Discover more from Essential Liberty
*School Choice Myths*
A summary of Corey DeAngelis's book about funding students over systems
In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith described a so-called “Man of System” who is “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” This man imagines that he can “arrange the different members of a great society” as easily as a hand moves pieces on a chessboard – not seeing that “every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.”
Today’s educational central planners bear an uncanny resemblance to Smith’s 250-year-old caricature. Led by national teacher’s unions, public schools cram children and parents into a one-size-fits-all school system. But students are not widgets, says Corey A. DeAngelis – Cato Institute adjunct scholar and Executive Director at the Educational Freedom Institute. DeAngelis is co-author with Cato’s Neal McCluskey of a new book, School Choice Myths – debunking the 12 most common misconceptions about education freedom.
Against the claim that a free market in education would turn schools into factories, churning out carbon-copy graduates, DeAngelis notes that it is the current monopoly system that results in uniform, standardized testing. He finds the roots of our broken educational institutions in the compulsory Prussian school system, which “started in 1819 with the clear mission of creating citizens that would be obedient miners, factory workers, and soldiers.”
Corey and McCluskey unravel this and other pernicious falsehoods around school choice.
Essential Liberty offers a review of current events through the time-tested principles of limited government & individual freedom. Subscribe for weekly podcasts, edited transcripts, & book summaries.
This book tackles 12 of the biggest myths out there — a dirty dozen, if you will — and arms you with facts and logic to combat mythology wherever and for whatever reason it pops up.
Why is there substantial opposition to school choice?
[W]ith survey responses depending a lot on the specific choice mechanisms discussed and wording of the questions, but opposition is nonetheless appreciable.
THE BIG ONE: LESS MONEY FOR GOV’T SCHOOLS
…private school choice programs, if they use funds that would have otherwise gone to public schools, take money away from public schools.…
If only part of the total per-pupil expenditure follows the child into a private school, which is usually the case, there is actually more money per child in the public school.
CREAM SKIMMING ARGUMENT: VOUCHERS TAKE THE BEST KIDS OUT
How about whether kids whose parents do not choose private schools must suffer as they are “left behind”? (For those who remember the No Child Left Behind Act, that’s a big rhetorical no-no in education policy.) Intuitively it would seem that they would: more engaged and savvy families would be more likely to move, and families with less political and social capital would remain. …
… competition benefits everyone. It pushes the schools that are losing students to do better, just as competition from FedEx and UPS forces the U.S. Postal Service to deliver packages on Sundays.
The first chapters start with the notion that school choice would “Balkanize” the country, allowing Americans to scatter into insular — and warring — communities.
Americans are already highly stratified by race, income, and myriad other factors according to where they live, and, hence, what public schools they attend.
BAD FOR CIVIC ENGAGEMENT?
…a comprehensive review of the civic outcomes research indicates that private and other chosen schools have done a much better job of instilling democratic knowledge and values than government-run schools.”
DANGERS OF FOR-PROFIT SCHOOLING?
In Chapter 5, the Reason Foundation’s director of school choice Corey DeAngelis dismantles this accusation, explaining that not only does public education not actually meet the definition of a “public good” but that even if it did, in practice it may well be a public “bad.” It fuels inequality — what you get depends on where you can buy a home — and, by its one-size-fits-all, factory-like nature, essentially requires that kids be treated as identical widgets.
In Chapter 8, Albert Cheng, an assistant professor in education policy at the University of Arkansas, grapples with the assertion that choice will mainly help the rich get richer and that the wealthy and well-connected will be better able to exercise choice than the poor.
POOR PEOPLE MAKE BAD CHOICES?
Finally, we tackle one of the most enervating school choice myths: that low-income families will not make good choices, whether out of ignorance, misplaced educational priorities, or other potential failings. Dispelling this myth in our final chapter is Virginia Walden Ford, who has been a school choice activist for decades and who was a driving force behind the enactment of the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Drawing on the research of others and her own experience helping countless low-income families, Walden Ford shows that far from being inept choosers, poor people “ reach for that brass ring. They make good choices. ”
Chapter One: Myth: School Choice Balkanizes
“Rather than pulling us apart, choice is the key to building bridges.”
Many people, when given a choice likely would associate with others like themselves. But that also happens without school choice programs such as vouchers or scholarship tax credits, both in American society generally and in the public schooling system that has long enrolled the vast majority of children.
