School Choice

Why We Need School Choice: "Obama Administration Spent Billions To Fix Failing Schools, And It Didn't Work"

The final report on a much-touted intervention lays out the need for a decentralized approach to K-12" education reform.


Nick Gillespie

Welcome to National School Choice Week, an annual event promoting the ability of parents and students to have greater options in K-12 education!

Over 21,000 events involving almost 17,000 schools from all 50 states will take place over the coming days. Go to the organizers' page to get more information about events and data showing how increasing school choice—charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more—is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans.

As a proud media sponsor of National School Choice Week, Reason will be publishing daily articles, podcasts, videos, interviews, and other coverage exploring the ways in which education is being radically altered and made better by letting more people have more choices when it comes to learning. For a constantly updated list of stories, go to Reason's continuously updated archive page on "school choice."

The headline to this post comes from a Washington Post article summarizing "one of the signature efforts in education" by President Obama. It "pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation's worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results." Worse still, the implementers of the plan didn't even really track things closely, so we can't talk with much precision about what happened, other than money going out the door.

Failing schools were defined as having terrible graduation rates and/or bad grade-level test scores in reading and math. The "School Improvement Grants" program (SIG) asked recipient institutions to pick one of four strategies to achieve significant progress: "Replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, converting into a charter school, closing altogether, or undergoing a "transformation," including hiring a new principal and adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations and a longer school day." Among other failures, the report notes that analysts didn't actually track how schools used the money (up to $2 million a year for five years), only the broad strategy they employed. Overall, the program cost $7 billion, making it almost twice as big as the more ballyhooed "Race To the Top" initiative.

Read the study online here. It encapsulates much of what is wrong with most forms of education reform emanating from Washington. There's a pile of money that gets targeted at bad schools, constraints placed on how the money can be spent, and weak follow-through in terms of implementation and evaluation. From the report's findings:

Key findings included:

  • Although schools implementing SIG-funded models reported using more SIG promoted practices than other schools, we found no evidence that SIG caused those schools to implement more practices. Our descriptive analysis found that schools implementing a SIG -funded model used significantly more SIG-promoted practices than other schools (22.8 of the 35 practices examined [65 percent] versus 20.3 practices [58 percent], a difference of 2.5 practices). Our more rigorous RDD analysis found a similar difference of 3.3 practices, but it was not statistically significant. Therefore, we are unable to conclude that SIG caused the observed difference in use of practices.
  • Across all study schools, use of SIG-promoted practices was highest in comprehensive instructional reform strategies and lowest in operational flexibility and support. In the comprehensive instructional reform strategies area, study schools reported using, on average, 7.1 of the 8 SIG -promoted practices examined (89 percent). In the operational flexibility and support area, study schools reported using, on average, 0.87 of the 2 SIG-promoted practices examined (43 percent).
  • There were no significant differences in use of English Language Learner (ELL)-focused practices between schools implementing a SIG-funded model and other schools.
  • Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG -funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.
  • When we compared student achievement gains from different models in elementary grades (2nd through 5th), we found no evidence that one model was nassociated with larger gains than another. For higher grades (6th through 12th), the turnaround model was associated with larger student achievement gains in math than the transformation model. However, factors other than the SIG model implemented, such as baseline differences between schools implementing different models, may explain these differences in achievement gains.

SIG programs didn't begin with the Obama administration and, sadly, they might not end with it, either. Indeed, the worst part might be that even though the program hasn't worked to improve the schools the receive funds from it, it will inevitably be trotted out again and again as a useful tool.

Which isn't to say that K-12 educational reform is impossible. Far from it. As Lisa Snell, director of education policy at Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), wrote in 2010, there are many reforms that can help transform failing public schools almost immediately, from student-based budgeting, in which money follows students rather than students having to attend particular schools in particular places; giving prinicipals more autonomy and responsibility when it comes to curriculum and staffing; closing perpetually failing schools, ending residential assignment, and embracing open enrollment so that any student can attend any school in a given district. Regardless of what happens inside their walls, Snell writes, most K-12 districts are still run as if America is in the 1950s. There are massive and redundant bureaucracies and regulations, none of which are geared to serving students. The powers-that-be are understandably resistant to leveling pyramids over which they rule, but that's why schools continue to languish despite smaller class sizes and higher rates of per-pupil spending.

To kick off National School Choice Week last year, Lisa Snell and I crossed the country with a multi-media lecture that we titled "Reason Calls B*llshit on Public Education Abuses." Extra credit if you can guess what letter the asterisk is for. Watch now:


NEXT: Trump Definitively Forsakes His Promise to Release His Tax Returns

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  1. All Betsy really has to do to be the greatest Secretary of Education in history is put her feet up on her desk and go to sleep.

  2. It “pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results.”

    I keep trying to tell you, the primary purpose of any system is to perpetuate itself regardless of its intended or stated purpose. “Meaningful results” has to be judged by whether or not it enriched the system, not by whether or not anybody learned a damn thing.

