Monday, May 21, 2018

Debate on School Choice v. Forced Integration

An acquaintance (I’ll call him James) recently asked some Hopkins peers of mine their opinions on how to help students stuck in failing schools.  I responded by advocating broad school choice. A different acquaintance (I’ll call him Kevin) responded by advocating forced integration, sharing this article as evidence.  This prompted even James (who is fairly left-wing) to respond with some individualist objections…

James: I do take issue with her minimizing individual concerns. Individual kids are whole people with whole personalities and lives, it's completely understandable that parents work to get their individual child a good schooling.

That's why integration in the 60s to 80s worked - everyone had to do it at once. Sending your kid to the "whiter school" wasn't a way to get your kid better resources because of the strict implementation of integration. Now it really is, on a practical level, and parents of all races follow the school resources to try to get their kids into the better of the segregated schools.

…prompting Kevin to go full collectivist/totalitarian.

Kevin: I think her diagnosis is on point, but she seems to think we can change the way things are either by relying on individual choices of parents or forced government integration (not realistic in this climate, and it doesn’t address the core issue which is housing segregation)

I have a lot of thoughts about this because I made it from a poor school in the third world to Hopkins because of the informed choices my parents made (working for the embassy and settling in the US, moving to a zip code with 3x the average income of Baltimore giving up any dreams of owning property to put me in the best school district possible). But none of my neighbors in Sri Lanka (or your underprivileged neighbors in Baltimore) get to have that opportunity. Call me idealistic but I’m also against the attitude that individual concerns are more important than equal opportunity for all people. I agree that forced integration isn’t perfect but that’s why I’m a commie, because I don’t believe liberal reforms can offer any real solution to segregation. But i will always bring this up because it’s important to understand the history of how Brown vs Board of ed was effectively reversed through an appeal to white voters and colorblind rhetoric (we even changed the way we talk about bussing programs and racial quotas mandated by the govt; “desegregation” became “integration”, and integration became discrimination against whites).

Things weren’t so different back then, there were certainly racial disparities and parents wanting what’s best for their own children is the reason desegregation was reversed, and if the racial achievement gap started widening afterwards it was a result of this colorblind attitude towards desegregation. The point is, parents should have the freedom to choose what’s best for their children but not at the expense of perpetuating historical injustices. But I also don’t really have a solution.

A debate ensued between Kevin and I.  Here’s the transcript.

Me: "Call me idealistic but I’m also against the attitude that individual concerns are more important than equal opportunity for all people. I agree that forced integration isn’t perfect but that’s why I’m a commie...The point is, parents should have the freedom to choose what’s best for their children but not at the expense of perpetuating historical injustices."

I guess I respect your idealism Kevin, but as someone with different ideals, it's difficult for me to express just how seething mad this mindset makes me. School choice is expressly calculated to open doors for poor racial minorities in particular. It is championed most vigorously in big city, majority-minority school districts. Let's be clear about this: more often than not, the parents you're saying shouldn't get to choose which school is best for their own children are the very same parents against whom those historical injustices were perpetrated.

Integration is no panacea; but even if it were, school choice promotes it. Inversely, the lack of school choice enables white flight. Opposing school choice - even when coupled with the most aggressive forced integration program you can fathom – amounts to telling those victims of injustice that you, the self-appointed social planner, are so woke and well-read and prescient that you know what's best for them *better than they do* in the long run, and that mindset just drives me absolutely bonkers. I'll stand right beside you in combatting housing discrimination (and city zoning ordnances + eminent domain abuse are a good place to start). But stranded kids shouldn't have to wait until those problems are solved to go to better schools than the current system provides them.

Kevin: What is so controversial about saying all people should have equal access to high quality education? That makes you mad? The data I cited speaks for itself. I’d like to see you justify why you’re against a form of reparations that is PROVEN to undo the crimes of segregation, literally making black people and their children and their children’s children live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives at no cost to those who are already advantaged.

