U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited a public school and a private school in Florida on Tuesday. The representatives of teachers at one type of school took it as a declaration of war of sorts upon them that DeVos paid a visit to the other type of school.
“It’s no surprise that Betsy DeVos will be visiting a private school among her stops in Tallahassee,” Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall reacted in a statement. “She has long shown her opposition to public schools, her support for unfettered vouchers and for-profit charter school chains and her desire to privatize all education in this nation.”
The distorted lens that sees trips to public and private schools as an insult to the government-funded institutions strikes as analogous to the notion that supporting vouchers for the minority of parents who choose private schools amounts to a desire to shutter public schools.
The freedom that gives kids opportunities otherwise unavailable and the nonsensical rules that restrict students to a certain school based on arbitrarily drawn lines on a map illustrate the best and worst of education in America.
Our colleges and universities act as magnets attracting the world’s best and the brightest. At the K-12 level, the world’s wealthiest nation resembles a decidedly middle-class one.
The Program for International Student Assessment reports that American 15-year-olds ranked 38th in math, 24th in science, and 24th in reading vis-à-vis peers in 70 other countries. In other math and science tests at the fourth and eighth-grade level, American children performed better relative to their peers abroad but still not near the top.
It stands as an indictment against public schools that U.S. colleges grant more advanced degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to foreigners than to native-born students.
What do universities do right, and what does K-12 do wrong, to create this best-of-times-worst-of-times situation?
With higher education in the United States, the best students go to the best schools. With K-12 in the U.S., the best students go to the closest schools.
Relating to the former, government aid comes to students regardless of whether they attend a private or public, sectarian or secular school. Relating to the latter, government aid generally helps only students who attend government schools.
In higher education, unserious students flunk out. In K-12, failing students remain to siphon resources from serious students.
Part of the solution to what ails K-12 lies in what works at the college level.
The rules governing public-supported education at the pre-college level look dramatically different than the rules governing public-supported higher education. And the results look dramatically different, too.
School choice remains a popular solution more suggested than tested. Fewer than 180,000 students receive vouchers throughout the United States. Still fewer students (11,380) benefit from education-savings accounts (though that number figures to increase considerably in the wake of Nevada making ESAs universally available). Considering that American schools educate more than 50 million K-12 students a year, a paltry number of young people enroll in institutions through school choice programs. Less than one half of one percent of those enrolled in K-12 receive vouchers or education-savings accounts.
In other words, school choice exists more as a point of debate than a point of fact. The president, whose son attends a $40,000-a-year middle school, seeks a system that gives all parents a choice. Few parents enjoy the array of choices that a ten-figure net worth provides and a few more may make poor decisions when presented with alternatives to public schools. But school choice importantly gives parents more options than they currently possess and, in providing a variety of schooling selections, enables most parents to make better choices than the singular choice made for them by strangers. It creates competition among schools that cannot but improve results. It treats students as individuals with individual needs requiring something beyond a cookie-cutter approach. It does not, and cannot, bring equality. It does present opportunities, which often leads to disadvantaged young people becoming advantaged adults.
“I want every single disadvantaged child in America, no matter what their background or where they live, to have a choice about where they go to school,” President Donald Trump explained early in his administration. “And it’s worked out so well in some communities.”
The data appears overwhelmingly favorable. So, opponents naturally overwhelm the favorable data, particularly in these hyperpartisan times.
Save for the ventriloquist trick of putting quotes in the mouths of famous people, the notion of “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” (misattributed to Benjamin Disraeli) strikes as the most common means by which partisans dress up falsehoods as fact. Think: “Studies say… what I say.”
Contradictory conclusions and wildly diverse interpretations of research on school choice reflect this phenomenon. What to believe?
A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, published last year by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, reports that of 33 studies regarding school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools, 31 found improvements, one noted no real change, and one found a decline in academic outcomes. All but three of 28 studies found that school choice saves money for taxpayers. The 18 studies on academic outcomes for school-choice students in private schools found student performance improve in 14 instances, decline in two, and register no measurable change in two.
Less than a year after the Friedman Foundation published A Win-Win Solution, the New York Times reported that “a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them.”
The former review of studies dubs school choice a “win-win” while the New York Times article calls the research on vouchers “dismal.” Which is it? Perhaps a better question is: Who are they?
Kevin Carey, the author of the latter article, advised Democratic politicians before working for liberal nonprofit groups. Greg Forster serves as a Friedman fellow, named in honor of the man credited with devising the idea of vouchers, at EdChoice.
Carey did not respond to requests to speak to him by The American Spectator. Forster notes the limitations in research that confined inquiry to one year and to a handful of studies.
“There’s a lot of disagreement between me and Carey, but on the narrow question that you’re asking about, there is actually no contradiction,” Dr. Forster explained. “The difference is explained by two factors. A) He is focused on a handful of recent studies whereas my report looks at the whole history of the research. B) When it comes to the research on how choice affects academic outcomes for participants, my report focuses on the highest quality research (random-assignment studies). Of the three studies Carey focuses on, one (in Louisiana) is included in my report, and the other two are not random-assignment studies. My reason for focusing on random-assignment studies, as I explain in the report, is that where a large body of such studies exists it should be preferred to other evidence.”
One might add that by focusing on the effects of school choice in students immediately after shifting from a public to a private school, a transitional period that proves troublesome for many kids whether involved in a school-choice program or not, the results can’t help but appear skewed. And when one looks at all the studies without parsing for time frames or cherry-picking for data that flatters preconceived notions, school choice looks like a particularly attractive option.
It does for parents, at least. In Washington, D.C., nearly 10,000 kids put their names on waiting lists for charter schools. Parents clearly want more choices than our system grants them even if those working in the system don’t want to grant it to them.
Number-crunchers may interpret the data on school choice in contrasting and conflicting ways. But the image of a line of frustrated kids effectively stretching from Georgetown University all the way to the Capitol makes it difficult to interpret the data as anything but a strong desire for school choice.
And in Tallahassee, where Secretary DeVos visited FSU High School, comes evidence that school choice does not amount to wrecking balls for public schools. An A-rated school priced just right at free, FSU High School represents, in one way, the norm — a desirable or acceptable public school — in American communities. But in cities such as Washington, D.C., where subpar schools remain the norm in some neighborhoods, school choice solves a problem for parents seeing too many of them in their communities.
Hunt Lawrence is a New York-based investor. Daniel Flynn is the author of five books.