Benefits of Transformational School Choice: Maybe a Bone to Pick with Milton Friedman

At the just-completed School Choice and Reform International Academic Conference, one of the delegates noted Milton Friedman’s hypothesis that programs such as universal, unrestricted tuition vouchers would massively benefit the least advantaged members of society, and barely alter the circumstances of the wealthy. And Dr. Friedman said the middle class would benefit, but not nearly as much as low income families. I want to highlight Dr. Friedman’s prediction because:

1.) many people believe (or hope) that the only major gains to be realized from school choice expansion accrue to the poor, so that choice expansion can/should be targeted to low income families; and 2.) because I disagree, in part, unless “wealthy” is defined very narrowly. I will use my family as a case in point to argue that leveling the field between public and privately-provided schooling options would significantly expand and then improve the schooling circumstances (location, and quality) of all but the super, super wealthy.

Cities Education Spending Efficiency

WalletHub’s “2015’s Cities with the Most & Least Efficient Spending on Education” found that although free for students, public education can cost cities big. In fact, education topped state and local government spending at $869.2 billion in 2012, according to the latest finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Even so, the quality of education students receive can vary drastically from city to city, but why?

Traditionally, public school budgets have relied on local taxes, disparities in which potentially spur income inequality among students upon reaching adulthood, a Harvard University and National Bureau of Economic Research study concluded. The authors suggest that school-district quality reflects the amount of tax dollars families can pump into their local economies.

Exacerbating the inequality problem is the fact that state and local governments currently operate on tighter budgets, even though real spending per pupil has increased 90 percent over the past 30 years. More recently, however, capital outlays on education have fallen 7.9 percent, from $91.7 billion in 2007 to $84.5 billion in 2012. A decline in elementary and secondary school spending accounted for much of the overall drop, begging an important question: How efficiently are cities spending taxpayer dollars on public school education?

With taxes being top of mind and schools back in session, WalletHub addressed that question by calculating the return on educational investment for 90 of the most populated U.S. cities. To do so, we divided each city’s aggregated standardized test scores in reading and math for grades 4 and 8 by its total education spending per capita. We then normalized the data by four key socioeconomic factors.

State and local financing is crucial to the well-being of public schools. But even more critical is how cities spend those funds, especially where budgets are more constrained. To expand the discussion, we asked a panel of experts to provide insight on issues related to school financing and effectiveness.

The following are my answers to their “Ask the Experts” section:

What makes some city school systems more effective than others?

Competition is good for education. Large metropolitan areas have more schools than suburbs and rural areas. The more schools and school districts in an area, the more competition. My research shows that competition can be beneficial, increasing the quality of the schools in a city.

What factors influence a city’s ROI on education spending? How can residents know whether their tax dollars are being used wisely by local authorities on K-12 education?

School districts continue to ask states for funds to pour more money into the public schools, hiring more staff and buying more equipment. Adding more money, however, does not appear to increase education quality or graduation rates. Per pupil costs have doubled in 50 years and student achievement has remained flat. School staff has increased from 40 per 1,000 students in 1960 to 125 per 1,000 students. Employee benefits, including pensions and health care, are still the fastest-growing cost in education, increasing at twice the rate of salaries. Employee benefits accounted for 22 cents of every $1 spent on schools in 2009, compared with 17 cents in 2002. Other factors that are adding to this cost are teacher salaries, low performing students, special needs students and support/administration services and staff.

How have city education budgets fared in the recession and economic recovery?

Overall, education spending slowed during the recession. However, no matter how the economy is performing, schools will always demand more money.


NSCW NCPA 2015: Plenty of Support for School Choice

This year’s School Choice Week has good news for school choice advocates. According to a new poll by the American Federation for Children, 69 percent of the likely voters favor school choice, and 65 percent believe that “choice and competition” between school improves the education system.

U.S. Maps School Choice

Delving further into the topic of school choice, the poll found that:

  • 63 percent of those surveyed supported private school choice, particularly school vouchers.
  • 76 percent of those surveyed supported public charter schools.
  • 54 percent of those surveyed felt that empower parents through school choice would improve the education system.

Support for all kinds of school choice is on the rise across the nation, though options for public and private school remain varied state by state. According to the Heritage Foundation:

  • 46 states offer some level of support for public school choice.
  • Half of the nation has average to strong laws supporting charter schools.
  • Only 17 states offer some level of support for private school choice.

While these numbers mark a good start, much work is needed to expand school choice across the nation. Expanding school choice and increasing competition empowers parents, increases teacher pay and accountability, and student engagement and education outcomes.

Expanding school choice is the one surefire way to secure a better education for our current and future students. Take advantage of School Choice Week to learn a little more about the school choice options in your state.

