School Choice’s Time for Choosing

November 24, 2016

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“This is wheeeeeeere the party ends…”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The most realistic thing about fairy tales is this: You don’t realize you’re making a titanic moral choice that will determine whether you triumph or die until the moment after you have made the choice.

Betsy DeVos will likely make a very good education secretary if 1) she can prevent her department from sabotaging her and 2) she focuses on choice and puts Common Core and all associated initiatives to rest. #2 is highly likely given what was said during the campaign. #1 is always something of a crapshoot. Being a conservative cabinet secretary is an inherently dangerous undertaking.

But I’m less interested in her choices and more interested in the choices of the school choice movement.

Trump will be president. All of us who work on policy issues have to live in a world where Trump is president. It’s not necessarily a good idea for every decent person to shun him; that means government will be run by scoundrels like Trump.

Every movement needs its Vaclav Klauses as well as its Vaclav Havels – people who are willing to hold their noses and work for a corrupt regime. You simply can’t get anything done otherwise, because there are no non-corrupt regimes.

Milton went to Chile and advised Pinochet. When challenged, he said: “I gave him good advice.”

But if they forget to hold their noses, if they think the regime is good, the movement dies. And they will forget if no one plays Vaclav Havel and goes to jail for telling the truth about the regime.

My biggest fear is that the school choice issue will become tied to Trump. It can never be said too many times: Donald Trump is a notorious racist who discriminates against blacks in his businesses, said a judge of Mexican ancestry couldn’t judge him impartially, constantly flirted with the alt-right, and refused, three times, to repuidate the KKK when first asked to do so. (Just in case this is unclear, the KKK is a criminal organization that murders people and exists to make war on the US government in the name of white nationalism. If Trump wants to learn more about it, he can ask his attorney general, who had a Klan leader executed.)

We in the school choice movement have spent a generation building bridges between the conservatives and libertarians traditionally associated with the issue and progressives and ethnic minority communities. We can’t afford to throw all that away.

But in the last few years the Common Core disaster has polarized the education reform movement. CC progressives (not identical with choice-friendly progressives, although there’s overlap) have declared war on conservatives, denouncing us as racist for the crime of not being progressives.

So far that hasn’t had much effect on the choice wing of the movement’s relationships with minority communities. But we choice people increasingly feel outcast, despised, wronged by those whom we had regarded as friends and allies, but who turned on us the moment they found it expedient to do so.

The temptation will be to say “F all these progressives who stabbed us in the back for Common Core, and who now tell us we’re racist solely because we’re not left-wing extremists. Let’s go all in with someone who won’t tell us we’re evil for being conservative.”

And of course that will be the death of us. Because then we really will have turned a blind eye to racism.

We should keep the focus where it belongs: on the states. If we’re offered a big federal push to impose choice on the states, we should say “thanks, but no thanks.” On the merits, yes, and for other reasons, too.

As someone once said on this issue, you can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.

We can work with Trump (on, for example, choice in DC and other federal jurisdictions) the same way we might work with any bad person who holds office. But with the demonization of conservatives in the movement and the big opportunities for choice that Trump will soon likely be offering us, the temptation will be to forget what we spent the last generation saying: That school choice will die if it doesn’t build a trans-partisan, trans-ethnic coalition.


Understanding Bigotry

November 23, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I am deeply impressed by, but feel the need to add something to, Neal’s very gutsy column on trying to understand what appears to be bigotry.

Neal is right that what appears to be merely bigotry is often at least mixed with other, less objectionable concerns; and sometimes what appears to be bigotry may not be bigotry at all. As Neal points out, American Protestant responses to Roman Catholic immigration were at least partly colored by the knowledge that Catholic/Protestant differences had led to extended warfare in Europe, and usually the only viable path to peace had been to separate the two populations.

I would apply this in our own day by saying that populations that appear bigoted are often just low-information voters who have tuned out the dinosaur media completely (and with very good reason!) and thus have never been told that Donald Trump is a notorious racist who discriminates against blacks in his businesses, said a judge of Mexican ancestry couldn’t judge him impartially, constantly flirted with the alt-right, and refused, three times, to repuidate the KKK when first asked to do so. They simply don’t know these things because the news sources they trust (Fox, Rush) have decided not to tell them.