Public Schools, Poor Unifiers
How have Americans come together over the centuries, first as colonists and then as countrymen ? What role did public schooling play ? There is insufficient space to explore this comprehensively, but the contours of American educational history are powerful : there is little evidence that public schooling unified Americans, and it may very well have been an obstacle. From the 1607 landing of British settlers in Virginia to the 19th century’s common-school crusade, education was a matter left primarily to private and civil society — free people
There were attempts to create government-run schools, including the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s famous 1647 “ Old Deluder Satan Act, ” which required towns of various sizes to maintain either a teacher, or a teacher and schoolhouse.
The idea that government should control education was largely foreign to people of British extraction, and the schooling was insufficiently useful to marshal broad support.
SEGREGATION WAS ENFORCED THROUGH GOVERNMENT
A more egregious way than chosen separation in which public schooling failed to unify was by forbidding togetherness. For decades many public schools were racially segregated by law.
And while de jure segregation in the South was under legal siege after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, many Northern governments maintained segregation more stealthily, including by placing new schools in heavily white housing areas, or busing whites to white-dominated schools.
Chapter Three: Myth: Public Schools Are Necessary for a Stable Democracy
“ Public governance of our schools matters for the health of our democracy. ” — Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris, Washington
THE DISMAL CURRENT STATE OF CIVICS KNOWLEDGE
Only four in ten Americans can pass a basic civics quiz. That dispiriting finding, from a recent national survey of 41,000 of our fellow citizens, is merely the latest in a long line of results suggesting that most Americans are ill-equipped to fulfill their responsibilities for active and informed self-government.
The claim that only government-run schools can promote civic practices and ideals is arguably the biggest myth in the school choice debate. Though commonly repeated, it is such a whopper because the actual evidence proves it to be false. The private school advantage over public schools in nurturing the democratic values of young Americans is far greater than any advantage private schools have in boosting students ’ test scores.
At least five assumptions undergird the myth that public schools are necessary for a stable democracy : ( 1 ) education is a public good, ( 2 ) government organizations focus on public goals while private organizations focus on private goals, ( 3 ) public schools are more accountable than private schools, ( 4 ) public schools create unity from diversity, and ( 5 ) exit weakens voice. All five of these assumptions are highly questionable.
EDUCATION IS NOT A PUBLIC GOOD
At first blush, K – 12 schooling might appear to be a public good. Every child aged 5 to 18 is guaranteed access to some public school, at no direct charge. Unlike ships traveling the sea lanes illuminated by a lighthouse, however, children are not guaranteed free access to any particular public school. The public school system uses a variety of mechanisms — including strict residential boundaries, ability-based admission to magnet schools, and expulsions — to exclude students from the specific schools their parents want them to attend.
Elementary and secondary education are definitively not public goods. They are, at best, merit goods, with some features of a public good, such as spillover benefits to society, and some features of a private good, such as excludability at the point of provision.
Private schools are responsive to the parents whose loyalty they must have to continue operating. Parents have particular interests, to be sure, including the desire that their children be kept safe and nurtured in a variety of ways during the school day. Parents tend to demand that schools teach “ the whole child ” — mind, body, heart, and soul.
American Catholic schools, in particular, have a reputation for emphasizing the preparation of effective citizens. There is no broad evidence that public schools necessarily privilege the public interest over private interests any more than private schools do.
DOES “EXIT” WEAKEN “VOICE”?
Finally, the assertion that conflict in public education is a good thing is grounded in a naïve and incorrect understanding of the relationship between “ exit ” and “ voice. ” In his seminal work Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, economist Albert O. Hirschman theorizes that the dissatisfied clients of an organization, such as a public school, have three options. They can exit quietly for an alternative provider, they can complain vocally, or they can remain meekly loyal. Hirschman argues that generally, and specifically in the case of school choice, exit and voice are contrary forces.
Hirschman’s argument that exit options weaken voice and thus diminish the prospects for organizational improvement has been heavily questioned and criticized. 28 If parents cannot transfer their child to another school, no matter how unsatisfied they are with their child’s education, why would school leaders be affected by their voice? Far from diminishing the positive effects of voice, increasing exit options via choice policies is certain to enhance the influence and practice of parental voice.
CLEAR EMPIRICAL RESULTS
Corey DeAngelis published a systematic review of 11 evaluations of the effects of private school choice on civic outcomes in 2017. Six of the studies measured the effects of private school choice on student levels of political tolerance, with three concluding that the results were positive and the other three finding that students in private school choice programs were neither more nor less politically tolerant than their public school peers. Five of the evaluations examined civic engagement, which included political or voluntary activity. Three of those studies concluded that private school choice programs increased civic engagement, while the other two found that they had no effect on it.
