School Monopoly Culture Wars

January 22, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Neal McCluskey of Cato has long been a champion of one of my nearest and dearest reasons for favoring school choice: it defuses the culture war. When families with diverse beliefs are all (effectively) forced to send their children to the same schools, it creates a lot of unnecessary conflict.

Today, Neal announces that Cato has released a pretty cool web feature – an interactive national map of public school conflicts over religion, sexual ethics, free speech, and other cultural issues. You can search by state, by large districts (Chicago has six ongoing conflicts, New York City seventeen, Milwaukee four) by type of conflict, or by keyword. I randomly typed in the keyword “balloon” and found the case of a teacher who wasn’t allowed to do a class project on treatment of homosexuality, and held a “funeral” for his project, at which he asked his students to write their feelings down on helium balloons.

Don’t click the link if you want to get work done this afternoon. Kudos to Cato!

Charters v. Private Schools: Urban and Suburban Differences

August 28, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Cato has new research out from Richard Buddin, examining where charter schools draw their students from. Adam Schaeffer offers a summary, emphasizing the dangers of charter schools: “On average, charter schools may marginally improve the public education system, but in the process they are wreaking havoc on private education.”

I agree with the basic premise: charters don’t fix the underlying injustice of government monopolizing education by providing “free” (i.e. free at the point of service, paid for by taxpayers) education, driving everyone else out of the education sector. As Jay and I have argued before, vouchers make the world safe for charters; that implies you can view charters as a response by the government to protect its monopoly against the disruptive threat of voucher legislation.

But what interests me more are the urban/suburban and elementary/secondary breakdowns of these data. It appears that charters are only substantially cutting into private schools in “highly urban” areas. In the suburbs, the charter school option is framed much more in terms of boutique specialty alternatives (schools for the arts, classical education, etc.) rather than “your school sucks, here’s one that works.” If you’d asked me, I would have guessed that would also cut heavily into the private school market – it would appeal to parents of high means who are looking for something out of the ordinary for their children, and that demographic would be most likely to already be in private schools. Yet the data show otherwise; apparently the families choosing boutique suburban charters weren’t much impressed with their private school options. And what’s up with this weird distribution on the elementary/secondary axis? Apparently public middle schools really stink in urban/suburban border areas.


Coulson on Brookings Report

February 14, 2010

Over on the Cato blog, Andrew Coulson has a thoughtful post on the recent Brookings report on school choice which I  helped craft.  For the most part I agree with what Andrew has to say.  I agree that there is considerable international and historical evidence that could have been included in the Brookings report but was not.  I also agree that certain compromises on school choice can be counter-productive, particularly over the long run.

The disagreement I have with Andrew is that he is treating the Brookings report as if it were a piece of scholarship rather than the political document that it really is.  I do not say this to disparage the report, which I helped craft and endorse.  We self-consciously viewed our task in writing the report as trying to present policy options on school choice that would be viable in the current political climate and potentially attractive to the Obama administration.

Once you understand that, it is easier to understand why we would leave out most international evidence — it is generally considered irrelevant or unpersuasive by most current policy elites.  They may well be mistaken in dismissing this set of evidence, as Andrew argues, but that is their view so we didn’t waste their time or ours by reviewing that evidence.

It is also easier to understand why we didn’t advocate unregulated education markets.  That simply isn’t going to happen in the current political climate, so we didn’t bother with it.  Instead we advocated for a variety of compromises on expanding choice and competition within a regulated framework.

Of course, then we are left vulnerable to Andrew’s point that these compromises may be counterproductive, particularly in the long run.  My only response to that is that incrementalism is our only feasible strategy for getting the kind of choice and competition we really need.  While we must always be vigilent about the dangers of certain compromises, I think we have no choice but to try to build on incremental reforms.