What is it with libertarians and being ok with the way things are, as if the status quo isn’t the most forced, involuntary, and violent system of unjustified hierarchy we know, that is based on a history of white supremacy, genocide and class warfare. I have no sympathy for people like you who claim to care about the “freedom” for those with greater access to capital to hold on to that power. Why shouldn’t everyone have access to the same education? Why should it only be for those in the upper echelons of class society? Because they were born into families that weren’t historically denied access to capital over the course of 400+ years of racial apartheid? I’m sorry but society isn’t going to magically become free unless we have a level playing field from the start. There’s nothing I despise more than someone whose attitude is “I got mine, screw everyone else” when it comes to education, something which is something I see not only as a basic right for all people, but a direct investment in society that pays for itself several times over.

Ideology aside, school choice has been shown to lead to more segregation and greater racial disparities in several places it’s been implemented. It’s been mapped by CityLab take a look for yourself why your “solution” is quite literally undoing what desegregation has accomplished thus far.

Me: Okay, now you’re arguing in bad faith.  Either that, or you fundamentally misunderstand both what school choice aims to do and what motivates libertarian beliefs, and have dismissively skimmed over everything I've written so far that might have clued you in to one or both.

First, you whiff completely on what it was about your original comment I found irritating, and why. I’m not angered by your nostalgia for 1970’s busing programs designed to make white kids go to school with black kids.  I’m angered by your ongoing opposition to modern-day school choice initiatives (like those criticized in the link you shared) in failing school districts (like those John referenced).  In that context, saying “p
arents should have the freedom to choose what’s best for their children but not at the expense of perpetuating historical injustices” appears to constrain the options available to black families in poor districts in an extraordinarily paternalistic way: they can’t choose what’s best for their children, because YOU think THEIR choices would perpetuate historical injustices AGAINST THEMSELVES in the long run.  This reminded me of the sentiment expressed in this absurd Slate article from a few years ago, which is why I posted the Popehat rebuttal to said article.

After rereading your comment, it’s possible you only meant that quote in the context of forced integration (not education generally) which would be somewhat less irritating.  But in any case, i
t is completely unrelated to your subsequent claim that “all people should have equal access to high quality education.” That subsequent claim does not make me mad, because it’s technically true (despite sounding like a crossed-out lyric to Imagine that even John Lennon decided was a bit too wistful).  In fact, it is precisely because I am interested in expanding (and thus, equalizing) access to high quality education that school choice is important to me, as any good faith reading of my initial comment would have revealed.  A policy of “go to whatever school you want” seems far likelier to achieve this than a policy of “go to the school in your district, and shut up,” especially under conditions of disparate regional resources.

Next you launch into this tirade about libertarians being “ok with the way things are” due to an “I got mine, screw everyone else” mentality, thereby continuing the cherished leftist tradition of lambasting libertarianism without the faintest understanding of what it is.  “The status quo” in education is very clearly not school choice. Almost always, it is the state: a spiderweb of complacent school-district fiefdoms, running unaccountable public monopolies along redlined districts that trap the poor, shut out parental input, destroy experimentation, yield deadening uniformity, and guzzle money without measurable improvement in educational output.  This is not a model libertarians are okay with, which is precisely why we’re trying to improve upon the state by opening non-state alternatives to as many people as possible.  The American status quo may not quite be “the most forced, involuntary, and violent system of unjustified hierarchy we know” (thanks, Communism!) – but it is certainly forced, involuntary and violent enough to horrify libertarians and rally us against it.

You close with a list of hyperlinks noting alleged downsides of school choice.  Like most contentious policy issues, studies can be cited on both sides of this debate. They can also be cited on both sides of the debates on vaccines, GMOs, or global warming.  But in all four of these cases, the greater preponderance of the evidence falls on one side over the other.

Here’s a PowerPoint that summarizes the findings from dozens of high-internal-validity random assignment studies on American school choice initiatives.  13 of 18 relevant studies indicated a positive effect on test scores; only three showed a negative effect. Nine of ten studies found positive effects on integration; zero found negative effects. There was virtually zero evidence that school choice initiatives harmed neighboring public schools; in fact, 31 of 33 studies found small positive effects *even in the non-charter public schools,* just as competition advocates would predict.

