Two Court Cases Plus Two Voucher Studies Equals Four School Choice Wins

June 26, 2017

giphy

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

There’s so much good news for school choice today, it’s hard to know where to begin.

A Legal Victory in the Peach State

I woke up this morning to the news that the Georgia Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that private donations to private nonprofit scholarship organizations that help children attend private schools are (shocker!) private funds, even if the donors receive a tax credit:

We also reject the assertion that plaintiffs have standing because these tax credits actually amount to unconstitutional expenditures of tax revenues or public funds. The statutes that govern the Program demonstrate that only private funds, and not public revenue, are used.

I discuss the case and its implications in greater detail here.

SCOTUS Strikes Down Discrimination Against Religion — But Saves Blaine for Another Day

A couple hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri that it is unconstitutional to exclude religious organizations from benefiting from secular aid programs that are otherwise neutral with respect to religion. As Neal McCluskey explains, the court didn’t go as far as many school choice advocates would have liked, but it is unambiguously a step in the right direction. Writing for the majority, Justice Roberts wrote:

It is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel. But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” […] As the Court put it more than 50 years ago, “[i]t is too late in the day to doubt that the liberties of religion and expression may be infringed by the denial of or placing of conditions upon a benefit or privilege.” […]

Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character. The “imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deter[s] or discourage[s] the exercise of First Amendment rights.” […] The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant. [citations removed]

The Court made sure to note that it was not overturning Locke v. Davey, in which the Court held that it did not violate the Free Exercise Clause for the state of Washington to deny funding to a student who was attending a post-secondary religious school to pursue a “devotional theology degree.” Although the “selective funding program” generally allowed students to attend both religious or secular colleges, the funds couldn’t be used to pursue a purely religious education for the purposes of becoming a religious minister. In Trinity, SCOTUS clarified that “Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do—use the funds to prepare for the ministry.”

Left open is the question of whether the state can prohibit families from using school vouchers at religious schools. If the voucher program is intended to give parents more choices among schools that teach reading, math, science, etc., then seemingly it shouldn’t matter whether school that teach those subjects have a religious affiliation. Indeed, Justices Gorsuch and Thomas clearly indicated they wished the majority had gone further (“the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else”), while Justice Breyer likened the playground resurfacing program at issue in the case to churches benefiting from police or fire protection, but saw no need to address the question of private school tuition. Tomorrow SCOTUS will announce whether it will consider the Douglas County, Colorado voucher case, which would give it the opportunity to answer that question.

Louisiana and Indiana Voucher Studies: Neutral to Positive Outcomes After a Few Years

I’ve already run long and I know that others will be writing about them soon, so I won’t dive deep into the Louisiana and Indiana voucher studies today. In short, they each find that the negative impacts on test scores that voucher students experience in the first couple years of participating in a voucher program disappear by the third year. Indeed, Indiana finds some positive effects in years three and four.

Given that states spend significantly less per pupil on voucher students than at district schools, performing as well or better after just a few years in the program should be exciting news for choice supporters. However, I confess that I am uneasy. Both Indiana and Louisiana mandate that private schools administer the state test to voucher students and I am concerned about how that mandate might warp how schools educate children — a concern I have about both district and private schools. Test scores measure only a small slice of the value that parents want schools to provide their children, and as Jay pointed out yet again yesterday, there’s a disconnect between educational measures and life outcomes. It’s great if school choice improves test scores, but the ability to choose shouldn’t be predicated on raising test scores — especially if doing so creates perverse incentives that distort education.

In summary: Three cheers for the court victories and one cheer for the voucher studies.

 

 

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Regulating School Choice: The Debate Continues

March 9, 2016

Design vs Experience

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Last week, the Cato Institute held a policy forum on school choice regulations (video here). Two of our panelists, Dr. Patrick Wolf and Dr. Douglas Harris, were part of a team that authored one of the recent studies finding that Louisiana’s voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ test scores. Why that was the case – especially given the nearly unanimously positive previous findings – was the main topic of our discussion. Wolf and I argued that there is reason to believe that the voucher program’s regulations might have played a role in causing the negative results, while Harris and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute pointed to other factors.

The debate continued after the forum, including a blog post in which Harris raises four “problems” with my arguments. I respond to his criticisms below.

The Infamous Education Productivity Chart

Problem #1: Trying to discredit traditional public schools by placing test score trends and expenditure changes on one graph. These graphs have been floating around for years. They purport to show that spending has increased much faster than expenditures [sic], but it’s obvious that these comparisons make no sense. The two things are on different scales. Bedrick tried to solve this problem by putting everything in percentage terms, but this only gives the appearance of a common scale, not the reality. You simply can’t talk about test scores in terms of percentage changes.

