Monday, May 4, 2015

Pro-Choice Schooling: Competition’s Essential Role in Effective Education Reform

Last semester I wrote a policy brief about how school choice can improve the US education system. I’ve reformatted it so that it’s presentable in blog format. Enjoy!

Executive Summary
Over the past 40 years, real per-pupil spending on K-12 education has tripled, with little to no increase in student performance. Yet more “investment” in education will not produce better returns absent significant structural reform. This inefficiency stems primarily from a major organizational flaw in K-12 education: the legally mandated link between where you live and which school you attend, which grants failing public schools a near monopoly on the right to educate low- and middle-income students. Thankfully, a variety of creative school choice initiatives offer proven solutions to this problem based on parental choice, differentiated instruction, and basic market principles. These solutions can be tailored to the unique circumstances of local districts, and are already improving educational outcomes in a variety of experimental settings. As such, state and local education decision makers across the country should commit to broad but customizable school choice initiatives based on open enrollment (severed from residence), competition between schools, per-student budgeting, greater autonomy and accountability for principals and teachers, and collective bargaining relief that makes it easier to close low-performing schools.

Throwing Money at the Problem
In a speech in Durham, NC last week, president Obama admitted that for all the progressive desire to invest in education, “not a dime of whatever new money we might spend would do anything – not so long as it is poured into schools as we organize them today. To make education work for all our kids,” he continued, “we need to tear up our current educational system and reorganize it from the ground up."

The president should be applauded for recognizing the complete discord between education spending and student performance. Although the performance of American students is middling compared to those in other wealthy nations, this is not because we spend less on education than they do (see Annex, Figure 1). And research by the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by Cato’s own Andrew J. Coulson indicates that as the real cost of K-12 public education has more than tripled since 1970, from $50,000 per pupil to $150,000, student math and reading scores remained stagnant over that time, while science scores actually declined (Figure 2).[i] Gains among minority students were more significant at first, but ended after 1990.[ii] There may be a point at which more funding improves outcomes, and perhaps in the poorest districts this remains true. But evidence indicates the average American school is well beyond that point, and is instead experiencing diminishing returns. Even in low-income areas, increased funding is clearly not a sufficient condition for improvement: in places like Cleveland, massive increases in school spending over the past decade have neither stopped an enrollment loss of 40,000 students nor fixed the shocking 54% graduation rate[iii].

Governments at all levels must temper the impulse to sidestep difficult, politically charged structural reform by throwing money at schools under the guise of improving them. Lack of funds is not what ails American schools, and curing them requires an accurate diagnosis.

The Trouble with Public Monopoly
The most injurious of the many maladies maligning American education is the use of residence proximity as the sole or primary factor in determining school attendance, ensuring that “students remain tied to the neighborhood school regardless of how bad its performance may be.”i For some, this has tragic consequences. When parents lack the freedom to customize their child’s education, dissatisfied families (especially those in low-income areas) are stuck in failing, one-size-fits-all institutions. Even worse, those institutions have little incentive to improve, innovate, or differentiate their product; since they are funded independently of student performance or contentment, they have “no need to convince students and parents to stay.” The result is a fiefdom of complacent and centralized public-school monopolies that trap the poor, shut out parental input, destroy experimentation, and yield deadening uniformity.

The Market Alternative
By contrast, when parents are given some say in where their child attends school, schools are made to compete for their favor – to the predictable benefit of students. The advantages of such a system were not lost on Milton Friedman, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. “The only solution…to break the monopoly,” he opined, is to “introduce competition and give customers alternatives,” which would “do much to provide a healthy variety of schools.”[iv] Since “parents generally have both greater interest…and more intimate knowledge of their [children’s] capacities and needs than anyone else,” Friedman called for “a system in which every family…will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go.” Education expert Jay Greene agrees: because “we’re not all the same [and] we don’t all have the same goals for what our education should be,” school choice “allows people to get the type of education they need for them.[v] Thankfully, there are a variety of ways to implement this.

Different Systems for Different Districts
Just as no school is perfect for every child, no school choice format is perfect for every locality: it’s important to understand that school-choice initiatives exist on a spectrum regarding how much choice is afforded, and to which parents that choice is accessible. On one end, voucher programs or individual tax credit give parents a sum of money to spend as they choose on their child’s education (either as a block grant or a tax deduction for approved education expenses). Their expenditures usually must be approved by some state official, but the program works best when parents can choose from a broad range of private, parochial, boarding, home or specialty schools, plus online learning and private tutoring options. A more limited version of school choice lets parents choose merely between traditional public schools and charter schools: publicly funded, nonprofit education upstarts founded by grassroots volunteers. Another variant involves so-called “magnet schools,” which have specialized curriculum designed to attract students interested in a particular field (healthcare, agriculture, trade school, etc.). Parent trigger systems offer a different sort of choice entirely: the ability to sign a petition to force reorganization of a school’s management, or conversion into a charter school format. And even within a single school, choices can be offered regarding which class subjects, difficulty levels, teachers, schedules or annual calendars are most appropriate.

We prefer initiatives with as few restrictions on parental discretion as possible. However, we also recognize that different levels of choice will be more appropriate and politically palatable in different places. Some choice is better than no choice, so we’re proud to endorse an “all of the above” approach.