None of the links you shared challenge these findings academically.  The City Lab piece merely compares enrollment at charter schools vs. population heat maps in two cherry-picked cities, and vs. enrollment in regular public schools in just one of those cities.  It does not study the impact of introducing charter schools on integration from an isolated OTE perspective; nor does it extend its analysis to other places charter schools have been tried; nor does not consider the broader array of school choice initiatives available (tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, vouchers usable at non-charter schools, etc).  The second link you share is equally anecdotal, and both articles admit the existence of contradictory case studies (like those cited here).

That said, some of your links may offer helpful insight into the best way to devise school choice initiatives so as to avoid certain pitfalls.  Perhaps a lottery system among applicants is better than magnet schools that get to pick their own students.  Some cities use a “pick your top three” system, and then run some optimization equations to make everyone as happy as possible within a desired racial breakdown.  We can get creative, and I’m somewhat agnostic as to the sorts of choices we introduce, so long as there’s more of them.  But sneering at the people trying to innovate and help for how selfish they are – even as you confess “I don’t really have a solution,” – is probably not productive.  I promise I don’t have ties to some for-profit sham school, and I haven’t seen one penny of that money the Koch Brothers promised me for shilling their snake oil.

Kevin: Dude compare these contradictory studies to the studies I linked about desegregation. The effects were so noticeably positive that there’s no need to debate what’s better. You’re just looking at things in a vacuum of what’s permissible in the current society and arguing that “slightly positive effects” even remotely compares to what is possible if we didn’t live in a dictatorship of the rich.

So you're telling me these 10 studies chosen by are comprehensive and therefore no harmful effects of privatizing schools have ever been found?

Again, I don't care about slightly higher test scores, at the expense of a widening racial achievement gap ever since the desegregation efforts ended in the 80s. Look at this AP analysis that actually looks at nationwide effects on segregation, looking at data from 42 states, as opposed to Lousianna and only 3 cities (Milwaukee, Cleveland, and DC) as in the slide above, that shows that charters are vastly overrepresented among schools where minorites study in the most extreme racial isolation.

"As of school year 2014-2015, more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number has been rising steadily."

"While 4 percent of traditional public schools are 99 percent minority, the figure is 17 percent for charters. In cities, where most charters are located, 25 percent of charters are over 99 percent nonwhite, compared to 10 percent for traditional schools.

School integration gains achieved over the second half of the last century have been reversed in many places over the last 20 years, and a growing number of schools educate students who are poor and mostly black or Hispanic, according to federal data. The resegregation has been blamed on the effects of charters and school choice, the lapse of court-ordered desegregation plans in many cities, and housing and economic trends."

It's interesting that 5 of the studies in the slide come from Milwaukee.

"Like many other American cities, Milwaukee has seen an exodus of white students since a busing program in the 1970s. Whites now account for only 14 percent of the 78,500 students in the public school system. City schools often have one predominant ethnic group, and many charters are at the far end of that spectrum.

Despite successes at schools like Bruce-Guadalupe, charters with the highest levels of racial isolation rank among the worst.

Nationwide, about half of students reach state proficiency standards in traditional public schools, and on average charters are only a few percentage points behind. Among schools that are 99 percent minority, however, only about 20 percent reach proficiency levels at traditional public schools and about 30 percent do so at charters, according to the AP analysis.

At the Milwaukee Math and Science Academy, more than 98 percent of the 335 students are African-American and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Less than 20 percent of students score at state proficiency levels for reading and less than 25 percent do so for math. The principal, Alper Akyurek, acknowledges that the school has significant room to improve test scores, but so too do the neighborhood schools his students would be attending otherwise."

Now look at what Fuller, the author of 4 of those studies, and the superintendent of Milwaukee schools from 1991-1995 had to say:

"He says the imbalances reflect deep-rooted segregation, and it is unfair to put the burden on charters to pursue integration.

In a city where many black students live in poverty, and some reach high school not knowing how to read, he said there are other, more pressing problems.

“It’s a waste of time to talk about integration,” he said. “How do these kids get the best education possible?”"

