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.

Pay No Attention to the Research Consensus Behind the Curtain

April 6, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Noah Smith dresses up a few fussy methodological quibbles and one big, really dishonest bit of fakery in order to cast aspersions on my Win-Win report and distract you from the research consensus behind the curtain.

My report reviewed over 100 empirical findings on private school choice programs, showing that there is a very strong research consensus in favor of positive effects from such programs. Smith identifies two (2) cases where he thinks I ought to have used a different method to classify the findings. I disagree, but frankly, it’s not worth quibbling about. The research consensus in favor of school choice is still clear even if we were to accept Smith’s cavails.

His statement that “vouchers have generally disappointed” is totally unsupported by the evidence – and if he read my report, he knows it.

But his big, dramatic “gotcha!” is that I allegedly omit a well-known study with a null finding. That would indeed be a serious omission.

Unfortunately for Smith, the study he dramatically accuses me of omitting is not a study of private school choice. Here is the abstract with emphasis on Smith’s dishonesty added:

School choice has become an increasingly prominent strategy for enhancing academic achievement. To evaluate the impact on participants, we exploit randomized lotteries that determine high school admission in the Chicago Public Schools. Compared to those students who lose lotteries, students who win attend high schools that are better in a number of dimensions, including peer achievement and attainment levels. Nonetheless, we find little evidence that winning a lottery provides any systematic benefit across a wide variety of traditional academic measures. Lottery winners do, however, experience improvements on a subset of nontraditional outcome measures, such as self-reported disciplinary incidents and arrest rates.

From the very first sentence, Smith explicitly frames his whole article as an article about private school choice. For him to accuse me of omitting a study on private school choice because I omitted this study is dishonest.

Smith owes me an apology and a retraction. If he refuses, Bloomberg owes me a correction.

I’ll hold my breath waiting.

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.

Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This weekend I was delighted to participate in an hour-long school choice debate on Moody radio’s coast to coast network. The experience left me all the more convinced that choice advocates must continue to de-emphasize the rhetoric of markets and competition, and emphasize instead justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. In that order.

The proponent of the other side had come armed with empty, superficial anti-market talking points. Her argument against choice was basically “we want justice, equal opportunity and diversity, not markets and competition.” So when I opened my case with “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom, and here’s how school choice delivers them,” and didn’t use the words market or competition, she was flummoxed.

Her superficial talking points would have been highly effective if I had said “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom so we ought to embrace competition and markets.” That is, sadly, because reason and logic are not the only forces in public debate. Her strategy (consciously or unconsciously) seems to have been to use certain trigger words and phrases to prompt emotional responses in the audience – responses unrelated to logic. This is, as JPGB readers know, the nearly universal strategy of choice opponents.

If we stop using the words that allow them to do this to us, we take their toy away.

Of course the quesiton of why choice improves public schools did come up, and here it was necessary to make the point that choice prevents schools from taking students for granted. The body of empirical studies on choice and what they find also came up a number of times. One can make these points without 1) making them the be-all and end-all, or 2) using the specific trigger words that allow the other side to work their emotional trickery.

A final point: personal experience, unfortunately, trumps data. I talked about having visited several private schools in Milwaukee whose existence depends on the voucher program, and the amazing things these particular schools are doing. Then I mentioned the studies finding that choice is impoving education in Milwaukee. I played this card again when a caller raised the inevitable racist talking point “parents in the suburbs are involved with their children’s education but people in those neighborhoods aren’t.” Instead of saying “the data show urban parents make good choices for their kids; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading” I said “my experience in urban neighborhoods leads me to believe they care about their children as much as other parents; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading.” And then I tried to squeeze in a mention of the data.

Of course if there were a clash between my experience and the data, I’d have to go with the data. But we have to limit our appeals to data when speaking in public. In general, we should present opinions based on experience and then briefly validate them with appeals to data.

Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

March 6, 2017


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In case you missed it, in today’s U.S. News & World Reportthe inimitable Robert Pondiscio gently chides fellow school choice advocates for getting caught up in a debate over test scores, which are ancillary to the true value of school choice:

Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [school choice] advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence – and look no further – to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.

That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you.

Deciding whether or not to permit parents to choose based on test-based evidence is presumptuous. It says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing. Worse, our evidence-based debate presumes that a single, uniform school structure is and ought to be the norm, and that every departure from that system must justify itself in terms of a narrow set of outcomes that may not reflect parents’ – or society’s – priorities. Academic outcomes matter, of course, but so do civic outcomes, character development, respect for diversity and faith and myriad others.

This isn’t to say that the research on the effect of school choice on test scores is meaningless. But it has to be read and understood in the broader context. Test scores are important, but they’re far from what’s most important about exercising educational choice. As Pondiscio concludes:

School choice proponents who seek to prove that vouchers, tax credits and scholarships “work” by citing test-score-based research have allowed themselves to be lured into argument that can never be completely won. They have tacitly agreed to a reductive frame and a debate over what evidence is acceptable (test scores) and what it means to “win” (better test scores). This is roughly akin to arguing whether to shop at your neighborhood grocery store vs. Wal-Mart based on price alone. Price is important, but you may have reasons for choosing the Main Street Grocery that matter more to you than the 50 cents per pound you’d save on ground beef. Perhaps Main Street’s fresh local produce and personal service are more important to you.