    And here’s something – when systems fail to produce their intended outcome, systems are put in place to “fix” the system, except of course the higher-level system is itself a system and therefore, guess what its purpose is? The whole damn purpose of the federal DoE is not to fix the state-level educational systems, it’s to provide jobs and busywork for federal bureaucrats. And it’s doing a bang-up job. If you want that kids actually get educated, you’re going to have to look elsewhere for that outcome.

    1. Patsy Murray, in the second question asked at DeVos’ hearing proved exactly that when she demanded that DeVos make a commitment to not privatizing a single school nor cutting a single cent from the DoE’s budget. The “success” of the system is entirely judged by how much money goes in, nobody gives a shit what comes out.

  3. Here is my point of view on school choice. About 10 years ago we lived in city A, but the way the school district borders were drawn, our kids had to go to the schools in city B. City B schools sucked. Two of my three kids are special needs kids, and they were falling through the cracks because the district was large and nobody really cared. There was no way they could go to city A schools, which were better, even if we paid for it. So, we ended up moving 20 miles east, to a much smaller, much better school district. My commute to work went from 5 minutes to 35 minutes. But it was worth it. All three of my kids are doing a lot better in school.

    The way I look at it, we were fortunate to be able to afford to move to a better school district. But a lot of families aren’t able to do that, and I don’t think that’s fair. Every family should be able to choose what they feel is the best option for their kids’ education.

    I am really tempted to post this on FB, but I haven’t posted anything remotely political there in years, because although I think I make a good point, I’m not interested in being shouted down by all the lefties. It’s a shame we’ve lost the ability to have a discussion.

    1. You can say that again. All these right-wingers have been bragging about putting filters on the comments so they won’t have to listen to something they didn’t hear on Rush Limbaugh.

      1. More fake news? Where’s Jayson Blair when you need him?

    2. My wife and I were just talking about that last night, re: losing the ability to have a discussion.

      How fucked up is it that we would rather not hate our friends and family so we stay silent while leftist run around completely unfiltered? (I’m sure after a couple of years of Trump! I’ll feel the same way about my conservative friends and family.)

      1. Wait though guys, c’mon, all the time they say they want an open dialog. Let’s not be disingenuous. /sarc

  4. Clearly, spending billions of dollars isn’t enough. We need to spend trillions. Stop being such cheapskates!

  5. Am I the only one who sees that the problem won’t be solved by continuing the process of throwing other people’s money at it? I am NOT DOWN with O.P.P. I think I must be insane, I personify Public Education as Charles Ponzi, himself. If you ask him how much it should cost, of course he is going to tell you the base price is everything you have. And don’t ask him if your kids will receive a good education. That costs extra. Oh, you want to balk, he will remind you to “Think of the Children.” You want your child to have the best so don’t complain you basterd.

    After finding Hit and Run I realized that I was Libertarian long before I knew what it stood for. If you want to fix education, then you need to take away all the FREE money. Then not only will you get a better product, it will always cost no more then what the market will bear.

  6. Just end it. Send the money back to Congress.

  7. And let’s not forget who’s responsible for the “No Child Left Behind” theory of “everybody gets as much help as they need” when the reality is “battlefield triage = help the most wounded first, even if it means letting the lesser-wounded die”. The perfect example of the adage that the first rule of economics is scarcity of resources and the first rule of politics is to ignore the first rule of economics.

    1. Actually, that is not how triage works.

    2. Wouldn’t battlefield triage necessitate that you help the least wounded first as they would be able to pick up arms and provide cover while you treat the more wounded?

  8. “pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results.”

    You don’t get it Nick. The metric is money!

  9. ” Worse still, the implementers of the plan didn’t even really track things closely, so we can’t talk with much precision about what happened, other than money going out the door.”

    But that’s the IMPORTANT thing, after all. To the Liberal Left. Because, INTENTIONS!

    “Which isn’t to say that K-12 education reform is impossible.”

    Of course not. Ban the Teachers’ Unions and charge their administrators with racketeering, disband the federal Department of Education, raze to the ground every College of Education in the land and the job is half done!

  10. Devos may legitimately be unqualified for the position, but if she actually makes progress on school choice I’ll be very excited.

    1. From what I can tell, she’s the most unqualified person ever to do anything. But given all the crying wolf that’s going on, I don’t give it much credit.

      1. The only two points of criticism I have really seen are the bear thing and her unfamiliarity with some of the federal regulations and requirements. The bear thing was a silly answer but nothing more than that, and the point about federalism was a good one, even if she didn’t illustrate it well. Criticizing her for not knowing about some of the regulations is, IMO, legitimate. Even if you don’t think the DOE should be overseeing those things, you should still know about them before taking over. But I don’t consider it *disqualifying* because there are plenty of career bureaucrats who can bring her up to speed on the particulars. What’s more important is her overall philosophy and ability to implement reform.