The more reasonable question is this: Have we gotten as much from this spending as we could have? This one we can actually answer and I think libertarians and I would probably agree: No, we could be doing much better than we are with current spending. But let’s be clear about what we can and cannot say with these data.

Harris offers a reasonable objection to the late, great Andrew Coulson’s infamous chart (shown below). Coulson already addressed critics of his chart at length, but Harris is correct that the test scores and expenditures do not really have a common scale. That said, the most important test of a visual representation of data is whether the story it tells is accurate. In this case, it is, as even Harris seems to agree. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil in public schools has nearly tripled in the last four decades while the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been flat.

U.S. Education Spending and Productivity

Producing a similar chart with data from the scores of younger students on the NAEP would be misleading because the scale would mask their improvement. But for 17-year-olds, whose performance has been flat on the NAEP and the SAT, the story the chart tells is accurate.

Voucher Regulations Are Keeping Private Schools Away

Problem #2: Repeating arguments that have already been refuted. Bedrick’s presentation repeated arguments about the Louisiana voucher case that I already refuted in a prior post. Neither the NBER study nor the survey by Pat Wolf and his colleagues provide compelling evidence that existing regulations are driving out potentially more effective private schools in the Louisiana voucher program, which was a big focus of the panel.

Here Harris attacks a claim I did not make. He is correct that there is no compelling evidence that regulations are driving out higher-quality private schools, but no one claimed that there was. Rather, I have repeatedly argued that the evidence was “suggestive but not conclusive” and speculated in my presentation that “if the enrollment trends are a rough proxy [for quality], though we can’t prove this, then it would suggest that the higher-quality schools chose not to participate” while lower-quality schools did.

Moreover, what Harris claims he refuted he actually merely disputed – and not very persuasively. In the previous post he mentions, he minimized the role that regulation played in driving away private schools:

As I wrote previouslythe study he cites, by Patrick Wolf and colleagues, actually says that what private schools nationally most want changed is the voucher’s dollar value. In Louisiana, the authors reported that “the top concern was possible future regulations, followed by concerns about the amount of paperwork and reports. When asked about their concerns relating to student testing requirements, a number of school leaders expressed a strong preference for nationally normed tests” (italics added). These quotes give a very different impression that [sic] Bedrick states. The supposedly burdensome current regulations seem like less of a concern than funding levels and future additional regulations–and no voucher policy can ever insure against future changes in policy.

Actually, the results give a very different impression than Harris states. The quote Harris cites from the report is regarding the concerns of participating schools, but the question at hand is why the nonparticipating schools opted out of the voucher program. Future regulations was still the top concern for nonparticipating schools, but current regulations were also major concerns. Indeed, the study found that 9 of the 11 concerns that a majority of nonparticipating private schools said played a role their decision not to participate in the voucher program related to current regulations, particularly around admissions and the state test.

"Views from Private Schools," by Brian Kisida, Patrick J. Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith, American Enterprise Institute

Source: ”Views from Private Schools,” by Brian Kisida, Patrick J. Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith, American Enterprise Institute (page 19)

Nearly all of the nonparticipating schools’ top concerns related to the voucher program’s ban on private schools using their own admissions criteria (concerns 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 11) or requiring schools to administer the state test (concerns 6, 9, 10, and possibly 7 again). It is clear that these regulations played a significant role in keeping private schools away from the voucher program. The open question is whether the regulations were more likely to drive away higher-quality private schools. I explained why that might be the case, but I have never once claimed that we know it is the case.

Market vs. Government Regulations in Education

Problem #3: Saying that unregulated free markets are good in education because they have been shown to work in other non-education markets. […] For example, the education market suffers from perhaps the worst information problem of any market–many complex hard-to-measure outcomes most of which consumers (parents) cannot directly observe even after they’ve chosen a school for their child. Also, since students can realistically only attend schools near their homes, and there are economies of scale in running schools, that means there will generally be few practical options (unless you happen to live in a large city with great public transportation–very rare in the U.S.). And the transaction costs are very high to switch schools. And there are equity considerations. And … I could go on.

Harris claims that a free market in education wouldn’t work because education is uniquely different from other markets. However, the challenges he lists – information asymmetry, difficulty measuring intangible outcomes, difficulties providing options in rural areas, transaction costs for switching schools – aren’t unique to K-12 education at all. Moreover, there is no such thing as an “unregulated” free market because market forces regulate. As I describe below, while not perfect, these market forces are better suited than the government to address the challenges Harris raises.