An Abbott-Patrick Tipping Point: All Hands on Deck to Get Universal School Choice Expansion

The good news is that Candidate Abbott looked me in the eye across a conference table and said “we will have school choice, but not vouchers.” That’s fine, because a tuition voucher is an obsolete means of expanding parental school choice. But, supporters of the “Texas Savings Grant” (TSG) proposal take note. Be ready with something grounded in tuition tax credits or education savings accounts if Governor Abbott shows reluctance to back the TSG voucher-like proposal. And that brings us to more good news. Lt. Governor Patrick focused some of his inaugural address on the absolute need for school choice expansion. But there is bad news. Now-Governor Abbott did not say if he would aim for targeted or universal expansion of parental choice. And Lt. Governor Patrick seemed strongly inclined to expand choice only for children enrolled in schools formally designated “failing”; something that only helps victims of near utter dysfunction. Since none of our traditional public schools is a good fit for an acceptably high percentage of the children assigned to them, choice needs to universal. One size does not fit all even in Texas’ relatively “exemplary” schools; not best for everyone, and still often surprisingly low performing. The roots of the problem persist at all traditional public schools, and many chartered public schools.

After broadly expressing dismay about the Lt. Governor’s seeming preference for narrowly targeted expansion of parental choice, I received two classes of responses. #1. There is a basis for concern. Candidate Dan Patrick had made similar remarks in other forums. And #2: The remarks are grounded in a conservative vote count among legislators. According to that view, Lt. Governor Patrick would be delighted to achieve a universal expansion of access to parental choice, but the votes for it may not be there in the now-ongoing legislative session.

That’s where you come in; all hands on deck; battle stations. This is big. We have a rare chance to ignite a pandemic spread of transformational parental choice in education policy. It won’t happen from a targeted, therefore non-transformational policy. We know that from past experience with school choice programs that limited eligibility to low-income families, special education children, or children assigned to chronically low-performing traditional public schools. Such targeted choice just moves children among existing schooling options; something helpful, but not transformational. The scope of targeted school choice expansions is too small to leverage the desperately-needed, entrepreneurial initiative-driven transformation of the schooling options. Upcoming blog posts will help you make that point to anyone that will listen. Focus, especially, on people willing to express their concerns to their Texas state legislators.

NSCW NCPA 2015: School Choice Programs must be Unrestrictive and Universal

As National School Choice Weed continues, the cries of “Children are different,” “Improve education outcomes,” “Expand opportunity,” are still loud and clear as ever. In addition to the media’s opinions, the American public has made it clear that they want more school options for their children.

Luntz Global study found that:

  • 73 percent of Americans support school choice
  • 64 percent of parents said that “if given the financial opportunity,” they would send one or all of their children to a different school

Education Next’s Survey 2014 results included:

  • 87 percent said they their children attend public school
  • 55 percent support charter schools
  • 60 percent support private school choice

Too many children are trapped in an obsolete educational system in the United States. Children deserve to have as many opportunities as an open and free educational market will allow them. The most unrestrictive and universally inclusive private school choice programs have the best chance to reform the entire educational system. The result of such reforms could lead to school specialization that fits each student’s interests and can dually greatly improve academic achievement and expand opportunity for students and teachers.

School Choice and School Discipline

By John Garen

Both common sense and education research indicate that a healthy learning environment is critical in determining the effectiveness of schools. An important element in maintaining such an environment is how classroom discipline is handled. Thus, a key question is: “How best can appropriate school discipline practices emerge?”

The central thought I wish to plant is that school choice programs can play a critical role in this regard; and indeed the flexibility and discretion that often come with choice programs are perhaps the key factor in enabling appropriate discipline to evolve. I suggest that we should expect that this is the most efficacious way of doing so, rather than from a centrally directed approach, where school discipline policies and procedures are handed down by state and federal governments.

SOTU NCPA: Expanding an Underperforming Educational System

In his State of the Union address, President Obama tackled several education issues, including his “free” college proposal and the quality of our K-12 education. He lauded the progress our education system, stating that “we believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world. And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.”

Unfortunately, scoring “higher than before” isn’t enough. According to the results from the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students ranked below average in math, falling behind 29 other countries. In 2009 ― the last time the PISA was administered ― the U.S. ranked 23rd.

If we want our students to stay competitive, we need to focus on improving our K-12 education system. Filling teacher shortages, improving teacher quality and accountability, empowering parents through the expansion of school choice, and increasing student engagement in STEM fields ― these are the keys to keeping our children competitive.

None of these improvements will come cheap. Take the teacher shortage. For the 2014 – 2015 school year, 45 states and all six U.S. territories will post teacher shortages in one more STEM areas. With the average U.S. teacher salary coming in at slightly under $57,000, filing those shortages could get pricey. Yet with the $70 billion price tag on Obama’s “free” college proposal, you could fund the salaries for over 130,000 teachers for ten years.

Expanding upon an already strained education system is not the answer to keeping our children competitive. Instead, we should focus our attention ― and our funding ― on fixing the inherent problems in our system.

