Media Bias on School Choice
A study being released today suggests that school choice isn’t a powerful tool for driving educational improvement in Milwaukee Public Schools.Rick Esenberg has beat us to the punch in critiquing the methodology of this particular study. As he points out, it’s not a study of private school choice, only a study of choice within the public sector.
But more surprising than the conclusion is the organization issuing the study: the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has supported school choice for almost two decades, when Milwaukee became the nation’s premier center for trying the idea. The institute is funded in large part by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an advocate of school choice.
“The report you are reading did not yield the results we had hoped to find,” George Lightbourn, a senior fellow at the institute, wrote in the paper’s first sentence.
“We had expected to find a wellspring of hope that increased parental involvement in the Milwaukee Public Schools would be the key ingredient in improving student performance,” Lightbourn wrote. But “there are realistic limits on the degree to which parental involvement can drive market-based reform in Milwaukee.”
First, the study doesn’t really measure what parents in Milwaukee actually do. As the authors say, “the basic approach was to identify the determinants and frequency of parental choice and parental involvement using a national data set, and extrapolate those results to Milwaukee, relying on the particular demographics of the MPS district.” In other words, they take national data on how households with particular demographic characteristics act with respect to choosing schools and becoming involved with the schools and then assume that people with those characteristics in Milwaukee would act the same way. They then look at the characteristics of families in MPS and run the numbers.If social scientists know anything, it is that contextual effects matter, and they often matter a lot. Put people on one social context, and they act one way. Put them in another social context, and (although they may have the same characteristics) they act in an entirely different way.
That’s a respectable approach, although it would not catch the effects of any local efforts to improve decision-making or increase parental involvement.
Second, it seems less plausible to extrapolate from these data to families who choose voucher schools. The demographics of that group may be different. In addition, opting out of the public schools may itself reflect a higher degree of involvement with a child’s education (it presumably takes more effort) and a population that does that may differ from others with same socioeconomic characteristics.
Thus it is highly questionable to generalize from school districts across the nation that have fewer choices -- and a much shorter history of giving parents a choice -- to Milwaukee.
Then there is the fact that the study insists that parents have to be, essentially, model consumers before choice can work.
Taken together, these three estimates allow one to perform calculations regarding a hypothetical “ideal consumer” in a public school choice system. This consumer would maximize the marketplace pressures on schools, thereby creating the greatest prospects for school reform and student achievement. Such a consumer would:In the first place, loss of ten percent of your students is not trivial. In most industries, a loss of ten percent of market share would set off huge alarm bells in the executive suites.
The estimate of MPS parents meeting all three criteria is just 10 percent. Given this number, it seems unlikely that MPS schools are feeling the pressure of a genuine educational marketplace.
- exercise choice, rather than simply enrolling his or her child in the local neighborhood school;
- consider at least two schools in the choice process, rather than simply choosing a school without assessing the potential costs and benefits of alternatives; and
- bring performance-based/academic criteria to bear in the choice process.
In the second place, who says that simply putting your kid in the neighborhood school is not an exercise of “choice?” The criterion for “choice” is not that you send your child off to another part of the city to school, rather, it’s that you would if the opportunities there outweighed the advantages of a neighborhood school.
Further, who says you have to consider two or more schools? Rational consumers will often decide to “stand pat” with their current choices if those choices are considered “good enough.” Imagine a parent whose child seems satisfied with his or her current school. The parent sees that the child is doing an appropriate amount of homework, getting decent grades, and doing as well as he or she should be doing on standardized tests.
This parent is perfectly rational to simply “stand pat.”
Finally, who says that parents must “bring performance-based/academic criteria to bear in the choice process?” Choosing a school on the basis of the values taught there (relevant when parents choose a religious school) or extracurricular activities (relevant if a child has a lot of potential in, say, football or swimming or drama) might be the best way to go. Especially if there is no reason, a priori, to suspect you are giving up academic quality in the process.
The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute study can be contrasted with the best academic study on this issue, one that appeared in the American Journal of Political Science.
(In the interests of full disclosure, we have published both in The Wisconsin Interest, published by WPRI, and in the AJPS.)
The scholars who published in the AJPS note that in spite of limited information, parents tend to select schools that match their preferences:
The results in the three analyses presented in Table 3 all point in the same direction-even though levels of objective information held by parents are low, their actual choice of schools reflects their preferences in education. For example, parents who say that high scores are important enroll their children in schools that are more than a quarter of a standard deviation above the district mean in reading scores. Similarly, parents who value safety and those who value diversity also enroll their children in schools that are significantly higher than the average schools in their district on these dimensions. (p. 780)In short, school choice works, even in the absence of highly informed parents.
The authors of this article further point out:
We demonstrate that the same puzzle we have just documented in school choice-that of matching preferences in the face of low levels of information-has been posed in the study of many private goods markets. Most research into this phenomenon has demonstrated that the solution to the puzzle lies in a small group of consumers who actually gather information about products. Thus, while on average, information about products is low, a small group of buyers in markets tend to be more informed. More importantly, these studies also show that this small percentage of buyers can effectively drive a market toward a competitive outcome. (p. 782)At least in New York City, were this study was conducted, the informed parents are numerous enough to drive a choice system effectively.
But do we need to look at data from elsewhere? Is there a good analysis of Milwaukee data?
Indeed there is. A study from Rajashri Chakrabarti, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, looks specifically at Milwaukee, and reaches the following conclusions:
The Milwaukee voucher program, as implemented in 1990, allowed only non-sectarian private schools to participate in the program. Following a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, the program saw a major shift and entered into its second phase, when religious private schools were allowed to participate for the first time in 1998. This led to more than a three-fold increase in the number of private schools and almost a four-fold increase in the number of choice students. Moreover, due to some changes in funding provisions, the revenue loss per student from vouchers increased in the second phase of the program. This paper analyzes the impacts of increase in competition brought about by these changes on public school performance in Milwaukee. Using data from 1987 to 2002, and a difference-in-differences estimation strategy in trends, the paper finds that these changes have led to an improvement of the public schools in the second phase of the program as compared to the first phase. The results are robust to alternative samples and specifications, and survive several sensitivity checks including correcting for mean reversion. The findings imply that voucher design matters and choice of parameters in a voucher program is crucial as far as impacts on public school incentives and performance are concerned.The article has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Public Economics.
This, of course, makes excellent intuitive sense. Where options for parents are tightly constrained, and where public schools have little to fear, fiscally, from parents “opting out,” there is little reason to expect them to improve their performance.
But when competition becomes a real threat, it also becomes a real prod.
Now, a question.
How much attention did the Milwaukee media pay to the Chakrabarti study?
Searching the archive of the Journal-Sentinel, there is only one mention. It’s a blot entry from Patrick McIlheran pointing how that the study has gotten no attention!