He has a point, it's unfair to blame charters entirely for resegregation. But my stance from the beginning was in favor of desegregation, which we KNOW actually does help equalize our society.

"But schools that enroll 99 percent minorities — both charters and traditional public schools — on average have fewer students reaching state standards for proficiency in reading and math.

“Desegregation works. Nothing else does,” said Daniel Shulman, a Minnesota civil rights attorney. “There is no amount of money you can put into a segregated school that is going to make it equal.”"

I'm assuming many of us have already seen this segment about charter schools

Since there are clearly so many other studies out there, I don't want to hear any more disingenuous statements like "zero studies have shown negative effects on racial integration". Now let's talk about Chicago.

"The report, “Closed by Choice: The Spatial Relationship between Charter School Expansion, School Closures and Fiscal Stress in Chicago Public Schools,” tracks 108 charter schools that opened between 2000 and 2015, a period when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was shutting struggling schools, cutting district funding and reducing staff. It details and confirms what many charter critics have long said, that lobbying from pro-privatization forces swayed the city’ political leaders to impose top-down reforms that riled neighborhoods, undermined traditional K-12 schools, increased segregation and did not lead to schools with better academic results.

Perhaps most insidiously, the report describes in great detail how the CPS system aggressively shut down struggling schools in neighborhoods where student numbers were dwindling, while allowing better-funded charters to open up nearby, taking a greater share of taxpayer funds that might have been used to rescue struggling schools."

"“Charter schools are open to all students across the city without entrance exams or tuition. Students must apply to enroll in the school. If there are more applicants than available seats in a charter school, the school must hold a citywide lottery to pick its student body. As such, charter schools do not have to admit local neighborhood children. As a result of this self-selecting application process, charters are more segregated by race and class compared to neighborhood public schools.”"

"“Charter schools also have a history of excluding student English language learners and students with special needs; expelling students for discipline policy violations at 10 times the rate of CPS expulsions; and “counseling-out” poor test takers by nudging these students to drop out and enroll in another school.”"

"“Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the Chicago Sun-Times determined that the average Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores by elementary students at charter schools and neighborhood schools in Chicago ‘were in a virtual tie on the reading and math exams.’ Neighborhood schools made stronger gains in reading growth and just slightly higher gains in math growth, relative to charter school growth. In the aggregate, Chicago’s charter and neighborhood public schools have similar levels of student test performance. Any differences in either direction tend to be slight.”"

"“Our data shows that between 2000 and 2015, CPS closed 167 neighborhood public schools. Since 42 of the 167 closed schools were ‘turn-around’ schools and were reopened as neighborhood public schools, we excluded those from the total number of neighborhood public schools that stayed closed to the neighborhood’s children. We count the 15 neighborhood public schools that were closed and reopened as new public schools with some kind of exclusive enrollment criteria as closed neighborhood public schools. We also count the 31 closed neighborhood public school buildings that were reopened as new charter schools as closed neighborhood public schools.”"

"“In 2012, Chicago Public Schools implemented a 5% increase in per-pupil allocation for charter operation expenses and a large increase in the per pupil stipend to cover charter facility expenses. The increase to charters’ per pupil allocation occurred at the same time CPS cut $100 million from neighborhood public schools. While neighborhood public high schools experienced a 14% decline in their budgets (even though student enrollments only declined by 2%), charter schools enjoyed a 12% budget increase (even though they were enrolling 10% more students).”"

"“The impact of stretching limited funds across multiple schools contributes to school closure and budget cuts but it also impacts overcrowded schools. CPS has 68 overcrowded schools that cannot get the resources they need to educate their children. Overcrowded classroom conditions can be claustrophobic, noisy and prevent the teacher from having sufficient one-on-one time with each student. For example, the Better Government Association identified Avalon Park Elementary School on the South Side as one of the most egregious examples of overcrowded classroom conditions, where in 2015, they had a kindergarten class with 51 children and a first-grade room with 48 kids. To relieve overcrowding in schools, schools often resort to drastic measures such as holding classes in hallways, closets and even staircases.”"

