Reading Government Studies 101

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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]

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  1. To the extent that scores at private schools are being suppressed by “subpar conservative Christian schools” and the disproportionate interest that anti-intellectual holy rollers have in private schooling, those scores will also be boosted by the disprportionate interest in private schooling by parents are who extremely motivated to support their kids’ education.

    So that’s not a terribly effective argument.

  2. joe,

    You make a good point. I prefer the argument that public schools indoctrinate children with attitudes that I find offensive; thus, I want choice.

  3. It’s not particularly relevant whether or not private schools are superior at educating than public schools.

    The important thing is to introduce real competition into our K-12 education system. We have the world’s best higher education system precisely because those schools have lots of competition. Vouchers bring that choice, and ultimately almost all the people that hate giving parents that choice are teacher unions and people who have been brainwashed into thinking that competition is a bad idea.

  4. Test scores aren’t the only measure of a good education. Basically, standardized testing lets us measure where the floor lays in the quality of education, not the ceiling. There are many “quality of life” type factors that test scores simply don’t capture.

    For example, children attending smaller schools develop a greater sense of community and security than those attending giant mega-schools. (Whose idea was it to create k-12 schools with 3000+ students?) Students feel less alienated, have more friends, are less likely to be bullied and have better chances at learning teamwork and leadership.

    I have two kids and I simply hate their schools even though they are ranked by test scores as some of the best in the nation. The schools achieve those scores by pouring all their effort into the most talented 20% and then just warehousing the rest.

    Worse, parents have zero control over how their children are educated. Decision making authority has been pushed up higher and higher up the political food chain until teachers are little more than drones. When you complain about anything the teachers and admin just shrug and say that the state or federal government requires them to do such-and-such. Usually, they are being honest.

    Vouchers would create a diverse dynamic system just like we have in higher ed. Just as in higher ed we could have a mixed system of private and public schools. Competition and experimentation would produce superior results over time.

  5. This is a really long post.

  6. I think vouchers are a very bad idea, because they will make education *more* expensive and expand government control of the schools.

    In any market, the price of a good is determined by the consumers’ willingness to pay. Thus, if you have five units of something to sell, you can charge a higher price than if you are trying to move ten units of something (the lower the price, the more people are willing to buy). Now, the price the purchaser is willing to pay is based on the availability of money and how much they desire the given good or service compared to other ones available.

    The important consideration in this matter is the availibility of money. When the government offers to subsidize some good or service, one immediately sees the price for that good or service begin to climb very rapidly especially when the subsidy is not available for other goods or services. A “use it or lose it” calculation drives raises the amount of money people are willign to spend on the service. This has occured in medicine with the advent and expansion of Medicare and the higher education system with the advent of government subsidized loans and grants for tuition.

    Of course, this is to the benefit of the people providing the service since the prices that people + government are willing to pay must by their nature rise faster than the rate of inflation. This of course means that they can pay higher wages to their workers, and thus have a competitive advantage over service providers who do not participate in the program.

    So, no matter how few schools initially sign on to the voucher program, inevitably they will be able to outbid and impoverish their competiors, who have to choose between working with a teaching staff willing to work for lower pay (whether because their quality is poor or they are motivated by non-monetary compensation is irrelevant). This in turn will drive customers away since they can now afford the more expensive and higher “quality” schools. Inevitably administrators of independent schools will face the difficult choice of either finding some niche market, becoming dependent on the government, or going bankrupt.

    In the end, the vast majority will choose, quite logically, to become dependent on the government.

    Of course, the government will not provide vouchers to attend any school. They will require that the curriculum meet certain standards. Thus, the schools will have to maintain their curricula to meet the government specifications. Remember, at this point, the pupils’ parents are not their only customers, the government officials have become custoemrs as well, and since they control the purse-strings the dominant ones at that!

    I really do not trust protestations to the effect that there will be minimal interference in the curricula of schools, no matter how sincerely uttered. Inevitably there wll be a scope creep as the level of control rachets upward. It is inevitable. It will happen in tiny steps, motivated by some crisis here, some scandal there husbanded by those who are eager to see their responsibilities and oversight grow.

    Our taxes will go up, the opportunities for getting an independent, consumer-driven education will be reduced, and any improvements in “choice” will turn out, I fear, to be rather illusory.

  7. On the one hand, you can argue that competition among schools will improve education because that’s what competition does. But haven’t we also concluded on the other hand, that the major problem for childen in failing schools is their (and their parents) lack of enthusiasm for education?

    Is improving the prospects for these unenthused one of the selling points of choice? How would it make any difference?