Information asymmetry and hard-to-measure/intangible outcomes:

Parents need information in order to select quality education providers for their children. But are government regulations necessary to provide that information? Harris has provided zero evidence that it is, but there is much evidence to the contrary. Here the disparity between K-12 and higher education is instructive. Compared to K-12, colleges and universities operate in a relatively free market. Certainly, there are massive public subsidies, but they are mostly attached to students, and colleges have maintained meaningful independence. Even Pell vouchers do not require colleges to administer particular tests or set a single standard that all colleges must follow.

So how do families determine if a college is a good fit or not? There are three primary mechanisms they use: expert reviews, user reviews, and private certification.

The first category includes the numerous organizations that rate colleges, including U.S. News & World Report, the Princeton Review, Forbes, the Economist, and numerous others like them. These are similar to sorts of expert reviews, like Consumer Reports, that consumers regularly consult when buying cars, computers, electronics, or even hiring lawyers – all industries where the non-expert consumer faces a significant information asymmetry problem.

The second category includes the dozens of websites that allow current students and alumni to rate and review their schools. These are similar to Yelp, Amazon.com, Urban Spoon and numerous other platforms for end-users to describe their personal experience with a given product or service.

Finally, there are numerous national and regional accreditation agencies that certify that colleges meet a certain standard, similar to Underwriters Laboratories for consumer goods. This last category used to be private and voluntary, although now it is de factomandatory because accreditation is needed to get access to federal funds.

None of these are perfect, but then again, neither are government regulations. Moreover, the market-based regulators have at least four major advantages over the government. First, they provide more comprehensive information about all those hard-to-measure and intangible outcomes that Harris was concerned about. State regulators tend to measure only narrow and more objective outcomes, like standardized test scores in math and English or graduation rates. By contrast, the expert and user reviews consider return-on-investment, campus life, how much time students spend studying, teaching quality, professor accessibility, career services assistance, financial aid, science lab facilities, study abroad options, and much more.

Second, the diversity of options means parents and students can better identify the best fit for them. As Malcolm Gladwell observed, different people give different weights to different criteria. A family’s preferences might align better with the Forbes rankings than the U.S. News rankings, for example. Alternatively, perhaps no single expert reviewer captures a particular family’s preferences, in which case they’re still better off consulting several different reviews and then coming to their own conclusion. A single government-imposed standard would only make sense if there was a single best way to provide (or at least measure) education, we knew what it was, and there was a high degree of certainty that the government would actually implement it well. However, that is not the case.

Third, a plethora of private certifiers and expert and user reviews are less likely to create systemic perverse incentives than a single, government standard. As it is, the hegemony of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings created perverse incentives for colleges to focus on inputs rather than outputs, monkey around with class sizes, send applications to students who didn’t qualify to increase their “selectivity” rating, etc. If the government imposed a single standard and then rewarded or punished schools based on their performance according to that standard, the perverse incentives would be exponentially worse. The solution here is more competing standards, not a single standard.

Fourth, as Dr. Howard Baetjer Jr. describes in a recent edition of Cato Journal, whereas “government regulations have to be designed based on the limited, centralized knowledge of legislators and bureaucrats, the standards imposed by market forces are free to evolve through a constant process of evaluation and adjustment based on the dispersed knowledge, values, and judgment of everyone operating in the marketplace.” As Baetjer describes, the incentives to provide superior standards are better aligned in the market than for the government:

Incentives and accountability also play a central role in the superiority of regulation by market forces. First, government regulatory agencies face no competition from alternative suppliers of quality and safety assurance, because the regulated have no right of exit from government regulation: they cannot choose a better supplier of regulation, even if they want to. Second, government regulators are paid out of tax revenue, so their budget, job security, and status have little to do with the quality of the “service” they provide. Third, the public can only hold regulators to account indirectly, via the votes they cast in legislative elections, and such accountability is so distant as to be almost entirely ineffectual. These factors add up to a very weak set of incentives for government regulators to do a good job. Where market forces regulate, by contrast, both goods and service providers and quality-assurance enterprises must continuously prove their value to consumers if they are to be successful. In this way, regulation by market forces is itself regulated by market forces; it is spontaneously self-improving, without the need for a central, organizing authority.

In K-12, there are many fewer private certifiers, expert reviewers, or websites for user reviews, despite a significantly larger number of students and schools. Why? Well, first of all, the vast majority of students attend their assigned district school. To the extent that those schools’ outcomes are measured, it’s by the state. In other words, the government is crowding out private regulators. Even still, there is a small but growing number of organizations like GreatSchools, Private School Review, School Digger, andNiche that are providing parents with the information they desire.

