Setting the record straight on choice

March 27, 2019

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

A couple of college instructors from the University of Oklahoma and Cameron University recently published two pages of emotive bullet points, unsubstantiated bumper-sticker assertions, shoddy reasoning, and deceptive characterizations of the empirical research.

As I write, a strange document entitled “Privatizing K-12 Public Education” is circulating around the Oklahoma state capitol. The false picture it paints of school choice programs is typical of the slippery rhetoric we’re accustomed to hearing from defenders of the education status quo. That opponents of choice seem to be unable to make the case against it without resorting to myths and misdirection is a fact well worth pondering.

I call it a strange document because it’s trying to present itself as some sort of scholarly press release. It’s published by something calling itself Scholars Strategy Network, and the byline is from two academics, with their academic affiliations and emails listed at the top. But it’s not a work of scholarship, nor is it informed by scholarship. It’s two pages of emotive bullet points, unsubstantiated bumper-sticker assertions, shoddy reasoning, and deceptive characterizations of the empirical research. An impressively long list of “sources,” formatted to look like scholarly citations, is supplied at the end in the desperate hope of simulating gravitas.

The “scholarly press release” format is, at least, a new twist. Everything else here is the same old game. The anti-school-choice myths in this document have been recycled more often than the New York Times.

The document’s contents can be divided roughly into two categories: dishonest distortion of the empirical research on school choice, and ideological claptrap. Let’s start with the research.

“Privatized schools tend to segregate children.” This is false. A substantial body of empirical studies on private school choice shows consistently the reverse. Ten empirical studies have examined private school choice programs on ethnic segregation; nine of those studies found the program reduced segregation, while one found no visible difference.

The sole source the authors cite to support their assertion, if you go and look it up, turns out to be a flimsy paper that points to national aggregate data on the total national charter school population versus the total national district school population. Of course, charter schools are only one kind of “privatized school”—a label the authors use to lump all schools of choice together, while freely cherry-picking convenient data or myths that really apply to only one type.

Looking at aggregate data on total populations tells us nothing about segregation in individual schools. How many actual charter schools are more “segregated” than the actual district schools in their own local areas—the schools their students would have attended if they weren’t in those particular charter schools? This report doesn’t ask. So charter schools in Arizona and Florida that are less segregated than district schools in Arizona and Florida are nonetheless labeled as “highly segregated” because district schools in, say, Montana may be even less segregated.

It’s telling that the first empirical claim made in the document is about segregation. The war against the old canards about academic outcomes seems to have been mostly won. And no wonder: The body of research on academic outcomes—both in schools of choice and in the public schools impacted by choice programs—is even larger than the body of research on segregation, and just as overwhelmingly positive. Meanwhile, we won the war against the segregation canard so long ago that most of the general public has forgotten all about it, which means we now need to fight it again.

In fact, the authors don’t have the guts to make their assertions about academic outcomes directly. The report does claim that schools of choice “denigrate” teacher quality, and “do not improve performance.” The word “denigrate” means “to disparage or hold in low esteem,” and assertions about “performance” are empty if no definition of what counts as performance is given. So the authors have not actually made an empirical claim about teacher quality or academic outcomes, although they leave the impression that they have. In fact, the superior academic outcomes in school choice programs demonstrate the bankruptcy of all their empty rhetoric about teacher certification requirements and master’s degrees (neither of which is empirically associated with improved academic outcomes).

The authors cherry-pick a few isolated cases of bad charter schools to highlight. I could play that game, too, and regale you with stories of bad public schools. I’d have a lot more stories to choose from, and they’d be far worse than anything alleged by the stories in this report. But “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.”

Assaulting private school choice, the authors appear to be afraid to make their own assertions, but quote someone else’s claim that no “independent studies” have ever found that students using private school choice in Milwaukee, Cleveland, or Washington, D.C. performed better than children who remained in public schools. But the official study in Washington, D.C. looked at exactly this question, using random-assignment methods (the gold standard), and found huge increases in high school graduation and college attendance rates. No doubt the report being cited here doesn’t count this study as “independent,” because it was a federal program and the study was federally funded as part of the program. That’s blatantly dishonest cherry-picking. And what is their excuse for leaving out the two—two!—gold-standard studies of this question finding academic improvements in Milwaukee?

Not to mention that it’s cherry-picking to include only selected cities. Across all private-choice programs, there have been a total of 18 gold-standard studies (no cherry-picking). Of these, 14 found academic improvements, two found no visible effect, and two (both examining a poorly designed program in Louisiana) found negative results.

The authors carefully avoid saying anything firm about how academic outcomes in public schools are affected by school choice. They offer up the canard that choice programs “divert money from students who go to public schools,” which is true only if you also “divert money” from St. Mary’s Hospital if you choose to have your tonsils out at St. Jude’s, and “divert money” from Pepsi if you drink Coke. In fact, of 34 empirical studies, 32 find that private-school choice actually improves academic outcomes in public schools.

After such blatant dishonesty about clearly defined and checkable facts, it feels lame to review the assertions that are mere ideological claptrap. We’ve already seen a few of those. The authors also claim “many privatized schools are not held accountable,” when parent choice is by far the most effective mechanism for holding schools accountable that has ever been invented. They complain that private schools in choice programs are permitted to be religious, and are sometimes permitted to control their own admissions—as they should be, in both cases, to ensure the school can do its job. Tellingly, the authors produce no data, nor even any anecdotes, showing any students eligible for choice but unable to find a desirable school that will take them. There is also no evidence of a choice school having taught anything hateful or anti-democratic. No surprise there; of 11 empirical studies, 8 find private schools in choice programs produced stronger tolerance and civic values, while three found no visible difference.

The authors complain that schools in choice programs are not “transparent.” But parents have the power to demand whatever information they think important, or not attend the school. This is why private schools are already more transparent, by orders of magnitude, than organizations are typically required to be when participating in other kinds of government programs. Look at the reams of hard data on named, particular private schools on or in the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data. Then try getting comparable data on apartment buildings that take Section 8 housing vouchers, or grocery stores that take food stamps.

Look, I’m a scholar who has worked at a think tank. I’ve written press releases. There’s nothing wrong with scholars releasing information and reasoning—and even hotly contested arguments—in a format that will get them widely distributed quickly.

But when I wrote press releases, I was careful to treat the facts responsibly, and not let the short space force me into misleading oversimplifications—much less distortions and myths. If there was more to the story than I could provide, I said so, and pointed people to where they could find it. And I certainly didn’t tart press releases up like they were scholarly papers, in hopes of swindling the gullible.