Somehow while there is taxpayer money for private schools, pushed by private interests and billionaires like Bill Gates, there is a corresponding lack of funds for failing public schools. There is $700 million annually going into these charter programs. What has been accomplished?

Finally I want to reiterate why desegregation does work.

"The difference in black and white reading scores fell to half what it was in 1971, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. (As schools have since resegregated, the test-score gap has only grown.) The improvements for black children did not come at the cost of white children. As black test scores rose, so did white ones.

Decades of studies have affirmed integration’s power. A 2010 study released by the Century Foundation found that when children in public housing in Montgomery County, Md., enrolled in middle-class schools, the differences between their scores and those of their wealthier classmates decreased by half in math and a third in reading, and they pulled significantly ahead of their counterparts in poor schools. In fact, integration changes the entire trajectory of black students’ lives. A 2015 longitudinal study by the economist Rucker Johnson at the University of California, Berkeley, followed black adults who had attended desegregated schools and showed that these adults, when compared with their counterparts or even their own siblings in segregated schools, were less likely to be poor, suffer health problems and go to jail, and more likely to go to college and reside in integrated neighborhoods. They even lived longer. Critically, these benefits were passed on to their children, while the children of adults who went to segregated schools were more likely to perform poorly in school or drop out.”"

There's no debate here! Integration clearly works! "Separate but equal" is still a myth. Don't think of it as "forced", instead think of this current system of apartheid as forced and unjustified. Think of desegregation as long overdue reparations for Black America, which comes at no cost to White America.
At the end of the day you're arguing with a communist so.. let's say the issue is housing segregation. I'm sure you would have some libertarian solutions. My solution would be to revolt against the bourgeoisie. There are at least 6x as many homes as there are homeless people in the US. Why can't we just provide everyone with quality housing? Because then there would be no realtors or landlords, and no tiny minority of the population keeping virtually all the profits from the industry for themselves. There would be no housing market period. Jeff Bezos can buy every individual (not family, individual) in the US a home and still be a billionaire when he's done, so scarcity is clearly not an issue here. When I said I don't have a solution, I meant that I don't have a complete solution, because reforms can only accomplish so much under a capitalist dictatorship.

Me: I’d just like to take a step back and talk about our goals, because they seem different.  We both want equality and we both want good schools; but it seems like your goal is “make schools equal now, and that will make them better” while my goal is “make schools better now, and that will make them more equal.”  I guess that partially reflects our different values, but I also think there’s a pragmatism to my approach that makes it more productive.

Perfect equality is worth pursuing, but it’s not going to happen overnight.  Even after decades of doing things your way through forced integration, equality was not achieved by 1980, and the Supreme Court was not its only obstacle.  Your own article admitted that “Milwaukee has seen an exodus of white students since a busing program in the 1970’s;” if white people move far enough away, there’s no busing program in the world that will make them integrate.  There are practical limitations to state coercion that I’m not sure you fully appreciate, to say nothing of the moral case against it.

Thankfully, voluntary alternatives can improve AND equalize schools in meaningful ways right now. The root of inequality is that some schools are way better than others, and the best way to pursue equality is to make the bad schools better: pull from the bottom up.  This will happen incrementally and this will take time, and school choice alone won’t fix everything that’s unfair about the current system.  I can understand why that reality frustrates you, as it frustrates me too.  But even so, I can’t help but support school choice relative to the status quo, because I personally am not content to wait for your communist revolution to start improving bad schools, and school choice is an intuitive way to do that backed up by empirical evidence.

Now to address your more specific objections..

Your first objection is that “charters are vastly overrepresented among schools where minorites study in the most extreme racial isolation.”  This doesn’t surprise me. As I explained in my very first comment, school choice is most often introduced *as a remedy* for failing inner city schools with large minority populations.  It’s not experimented with as often in suburbia, nor in city districts where existing options are considered satisfactory.  So your AP report on the “link” between charter schools and racial isolation implies the causation exactly backwards: they get crummy and racially isolated first, and that’s when the charters come in to save the day.  And amusingly, the AP report even concedes that the charter schools do better under such conditions, writing: “Among schools that are 99 percent minority, however, only about 20 percent reach proficiency levels at traditional public schools and about 30 percent do so at charters, according to the AP analysis.”

