Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Free To Learn

When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, he boldly (and rightly) announced three priorities,

"education, education, education".

Ten years on, what has been the result of the additional billions (a 5% increase in real terms per year since 2000) pumped into the UK's state schools? A Civitas study has a detailed analysis of the abject failure of this policy.

i) The schools regulator, Ofsted, announced that more than half of secondary schools in England are failing to provide children with a good standard of education. More than half. Think about it.

ii) The Qualifications and Literacy Authority (QCA) report in 1999 found that government claims of an increase in reading standards were "illusory" and concluded that reading standards had actually fallen.

iii) Whilst the percentage of pupils gaining 5 or more GCSEs at Grade A-C had risen from 46% in '97 to 55% in '05, Jeffrey Robinson, a senior examiner in GCSE Maths, claimed that the exams had been dumbed down by such a degree that an 'A' grade is now equivalent to a 'C' grade of ten years earlier.

iv) Even more damning has been the recent discovery that following ten years of a Labour government, social mobility is actually decreasing. A study by the LSE showed that children born in 1970 are more likely to have ended up poor than children born in 1958. Britain was shown to have the worst record for social mobility amongst the eight advanced nations studied.

But whether you believe the Civitas, Ofsted and LSE studies or not, the proof is in the pudding. Despite rampant private school fee inflation (in 2000 private fees represented 30% of annual earnings, they now account for 35% of earnings), pupil intake is still rising despite a smaller number of pupils attending schools. If state schools were doing such a grand job, as Tony and his numerous Education Ministers continually remind us, then why are parents bankrupting themselves to avoid attending the local "bog standard comp"?

I believe the Labour government's policy of pump-priming the state school sector was well-intentioned and worth trying. Improvements have been made and many state schools now offer a fine education. However, the conclusion, to all but the most blinkered, is that simply pouring money into education is a tried and tested failure. We owe it to the children of poor families to try something new.

It is time to look at other factors than money, in particular the way education is delivered. For this we need to revisit a 52 year old idea originated by one of the 20th Century's greatest minds.

In 1955, Milton Friedman foresaw that the problem lay with the monopoly status of the provision of state education. He urged a return to liberty through the introduction of school choice. He argued that it would be much better and more equitable if the government would

“give each child, through his parents, a specified sum to be used solely in paying for his general education.”

In the simplest of terms, it means letting every parent send their child to the school of their choice regardless of where they live or income. Parents choose schools based on their child’s needs, not their address.

Voucher programs, which are becoming more widespread in the US, allow parents to use all or part of the government funding set aside for their children’s education to send their children to the public or private school of their choice. In effect, this separates government financing of education from government operation of schools. Participating private schools are required to meet standards for safety, fiscal soundness and non-discrimination.

The need to attract students provides strong incentives to meet the expectations of parents and punish mistakes. It also rewards success and provides continual pressure for improvement. Non-government schools are in a stronger position to resist destructive experiments such as outcomes-based education, where students no longer fail and academic studies are a thing of the past.

For some inexplicable reason, "progressives" have denounced the idea as unworkable or worse, unethical. Well what is progressive about entrenching the status of the middle class? What is progressive about denying a child from a less privileged background a good education? What is progressive about the current state of affairs where only children of the very-wealthy can afford a good education?

So Does It Work?

Well, i am no idealist, and if studies had proved it didn't actually work in practice, then i would not be advocating trials to be carried out in the UK. However, wherever it has been tried, it has found to conclusively work. The Economist (sub only) reports the results of trials in three countries.

In Colombia, a program to broaden access to secondary schools, called PACES, was tried in the 1990s. The aim was to provide 125,000 poor children, selected by lottery (an essential control element), with vouchers worth 50% of the cost of a private school education. The results were astounding; the lucky recipients were 20% more likely to finish school and much more likely to take college entrance exams.

In Sweden, sweeping education reforms in 1992 allowed students to take their state funding to private schools. The result saw a breakneck expansion of the private sector, resulting in 10% of Swedish students now educated privately versus 1% previously.