When School Choice Works Best
That said, some conditions are essential if school choice is to deliver optimal results. First, districts should link funding to enrollment by attaching funds to individual students, who carry their funding with them to whichever school they choose. Special needs students can carry larger amounts to reflect the added expense their attention requires. Secondly, principals should be given the autonomy to spend those funds however they choose – from instructors to technology to supplies to after school activities – ensuring real variation in the education options parents choose between. With that autonomy comes accountability for the results: failing schools will drive away students until the school is eventually forced to close, freeing up resources to reinvest in the more successful varieties. Thirdly, as Snell writes, the adaptation to parent preferences should be somewhat rigid and emotionless: “Close failing schools. Open new schools. Replicate great schools. Repeat as needed.” The mechanism for judging schools and the period of their evaluation should be well publicized and consistently enforced, so the objectivity of closing decisions is more difficult to question.

Finally, this strategy may require significant collective bargaining reform in some districts. This is a major benefit of charter or private schools, which are often unencumbered by restrictive union regulations. Should public school principals determine that the only way to compete with these alternatives is to lay off underperforming teachers, implement seniority-neutral compensation, introduce merit pay, or trade small class sizes for fewer but better qualified teachers, they may incite the ire of teachers unions – but if they are to be held accountable for the outcome, they must be allowed to implement those strategies.

Addressing the Objections
Whenever school choice is first proposed in a new area, a handful of predictable objections are bound to resurface. One common complaint is that school choice only exacerbates problems with struggling public schools by allowing the best students to flee them, creating a “brain drain” and funding gap that perpetuates a cycle of failure. First, these fears are overblown, because many voucher programs are offered only to low-income students, who are also the students most likely to struggle. In practice, the "best" students in a public school are often ineligible for the program anyway. But even if it did create a brain drain, the "cycle of failure" only perpetuates if the failing school is allowed to stay open. If a school repeatedly fails to get results, it should be closed, and its students should be given the means to go elsewhere. Public education is only important to keep around for so long as it’s actually improving educational outcomes for students relative to the alternative. Besides, competition will actually be just as good for public schools as it will for private, pressuring both to respond to consumer demands and make needed changes to improve their product. No matter which schools win that competition, students always benefit.

A second common attack on school choice is that requiring a wide array of students to attend the same public schools inculcates important values of political and social tolerance. This advantage was cited by even the early public school advocates like Horace Mann, whose common school of the early 1800’s involved bringing together students from religiously diverse backgrounds and training them to be good citizens. Since private schools do not accept all comers and are sometimes sectarian, they are said to lack this benefit. But the truth is that far from fomenting tolerance and understanding, public schools often become a social battleground. Because “parents and educators clash over issues of pedagogy, curriculum, morality, [and] sexuality,” public school policies are often “a zero-sum game – since both sides can’t win, their best interest is in defeating the other, leading to resentment.”[vi] Neal McCluskey observes: "Rather than build bonds, public schooling often forces people into conflict. Be they over budgets, math curricula, school start times, or myriad other matters, everyone is probably familiar with divisive public schooling battles…They are often intensely personal, and guarantee if one fundamental value wins, another loses.[vii]" From sex ed to school prayer, public education pits rival factions against one another, threatening social harmony. By contrast, school choice allows families to select the schools that reflect their values. If they the presence of others with different priorities is no longer a threat to people’s own preferred livelihoods, it produces a greater willingness to coexist.

A Slew of Success Stories
All around the country, competition is making schools better in the places it’s been tried. In New York City, recent charter school expansion was bolstered by findings that charter students learned more reading and (much) more math in a given year than their public school peers.[viii] Greene reports that New Orleans found charter schools to be a wildly successful means of recovering from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster:
Louisiana’s burgeoning school choice movement is using transparency, standards, and accountability to improve student achievement and turn around low-performing schools. Nearly 60 percent of New Orleans’ estimated 26,000 students are in charter schools, and test scores have risen dramatically since 2005.
Overall, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice reports that 23 states offer private voucher programs, while another 42 have charter school laws.[ix] Both figures have only increased over time, for the important reason that “when choice is expanded it’s very hard to take it away from people. Once they have it they like it and want to fight to keep it.”v With that much success, it’s no wonder school choice is winning bipartisan support, from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle. School choice is the way of the future, so those schools which adapt early will be giving their pupils a leg up on the competition.

Sources:





[i] De Rugy, Veronique. Losing the Brains Race. Reason Magazine, February 22nd, 2011. http://reason.com/archives/2011/02/22/losing-the-brains-race
[ii] Coulson, Andrew J. Addressing the Critics of This Purportedly No Good, Very Bad Chart. Cato at Liberty, September 29th, 2014. http://www.cato.org/blog/addressing-critics-purportedly-no-good-very-bad-chart

[iii] Snell, Lisa. Proven Policies to Fix Failing Schools. Reason, March 15th, 2010. http://reason.com/archives/2010/03/15/proven-policies-to-fix-failing

[iv] Freidman, Milton. The Friedmans on School Choice. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. http://www.edchoice.org/The-Friedmans/The-Friedmans-on-School-Choice

[v] Greene, Jay. Jay Greene: “I’m very agnostic about what form choice must take.” Reason Foundation, April 19, 2011. http://reason.org/news/show/1011548.html

[vi] Bedrick, Jason. For a Free Society, Promote School Choice. The Heartland Institute, November 9th, 2014. http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/free-society-promote-school-choice

[vii] McCluskey, Neal. Public Schooling Battle Map. The Cato Institute. http://www.cato.org/education-fight-map.

[viii] The New York Times Editorial Staff. Better Charter Schools in New York City. The New York Times. February 22nd, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/opinion/better-charter-schools-in-new-york-city.html

[ix] The ABCs of School Choice: The comprehensive guide to every private school choice program in America. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 2014 Edition. http://www.edchoice.org/School-Choice/The-ABCs-of-School-Choice/ABCs-Blue/2014-The-ABCs-of-School-Choice-Blue

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