We conclude with part four in our review of Educational Freedom in Urban America: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education edited by David Salisbury and Casey Lartigue Jr.  Part one is available to read Here, part two Here and part three Here.  Keep in mind we are only sharing that which really jumped out at us as enlightening, helpful, informative or, in some cases, profound, but there is much we aren’t sharing that you may find helpful by reading the book in full.  Should we stir your interest to learn more the ebook is available for $9.99 Here.

Chapter twelve is “Markets and Urban Schooling: What Choice-Driven Competition Is Doing, and How to Make It Do More” by Frederick M. Hess.

However, and this critical point is too often overlooked, such change will require significant complementary reforms that serve to unleash the full power of market pressures so as to create meaningful competition, to permit educators to respond as real competitors, and to foster a productive market environment.

Market competition both compels officials and managers to make hard choices and strengthens their resolve when they confront employees or external constituencies unhappy with the requisite action.

A hard look at the promise and limits of competition is imperative.  It makes clear that anemic choice programs are unlikely to drive the kind of transformative change that urban schooling requires. Let’s not fool ourselves and pretend half-measures are satisfactory. Those who suggest that a smattering of charter schools, that a handful of school vouchers, or that the public choice provision of No Child Left Behind are sufficient to force systemic improvement are allowing their enthusiasm to get the best of them.

In the public sector, there are no owners with an analogous investment. Rather, systems are led by public officials who are accountable to voters, who may disagree about how to measure organizational performance, or who may even have some concerns they rate more highly than measured outcomes. Moreover, as schools are public bodies funded by public dollars, effective political leaders can blunt a competitive threat simply by a successful appeal to the legislature.

Of course, a loss of students or of funding can present a real black eye, giving public officials a strong incentive to respond. However, we need to understand that they’re acting to blunt an embarrassment—rather than to maximize organizational productivity, timeliness, or quality—which also means they’re likely to bring a halt to their efforts as soon as the public appears satisfied or when the complaints of irate constituencies grow too loud. Because public systems are governed by webs of regulations and civil service restrictions intended to protect the vulnerable and guard against the misuse of authority, it is very difficult for officials to pursue structural change. Especially given incentives to avoid antagonizing the politically active unions and advocacy groups invested in existing rules and procedures, leadership will generally choose to produce change by working around the edges of the existing system rather than by tackling fundamental restructuring.

A key result is that school systems are likely to respond to competition by allowing individual teachers and principals to do new things rather than by overhauling current practice. Consequently, competition is likely to produce add-ons and efforts to satisfy particular demands rather than the kind of renewed focus on core competency that is typically thought to mark firms that respond effectively to competition.

The scope of district response will depend in large part on how much competitive pressure exists. Increasing pressure generally means increasing the number of students able to leave the public schools or the amount of money that schools may lose if students leave. The threat posed by choice plans has generally been mild. We can accelerate competition by increasing the number of choice schools, the size of these schools, or the financial loss that public systems suffer when they lose enrollment. Eliminating caps on voucher program enrollment or the number of permitted charter schools, or providing generous financing or support for start-up costs, is likely to foster significant supply-side expansion. However, losing students will only give district schools pause if the financial losses are commensurate; if the district loses students but comes out financially even or ahead, it is easy for district educators to shrug off any losses. Having 100 percent of per-pupil spending immediately follow a student to her new school, while it poses real concerns about logistics and the welfare of students who remain behind, clearly ramps up the incentives for educators to respond.

One key to expanding private-sector capacity is likely to be the role of for-profit operators. It is the for-profit educators who have the most straightforward interest in adding capacity. They are educators most likely to open big schools and establish chains of schools, because their bottom-line concern with profitability will press them to seek to minimize costs and increase their customer base. For-profit educators have a major advantage in seeking to open or expand schools because they can access the capital markets for necessary support.

Competitive response requires that decision makers be motivated to worry more about outcomes and less about the political consequences of their decisions.

It is not that competition alone will magically make schools better, which is the derisive formulation that conventional education reformers sometimes use when critiquing choice-based reform. It is that market forces will ruthlessly focus educators on what needs to be done and will empower them to make the unpopular decisions that real improvement requires.

Chapter thirteen is “How Markets Affect Quality: Testing a Theory of Market Education against the International Evidence” by Andrew J. Coulson.