A whopping 50 statistical findings indicate that private schooling produces significantly better civic outcomes than does public schooling. The remaining 33 findings detect no difference between the two.
Chapter Four: Myth: Private School Choice Is Unconstitutional
BEFORE 1990, NO PUBLIC FUNDS WENT TO PRIVATE SCHOOLS
The constitutional battle surrounding private school choice programs has been raging for three decades. It began with the enactment of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1990, a publicly funded scholarship program that gave eligible families a grant, or voucher, to attend the eligible private school of their choice. 1 Even though the original program did not permit families to choose religious schools, “ various school administration organizations ” and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP ) mounted an unsuccessful constitutional challenge to the choice program.
Throughout the 1990s, litigation followed in each state that passed a private school choice program.
The U.S. Supreme Court and at least nine state supreme courts, one state appellate court, and the territorial Supreme Court in Puerto Rico have rejected constitutional attacks against school choice programs on the merits.
Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue held that it would violate the U.S. Constitution to exclude religious schools from a private school choice program.
In Espinoza, the Court concluded that Montana violated the U.S. Constitution when it relied on a clause in its state constitution to strike down a school choice program because students were permitted to use their scholarships to attend religious schools. Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the “supreme law of the land condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them.”
Blaine amendments are characterized by their restriction on the “ use ” or “ appropriation ” of public funds “ in aid of ” or “ for the benefit of ” “ sectarian ” schools and are found in 37 state constitutions.
Blaine proposed an amendment to the federal Constitution in 1876 to prohibit states from appropriating public money to “ sectarian ” schools. The term “ sectarian ” was widely understood at that time to mean “ Catholic. ” It was not a synonym for “ religious, ” as it is often understood today.
Large numbers of Catholic families were unhappy with the Protestant orientation of the public schools and, after opening their own schools, began campaigning for a proportional share of public school funds.
Thankfully, under Espinoza, Blaine amendments are no longer a barrier to educational choice programs that empower parents to choose religious educational options alongside nonreligious options. Of course, even before Espinoza, most state courts had concluded that it is the students themselves — not religious schools — who are the true beneficiaries of educational choice programs.
Even before Espinoza, two types of school choice programs were especially resistant to Blaine amendment attacks. It is worth exploring why.
Scholarship programs that rely on private donations incentivized by tax credits have proven largely immune to Blaine amendment challenges. This is because such programs do not involve any appropriation or use of public funds, and thus the textual analysis of most Blaine amendments, which apply only to uses or appropriations of “ public funds, ” ends before the question of whether private school programs “ aid ” or “ benefit ” parents or schools is even reached.
At no point does the state own the donated money legally or ever possess it physically. To find otherwise would mean that the state essentially has a claim over every cent of taxpayers ’ money.
Education savings account ( ESA ) programs have twice proven immune from Blaine amendment challenges, though they are a relatively new type of private school choice program. 30 ESAs are flexible, parent-controlled accounts from which parents may draw funds to tailor their child’s education, whether it be in the form of home educational materials, private tutoring, private school tuition, online education, or any combination thereof. ESAs thus differ from traditional voucher and scholarship programs by permitting parents to spend their child’s education dollars on more than just private school tuition.
Finally, opponents argue that if the programs are permissible, then the private schools that parents choose must be considered part of the public school system — and thus be subject to the same legal requirements as public schools. But private school choice programs do not transform private schools into public schools. Private schools remain private. Thankfully, every state supreme court that has considered these arguments has rejected them, except Florida’s, which relied on an education provision to strike down a statewide voucher program while distinguishing programs that serve students with disabilities.
Florida remains home to some of the nation’s largest private school choice programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves over 107,000 students and was upheld in a separate legal decision.
Chapter Five: Myth: Children Are Not Widgets, So Education Must Not Be Left to the Market - BY COREY DEANGELIS
According to the Digest of Education Statistics, we currently spend over $ 15,000 per child per year, or more than $ 195,000 for each child’s K – 12 education. 1 Even though all families must pay a share of these large costs for government schools — whether their children attend them or not — about 10 percent of all students receive a private education.
The presence of private schooling demonstrates that education can be provided by the market even when American citizens are compelled to allocate about $ 738 billion each year toward government schooling.
The heart of the argument for government-run schooling is that children are not widgets, so education shouldn’t be left to the market. For example, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently said, “Education is not a business to be run on a profit margin.”
