Sunday, July 19, 2009

School competition begets greater quality

The June 24 edition of The Commercial Appeal reported that Shelby County Schools Superintendent Bobby Webb, who retired the following week, has been among those “holding back the tide of charter schools.” It also quoted county school board chairman David Pickler, who said that charter schools “are still an unproven entity” and that people should “[b]e aware of the trend generating here.”

Their reservations are not surprising, given that school choice threatens traditional public schools, but evidence suggests that more competition means better schools. Education monopolies restrict dissatisfied parents’ most effective weapon: the exit option. Restrictions on competition reduce pressure on schools to perform, and students lose. Under the current version of the Tennessee charter bill, schools must fail a federal benchmark two years in a row before students are allowed to switch to charter schools. This is two years too long. Parents should not need government permission to try to improve their kids’ education.

Evidence suggests that competition increases quality. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Urban Economics, economists Keven Booker, Scott Gilpatric, Timothy Gronberg and Dennis Jansen found that Texas charter schools improved educational outcomes for students in traditional public schools.

Competition increased quality: It wasn’t just students who attended charter schools who were better off. Students who remained in the traditional schools improved their test scores as well.

The authors were able to control for possible charter school “cream-skimming” and isolate the effect of competition on quality. This is of particular importance because one criticism of school choice is that privately operated schools will skim off the high-quality students and leave everyone else behind.

The effects the authors estimate are admittedly small, but they suggest that at the very least we can get the same quality at a lower price, or higher quality at the same price.

Webb asked whether we should allow “private entities trying to get their hands on millions and millions of public dollars” to operate schools.

A 2007 study of Arizona charter schools by Kerry A. King published in the Journal of Economic Issues found that students in for-profit charter schools perform no worse than students in nonprofit charter schools (she actually found higher test scores, but the differences were statistically insignificant).

If anything, taxpayers and parents should be concerned about interest groups fighting to protect their privileged access to “millions and millions of public dollars.”

Webb complained that charter schools take resources from traditional public schools. To borrow a phrase from economist David Friedman, however, this is a feature of charter schools, not a bug. When a private firm fails to provide what people want at prices they are willing to pay, it goes out of business (at least it should; politically powerful firms like Chrysler and GM are another story). Resources should go from schools that don’t perform up to parents’ expectations to schools that perform better.

Perhaps governments should subsidize education because of positive spillover benefits from basic literacy and numeracy, but this does not imply that governments should operate the schools themselves. A growing body of empirical evidence suggests that privately operated schools are more productive than government-operated schools, and we are not aware of any evidence that government-operated schools are more productive than privately operated schools.

Economist Thomas Sowell is fond of saying that there are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs. There is no way to know which tradeoffs are wise and unwise without the information that only competition provides.

Webb also asked, “If it’s not broken, what needs to be fixed?” That’s a fair question, but we shudder to think about how much progress would have been stopped if government officials could have stifled innovation and competition every time they thought something was “good enough.”

Pickler said charter schools are “unproven,” but the evidence suggests otherwise. In our opinion, the burden of proof is on opponents of choice to show that monopoly is better than competition. Memphis’ history of innovation deserves better. Firms that originated in Memphis—firms like Piggly Wiggly, FedEx and Holiday Inn—have been trailblazers, and Memphis’ place in the history of American popular music speaks for itself. It would be fitting for Memphians to embrace school choice.


False accusations against teachers in Britain

Pupils are threatening to accuse teachers of abusing them in order to avoid being punished for bad behaviour, MPs warn today. The report from the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee says new guidelines should be published to help head teachers deal with false allegations against their staff. It claims that teachers are often treated as guilty before they are proven innocent and demands that the Government justifies why unsubstantiated allegations are passed on to employers.

Teaching unions report increasing numbers of claims of physical abuse of pupils at the hands of their teachers, but a static number of convictions. “There is an increasingly prevalent attitude of pupils challenging teachers with comments asserting their legal rights and threats that they will make an allegation against the teacher if she seeks to reprimand them for misbehaviour,” the report said. One head was told by a pupil: “I’m going to get you suspended.”

The MPs are concerned at a trend for pupils to use social networking sites to make anonymous, false or malicious allegations against teachers. “Head teachers are still too hasty to suspend when an allegation is made. More use should be made of alternatives, and head teachers should be made aware that the lawfulness of suspension can be challenged and the courts may not view it as a neutral act,” the MPs said.

Jane Watts, 52, was immediately suspended when a five-year-old pupil accused her of hitting her on the hand during a lesson. Despite being cleared by the police, Duke Street Primary School in Chorley, Lancashire, launched its own investigation. Mrs Watts was dismissed for gross misconduct, but was later reinstated with her punishment reduced. The distress caused by the accusation and investigation meant that Mrs Watts was unable to return to school because of ill health and a fear that she would be constantly under suspicion.