Coulson Schools LA Times on Charters

December 2, 2009

Andrew Coulson teaches the LA Times a thing or two about charter schools in his post on the Cato blog.  Here’s the meat of it:

Yesterday’s LA Times editorial on charter schools combined errors of fact and omission with a misrepresentation of the economic research on public school spending. First, the Times claims that KIPP charter public schools spend “significantly more per student than the public school system.” Not so, says the KIPP website. But why rely on KIPP’s testimony, when we can look at the raw data? LA’s KIPP Academy of Opportunity, for instance, spent just over $3 million in 2007-08, for 345 students, for a total per pupil expenditure of $8,917. The most recent Dept. of Ed. data for LAUSD (2006-07) put that district’s comparable figure at $13,481 (which, as Cato’s Adam Schaeffer will show in a forthcoming paper, is far below what it currently spends). Nationwide, the median school district spends 24 percent more than the median charter school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Next, in summarizing the charter research, the Times’ editors omitted the most recent and sophisticated study, by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby. It finds a significant academic advantage to charters using a randomized assignment experimental model that blows the methodological doors off most of the earlier charter research. The Times also neglects to mention Hoxby’s damning critique of the CREDO study it does cite….

There are certainly reasons to lament the performance of the charter sector, and the Times’ editors even came close to citing one of them: its inability to scale up excellence as rapidly and routinely as is the case in virtually every field outside of education. Before getting into such policy issues, however, the Times should make a greater effort to marshal the basic facts.

Only Mostly Dead

November 17, 2008


Reliance on markets and the idea of limited government are not quite dead — only mostly dead.  They (mostly) died on October 3, 2008 when Congress passed the ginormous (giant + enormous) bailout bill, greatly expanding the scope and authority of the federal government to own stakes in businesses and financial assets.  And if you are looking for accomplices in the (mostly) murder of market-reliance and limited government, you should probably investigate the DC based “market-oriented” think tanks.

George Will correctly warns that this expansion of government by the partial nationalization of large sections of our economy is unlikley to be either temporary or benign.  (Now he tells us!)

The way back from (mostly) death for supporters of markets and limited government is to undo the bailout as quickly as possible.  Let businesses that made unwise decisions go into bankruptcy (I’m looking at you, GM).  Let their assets be reorganized by their credit-holders so that they move forward with a more efficient structure and more competent management.  Unless people experience the consequences of their mistakes, they can never learn from those mistakes and do better in the future.

I made this exact argument in defense of allowing companies to fail on September 18Mike Petrilli made the same argument on the same day.  But we’re just a bunch of lowly education analysts.  Where were all of the limited government Republicans?  Where were the market-oriented think tanks?

Let’s take a look at the period between September 15 and September 22 to see what the national, market-oriented think tanks had to say.  Remember that this was the pivotal week that began the (mostly) death-rattles for limited government and market-reliance.  Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt on September 15, but AIG received its first $85 billion bailout offer on September 16The first proposed $700 billion bailout was circulated around midnight on September 20

This was the time when the folks at think tanks could have been standing athwart big government yelling STOP!  They could have bolstered anti-bailout Republicans in Congress, steered the McCain campaign against the bailout (which would have been risky but probably a better hail Mary pass than picking Palin as VP), and they could have laid the foundations for a future defense of markets and limited government.

For the most part, the “market-oriented” national think tanks failed to yell STOP.  In the culminating act of complicity with big-government conservatism, they rationalized and defended a large government intervention in the economy.

Here is what people affiliated with AEI wrote during that period:

Glenn Hubbard called for a Resolution Trust approach of a bailout on both September 15 and September 19, advocating “putting in place a clean-up agency like the 1930s’ Homeowner’sLoan Corp. or the 1980s’ Resolution Trust Corp. would help…. The fiscal costs of inaction would be significant, both in lost tax receipts and in larger ‘crisis’ bailouts down the road.”  This Resolution Trust idea was the foundation for the $700 billion bailout plan of September 20.

Lawrence Lindsey called for a lifting of any cap on depositor insurance at banks on September 17 and then on September 21 endorsed the idea that the government had to provide credit to distressed financial institutions: “But by far the most inevitable economic development will be an expansion of the balance sheets of the government and its central bank.  When credit bubbles burst an enormous hole is formed in private-sector balance sheets…. Government, and only government, inevitably fits the bill as it can both tax and print the resources it needs.”  More support for the bailout.

