Reading Government Studies 101


Republicans probably could've picked a more propitious time to propose a $100 million federal voucher program for low-income kids in failing schools. After all, it's coming on the heels of a much-discussed Education Department report that, as The New York Times summarized it, "debunked the widely held belief that public schools were inferior to their private and religious counterparts" by showing that once you control for factors like family income and parental education level, private school students end up doing roughly the same as their public school counterparts. From this it follows, argue voucher opponents, that it makes no sense to devote funds to helping students attend private schools.

I don't think it follows, at least once you look at the more detailed breakdown of the private school numbers, for the same reason that I think people anxious about eroding church/state separation are wrong to look at the predominance of religious private schools in the status quo and extrapolate from this that 90 percent of the educational options in a voucherized world will be sectarian. The reason it's wrong, of course, is that with public schooling provided free, the people who're willing to opt out of that system are disproportionately going to be people with powerful religious convictions who place a premium on giving their child a faith-saturated education, even at very high cost. This is especially so since more secular folk who're just concerned about educational quality can exercise a limited kind of school choice within the public system thought their decisions about where to live, while people who really want a religious education can only get it by opting out of the public system.

Now, that becomes relevant when you take into account that the public/private parity after controlling for parental income and education is partly a function of the private numbers getting dragged down by subpar conservative Christian schools whose students actually score significantly lower than their public school counterparts. And this makes perfect sense: Given finite time and resources with which to educate kids, placing a strong emphasis on religious indoctrination means, ceteris paribus, less emphasis on the other three Rs. Voucher opponents will say: "See, this just proves nutty parents can't be trusted to make good educational choices for their kids." To which two responses: First, there are just a bunch of different and incommensurable ways of judging the quality of an education. Some people think it's important for kids to get a rich background in music and the arts, even if it means they'll get less thorough math training. And some people think a solid "values" education is worth a few SAT points. I don't think trading off geometry for Gethsemane is a terribly good idea, but neither do I think there's some objectively correct way to quantify what counts as a better education. Second, the parents who are most ready to trade off secular learning for religious education are also the most likely to have opted out already, which means the Jesus drag on test scores is likely to decline as the private opt-out becomes available to more people.

Also, while controlling for income makes a lot of intuitive sense, it's going to skew the results in another way. Consider: In Bergen County, New Jersey where I grew up, the public schools (which I attended) are actually pretty damn good. In D.C., where I live now, they're notoriously crappy. A relatively affluent family in Bergen County is probably going to be satisfied with the public schools. A similarly affluent family in D.C. is going to be a lot more likely to pony up the bucks to send Junior to Sidwell Friends, because the marginal improvement for the cost is much greater, which in the absence of vouchers leaves the less affluent kids, on average, in the crappier public schools. But that means comparisons within income classes are going to involve comparing private school kids at Sidwell with public school kids in Jersey. And they might get roughly equivalent educations, but that doesn't entail that the kid in D.C. wouldn't have been any worse off staying in the D.C. public system.

Over at Cato-at-Liberty, meanwhile, Andrew Coulson objects not so much to the "voucher" part of the proposal as to the "federal" part, linking a recent article he penned opposing the idea. He makes the familiar libertarian argument that federal funding entails federal regulation, using as an example the Dutch experience. Which is a little odd, because a couple years back he was trumpeting the success of school choice in the Netherlands:

Today, about three-quarters of all Dutch children attend private schools with financial assistance from the government. Has this hurt the nation's academic performance? Dutch high school seniors and recent graduates score first in the world in mathematics, second in science, and fourth in literacy. By comparison, American seniors and recent graduates score 19th in math, 16th in science, and 12th in literacy.

So the regulation can't have been that destructive. Also, while I don't know much about the details of the Dutch system, I get the vague (and maybe incorrect) impression that at least until pretty recently, even though money did "follow" students, it was set up in a way that was built around the relationship between the government and clusters of established religious communities and their schools, rather than the consumer model of education we think of when we talk about vouchers in the U.S., and to the extent the Dutch system has moved further in that direction, it has decentralized control further. Coulson is the expert here, though, and I'd be curious to see him elaborate further. [Cross posted @ NftL]