Kristin L. Allen | January 26, 2016
As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s in the record book.”
What does the record book say about Virginia public education? According to the Cato Institute, over the period 1972-2012, K12 education costs have increased 120% in real dollars, and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores – a generally accepted measure of a student’s college readiness – have remained flat or declined slightly. In fact, no correlation exists between increased spending and student performance. Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) benchmarks tell a similar story.
Why is the expenditure per pupil vs. SAT Score metric important? It is a lagging indicator of performance and is a measure of the system’s performance over a long period of time. Parents – in fact, anyone – can understand this graph. It clearly communicates the system is broken, it must be changed, and continued investment – without substantive change – is a fool’s errand.
Parents intuitively understand the education system is broken and want greater choice. Most parents are not consumers of performance statistics and nuanced, esoteric education studies published by government employees whose livelihood depends upon perpetuation of these studies. Yet, they know that the public education system is not working for their children and seek alternatives. A 2009 survey of Virginia families found that:
- only 42% of parents said they would prefer a regular public school for their child. Yet, today, approximately 90% of Virginia’s enrolled K-12 students attend regular public schools.
- 35% of K-12 parents say they would like to send their child to a private school. In reality, however, approximately only 9% of Virginia’s K-12 students attend private schools.
- 9% of parents in the survey would prefer to homeschool their child. According to data collected by the Virginia Department of Education, fewer than 2% of the state’s children are participating in parent directed education.
- 10% of parents say they would like to send their child to a charter school. As of 2009 when the survey was conducted only three charter schools were in operation in Virginia, serving approximately 190 students.
The 2015 Friedman Foundation Schooling in America national survey reports similar results.
Politically, sixty-four percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Republicans, and 66 percent of Independents in Virginia are in favor of scholarship tax credits. A March 2009 survey of 2,220 low-income families located in Norfolk, Richmond, and Petersburg found that 69 percent were in favor of Education Tax Credit programs. A January 2015 poll by a Democratic polling firm, Beck Research, found that nearly 70 percent of Americans support the concept of school choice. Apparently education “consumers” do not like the product they are receiving and want choice in education.
Does Providing Parents with School Choice Work? According to Jason Bedrick at the CATO Institute, providing financial mechanisms for parents to send their students to schools of their choice is the answer. He says, “The overwhelming conclusion of the best research on school choice is that students who receive scholarships to attend the school of their choice perform as well or better on achievement tests on average and are more likely to graduate high school and go to college. The positive effects are particularly found among low-income and minority populations that are presently the most choice deprived. The only way opponents of school choice get around this inconvenient truth is by ignoring it, which they do with great persistence. They are frequently aided in their willful ignorance by dubious ‘reports’ that claim to evaluate the evidence while inexplicably leaving out numerous gold standard studies by researchers at top universities.”
The latest such “report,” entitled “School Choice – What the Research Says,” comes from the Center for Public Education, an arm of the National School Boards Association. Interestingly, the report fails to include almost every analysis that has found benefits to private school choice programs. Studies that are ignored by NSBA include:
- Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
- Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.
- Six empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers. All six find that school choice saves money for taxpayers. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.
- Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.
- Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.
What is the motivation behind ignoring the positive impact of school choice studies? Clearly, it is not about what is best for our children. It is about crony socialism: top-down control of the education system and protecting and controlling the tax money that funds it. Want proof? In the January 11, 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “Education’s no dollar left behind competition,” Vicki Alger reports that “in the past year alone at least a dozen states have been ranked 49th in K-12 spending … [w]hat these identical rankings prove is that you can aggregate data and shift statistics to prove almost anything you want. And what teachers unions and politicians want is more money.”
To prove her point, she asks one to consider the [US] Department of Education’s data on “instructional spending,” which across the United States is more than $6,500 per student during the 2010-2011 school year (the most recent available data). Among the dozen states that claimed to be ranked 49th in funding last year, Idaho’s instructional spending was reported to be the lowest, around $4,100 per student, followed by Arizona and Oklahoma, which spent about $4,200 and $4,300, respectively. Illinois and Nebraska spent the most in this group vying for the rank of 49th, at approximately $7,000 and $7,700, respectively.
How did these states do in terms of student performance? The best answer is to look at the performance of low-income students, those who qualified for the national school-lunch program. Based on public-school results from the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the average nationwide reading and math performance among low income eighth grade students was pitiful, with a 48% proficiency rate in both subjects.
What Alger found was that states that spent less per pupil tended to have better educational outcomes. Low income students in Arizona, which spent $4,200 per pupil on instruction, scored 51% proficiency rates in both National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math and reading tests. Students in penny pinching Oklahoma, which spent approximately $4,300 per pupil, achieved a 53% proficiency rate in reading and 52% in math.
One of the most striking differences between the high and low per pupil spending states – which claim to be 49th in per pupil spending in the country – is the availability of parental-choice programs. Unlike Nebraska or Illinois, both higher scoring Arizona and Oklahoma have parental choice scholarship programs that enable parents of disadvantaged students to choose the schools they think are best including private schools. In these states, schools have to compete for students, which force them to improve their performance.
Do you want a better educational outcome for your child? If you do, parents must put pressure on the Virginia General Assembly to claim their “…fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child” (Code of Virginia § 1-240.1). A right is not a right if you do not exercise the power to claim it. A good first step is to let your voice be heard on legislation that will be proposed in the upcoming General Assembly to provide parents with access to Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts, expanded use of Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credits, and virtual access to online education.
As long as top-down, union-controlled, ineffective public education is dispensed by zip code at ever increasing cost, most parents will not be able to exercise their “right” to choose the best educational outcome for their child. School choice is clearly a less costly and more effective means to this end.
Kristin L. Allen
Mr. Allen is President of Virginia Education Coalition, LLC (VEC). VEC is an alliance of individuals and organizations that supports parent-led, student-centered education reform. VEC promotes policies and programs that deliver better student educational performance at reduced cost. VEC believes that these objectives are best achieved through parental choice in education; transparent, open dialogue between parents, students, and teachers; and policies and programs that encourage maximum personal freedom and responsibility.
 Coulson, A., “State Education Trends: Academic Performance and Spending over the Past 40 Years,” CATO Institute, Policy Analysis (March 18, 2014 | No. 746)
[ http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa746.pdf ]
 DiPerna, “Virginia’s Opinion on K-12 Education and School Choice,” The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, November 2009, [ http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED508321.pdf ]
 Currently seven Charter Schools are in operation in Virginia serving approximately 700 students
 DiPerna, P., “2015 Schooling In America Survey – Polling Paper No. 24,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, June 2015 [http://www.edchoice.org/research/2015-schooling-in-america-survey/]
 Op Cit note 9
 Stacey, E., “Survey: VA Parents Support All Forms of School Choice,” School Reform News, The Heartland Institute, March, 2010 [ http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2009/03/01/survey-va-parents-support-all-forms-school-choice ]
 Bedrick, J., “An Ostrich’s Review of the Research on School Choice,” CATO Institute, Nov. 4, 2015, [http://www.cato.org/blog/ostrichs-review-research-school-choice]
 Forester, G., “A Win-Win Solution,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 2013 [http://www.edchoice.org/research/a-win-win-solution-2/]