Andrew Kidd, head teacher at Duke Street Primary School, confirmed that a member of his staff was dismissed for misconduct, reinstated — and then dismissed again for “non-attendance”. But he said “the original finding of misconduct was correct”. Mrs Watts told The Times that she would never work as a teacher again because the accusation would stay on her record. She described herself as: “Going from someone who would happily take 220 children for hymn practice, meetings for parents and training [sessions], to someone who was afraid to walk around in Chorley and didn’t want to go to the local supermarket. That’s the effect it had.”


There can be some reasonable alternatives to Britain's top private schools

No wonder demand for places in good state schools is soaring. Many people can no longer pay big bucks for top schools

Where do your children go to school?” I am frequently asked. It might be the social niceties of a business lunch, or the surroundings of a wedding reception. Do they want to check that you are in their league? Or do they want to make sure that you are doing that uniquely British thing — spending every last penny you possess (and many that you don’t) on putting your children through the very best education you can obtain for them?

It is a British thing. The French, for instance, cannot fathom why we pay so much for private secondary schools. In Australia, where the Government gives private schools a subsidy for every child they spare the state having to educate, they wonder at the prices the British will pay for a private education. And the Americans find the concept ever so slightly mad.

We used to be one of those slightly mad families. For years we paid for our three children to attend the very best of Britain’s private schools. We never considered doing anything else; we had both been educated privately and wanted for our children what had been provided for us.

But then the recession arrived, and we had to face the truth; we are not Goldman Sachs partners nor in possession of trust funds set up by munificent grandparents to pay for school fees. Our eldest son was about to start university. But the other two were being educated out of current income. Running a small business in a recession does not yield a lot of cash.

The prospect of using up what savings we had, and/or borrowing money, made us stop and think: why are we doing this? Will these children really be that much worse off in the state sector? We had looked at several private schools for our sons and chosen one that we thought would provide our children not only with an education, but wider skills and a network — membership of a club.

Now we had to challenge our long-held beliefs and go and see what choice was available to us; we were very pleasantly surprised. For secondary education we had a boys-only option, our closest state school, and, almost equidistant, a co-educational comprehensive with a very helpful and supportive headmaster who found another previously privately educated child to show us around. And if we were prepared to venture a little farther there was an 11-16 co-ed cited by Ofsted this year as having “an outstanding quality of education”.

There was also the local private day school, which does not usually admit pupils at 14+, and whose 13+ place we had turned down a while ago in preference for one at one of the grandest public schools in the country. A letter explaining frankly why we had previously spurned them, and why we would be grateful for a further discussion, persuaded them to re-interview and re-examine our son. For £4,500 a term (as opposed to almost £12,000) he now has a place at a school that sends almost a third of its pupils to Oxbridge each year, where the parents are more likely to be our peers, and where he will make local friends rather than ones who live in Moscow or have a second home in Barbados.

The ten-year-old is returning to the local village primary school after a three-year absence; again, a truthful letter to the new headmistress paved the way.

The boys have been brilliant; the younger one is thrilled to be coming home from boarding school, and the older one, while very disappointed at leaving new friends and a school where he was extremely happy, recognises that as a family we will all be better prepared financially if he moves.

We will need to adjust our lives to do more hands-on parenting; that too is no bad thing. They have probably lost their “club membership”; we shall have to compensate. The process has been cathartic, and while we acknowledge that others may not have such high-quality options as we do in Oxfordshire, I would still encourage anyone facing financial challenges to consider something they may previously have considered heresy.

How will it turn out? I have no idea, but I would cite two people who have contacted me since I made our decision public. The first was a banker, whom I know. “I’ve always regarded private secondary education as absurdly expensive and, thank God, managed to put my two children through the grammar school system.” He did, however, pay for one of them, who had good GCSE grades, to do her A levels in the private sector. “Just as I expected, this ended up as simply being an expensive private members’ club and her results would have been just the same . . .”

The other is someone I had never met, a young man in his early twenties. His parents had done the same to him — removed him from one of the country’s grandest establishments and sent him to the local (and very much cheaper) private day school. “I won’t pretend the transition was all that easy. It was very difficult having my parents involved in my day-to-day education ... But I made new and good friends (who lived around the corner, rather than in Paris, New York etc) and found that I really enjoyed the additional freedom I got from going to a day school. I got my As and went to Durham.”

He signed off his e-mail with the reassuring “It’ll be fine.” And do you know what? I suspect it will be. Contrary to long-held beliefs, private education, and especially the most expensive kind, is not necessarily the only option. The psychological barrier for us was, I suspect, much harder than the real one is going to be.


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