In Memoriam for Parental Choice Irrational Exuberance

November 22, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I listened to the Federalist podcast this morning on my bike ride in which Megan McArdle debates Joy Pullman on school vouchers. In the discussion McArdle posits that parental choice programs allow parents to sort their kids for the purposes of being around other kids who are likely to want to go to college etc. She acknowledged that her instinct on this is informed by observation in the District of Columbia where she resides and that this has always been the case, it simply used to involve moving the suburbs. McArdle forsees a low-ceiling for choice as McArdle asserts that there are only so many good peer groups to go around, and large influxes of poor kids will lead to upper-middle class parents seeking to segregate their children elsewhere. Thus McArdle puts forward an air of jaded realism for choice as opposed to her optimistic days when she thought of parental choice as a cure for poverty. Worse still, her thesis would imply costs to choice for disadvantaged student groups.

Fortunatley, McArdle’s realism is not terribly realistic. Policy enthusiasts of all sorts and persuasions create problems for themselves when they sell their reform as a wonder drug that will cure the world’s pain and will do it today. People who buy in during the naive enthusiasm stage will invariably feel disappointed. This for instance is starting to happen with technology based personalized learning now.

The course of innovation does not run smoothly or in a predictable fashion. Technology enhanced learning may have a very bright future, but faces a messy process of sorting through things whether it ultimately proves out or not. The bubble provides a useful example. People of a certain age will recall the naive enthusiasm stage when any idiot who could mumble Silicon Valley lingo was able to get millions in venture capital funding for projects like or whatever. When a great many of these dubious ventures went bust in the early aughts a fierce backlash mocked the broad notion that the internet was going to profoundly change business.

Give it some time however and no one is mocking now. The internet did profoundly change business and life and continues to do so- it just didn’t do it much by 2003, and not in the way we expected.

McArdle’s thesis combines elements of the disappointed naive early enthusiasm with a theory that those not exercising choice may be harmed by it. A large empirical literature on competitive effects however finds positive benefits from choice from students choosing to remain in district schools. The kids “left behind” in other words benefit academically from the fact that they have the possibility of leaving.

My home state of Arizona is a hot-bed for parental choice. We not only have the highest state percentage of students attending charter schools and private choice programs, recently data has come available showing that inter-and-intra district choice dwarfs both charter and private choice in the state. Arizona, a relatively low spending state (relative to other states not to its own past) that is in the midst of a border-state transition in student demographics (K-12 students ceased being majority Anglo years ago), is an odd state to be leading the nation in academic gains. Oh, well, we went and did it anyway.

Now McArdle’s thesis of tradeoffs and downsides should be visible in the academic trends for disadvantaged students. If the savvy parents are the ones exercising choice, and depriving disadvantaged kids of more ambitious peers, we might expect to see overall scores increasing but scores for disadvantaged kids sliding in Arizona’s results. Instead we see the opposite:

This of course does not prove that school choice lead to the larger than average gains, but good luck explaining how this happened if school choice were harmful to disadvantaged students.

At the 8th grade level, NAEP allows for tracking student achievement by the education status of their parents. This is what it looks like for students whose parents did not finish high school for the entire period we can track all three tests:

If these charts were reversed and we saw disadvantaged children showing less progress than the national average, but stupendous gains for already advantaged kids, that would be consistent with McArdle’s thesis. If I wanted to beat the horse into horse-burger I could put up similar charts by ethnicity and disability status. You have a very, very hard time finding supportive evidence of choice harming the disadvantaged in the academic trends of the nation’s most choice happy state, or in the broad empirical literature.

Improvement of schooling outcomes maybe a necessary but hardly a sufficient step in inter-generational poverty. Choice programs have triggered a process of opening up the suburbs to open enrollment in Arizona, and they seem to be doing something similar in Indiana. The choice movement made a grave error in fixating on a particular type of school in inner cities, and then became obsessed with “accountability” when the urban-only strategy floundered.

I’m confident that the evidence will prove out that broad, inclusive programs work out better for students by hugely broadening available options relative to the necessarily limited efforts to build new charters. If you want to help inner city kids, yes you give them access to private schools and charter schools. If you really want to help them you give them access to all of that and the leafy suburbs (see above charts). You can’t force the burbs to take out of district kids, but you can create the right incentives by subjecting their (all too often complacent and underperforming) schools competition as well. You create enough competition to allow parents to close schools they don’t like. Expect backlash from reactionaries along the way. It’s not quick, it’s not easy, it lacks magical powers. It can however deliver real benefits to students and taxpayers.