Similarly, Times Union columnist Chris Churchill proclaimed, “Children aren’t widgets and schools aren’t factories.” Of course children aren’t widgets. This is precisely why education must not be left to government. If children were all identical it would be much easier to educate all of them the same way in uniform factory-like schools, which is what government schooling tends to provide. If children within a certain ZIP code and age group were all the same, we could simply assign them to one government school and it would likely work well for them all, assuming government were competent with delivering uniform education.
But there’s just one problem: children are unique. They all have unique interests, abilities, and needs. They are not widgets, so we shouldn’t expect that placing them on the government assembly line will lead to long-run success.
HOW COMPETITION BREEDS DIVERSITY AND EXCELLENCE
After all, private and charter schools must attract families, which requires addressing their needs if they want to keep their doors open. On the other hand, people are forced to pay for government schools through property taxes and other taxes whether they are happy with them or not. The political process tends to produce uniform systems and rules based on the will of the majority and the politically powerful.
As Bryan Caplan and Ilya Somin point out, each individual voter correctly understands that their vote has a near-zero chance of determining the outcome of a given election. They also know that researching candidates and understanding their preferred policies is very costly. Because becoming an informed voter has high expected costs and low expected benefits, it is completely rational for citizens to be uninformed voters.
THE DISMAL TRACK RECORD OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS & STANDARDIZED TESTING
Perhaps this at least partially explains why we have increased inflation-adjusted per pupil education funding by 280% since 1960 with no discernable student achievement improvements overall.
Some children may benefit from focusing on standardized math and reading tests, but others may need more character or behavioral education. Still others may benefit from additional hours of mental health counseling or specialized therapies.
MORE HISTORY OF “INDUSTRIAL SCHOOLING”:
Our current system of residentially assigned government schooling largely mirrors the Prussian school system. The compulsory system of schooling in Prussia started in 1819 with the clear mission of creating citizens that would be obedient miners, factory workers, and soldiers. A system creating obedient factory workers may have sounded quite beneficial at the time of the Industrial Revolution, but treating kids like identical and replaceable cogs in a factory isn’t very useful in today’s economy.
Choice critics also offer other misguided assertions for why education shouldn’t be “left to the market.”
These include ( 1 ) schooling is a public good, ( 2 ) schooling is good for the public, ( 3 ) education is too important to be left to the market, and ( 4 ) government-run schooling will lead to more educational equality. Let’s go over each of these arguments to understand why none of them leads to the conclusion that the government ought to operate schools.
SCHOOLING IS NOT A PUBLIC GOOD
The formal definition of a public good is attributed to Nobel laureate economist Paul Samuelson. In a classic 1954 article, he explained that such a good satisfies two necessary conditions : it is nonexcludable, and it is nonrivalrous in consumption.
The nonrivalry provision simply means that one individual’s consumption of the good does not diminish the abilities of others to consume it. A radio station can be thought of as a true public good, because it would be extremely difficult to prevent anyone with a radio from listening.
If schooling were indeed a public good, there would perhaps be a stronger economic argument for government funding and operating schools.
Fortunately, schools will never suffer from a true free-rider problem because they are not true public goods. That is precisely why private schools operate effectively without government operating or funding them.
When people, including prominent education scholars, 16 say that schooling is a public good, they likely mean that it is “ good for the public. ”
MILTON FRIEDMAN AND THE PIGOUVIAN SUBSIDY
A feasible policy solution to move education levels up is a negative Pigouvian tax, also known as a Pigouvian subsidy. As Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman concluded, the government may have a role in funding schooling because of the theoretical positive externalities — he called them “ neighborhood effects ” — of education in general. 23
While education itself seems to have net-positive externalities, the case is less clear for the system of traditional public schooling we have in the United States today.
The only existing analysis on the subject estimates that government schooling, relative to a universal private school choice system, has a net-negative effect on society of about $ 1.3 trillion dollars over each student cohort’s lifetime.
In other words, relative to a universal private school choice system, government schooling is likely a demerit good.
EDUCATION IS TOO IMPORTANT TO BE LEFT UP TO THE MARKET?
Many people agree that the government generally does a poor job with simple tasks such as delivering the mail or running the DMV. Then sometimes the same people turn around and argue that the government needs to perform complex tasks such as educating an extremely diverse population. But if the government cannot effectively perform simple tasks, we certainly shouldn’t trust it to perform complex tasks.
If you think that education is so important that the government must run the schools, then you must also conclude that the government must run the farms and grocery stores.
School choice is an educational equalizer.