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

Amen, brother!

How to Turn Your Leafy Suburban School Districts into Defacto CMOs

February 27, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Tom Patterson on Friday. Patterson was a crucial legislative supporter of both the Arizona charter and scholarship tax credit laws that passed in 1994 and 1997, respectively. Dr. Patterson related to me that in his first run for the state legislature in 1988, he attended a candidate forum at Arcadia High School, a Scottsdale Unified School District school to which I am zoned. At the time he was campaigning on an open-enrollment law (which came to pass in the 1990s), an idea that his opponent denounced as “crazy.”

A close look at Scottsdale today demonstrates that Dr. Patterson was crazy- crazy like a fox. In fact, without open enrollment Scottsdale Unified would be in trouble today. I came across an interesting power point presentation prepared by demographers for the Scottsdale Unified School District in 2014. Lots of interesting stuff in the document but when I came across the figure that Scottsdale Unified takes in 4,000 out of district transfers, it occurred to me that this was probably a large enough transfer population to get Scottsdale Unified to compare favorably to the state’s larger charter management organizations. Sure enough:

4,000 out of district transfer students would rank Scottsdale Unified as the 9th largest CMO in the state, if it were a CMO. Arizona law requires districts to adopt open enrollment policies, but gives district schools an free hand in deciding which students to accept.

Sadly no one collects statewide data on open enrollment these days, but my spidey-sense tells me that it is underrated here in the Cactus Patch. Based upon a report from the Arizona Auditor, Scottsdale should have a fairly acute interest in open enrollment transfers, as the Arizona Auditor General reports that the district was using 65% of facility capacity in 2012:

The higher cost was primarily caused by the District maintaining a large amount of excess school building space, which was likely not needed because many of the District’s schools operated far below their designed capacities. In fiscal year 2012, Scottsdale USD had total school building capacity of about 38,000 students but only had about 25,000 students enrolled, or in other terms, the District was using about 66 percent of its building capacity. Maintaining more building space is costly to the District because the majority of its funding is based on its number of students, not the amount of square footage it maintains. Had Scottsdale USD maintained a similar amount of school building space per student as its peer districts averaged, it could have saved approximately $3.8 million, monies that the District otherwise potentially could have spent in the classroom. Although the District closed one school campus at the end of fiscal year 2014, in light of its large amount of excess building capacity, the District should continue to review options to further reduce excess space.

Factors other than choice impact Scottsdale enrollment, including an aging population, higher home prices, etc. but choice is playing a role. The demographic report noted that while Scottsdale gained 4,000 students from open-enrollment that they had 9,000 school age children living within their district boundaries not attending Scottsdale Unified schools. Choice programs in other words interact with each other in a dynamic fashion. Many prominent figures in the parental choice movement have argued that Scottsdale kids “already have school choice” but it turns out that when you give them more meaningful school choice, you free up spots for other kids.

The report also includes an analysis of transcript requests as a method for tracking where kids are going. About half of requests came from charter schools-with BASIS and Great Hearts in the lead, another 29% came from private schools, and the remainder came from online schools.

The Arizona Republic wrote up a story about the presentation of the report to the school board, which included a question from a member of the school board as to why an online charter was the largest single recipient of transfer requests when the district had started their own online learning program. “These are kids who, essentially, most of them would be dropping out,” came the reply from an Associate Superintendent.

Two notes on this comment- an online charter was not only the largest recipient of transcript requests, another such school was the third largest single recipient. Not the best look if they were “kids who were going to drop out anyway.” Second, the possibility of negative selection bias may call for a far more careful look at the results of online charters. “Demographic twins” may or may not work out in a rough and ready fashion when we don’t suspect selection bias, but when we do have reason to suspect it..but I digress.


The overall picture in Arizona is one marked by robust accountability (losing students and money) rather than double secret probation accountability. The state turned off the A-F accountability system two years ago to revamp it in light of new tests. Word has reached my ears that the State Board recently had the opportunity to consider a formal written proposal to include student vegetable consumption in the school A-F grading formula.

No I’m not making that up. I also heard they decided not to move forward with the proposal. I’m comforted by the widespread use of the Greatschools website, which has their own ranking system and parent reviews. Overall the Cactus Patch has a vibrant bottom up accountability system (vrai pas faux) while still having to go through the motions on what appears to these eyes to be a relatively dysfunctional system of normal compliance activities amounting to…I’m not sure just what.

So it is great to have Scottsdale Unified competing in the choice mix. It makes me happier to pay my taxes than I otherwise would be. Should Arizonans want still more parental choice?






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!