… the historically most effective education systems tended to share most or all of the following five features: choice and direct financial responsibility for parents, and freedom, competition, and the profit motive for schools.

…parents have historically made better decisions regarding their own children’s education than appointed or elected officials have made on their behalf. Second, government school systems offering a uniform curriculum are claimed to have caused more social conflict than have parent-driven education markets.

The direct payment of tuition by parents is alleged to encourage parental involvement, reduce the likelihood of school fraud, make schools more responsive to parental demands, stave off the encroachment of government regulation, and help control costs.  Freedom for educators means that anyone can open a school and that schools have complete discretion over their staffing, curricula, admissions, fees, and budgets. The rationale given for these stipulations is that they are necessary to permit and foster innovation, responsiveness to families, specialization, and the expansion of popular schools.

Private schools attended by scholarship students typically spend substantially less than public schools in the same neighborhoods.  Since it can be argued that U.S. public schools undertake a wider range of activities than private schools, it has been suggested that public and private school expenditures are not directly comparable.  To investigate this question, William Howell and Paul Peterson examined the programs of New York City in detail. They eliminated from their budgetary comparison all public school costs items that are absent (or at least noticeably lower) among most private schools (including transportation, special education, school lunches, and other ancillary services). They also excluded the ‘‘very substantial costs of the educational bureaucracy that manages the operations of the public schools at the city, borough, and district level.’’ According to Howell and Peterson, even after ‘‘expenditures for all of these items are subtracted, public schools still spent more than $5,000 per pupil each year, more than twice the $2,400 per pupil spent by Catholic schools, fully 72 percent of which comes from tuition.’’

Scholarship programs also allowed recipients to attend schools with vastly lower rates of violence and classroom disruption, more frequent and deeper parent-school communication, and a greater availability of in-school tutoring and after-school services (despite their expenditures being roughly half those of comparable public school expenditures).

On all 16 measures of parental satisfaction gathered by the researchers, private school parents expressed more positive views. On 15 of those 16 measures, the percentages of parents ‘‘very satisfied’’ with particular school characteristics were two to four times higher than the corresponding public school parent percentages.

With few exceptions, schools that are funded chiefly or entirely through tuition outperform schools that are funded chiefly or entirely by government agencies. Holding other factors constant, every increase in the share of school budgets that is raised through tuition and fees contributes to increased achievement. There is, however, a diminishing return as the total share of the budget accounted for by parental contributions rises. Requiring a modest parental copayment where none was previously required is thus apt to be of greater benefit than raising tuition from 80 percent to 100 percent of total school income.

Privately managed schools tend to have better-maintained facilities and more orderly classrooms than government schools. This is true whether the private schools are government subsidized or not, but the difference appears to be largest between unsubsidized private schools and government schools.

Private schools also seem more responsive to parental wishes in their course offerings and attention to individual students.

Private schools exist wherever there is sufficient demand to sustain their operations, even in regions of extreme poverty. The notions that private schools serve only the wealthy or that they are mostly selective and elitist institutions are emphatically contradicted by the evidence.

The supply of private schools has grown substantially when the out-of-pocket cost advantage of government schools has been reduced… These findings contradict claims that private school supply would not expand in response to large-scale voucher or tax credit programs in the United States.

A cautionary note is advisable, however: Newly created schools seem to perform less well than established schools. This is true whether or not the new schools are established in response to the introduction of a government subsidy program.

… a two-part state tax credit program was the best approach. The first part of the program would allow individuals and businesses to take dollar-for-dollar tax credits against donations to private scholarship organizations, much like the ones studied by Howell and Peterson. Low-income parents would then receive scholarships from these organizations to cover most (or all, in the case of the very poor) of the cost of their children’s education. For parents who could afford it, a sliding co-payment, based on ability to pay, could be required. The second part of the program would allow any parent not enrolling their child in a government school to take a nonrefundable tax credit to help them cover the cost of their child’s education.

My chief reason for advocating these tax credits over a voucher program was that they could preserve a higher level of direct financial responsibility for parents. Schools to which parents pay some or all of the costs from their own pockets do appear to offer superior conditions and outcomes to schools to which the state pays most or all of the costs, even when parents have a choice of state-subsidized schools. Moreover, schools that are mostly or fully funded by the state tend to be much more heavily regulated than parent-funded schools—and extensive government regulation of schools seems to have a negative effect on educational outcomes. This tendency has proved to be true whether or not funding follows the students.

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