Vincent Reinhart urged the administration to have “backbone” and resist more bailouts on September 16, but by September 22 he wrote in the New York Times: “The Congress should authorize the Treasury to purchase asset-backed securities in the secondary market and mortgages through auctions. For assets where it might not have all the information it needs, the Treasury could demand a slice of equity in the selling firm as well.”  More support for the bailout.

Alex Pollock wrote on September 17: “When government financial officers–like Treasury secretaries, finance ministers and central-bank chairmen–stand at the edge of the cliff of market panic and stare down into the abyss of potential financial chaos, they always decide upon government intervention.  This is true of all governments in all countries in all times. Nobody is willing to take the chance of going down in history as the one who stood there and did nothing in the face of a financial collapse and debt deflation. Put in their place, you would make the same decision, and so would I.”  More support for bailout.

Desmond Lachman wrote on September 17: “If Main Street is to be spared the painful economic consequences of a financial market meltdown on Wall Street, policymakers have little alternative but to resort to unorthodox interventionist policies to put a floor under the housing market and to prop up the banks with taxpayers’ money.”  More support for the bailout.

Newt Gingrich, writing on September 21, took a very skeptical position on the bailout.  But David Frum strongly went in the other direction, writing on September 22: “What should a free-market believer think about the plan for a government bailout of the U.S. mortgage market? Try this analogy: You have a white carpet in your upstairs hall. The normal rule is that nobody can wear shoes on the carpet. But the house is on fire–and the baby is upstairs. Will you tell the arriving fire department to wait and kick their boots off before dousing the flames?”  Notice that in this analogy, reliance on markets and belief in limited government are just the aesthetic nicety of clean carpets, not the principles that lay the foundations for the house or materials that resist fire.

It’s true that some of these folks called for “smarter regulation” (don’t make me get all Dr. Evil on them!) and advised about how best to conduct a bailout. But the bottom line is that 6 out of 7 AEI fellows who wrote during the pivotal week of September15-22 came out in support of a government bailout, with the 7th expressing skepticism but not outright opposition.

What about The Heritage Foundation?  They supported the bailout.

They issued four policy briefs during the week Sept 15-22.  The pieces all had the same basic message in support of a bailout: “Congress needs to act carefully but quickly in passing this legislation, knowing that it can correct any flaws when it reconvenes next year. Quick action is needed because financial markets remain deeply stressed, and the stress continues to spread to the rest of the economy.”

And what about the Manhattan Institute? They didn’t support the bailout.

Nicole Gelinas expressed even more doubts about the bailout than Newt Gingrich.  Writing in the NY Post she said, “Thing is, it’s not clear this is a solution. There’s no guarantee that even this much cash can buy us out of a systemic financial crisis. Even if it does, we probably face years of necessary financial and economic readjustment.”  And on September 26, just outside of the time period we are examining, she began to actively oppose the bailout, worrying that it might actually delay recovery.

And how about Cato? They also didn’t support the bailout.

Cato behaved more in-line with expectations than AEI or Heritage.  A September 15 piece by James Dorn was typical:“When the US Treasury is raided to defend the government’s credibility to guarantee GSE debt, it may calm markets for a time. Yet, in the long run, the drifts towards socialism and increased government borrowing requirements discourage foreign investment, decrease private saving, increase interest rates and slow US growth. That is a high price to pay for ‘stability.'”

For those of you keeping score, AEI and Heritage were actively in support of a large government intervention in the economy.  The Manhattan Institute and Cato were not.  But AEI is by far the most active and influential market-oriented think tank on this matter, so their support was crucial in shaping events and contributing to the (mostly) death of limited government and market ideas. The Manhattan Institute had only one expert on economic affairs active during the period I examined.  AEI had seven.  I believe that Heritage has, by far, the largest operating budget of any of these think tanks ($39 million as of 2006).  That is more than three times as large as the Manhattan Institute’s $12 million annual budget.

Donors pay for those seven AEI fellows and provide Heritage with its ginmormous budget.  If those donors really do wish to support huge expansions in government involvement in the economy, then I guess they are giving to the right organizations.