclude that families “with lower levels of parental education are about over four times as price elastic than other families.” In the words of the researchers:

The results indicate that vouchers would tend to increase the share of private school students who come from families with relatively low levels of parental education.


These results suggest that vouchers would increase the representation of low- and middle-income families at private schools.

Other model specifications “indicate that families with the highest predicted probability of private school attendance are the least sensitive to price” (p. 29).

The authors conclude:

These results suggest that a voucher program would disproportionately induce into private schools those who, along observable dimensions such as race, ethnicity, income and parental education, are dissimilar from those who currently attend private school. This is in marked contrast to the assumption made in previous studies… that the new students that vouchers would induce into private school would look demographically similar to current private school students.

…Overall, it is those families who (along observable dimensions) are least like the current population of private school customers that are most sensitive to price, suggesting that vouchers would substantially alter the socioeconomic composition of private schools.

While this study provides one useful data point for policy makers who are considering introducing or expanding educational choice in their states, policy makers should also consider information generated by studies that have already measured the impact of educational choice on segregation. The most rigorous studies available examined Louisiana’s voucher program, where researchers found that the program reduced segregation. Other studies found that school choice programs move students into less segregated schools in D.C. and Cleveland; results in Milwaukee either find no difference or suggest a positive effect. When one weighs the overall evidence about the impact of private school choice on segregation, a picture develops where findings from empirical research on school choice programs bolster the predictions suggested by Dynarski, Gruber, and Li’s findings.

These studies suggest that empowering parents to choose would change private schools. And empirical research on private school choice’s effects on segregation are largely positive. For those who value diversity and empowering parents, increasing educational options is a good thing.

Martin Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Education Finance and Policy at EdChoice.

Setting the Ostrich Straight on Choice and Segregation

March 31, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Anna Egalite sets the record straight on her study that was misrepresented by the ostriches at the Century Foundation:

Potter cannot refute our findings, so she seeks to obfuscate them by carefully merging categories so as to define a “tie” as a loss.

Even to call the finding a “tie” is going too far. On net, which is all that counts, it was a win, not a tie. Big gains in public schools far outweighed the trivial negative effect in private schools. As I wrote:

When you’ve been in the education research business long enough, your eyes automatically roll by reflex whenever they read the words “mixed effect.” A mixed effect is a positive effect produced by a policy that the researcher doesn’t like.

Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!

When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

February 3, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest on the unwisdom of means-testing school choice programs:

Sometimes the worst thing you can do for the poor is “help the poor.” What we want to do is tear down the walls that prevent poor people from making themselves into non-poor people. That’s what “helping the poor” ought to mean. But all too often, it really means building walls between poor and non-poor people, reinforcing the divide rather than tearing it down.

Throwing middle- and upper-income people out of school choice programs is a classic example of hurting the poor by “helping” them. It creates a sharp, government-enforced division between two separate and very unequal populations. On one side of the wall are poor people, who receive school choice; on the other are non-poor people, whose tax dollars provide them with school choice.

This division shuts down educational innovation, greatly weakens the political coalition in favor of choice (and of protecting private schools from government interference, which is clearly going to become a threat whether there are school choice programs or not) and in the long run creates an us-versus-them power competition between the poor and the non-poor that the poor are going to lose.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!

Choose Families, Choose Choice

September 30, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new OCPA Perspective carries my argument that the government monopoly on schools undermines the institution of the family, and school choice would strengthen the family:

Are schools an extension of the family, helping parents raise their children the way the parents want them raised? Or are schools an autonomous branch of the technocratic state, answering not to parents but to professional experts who know how children ought to be raised better than parents do?

The creation of the government school monopoly was one part of a general inversion of the social order going on in the 19th century:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the family had been understood as the primary unit of society; larger political and economic structures existed to mediate relations between households, not between individuals as such. Relations between individuals within a household—such as the work of childrearing—were the family’s business, except in extreme cases. All that was now gone. The family was no longer primary; the technocratic state was primary.

The failure of the school monopoly has reoped the question of whom schools work for:

School choice and federal centralization of power are both responses to this failure. Some are seeking to reverse course, hoping that the moribund school system can be revitalized by putting parents back in charge. Others are seeking a stronger technocracy that will be more capable of achieving its goals.

I close with the reflection that social conservatives could bring something important to the school choice coalition not currently provided by the two factions that now dominate it, progressives and libertarians. As always, your comments are most welcome!

Brooklyn’s Dilemma: School District Lines and Racial Segregation

September 24, 2015


Brooklyn by race (one dot = one person)

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today on NRO, Reihan Salam writes about a controversy involving school district lines attendance zones [see correction below] in his Brooklyn neighborhood. A nearby public school (P.S. 8) is oversubscribed; another nearby public school (P.S. 307), which is located in another attendance zone, is undersubscribed. Officials are therefore trying to redraw the lines and move an appropriate number of households in the neighborhood – which is, no fooling, called “Dumbo” – from one zone to the other.

Easy peasy, right? Not on your New York life.

P.S. 8 is 59% white and 15% free/reduced lunch; P.S. 307 is 90% black or Hispanic and 90% FRL.

Salam notes:

More than one Dumbo parent has tried to explain to me how they’re totally different from other people who fight against integration. They explain that what they really want is a better world in which we spend far more on our public schools, not mentioning, or perhaps not knowing, that New York city spends $20,331 per pupil, almost twice as much as the national average of $10,700, and that much of this money is spent very inefficiently. Of course they want integration, they’ll tell you, but only if it entails no sacrifice on their part. “It’s more complicated when it’s about your own children,” says one Dumbo parent. Well, yes, it is more complicated, and that is exactly what every parent believes, whether they are in Brooklyn or South Boston or Kansas City.

“Dumbo parents,” indeed.

There is more to this story than a political dilemma in Brooklyn. One of the biggest problems in the research on racial segregation in schools is getting the public – and, too often, the researchers! – to understand how school district lines, attendance zones, etc. are drawn in ways that ensure racial segregation in public schools. Research on racial segregation is often conducted in ways that ignore this, making public schools appear much better integrated than they actually are.

The only really viable solution is school choice. It not only breaks the link between place of residence and place of schooling, thus helping overcome residentail segregation; it entirely circumvents the political (and therefore racially fraught) process of drawing school district lines. Of the eight empirical studies examing the impact of school choice on racial segregation in schools, seven found that choice reduced segregation, and one found no visible effect.

Image: University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (via)

Toddler Technocracy

July 27, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on why the endless expansion of government’s role in childrearing, at the expense of the family, is something we ought to be concerned about:

Rounding up toddlers into the nurseries of the all-providing, all-benevolent state is certainly good for public employee unions, but is it good for the state and its children? Fully 76 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are in government pre-K. The average U.S. state has only 23 percent….

The whole idea of pre-K, like the idea of Kindergarten before it, is (as the Germanic name suggests) a product of the technocratic European social welfare state….Believing he could use his superior scientific understanding to improve the early development of children, Friedrich Froebel created the world’s first Kindergarten in 1837. He theorized that children would develop better if given more opportunity to socialize with peers rather than with their families and others. American admirers of the European technocratic experiment were quick to follow suit; in 1856, the first U.S. Kindergarten was founded less than an hour’s drive from where I live in Wisconsin.

I argue that the technocratic view of the world that makes endless expansion of pre-K seem like a step forward is dangerous – dangerous not only to social equality but to the moral foundations of the social order. Not that pre-K by itself will destroy these things, but it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!