Know your audience

Arthur Brooks made a great point in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece yesterday, Republicans and Their Faulty Moral Arithmetic.

Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

That reminds me. I have made headway with liberal friends on the subject of school choice by doing exactly what Brooks suggests, making it about the kids and the parents who need the most help.

I pointed out that middle-income and wealthy folks already have school choice because they can afford to live in an area with a good public school district or pay to send their kids to private school. That may contribute to why these schools are successful.

I then asked why low-income parents shouldn’t be given more choice, too.

Several told me that changed their mind about school choice and they became supporters of it.

School Choice Reduces Crime

That’s according to this study from David J. Deming of Harvard. (Thanks to Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek and Andrew Coulson at Cato for the pointer).

I’m always skeptical of statistical studies, even those that confirm my biases.  Reading over the design of the study, my main concern is that there is a selection bias.

That means the kids who attended the school of their choice are likely to be the ones who care more about education and their future anyway.  So, it’s not necessarily the school choice that caused the lower crime, rather the school choice process just weeded out the kids who are less likely to commit crimes anyway.

After reading over the study design, I think that is possibly the case here.  My main beef here is that parents could request up to three schools, not including their neighborhood school.  I think what is important here is how many schools the parents requested.

But, even so, I’m not going to nitpick too much.  Even if there is selection bias in the study, I think it is safe to conclude that giving students and parents a choice, worst case, doesn’t cause more crime.

School Choice Exists

In most debates and discussions about school choice, what is usually overlooked is that a good deal of choice already exists in education.

Choice exists at many levels in our education “market”.  Folks who have enough money can choose to pay to send their kids to private school.  Folks who have a little less dough and can’t afford, or don’t wish to pay, for private schools also exercise choice.  They have enough flexibility* to choose where they live and, by and large, choose to live in school districts that are known for quality education.

*By flexibility, I mean they can afford transportation and longer commutes to work.  They don’t have to rely as much on public transportation routes.  They can choose to live in communities with higher priced homes.

The middle market education choice drives local real estate cycles.  Suburban areas with plenty of land to develop have an incentive to provide quality schools to attract new families to develop the land and increase the tax base.

These suburban areas tend to continue to provide quality education as long as there’s land to develop.

However, once these areas run out about develop-able land, watch out.  School boards and administrators become complacent.  Why provide quality education?  The tax base is there.  If families won’t occupy the homes, maybe empty-nesters will.  Or better yet, once the tax base is funded from a good portion of businesses, who needs families?

This is based on observations in my own area.  The urban school district has been a corrupt and incompetent wreck for decades.  Why not?  It still gets funded.

Looking back 25 years, the hot suburbs of those days had the top school districts.  They used those school districts to attract middle income families from the urban core and bring new growth to the area to increase their tax base.

Now, those top-notch school districts from 25 years ago, with a few exceptions, have been surpassed by school districts in the newer suburban growth areas with develop-able land. Those 25-year-old suburbs have been nearly fully developed and the quality of their school districts are on a slow decline.  No longer are they the top notch districts.  They have less incentive to maintain that status.

So, to a certain degree, school choice already exists for wealthy and middle-income families who can choose private and to live where there are quality public schools.

Poor, urban families, on the other hand have less choice on where to send their kids to school.  They may not have the flexibility to live where they want.  They may rely more on public transportation to get them to work.  And they can’t afford private school.  It’s no surprise to me that these aren’t considered the best schools. They have little incentive to be the best. They have close to a captive audience. The parents have less choice, so the schools there have less competition to push them to keep quality high.

So, wealthy and middle income families already have some degree of choice about where to send their kids.  Poor families don’t.  I’ve won a few folks over on the idea of vouchers by simply explaining this and asking them why they are against giving more choice to poor people?

Letting people have more choice on where to send their own kids to school seems to make sense, even if you or I disapprove of their choices.

When we try to assess the quality of a charter school (or any school) based on test scores, I think we miss something.  The fact that when given a choice, a parent chose something other than traditional public schools, is enough evidence for me that something went right.

My “choice” observations are based on what I see in my metro area.  Do they line up with what you see in yours?

Don Boudreax Trusts Parents

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek wrote this letter to the New York Times:

While applauding government-imposed national standards for schooling, you give no credence to the argument that each set of parents – rather than government – is in the best position, and has the strongest incentives, to determine whether or not their children are being educated well (“National School Standards, at Last,” March 14).  Indeed, the only persons you mention as being parties interested in the successful education of children are school superintendents, state governors, and members of Congress!

Not a single mention of parents or families – an omission that’s more than passing strange.