Options in rural areas:

First, it should be noted that, as James Tooley has amply documented, private schools regularly operate – and outperform their government-run counterparts – even in the most remote and impoverished areas in the world, including those areas that lack basic sanitation or electricity, let alone public transportation. (For that matter, even the numerous urban slums where Tooley found a plethora of private schools for the poor lack the “great public transportation” that Harris claims is necessary for a vibrant education market.) Moreover, to the extent rural areas do, indeed, present challenges to providing education, such challenges are far from unique. Providers of other goods and services also must contend with reduced economies of scale, transportation issues, etc.

That said, innovations in communication and transportation mean these obstacles are less difficult to overcome than ever before. Blended learning and course access are already expanding educational opportunities for students in rural areas, and the rise of “tiny schools” and emerging ride-sharing operations like Shuddle (“Uber for kids”) may soon expand those opportunities even further. These innovations are more likely to be adopted in a free-market system than a highly government-regulated one.

Test Scores Matter But Parents Should Decide 

Problem #4: Using all this evidence in support of the free market argument, but then concluding that the evidence is irrelevant. For libertarians, free market economics is mainly a matter of philosophy. They believe individuals should be free to make choices almost regardless of the consequences. In that case, it’s true, as Bedrick acknowledged, that the evidence is irrelevant. But in that case, you can’t then proceed to argue that we should avoid regulation because it hasn’t worked in other sectors, especially when those sectors have greater prospects for free market benefits (see problem #3 above). And it’s not clear why we should spend a whole panel talking about evidence if, in the end, you are going to conclude that the evidence doesn’t matter.

Once again, Harris misconstrues what I actually said. In response to a question from Petrilli regarding whether I would support “kicking schools out of the [voucher] program” if they performed badly on the state test, I answered:

No, because I don’t think it’s a wise move to eliminate a school that parents chose, which may be their least bad option. We don’t know why a parent chose that school. Maybe their kid was being bullied at their local public school. Maybe their local public school that they were assigned to was not as good. Maybe there was a crime problem or a drug problem.

We’re never going to have a perfect system. Libertarians are not under the illusion that all private schools are good and all public schools are bad… Given the fact that we’ll never have a perfect system, what sort of mechanism is more likely to produce a wide diversity of options, and foster quality and innovation? We believe that the market – free choice among parents and schools having the ability to operate as they see best – has proven over and over again in a variety of industries to have better outcomes than Mike Petrilli sitting in an office deciding what quality is… as opposed to what individual parents think [quality] is.

Harris then responded by claiming that I was saying the evidence was “irrelevant,” to which I replied:

It’s irrelevent in terms of how we should design the policy, in terms of whether we should kick [schools] out or not, but I think it’s very important that we know how well these programs are working. Test scores do measure something. They are important. They’re not everything, but I think they’re a pretty decent proxy for quality…

In other words, yes, test scores matter. But they are far from the only things that matter. Test scores should be one of many factors that inform parents so that they can make the final decision about what’s best for their children, rather than having the government eliminate what might well be their least bad option based on a single performance measure.

I am grateful that Dr. Harris took the time both to attend our policy forum and to continue the debate on his blog afterward. I look forward to continued dialogue regarding our shared goal of expanding educational opportunity for all children.

(Cross-posted at Cato-at-Liberty.)

 


Modest Programs Produce Modest Results . . . Duh.

September 3, 2008

HT perfect stranger @ FR

By Greg Forster & Jay Greene

Edwize is touting a new “meta-analysis” by Cecilia Rouse and Lisa Barrow claiming that existing voucher programs produce only modest gains in student learning.

Edwize quotes the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE), which sponsored the paper and is handling its media push, describing the paper as a “comprehensive review of all the evaluations done on education voucher schemes in the United States.”

But the paper itself says something different: “we present a summary of selected findings…” (emphasis added). Given EdWize’s recent accusations about cherry-picking research, which are repeated in his post on the Rouse/Barrow paper, we thought he’d be more sensitive to the difference between a comprehensive review of the reserach and a review that merely presents selected findings. (By contrast, the reviews we listed here are comprehensive.)

Even more important, the Rouse/Barrow paper provides no information on the criteria they used to decide which voucher experiments, and which analyses of those experiments, to include among the “selected findings” they present, and which to exclude from their review. The paper includes participant effect studies from Milwaukee, Cleveland, DC, and New York City, but does not include very similar studies conducted on programs in Dayton or Charlotte. In New York it includes analyses by Mayer, Howell and Peterson, as well as Krueger and Zhu, but not by Barnard, et al. The paper includes systemic effect analyses from Milwaukee and Florida, but excludes analyses by Howell and Peterson as well as by Greene and Winters.