This leads me to my next rebuttal, to your insistence that desegregation is a panacea – or as Daniel Shulman put it in your article, that “desegregation works, nothing else does.”  Integration probably helps somewhat, but once again, we run into the correlation v. causation dilemma. In each of the studies you cite there are dozens of factors in play besides integration that seriously weaken the ties you’re calling indisputable.

Prior to Brown v. Board, black people went to shitty schools, and white people went to better schools.  The factors which differentiated these schools extended far beyond the racial composition of the student body.  Class size, teacher training, teacher experience, facilities quality, textbook quality, safety, administrator quality, disciplinary procedures, academic rigor, etc. – each of these things intuitively impacts the quality of a student’s education regardless of what color those students are.  To point out that “when children in public housing in Montgomery County, Md., enrolled in middle-class schools,” their scores improved and the race gap narrowed, should again hardly be surprising. Likewise, a longitudinal study showing black adults who had attended desegregated schools had improved long-term prospects could just as easily be a function of those desegregated schools ALSO being better staffed, better funded, safer, with smaller classes and nicer textbooks, etc. than those their black peers were left in, rather than a function of integration itself.

You haven’t really specified the particular mechanism through which integration is supposed to improve outcomes.  For example, perhaps you’d argue that all those factors I listed are a function of better funding, and white people will only be motivated to fund black schools if their students have to attend them too, so integration is a necessary precondition.  That’s reasonable enough; but, then we should specify that it’s really the funding that’s the missing ingredient (or whatever else you think is) and analyze all the various ways we might reallocate funding apart from forced integration too.

Again, I’m not against integration, and think society would be healthier in lots of ways beyond just education were our neighborhoods themselves more racially diverse.  But the idea that “there’s no debate here!” that integration is the be-all-end-all determinant of educational outcomes is just not the case.

In truth, very little has been proven about what produces better educational outcomes for kids, with one arguable exception: parental involvement. You can Google a million studies on this for yourself if you doubt it, but essentially, of all the variables they try to isolate, the extent to which a parent takes interest in their child’s education (by continuing it at home, establishing expectations that homework will be completed to standard, attending events, communicating with the teacher, etc.) repeatedly comes up as one of the most important factors.  If memory serves, this is true even when controlling for income, neighborhood, school funding level, and other things intuitively likely to be associated with parental involvement.

With this in mind, it stands to reason that the opinion of the parents in question is a relevant factor to consider. And as it turns out, charter schools are relatively popular among the only demographic of people that really ought to matter: the people they’re intended to help.  See here and here, with polls in the articles (as well as a black education professional rejecting the need for integration, fwiw).  And that’s what riled me a bit about your dismissal of them: the tacit insinuation that it doesn’t matter if people choose them, their choices are wrong because you know better than they.  That’s never a good look to a libertarian haha (and for future reference, communists telling non-communists “don’t think of it as “forced!” is probably not an effective strategy for spreading your ideology lol…people don’t think of it as “forced” unless they really are being forced, they can tell when that’s happening, and you can’t hand-wave it away with euphemism…but I digress).

Next you object to charter schools diverting funding from traditional public schools.  This doesn’t concern me because there’s very little link between school funding and school performance when controlling for other factors.  Real per capita K-12 education spending has tripled in the US since 1970, while test scores have stagnated in Math and Reading and actually gone down in Science.  (Granted, there is probably a minimum threshold of funding necessary to educate students effectively, and the poorest schools are probably still below that line, so it’s not completely irrelevant.  But the compilation of 33 studies I showed earlier strongly indicates it’s not harming those schools in serious ways, and if anything the competition is helping them to a larger extent.)

Besides, if charter schools are outperforming traditional schools in most measures, they SHOULD be diverting funds away from the failing schools and into the thriving ones (and eventually closing the failing ones and sending their students elsewhere).  That’s why markets are so effective, and as much as teacher’s unions may like to pretend otherwise, education is not immune to the same market pressures that predict human behavior in every other sector.