In light of this, I think the following also needs to be said:

  1. The more aggressive we are in repudiating real bigotry, the more credibility we will have to discuss what may or may not be real bigotry. If more conservative and GOP leaders had done the right thing during the election and repudiated Trump as beyond the pale and unsupportable regardless of all other factors because of his shameless racism, it might be possible now to get a hearing for the case that many or even most low-information Trump voters don’t know he’s racist. I’m not optimistic about that now. It may be true – I think it probably is true – but no one will buy it.
  2. There is a heavy reckoning awaiting the conservative and GOP leaders who chose to turn a blind eye to what Trump really is, and the right-wing news sources that chose not to tell their audiences.
  3. In an email, Neal says “a lot of Americans used to fear my religion.” What does he mean, “used to”?

The Next Accountability – Individuals and Communities

November 17, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

EdChoice has published Part 4 of my series on The Next Accountability, in which I argue that an understanding of human nature and the American experiment in freedom and diversity is needed to ground a new approach to education in a pluralistic society:

The whole beauty and glory of America is that it seeks to respect differences and protect people’s freedoms and rights without giving up this shared life. Any idiot could have created a plan for a pluralistic society in which people with different views were kept in separate cultural compartments that didn’t share a common civic identity, marketplace and justice system. In fact, such systems are not uncommon in global history. What took a world-historical level of genius (and audacity!) was to construct a social order in which diverse people would share all these things, while remaining diverse.

To create new accountability systems, we must figure out how schools fit into this tapestry of pluralistic community. Schools are educating students who come from this unique social environment, and who will, upon graduation, go out into it to live the lives schools are preparing them for.

At a time when our choice seems to be globalist technocracy or tribalistic nationalism, a recovery of this vision is more needed than ever.


Reforming School Governance

November 15, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on school governance reform:

Governance reform means changing the system’s internal decision-making and authority structures. Parental choices and academic standards enforced by tests are both ways of placing external pressure on the system to perform. We can also do a lot of good by changing the shape of the system’s own workings. School board elections, building-level autonomy, principal training, transparency measures, and breaking up our bloated school district system are all places where there’s a lot of potential improvement.

As always your comments are welcome!


Do tax-credit scholarship programs drain money from district schools?

November 15, 2016

(Guest Post by Marty Lueken)

Perhaps the most-cited criticism of educational choice policies is that they “siphon” resources from district schools. High-quality research reveals numerous benefits stemming from educational choice, including benefits for participants, positive competitive effects, and fostering civic values. Policymakers, however, are concerned about the fiscal impact on district schools. A new report, The Tax-Credit Scholarship Audit, finds that such claims about “siphoning” are unfounded.

This report follows up on an earlier report, The School Voucher Audit, which examined the fiscal impact of school voucher programs. In the report, I estimated the fiscal impact of 10 tax-credit scholarship programs in seven states (AZ, FL, GA, IA, IN, PA, and RI) on state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts combined. There are currently 21 tax-credit scholarship programs operating in 17 states. Programs with less than three years of data were not included in the analysis. This sample includes the largest tax-credit scholarship programs in the country. These programs accounted for 93 percent of all scholarships awarded in 2013-14, the final year included in the analysis.

Here’s a summary of the results:

Participation

Since the first tax-credit scholarship program was established in 1997, more than 1.2 million scholarships were awarded to students through 2014. Participation in tax-credit scholarship programs has grown every year since 1997. Participation in these programs grew, on average, by 20 percent each year since 2000.

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Tax-credit scholarship programs require time to establish. Looking at the programs by year in operation, the number of scholarships awarded more than tripled after their fifth year in operation, from 28,000 to more than 95,000.

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Educational choice programs are popular and continue to expand, though not to the detriment of the current district school system, as critics argue. Even in states where eligibility for school choice programs is expansive, we haven’t seen a mass exodus of students from district schools. Moreover, the best evidence on the effects of school choice on district schools shows that district schools improve in response to competition.

Fiscal Impact

Depending on assumptions about the number of students switching from district or charter schools to private schools and the share of students who receive multiple scholarships, I estimated that these 10 tax-credit scholarship programs saved taxpayers between $1.7 billion and $3.4 billion since Arizona enacted the first such program in 1997. That equates to between $1,650 and $3,000 in savings for each scholarship recipient.