Clearly this paper is not intended to be, and indeed it does not even profess to be, a comprehensive review.

But even with its odd and unexplained selection of studies to include and exclude, Rouse and Barrow’s paper nevertheless finds generally positive results. They identified 7 statistically significant positive participant effects and 4 significant negative participant effects (all of which come from one study: Belfield’s analysis of Cleveland, which is non-experimental and therefore lower in scientific quality than the studies finding positive results for vouchers). In total, 16 of the 26 point estimates they report for participant effects are positive.

On systemic effects, they report 15 significant positive effects and no significant negative effects. Of the 20 point estimates, 16 are positive.

And yet they conclude that the evidence “is at best mixed.” If this were research on therapies for curing cancer, the mostly positive and often significant findings they identified would never be described as “at best mixed.” We would say they were encouraging at the very least.

Moreover, the paper is not, and doesn’t claim to be, a “meta-analysis.” That term doesn’t even appear anywhere in the paper. It’s really just a research review, as the first sentence of the abstract clearly states (“In this article, we review the empirical evidence on…”). It looks like the term “meta-analysis,” like the phrase “comprehensive review,” was introduced by the NCSPE’s publicity materials.

What’s the difference? A meta-analysis performs an original analysis drawing together the data and/or findings of multiple previous studies, identified by a comprehensive review of the literature. The “conclusions” of a research review are just somebody’s opinion. Meta-analyses vary from simple (counting up the number of studies that find X and the number that find Y) to complex (using statistical methods to aggregate data or compare findings across studies). But what they all have in common is that they present new factual knowledge. A research review produces no new factual knowledge; it just states opinions.

There’s nothing wrong with researchers having opinions, as we have argued many times. It’s essential. But it’s even more essential to maintain a clear distinction between what is a fact and what is somebody’s opinion. Voucher opponents, as the saying goes, are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. (Judging by the way they conduct themselves, this may be news to some of them – for example, see Greg Anrig’s claims in the comment thread here.)

By falsely puffing this highly selective research review into a meta-analysis, NCSPE will decieve some people – especially journalists, who these days are often familiar with terms like “meta-analysis” and know what they mean, even if NCSPE doesn’t – into thinking that an original analysis has been performed and new factual knowledge is being contributed, when in fact this is just a repetition of the same statement of opinion that voucher opponents have been offering for years.

(We don’t blame Edwize for repeating NCSPE’s falsehood; there’s no shame in a layman not knowing the proper meaning of the technical terms used by scholars.)

And what about the merits of the opinion itself? The paper’s major claim, that the benefits of existing voucher programs are modest, is exactly what we have been saying for years. For example, in this study one of us wrote that “the benefits of school choice identified by these studies are sometimes moderate in size—not surprising, given that existing school choice programs are restricted to small numbers of students and limited to disadvantaged populations, hindering their ability to create a true marketplace that would produce dramatic innovation.”

And there’s the real rub. Existing programs are modest in size and scope. They are also modest in impact. Thank you, Captain Obvious.

The research review argues that because existing programs have a modest impact, we should be pessimistic about the potential of vouchers to improve education dramatically either for the students who use them or in public schools (although the review does acknowledge the extraordinary consensus in the empirical research showing that vouchers do improve public schools).

But why should we be pessimistic that a dramatic program would have a dramatic impact on grounds that modest programs have a modest impact?

One of us recently offered a “modest proposal” that we try some major pilot programs for the unions’ big-spending B.B. approach and for universal vouchers (as opposed to the modest voucher programs we have now), and see which one works. He wrote: “Better designed and better funded voucher programs could give us a much better look at vouchers’ full effects. Existing programs have vouchers that are worth significantly less than per pupil spending in public schools, have caps on enrollments, and at least partially immunize public schools from the financial effects of competition. If we see positive results from such limited voucher programs, what might happen if we could try broader, bolder ones and carefully studied the results?”

Has Edwize managed to respond to that proposal yet? If he has, we haven’t seen it. Come on – if you’re really as confident as you profess to be that your policies are backed up by the empirical research and ours are not, what are so you afraid of?

And while we’re calling him out, here’s another challenge: in the random-assignment research on vouchers, the point gains identified for vouchers over periods of four years or less are generally either the same size as or larger than the point gains identified over four years for reduced class sizes in the Tennessee STAR experiment. Will Edwize say what he thinks of the relative size of the benefits identified from existing voucher programs and class size reduction in the empirical research?