Why I stopped fangirling school choice quite as hard

When I worked at my first job after college I had a lot of free time at work and started writing a book on school choice, which I was fascinated by and believed could fix most of what is wrong with the public education monopoly. What I found while researching the book is that the evidence doesn’t support that thesis.

School choice (vouchers, backpack funding, and vouchers) has at-best mixed results for the kids who participate in terms of standardized test scores, proficiency, and college attendance and completion. The only way school choice kids do clearly, measurably better than public school kids is parental satisfaction. And the evidence is that’s mainly because parents feel their kids are safer.

The main reason charters fail to consistently outperform public schools is that they’re incredibly variable. Idiots who see an opportunity to profit start charters everyday. And schooling is fucking hard! So even smart, well-intentioned people still often fail to outperform public schools.

Private schools do consistently outperform public schools (and for less money per student!). But the consensus seems to be that skimming is the reason. Public schools are required to accept everyone.

The biggest reason private schools are able to outperform public schools for less money per student is that public schools must accept and accommodate all special-needs children. Special-needs children are incredibly expensive, on average, to educate. Simply keeping them from hurting themselves and sexually assaulting each other requires a near 1:1 aid/student ratio. If private schools had this responsibility they’d all go out of business tomorrow.

And there’s evidence to indicate that school choice tends to take the best kids (those with the most involved parents) and their money away from already failing schools. This is called “skimming” in the literature. They’re skimming the cream off the top and leaving the milk behind.

This is a really important point to internalize: Parental involvement is one of the top predictors of a school’s success.

Schools where parents (mothers, generally) have the time, money, and energy to show up (often during working hours) to make sure their kids get the best teachers (letting administrators know who not to allow to get tenure) and make sure teachers have the supplies they need to do their jobs outperform schools where parents don’t have that kind of time, money, and energy.

Even more importantly, these parents also tend to have the resources to ensure their kids aren’t stressed about not having enough to eat, getting enough sleep, clean clothes, etc.

It’s absolutely impossible for any school to educate a kid who has enough to eat and a kid who doesn’t to the same extent with the same resources. It costs way more, in terms of money, time, and talent, to adequately educate kids who have more adverse childhood experiences.

Skimming means that the funding that came along with the kid with more involved parents *and their involved parents* leave the school. Everyone who’s left is now poorer. And the school has fixed costs, mostly in the buildings. So they’ve got the same costs, but less money, and less help from parents. Bad situation for the remaining public school kids.

So in the end, on the whole, school choice as we’re doing it (charters, vouchers, and backpack funding) only marginally benefits the average participant while harming the average student stuck in public schools.

There are still opportunities to reform the public education monopoly. We can ban teachers unions, strike teacher tenure laws off the books, and end zoning to reduce residential racial and economic segregation. Public schools today are as racially segregated as they were in the 1970s.

Another solution is to drastically diversify how we evaluate public school performance. We need to evaluate and reward school performance in ways other than standardized test scores and college completion. One option is to reward schools based on employment rate and salary after graduation. The fact that we view K-12 as having no responsibility to confer any employment skills is ridiculous.

I believe the greatest impediment to public education reform is twofold. First, teachers unions and administrators have a vested interest in avoiding accountability and reform. That makes reform hard. Then, there’s the fact that the people who matter don’t care and the people who care don’t matter. Wealthy white families are getting a satisfactory result from the public education monopoly and where they’re not, sending their kids to private is much higher ROI for them than trying to reform an unaccountable, opaque, entrenched system. The people the public education monopoly is failing most are overwhelmingly brown, poor, and having trouble merely surviving, much less effectively advocating for reform.

So ultimately I abandoned the book and the project because the likelihood of significant improvement is extremely low. On the progressive side, you have people advocating for wealthy, white families to send their kids to ethnically and socioeconomically diverse public schools. Some progressive families are doing this and the literature suggests it vastly improves the schools and doesn’t really have much impact on the wealthy white kids. But mass adoption of this model isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The regressive side is mostly disengaged from the discussion. To the extent they’re engaged, they’re overhyping school choice because it aligns with their values. And I support school choice as well, for the same reason. But I no longer believe that making school choice, as constituted, more widely available is likely to improve American K-12 education on the whole.

What are your thoughts? What have I missed? LMK in the comments.

4 Comments

  1. Nicholas Weininger

    This is a good summary. Parental satisfaction and diversity of schooling approach seem like good enough reasons to favor school choice to me, but we should certainly be honest about what benefits it will and will not provide. I think diversity is valuable in and of itself because it provides more opportunities for weird kids to go to weird schools that fit them better and more cultural and philosophical variation in what kids are taught– i.e. less adherence to a single civic-religious doctrine, cf. Mill’s famous saying “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another.” Those things won’t show up in test scores but are arguably valuable for the flourishing of a pluralistic society (there’s a tension here, of course, between pluralism and egalitarianism).

    There’s also the tricky question of what social return we get from all that extra money public schools have to spend on the special-needs children they have to accept. That is, how effective is that super-expensive special education at giving those kids more capacity to live flourishing lives? It seems hard to have a productive conversation about that because it’s such an emotionally loaded issue, but I’d be interested if you know of any informed analyses.

    Someday I want to see a panel discussion between you, Bryan Caplan, and Freddie DeBoer on this.

  2. Michael

    I’ve been following you for a few years and this is one of the very best posts you’ve written. Really well done and spot on. Thanks

  3. Linda Phipps Burr

    Cathy, as a just retired special educator of 36.2 years, I must say some of your thoughts resonated with me and some pissed me off. Not because you wrote them, but you provided no evidence of why you feel teacher unions and admin. are detrimental to school success. You are spot on about parental support. That piece is incredibly vital now more than ever. You need to dive deeper into what is expected of teachers in a district and the level of support they receive to help their students achieve success. Believe me, I know this is an imperfect system. The union is supposed to protect the rights of the teachers. Yes, that can be interpreted in ways that are not best for kids. That is unfortunate and NEEDS to change, I agree. But teachers go into this work to make a difference. They want to help the next generation be their best. As with any job, given the right tools, the end result is a good one. Maybe even a great one. I would love for you to shadow a teacher in a school (should that be allowed) and just observe the decisions he/she make in a span of 5 minutes. The personalities of students and the other faculty. I think it would give you fresh perspective and perhaps new fodder to put in your book! Thanks for allowing comments. I enjoy reading your blog.
    Linda Phipps

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