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This paints a starkly different picture from the “siphoning” argument that school choice critics like to make. Context is useful when discussing the fiscal impacts of these programs. For all the controversy that sometimes surrounds school choice programs, the fact is that these programs make up a very small share of states’ K-12 revenues. The cost of the taxpayer subsidies for the programs covered in the report range from 0.1 percent each for Rhode Island and Indiana’s programs to 1.5 percent for Arizona’s four programs.

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When critics claim these programs are costly or drain funds, they usually focus on just the cost of the taxpayer subsidy without giving any consideration to savings. But that tells only one part of the story. It’s also true that districts are no longer responsible for educating students that leave via these programs. In the short-run, they incur variable cost savings. My analysis accounts for this and even takes a more conservative approach to estimating variable costs than in other work by economists.

These savings don’t usually show up in budget reports, however, though public officials make choices—whether implicitly or explicitly—about what they do with the savings. As I note in the report:

“When school choice programs are enacted, however, it is usually the case that savings do not automatically materialize as reductions in K–12 expenditures because public officials must actively make decisions to reduce such expenditures. When students leave public schools, officials have more room in their budgets to allocate resources for educating students that remain in those schools.” (pp. 15-16)

Government officials have many options regarding what to do with these savings. They can reinvest them in district schools, which means more resources for the fewer number of students who remain in them, or they can also reallocate those savings to other public services. They can also choose to hold all or some of the funds rather than spend them. They can subsequently lower property taxes or save and invest these funds. Typically, however, it’s not clear how these freed-up resources are used.

It is a worthwhile policy goal to provide and expand quality educational options so that parents can match their children to the education provider that works best for them. Tax-credit scholarship programs offer one way to help achieve this goal by providing avenues for states to attract capital and invest in their state’s education system without harming taxpayers or students.

 

Martin F. Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice.


Evidence for the Disconnect Between Changing Test Scores and Changing Later Life Outcomes

November 5, 2016

Over the last few years I have developed a deeper skepticism about the reliability of relying on test scores for accountability purposes.  I think tests have very limited potential in guiding distant policymakers, regulators, portfolio managers, foundation officials, and other policy elites in identifying with confidence which schools are good or bad, ought to be opened, expanded, or closed, and which programs are working or failing.  The problem, as I’ve pointed out in several pieces now, is that in using tests for these purposes we are assuming that if we can change test scores, we will change later outcomes in life.  We don’t really care about test scores per se, we care about them because we think they are near-term proxies for later life outcomes that we really do care about — like graduating from high school, going to college, getting a job, earning a good living, staying out of jail, etc…

But what if changing test scores does not regularly correspond with changing life outcomes?  What if schools can do things to change scores without actually changing lives?  What evidence do we actually have to support the assumption that changing test scores is a reliable indicator of changing later life outcomes?

This concern is similar to issues that have arisen in other fields about the reliability of near-term indicators as proxies for later life outcomes.  For example, as one of my colleagues noted to me, there are medicines that are able to lower cholesterol levels but do not reduce — or even may increase — mortality from heart disease.  It’s important that we think carefully about whether we are making the same type of mistake in education.

If increasing test scores is a good indicator of improving later life outcomes, we should see roughly the same direction and magnitude in changes of scores and later outcomes in most rigorously identified studies.  We do not.  I’m not saying we never see a connection between changing test scores and changing later life outcomes (e.g. Chetty, et al); I’m just saying that we do not regularly see that relationship.  For an indicator to be reliable, it should yield accurate predictions nearly all, or at least most, of the time.

To illustrate the un-reliability of test score changes, I’m going to focus on rigorously identified research on school choice programs where we have later life outcomes.  We could find plenty of examples of disconnect from other policy interventions, such as pre-school programs, but I am focusing on school choice because I know this literature best.  The fact that we can find a disconnect between test score changes and later life outcomes in any literature, let alone in several, should undermine our confidence in test scores as a reliable indicator.