        1. That’s a silly criticism, IMO. Federal agencies issued 90,000 pages of regulations last year.

        2. her unfamiliarity with some of the federal regulations and requirements

          So? What would be the consequences of this fact in terms of her ability to do her job?

        3. The bear thing wasn’t even a silly comment in the entire context of that conversation. The fact that the media and the asshole donkey’s latched onto that one thing tells you everything you need to know about their priorities.

          1. The bear thing would have been funny if Dwight Schrute had been questioning her. I mean, I bet she couldn’t even scare off a bear!

  11. GOP Platform – 1980

    We understand and sympathize with the plight of America’s public school teachers, who so frequently find their time and attention diverted from their teaching responsibilities to the task of complying with federal reporting requirements. America has a great stake in maintaining standards of high quality in public education. The Republican Party recognizes that the achievement of those standards is possible only to the extent that teachers are allowed the time and freedom to teach. To that end, the Republican Party supports deregulation by the federal government of public education, and encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.

    1. Note that they dropped that by 1984 and fully bought into using the DoEd as a tool for patronage and pet projects.

  12. Cross-posted, but this needs to go here, too:

    “Bailout for teachers’ pensions to cost California school districts”
    “Under a proposal released last week by Gov. Jerry Brown, more money will flow into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System to begin closing an estimated $74-billion shortfall. But addressing that problem creates a different one: School systems would have to quickly pare back spending for next year, and they would face steeper diversions of dollars in later years.
    “It has a lot of school districts reeling in terms of how to grapple with this unanticipated expense in the coming school year, throwing a major wrench into everything,” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, a Sacramento company that lobbies on behalf of school districts.”…..story.html

    Yep, did not see that coming. Not at all. Why, the money orchard out back was supposed to bear Jacksons this year.

    1. Do you suppose anybody in the Federal Education bureaucracy can explain the actual difference between the extant Teachers’ Unions and Organized Crime without resorting to obfuscation and blather?

      1. No, because they do not know what obfuscation means.

        1. They may not know what it means, but they can DO it at Master Class levels….

  13. And they didn’t host any events during school choice week!

    1. Stay at home mom Kelly Richards from New York after resigning from her full time job managed to average from $6000-$8000 a month from freelancing at home? This is how she done


      1. On the other hand, your full time job would have to be pretty bad to make doing bestiality webcam work a step up…..

    2. Stay at home mom Kelly Richards from New York after resigning from her full time job managed to average from $6000-$8000 a month from freelancing at home? This is how she done


  14. The headline to this post comes from a Washington Post article summarizing “one of the signature efforts in education” by President Obama. It “pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results.” Worse still, the implementers of the plan didn’t even really track things closely, so we can’t talk with much precision about what happened, other than money going out the door.

    Didn’t you get the memo from Senator Warren’s office?


  15. money going out the door


    And people still wonder why Americans have been so slow to adopt this system

  16. “Reason Calls B*llshit on Public Education Abuses.” Extra credit if you can guess what letter the asterisk is for.

    How can we possibly guess which letter the asterisk represents??!!
    I mean there are 24 letters, and some of them can be capitalized in certain circumstances! It’s too much to expect!
    We need a federal program to develop a letter guessing protocol to teach to the next generation. At least a bazillion and a half dollars, and an administration of 300 professional (union member) persons.

    1. It’s especially hard when the asterisk is in a different place in the title of the video on the page!

      1. Everyone but google knows that asterisk is the universal wildcard matching zero to infinite numbers of alphanumeric characters, so…

  17. It “pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results.”

    And if you ask the politicians, bureaucrats, and education “professionals” the answer will be that not enough billions were spent, that you need to double or triple the spending, and just trust them to spend it wisely.

  18. Hate to say it, but Obama spent billions on lots of things that did not work, because he was an idiot and willing to rack up unlimited amounts of federal debt. Let’s hope this president is not as foolhardy or stupid.

  19. Ugh. “The ways in which.” When will academics learn the whole “in which” part is just more noise in their signal?

    I’ll leave this article right here in case you want to defend the way academics use this stupid phrase.

  20. Many public schools have serious issues and it would be nice if charter schools were the solution. Unfortunately, in practice students in charter schools (as a group) perform even worse than students in public schools (as a group). 17% of charter school students perform significantly better than they did in public schools. 37% of charter school students perform significantly worse than they did in public schools. 46% of charter school students perform roughly the same as they did in public schools. Maybe these “measurements” are wrong, but measuring student performance isn’t an easy thing.

    It would be great if privatizing schools was a “silver bullet” that could solve this problem. Then the path forward would be obvious. But I think the root cause of most poor student performance is something no school can fix, problems at home. Whether it’s parental neglect, abuse, parents refusing to hold their children accountable (spoiling them), or something else, I believe problems at home are the root cause of most student performance.

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