In the US, seven studies have found significant gains in academic achievement from vouchers, and no study has ever found negative effects. The amount of money spent on the voucher or scholarship for each participant in a school choice program was less than what would have been spent on that student if he or she had remained in public schools. That means states saved money that was plowed back into their education budgets and spent on the students who remain in public schools.

In Milwaukee, a 1998 Harvard study found that after four years of participation, voucher students gained 11 points in Maths and six points in Reading compared to the control group. Another 1998 study by Cecilia Rouse of Princeton found that voucher students improved more than the control group by eight points in Maths over four years. And so on.

Commonly Heard Objections

i) Doesn’t school choice drain resources from public schools?
Absolutely not! No US state or city with school choice has seen its public school budgets go down. School choice programs do not drain money from public schools. Actually, they leave more money behind to educate fewer students.

Studies showed that school choice leads to better test scores for all students and higher graduation rates. They show that parents are more satisfied and involved with their child’s school, and that school choice saves taxpayers millions of dollars. And they show that public schools respond positively to competition.

ii) Doesn't school choice make public schools worse?
No. If all schools compete for students, public schools will not be able to take students for granted, as they do now; they will have to improve to prevent students from walking out the door. Not one empirical study has ever found that outcomes at U.S. public schools got worse when exposed to school choice, and numerous studies have found that they improve. While the average US public school spends about $10,000 per student, the average private school charges $5,000. That's the fundamental reason school choice saves money – private schools do a better job at about half the cost.

iii) Are private schools that participate in school choice programs held accountable?
Not only are private schools accountable for the job they do, they're much more accountable than public schools are. Private schools are primarily accountable to parents, who can pull their children out of a school that fails to serve them.That's a freedom that parents stuck in the public school monopoly don't have.

iv) Does the public really want school choice?
Yes. 62% agreed that "parents should have the option of sending their children to non-public schools, using vouchers provided by the federal government that would pay for some or all of the costs" (First Amendment Center 2003 & 2004).
Most importantly, it is parents from the least privileged backgrounds that want vouchers the most. 77% of African Americans and 64% of Hispanic Americans supported school vouchers allowing parents to move their children from under-performing schools to more successful schools (Sacred Heart University 2005).

v) Doesn't school choice really lead to less integrated schools?
Quite the opposite. Public schools in the US are heavily segregated. According to a Harvard University study, more than 70% of the nation's black students now attend predominately minority (public) schools. Public schools are so segregated primarily because of residential segregation. Attendance at public schools is determined by where people live, which guarantees that segregation in housing patterns will always be reproduced in public schools. Private schools, by contrast, can draw students from anywhere. In fact, because they offer a superior education and other attractions that parents want for their children but can't get at public schools, private schools typically draw from a much larger geographic area than public schools. That means private schools can mitigate the effects of residential segregation in a way public schools can't match

vi) Surely education is too important to leave in the hands of the private sector?
Well, food is pretty important too, but i don't hear any calls to nationalise Tesco. A fifth-form argument that should remain in the fifth-form Common Room.

vii) Aren't vouchers a right-wing Republican idea?
No. Democrat Senators have been leading propnents of the idea.
In 2004 Congress enacted school vouchers for Washington D.C. with the support of both Democratic city officials, including Mayor Anthony Williams, and national Democratic leaders like Diane Feinstein and Joe Lieberman.
In 2005, Ohio enacted a new voucher program sponsored by Democratic Rep. Dixie Allen, while Missouri debated a prominent school choice proposal supported by a number of top state Democrats.
In 2006, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) signed a big expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program. Then Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) allowed the creation of a tax-credit scholarship program, signed two new voucher programs into law, and also doubled the size of the new scholarship program. In Iowa, a new tax-credit scholarship program gained overwhelming Democratic support. Finally, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) signed a $10 million expansion of his state's tax-credit scholarship program.

It is tragic that the Conservatives have dropped this idea as being too radical. It is time it was put firmly back on the agenda.