I should also emphasize that by looking at rigorous research I am rigging things in favor of test scores.  If we explored the most common use of test scores — examining the level of proficiency — there are no credible researchers who believe that is a reliable indicator of school or program quality.  Even measures of growth in test scores or VAM are not rigorously identified indicators of school or program quality as they do not reveal what the growth would have been in the absence of that school or program.  So, I think almost every credible researcher would agree that the vast majority of ways in which test scores are used by policymakers, regulators, portfolio managers, foundation officials, and other policy elites cannot be reliable indicators of the ability of schools or programs to improve later life outcomes.

With the evidence below I am exploring the largely imaginary scenario in which test scores changes can be attributed to schools or programs with confidence.  Even then, the direction and magnitude of changing test scores does not regularly correspond with changing later life outcomes.  I’ve identified 10 rigorously designed studies of charter and private school choice programs with later life outcomes.  I’ve listed them below with a brief description of their findings and hyperlinks so you can read the results for yourself.

Notice any patterns? Other than the general disconnect between test scores and later life outcomes (in both directions), I notice that the No Excuses charter model that is currently the darling of the ed reform movement and that New York Times columnists have declared as the only type of “Schools that Work” tend not to fare nearly as well in later outcomes as they do on test scores.  Meanwhile the unfashionable private choice schools and Mom and Pop charters seem to do much better on later life outcomes than at changing test scores.  I don’t highlight this pattern as proof that we should shy away from No Excuses charters.  I only mention it to suggest ways in which over-relying on test scores and declaring with confidence that we know what works and what doesn’t can lead to big policy mistakes.

Here are the 10 studies:

  1. Boston charters (Angrist, et al, 2014) – Huge test score gains, no increase in HS grad rate or postsecondary attendance. Shift from 2 to 4 yr
  2. Harlem Promise Academy (Dobbie and Fryer, 2014) – Same as Boston charters
  3. KIPP (Tuttle, et al, 2015) – Large test score gains, no or small effect on HS grad rate, depending on analysis used
  4. High Tech High (Beauregard, 2015) – Widely praised for improving test scores, no increase in college enrollment
  5. SEED Boarding Charter (Unterman, et al, 2016) – same as Boston charters
  6. TX No Excuses charters (Dobbie and Fryer, 2016) – Increase test scores and college enrollment, but no effect on earnings
  7. Florida charters (Booker, et al, 2014) – No test score gains but large increase in HS grad rate, college attendance, and earnings
  8. DC vouchers (Wolf, et al, 2013) – Little or no test score gain but large increase in HS grad rate
  9. Milwaukee vouchers (Cowen, et al, 2013) – same as DC
  10. New York vouchers (Chingos and Peterson, 2013) – modest test score gain, larger college enrollment improvement

The Legal Battle for Choice in Georgia

November 4, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship helps more than 12,000 students attend schools of their choice rather than their assigned district school. Predictably, defenders of the government education establishment sued to block parents from exercising educational choice. Thanks to the efforts of the state attorneys and the Institute for Justice, which intervened in the case on behalf of several parents of scholarship students, a lower court ruled against the challengers earlier this year. However, the challengers appealed and the case is now before the state supreme court.

Yesterday, the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in the case urging the Georgia Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the tax-credit scholarships. Cato’s legal eagle, Ilya Shapiro, has more at the Cato-at-Liberty blog:

We urge the court to affirm the determination that the tax-credit program does not violate the state constitution, focusing on the fact that it does not involve spending public funds for any sectarian purpose. Because the program makes no expenditures from the public fisc, it cannot violate the No-Aid Clause. Taxpayers choose to donate voluntarily using their own private funds and receive a tax credit for the amount of the donation; no money ever enters or leaves the treasury.

The challengers attempt to get around this fact by claiming that the credits constitute anindirect public expenditure, but this argument relies on a budgetary theory known as “tax expenditure analysis” that finds no support as a legitimate means of constitutional interpretation under Georgia (or federal, or any other state) law. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this type of reasoning in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011).

The argument that the program constitutes an unconstitutional gratuity is likewise incorrect because the tax credits are not public funds, and the government cannot give away that which it does not own. Even if Georgia were giving up something of value, it would not be a “gratuity” because the state receives a substantial benefit in return: increased educational attainment, plus the secondary effects that increased competition and a more educated citizenry create.

The Georgia Supreme Court should affirm the lower court’s decision and uphold the state’s Qualified Educational Tax Credit Program—ensuring educational choice for Georgia families, regardless of how much money they make.