With genuine school choice, procedures to determine if any school is performing well or poorly would be no more complicated, and every bit as effective, as is the procedure we use today to determine if, say, any particular supermarket is performing well or poorly.  That procedure is competition among private, unsubsidized suppliers for customer dollars.  If consumer choice and competition serve well to maintain the quality of supermarkets (and of restaurants, and churches, and hotels, and…), then why do you think that tweaking, with national “standards,” the subsidized and largely monopolistic government schools that haunt the land today is the best way to transform these dysfunctional institutions into effective ones?

Donald J. Boudreaux

I agree.

Many do not share mine and Professor Boudreaux’s trust in people to make their own decisions.  Yet, many parents already do.  While government fiddles to find an way to determine education success, and hold schools accountable, parents make choices about their kids’ education everyday.

For example, parents consider the quality of the school district and local school when choosing where to live.  My parents moved to change my school district.  Part of my decision of where I chose to settle was based on the quality of the schools.

These choices are also reflected by parents who choose to pay to send their kids to private schools or to home school.

Where there’s more choice and competition among schools, like middle and upper incomes, there’s generally better schools.

Where there’s less choice and competition education is worse.  Consider lower income neighborhoods where people do not the financial flexibility to move or send their kids to private schools.  They may not be able to readily afford more expensive housing in districts with better schools or they may not be able to afford the extra transportation costs that comes with living further from work.  Yet these parents have very limited options, often stuck in the middle of abysmal school districts.

I see no reason for limiting educational choices for parents with low income.

Nice letter Don.

A new thought for me on education

I’m a big fan of school choice.  This is a free country.  I’m not sure why there is opposition to letting parents choose where to educate their children.

But a new thought occurred to me today.  Many studies show the long-term ineffectiveness of different education models at bringing students behind up to speed.

Could it be that education isn’t something that everybody wants?

For many this will sound crazy.  It sounds crazy to me because the value of a good education seems like a no-brainer.

But, there are a lot of products on the market that I wouldn’t want for free.  Other people value them, not me.  Likewise, I have owned many products that have value for me, but not many others.

Some value Starbucks, while others wouldn’t drink it if it were free.  Some value payday loans, while others would never dream of paying high fees to get access to their own money quicker.

I write on this blog about the difference between voluntary and forced interactions and how voluntary interactions tend to produce better results.  Forced interactions, even those “we” think are good for “people”, often don’t take into account the individual preferences of those “people”.

With education, I think the implicit assumption I’ve made along with many others is that it should be forced.   I view education to be of such great value that I accept the fact that it’s nearly forced onto everyone in society – even those who value it differently than myself.

My brother and I discussed this last summer, but the dots didn’t connect until today.

We grew up four years apart in the same household, with the same parents, attended the same schools and had several of the same teachers.

We graduated high school with marked differences in our academic and extracurricular proficiencies. I had a strong academic record.  He didn’t, but he could do things that he didn’t learn in school that I will never be able to do.  Some of those things are earning him a respectable living.   In the whole scheme of things, it turns out he was right.  Maybe education isn’t nearly as important as I thought it was.

Which goes back to my belief in supporting educational choice.  Instead of trying to force a one-size-fits-all, college prep curriculum on everyone, maybe we should let the educational market emerge more with a choice-based system and less of system that is provided largely by government to meet government standards.

School Choice is Not Wrong

Writing in the Wall Street Journal opinion section, Diane Ravitch explains why she changed her mind about school reform.  She previously believed the answer to school reform was “charter schools and accountability”, but after the nightmares of No Child Left Behind and marginal results of charter schools, she no longer believes that.

I suggest that Diane take an honest look at the accountability model she supported.

She supported government-enforced accountability where students were tested for proficiency each year and the scores reported up through the state government to the Federal government and government would decide if the school is performing or not.

This accountability model doesn’t work because those in government do not know how to get a true read on success or failure.  True success can’t be measured and aggregated and rolled-up to a national level.  In her model, the wrong people were responsible for holding the schools accountable.

Schools should be held accountable by parents.

When I was in second grade, my Mom and Dad held the school district I was in accountable for its poor performance by moving our family to a better school district.  So did many others.

The problem is my old school district didn’t receive the message.  It continues performing poorly decades later because it has not been allowed fail, though the suburbs and limited numbers of charter schools have made dents in its enrollment. 

That school district keeps receiving funding to operate and more funds to fix its problems. This funding model is a negative reinforcing loop.  It rewards failure.

If the funding choice for that school district lied with the parents, not some government funding formula, it would have failed long ago to be replaced by better performing schools.