In addition to the problem of housing segregation, the best teachers are often promoted away from the least advantaged students. Teachers are paid based on years of experience rather than quality, and because the best teachers are not well rewarded financially, they are often rewarded with their choice of schools to work in instead. The best teachers tend to move to the schools with advantaged kids that are relatively easy to educate, leaving the least advantaged children with worse teachers.
Rich people can escape the government school system far more easily than poor people because spending over and above their schooling tax dollars so that their children can attend a private school is a relatively far smaller hit for them.
Educational failure is not the fault of government schoolteachers or administrators, because educating so many children of diverse needs is a job that is nearly impossible when they are crammed into classrooms based just on their ages and ZIP codes.
Chapter Six: Myth: School Choice Siphons Money from Public Schools and Harms Taxpayers
THE ARITHMETIC CASE
Of course, the total budgets of public school districts decrease when they lose students for any reason, as is the case for universities, or any private sector business or nonprofit that loses customers or clients. But it is also true that costs go down when the number of students decreases.
any net fiscal effect will be determined by a comparison between the fiscal cost to provide vouchers or scholarships and the fiscal savings from not having to pay the cost of enrolling students in public schools.
Consider a situation where $10,000 per student is spent in the public schools. A school choice program that offers $9,000 scholarships to public school students to attend the private school of their choice would save taxpayers $1,000 per student.
THE EMPIRICAL CASE
After accounting for switchers and variable cost savings, these 16 voucher programs generated a lower-bound estimate of $ 3.2 billion in net savings for state and local taxpayers,
Lueken estimated the fiscal effects of 10 tax-credit scholarship programs in 7 states by using a range of cautious assumptions about switchers and the number of students who receive multiple scholarships ; … his most conservative estimates, indicating these programs generated cumulative net savings worth almost $ 1.7 billion, or about $ 1,400 for every scholarship awarded in the programs between 1998 and 2014.13
Do Choice Programs Leave Fewer Resources for Students Who Remain in Public Schools ?
HOW FUNDING IS APPORTIONED
Public school districts receive funding from state, local, and federal taxpayers. While the percentages vary significantly across states, public schools nationally receive 8 percent of their funding from the federal government on average and 45 percent from local sources. The remaining 47 percent comes from state governments ( Figure 6.2 ). 18 Given that federal and state tax dollars flow to school districts, not to individual schools, the focus for
It is important to understand that when students leave a public school district — for any reason — all dollars do not follow them. Funding from local and federal sources is usually not allocated on a per pupil basis. Typically, when public school districts lose students via choice — or lose students for any other reason — they get to retain their locally generated funding and a significant portion of federal funding.
…depends on whether the revenue that public school districts actually lose is greater or less than the short-run variable cost of educating the students who left.
It is true that public school districts receive less funding when students leave — largely because of a reduction in state funds — but they retain local and most federal funds for students they no longer serve.
WHAT ABOUT FIXED COSTS?
The argument about substantial fixed costs is implicitly about the short run. An important and basic accounting and economic principle is that all costs are variable in the long run, and public school districts ( along with any other economic entity ) will adapt accordingly.
Thus, during the era of Indiana’s voucher program, students who remained in public schools experienced a significant increase in access to public school personnel.
Chapter Eight: Myth: School Choice Only Helps the Rich Get Richer
When critics of school choice say that choice makes the rich richer, they are expressing their concern that policies such as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, or education savings accounts ( ESAs ) that provide subsidies to families to use for private school tuition or other educational services worsen social inequality. School choice in this situation more precisely refers to “ private school choice. ”
Chapter Twelve: Myth: Only Rich Parents Can Make Good Choices
The myth that poor parents are simply too stupid, or badly informed, to choose the right schools for their children is just that — a myth. And it is a cruel myth at that. But even if you do not agree with the research, or if you doubt my experiences, I invite you to view this issue through the lens of what we ourselves expect from our families, friends, neighbors, and strangers in everyday life. We expect people to make choices.
This is one of the tenets — one of the pillars — of civil society. People need to be able to make choices, and we must trust people to make choices that — most of the time — will at least be in their own self-interest.
the overwhelming majority of the time, low-income families see school choice as a lifeline to a better life and more opportunities for their children, and they reach for that brass ring. They make good choices.
Supporters and opponents of school choice stand at a crossroads. If school choice opponents truly want to do what is right for families, they cannot continue to regard poor people as too stupid to make good decisions.
Buy the book: School Choice Myths | Cato Institute
FORUM: Cato Institute