  8. Another seismic shift in my views over time. I used to think that vouchers were an answer to many ills – including giving the poorest students a chance. I now believe that they are desirable in that competition will tend to make education better around the mean, but they will likely not have the effect of saving failing students.

    Uninterested parents and uninterested peer groups doom uninterested kids to a lifetime of economic inferiority. And, there is no good way to say this, but genetics is huge. If your parents had you in certain circumstances and kept you there and didn’t keep on you to study and didn’t monitor who you hung around with, my guess is that they aren’t helping you with the ol’ genetic material either.

  9. To illustrate the false premise that there is no difference simply compare the Catholic Archdiocese Schools in the dregs of LA to the public schools next door.

    Please note that the parochial school student population is drawn from exactly exactly the same demographic as LA Unified. There’s no cherry picking in these neighborhoods.

  10. As a smart kid, all you need to do is get the system out of the way. Lord knows, when I was in high school I got warnings for deviant behaviour for turning the mail server back on after the maids turned it off. “No, you can’t do that yet” and “You have to wait for the other kids” were the most annoying aspects of school.

    Another important part of any education is the smashing of faith. Making it abundantly clear that an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy is incredibly important. “Because I say so” is an answer only fit for children.

  11. Jason, my (extremely cynical and coldhearted) view has always been that one of the great benefits of vouchers is the ability to ditch those kids who just aren’t interested. Not stopping them from going to school, certainly-I don’t think the government could make that kind of decision responsibly. But if the kids don’t care and the parents don’t care, they won’t put forth the effort to find a decent school. The kids whose parents do care will move to good schools, which won’t tolerate the people who aren’t willing to do any work. De facto segregation of those who care and will work, and those who don’t and won’t. The unmotivated won’t be missing anything they otherwise would have gotten, and they aren’t getting in the way of everyone else any more.

  12. While tarran’s points are good ones, I think the exciting opportunity of vouchers is not really the elevation of all schools via the ol’ invisible hand.

    If I were going to open a school under a voucher system, I’d open a school with a harsh, harsh entry exam. And as a potential parent, I’d look for a school with a nasty entrance exam to send my kid to.

    Or maybe I’d open a school focused on musical performance, and have a recital exam. Or an art school with a portfolio submission process.

    The opportunity is: specialized education with an application process that weeds out the uninterested, the dull, and the incompetent.

  13. Well, that too isildur, but I thought that if I included that, I might seem to some people like a half-decent, caring person. Can’t have that 🙂

    But the part of tarran’s point that concerns me is that the government could easily get involved in ‘setting standards,’ possibly destroying a lot of the beneifts, especially the ones you talk about. Does your music school make sure all of the students get through Calculus and four years of English? Three years of social studies? Two years of gym? Whatever other inane requirements the feds will put on it?

    Didn’t think so. And it shouldn’t. I worry that it’ll have to.

  14. Jadagul–

    Government already sets standards through the accreditation process. While the accreditation agencies themselves are not govt agencies, they must be endorsed by DOE, so the feds already exercise some indirect control over curriculum that way. I don’t know how prescriptive accreditation standards are regarding curriculum at the high school level; at the college level they are very broad and leave lots of room for variation.

    At any rate, high schools will still require these things because they are required for admission to most universities. College admission requirements in terms of years of science, math, English, etc., are relatively constant across the board, so they will continue to be part of high school curricula.

  15. There are yet more reasons than just education to send your kid to a private school.

    My eldest son is now 9 and is both overweight (though losing it) and sensitive. In other words…a target.

    EXAMPLE: We sent him to summer day camp 3 years ago hosted by our youngest son’s private day care. He was picked on repeatedly. The cuplrits? Public school kids there for the summer.

    I’ll tell you a downside I see with vouchers. Last year, at the private parochial school where I send my oldest son, we began taking federal and state money for area kids to attend the school. Who are the problem kids? You guessed it. Who takes up the teacher’s time with behavioral issues…time that should be spent teaching my kid? Right again.

    Good ol’ “law of unintended consequences.” It’s the reverse problem in that it also allows problem kids to negatively affect the private schools.

    On the plus side, some of those problems may shake out as the school is forced to deal with paying parents demanding results. And admittedly, I have more faith in the private school than the public ones in terms of responsiveness, ability, resources and class size.

    But these are, alas, unknowns. I don’t have any good answers and I’m not an expert I have a lot of mixed feelings. I see the arguments in favor of vouchers, but no one likes to consider the downsides of their own hotbutton issues.

    I just thought I’d throw in my typical cranks view of things.

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