Proof of Widespread, Longtime Denial: Circulation of the Horse Story

Years ago, when my wife was a teacher in a traditional public elementary school (TPS), she came home one night with a bizarre sheet of paper left in her school mailbox. It was a massively mimeographed copy of the “Horse Story”:

“Common advice from knowledgeable horse trainers includes the adage, “If the horse you’re riding dies, get off.” This seems simple enough, yet in the education business, we don’t always follow this advice. Instead, we often choose from an array of alternatives which include:

  • Switching riders
  • Moving the horse to a new location
  • Arranging to visit other sites where they ride dead horses more efficiently
  • Creating a new test for measuring riding ability
  • Saying things like, “This is the way we’ve always ridden this horse.”
  • Developing new styles of riding
  • Tightening the cinch
  • Appointing a committee to study the horse
  • Increasing standards for riding the horse
  • Blaming the horse’s parents. The problem is often in the breeding.

It’s available on the Internet to this day, though the only link I was able to find this time only alleged its metaphorical relevance to Gifted Education. Clearly, the 1990s messenger that left a copy of the Horse Story in mailboxes at an inner city TPS that employed my wife was not thinking just in terms of failure to do right by gifted children.

So, for a long time, many public school educators have recognized the persistent futility of squeezing tolerable performance from the current “business plan”; the means chosen to deliver instruction. We can use some “inside” help to bring about the much-needed transformation of a costly process that, despite the huge sums we’ve spent on it, fails to engage a lot of children in high value learning. Maybe application of the Horse Story to the public school system started with Myron Lieberman’s (1993) still great Public Education: An Autopsy.

The Higher Education Bubble

President Obama has proposed to give community college students two “free” years of community college at a projected cost of nearly $70 billion (ultimately to be paid for by workers who don’t go to college).

The result of infusing colleges with billions of dollars in additional funds will be to raise the cost of a college education even higher ― just as student loans and federal grants have encouraged wasteful spending by colleges and universities across the country. The open spigot of federal money continues to flow, mostly in the form of guaranteed student loans. These institutions are charging higher tuition rates because they can rely on receiving guaranteed money from the government. Because of these practices, student debt has reached $1 trillion, surpassing credit cards and car loans as the largest source of debt in the country, and there is growing evidence this is creating a “student loan bubble.”

Between the 2008-2009 school year and the 2013-2014 school year, tuition and fees jumped 27 percent. It is not going to the classrooms ― it is going to administration.

Colleges have seen huge increases in the number of people on their staffs: from 2000 to 2012, the public and private education workforce increased by 28 percent. The rise in administrative staff, 87 administrative and professional workers every day from 1987 to 2012, means that colleges have to spend more money on salaries, benefits and pensions. And growing numbers of administrative staff are not the only thing that schools are spending money on: colleges are spending huge amounts of money renovating their campuses and building luxury dorms.

The rise in administrative spending has led colleges to cut instruction costs by hiring increasing numbers of adjunct (part-time) faculty to teach various classes ― today, half of the higher education faculty consists of adjunct professors. However, adjunct faculty tend to work other jobs and have less time for students or course preparation.

Schooling Standards: Public Inspection vs. Private Certification

We need one of them to mass inform parental choice from a dynamic menu of diverse schooling options.  Which one is best?  Consider the critical differences, especially the incentives underlying the alternatives.

A key drawback of inspection based on standards produced by the political process is the appearance of fairness imperative of collective decision-making. It leads to uniformity and uniform treatment of diverse, and potentially diverse, entities such as schools, families and children. We need less uniformity in schooling options, not more. And there is the stunning contrast between the widely asserted assumption that lack of political accountability means no accountability, and the typical reality that political accountability means no accountability to the public. Also, part of that stunning contrast between reality and the assertion that no political accountability means no accountability is that market accountability is quite powerful unless price controls create shortages (e.g. most chartered public schools). Poor performance by government entities that regulate or certify very rarely produces accountability consequences like dismissals or funding cuts. Many issues determine the political fate of the elected officials responsible for appointing the inspectors and overseeing their performance. Few, if any votes may hinge on the perceived performance of the government’s school system overseers. And public inspectors’ ability to make quality assessments will be much more a function of public budget-making, not past performance. That good work would not necessarily yield larger budgets as in the private sector. Actually, in the public sector, funding more often flows to areas of poor performance. So, huge caseloads can preclude the potential for quality judgments.

In contrast, voluntarily sought certifications like the good housekeeping seal are only as valuable as the reputation of the certifier. As the article points out:

The most important asset that private certifiers have is their reputation.

Private certifiers have a very strong incentive to study and police the performance of the entities that seek their seal of approval, and the entities given such a seal. Furthermore, private certifiers have much more freedom to flexibly apply their criteria, and like private schools on a dynamic menu of diverse schooling options, private certifiers can specialize in certain kinds of instructional approaches. For example, there could be different preferred certifiers (best reputations) for, say, online instruction and traditional face-to-face instructional approaches.