Ep. 226: Big Ideas – “Toward Equitable School Choice” with Paul Peterson

December 7, 2020

In his latest report, Paul Peterson breaks down what the evidence says about the effectiveness of school choice. He also outlines a variety of action items policymakers can take to make our education system more equitable.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m honored to be joined by Dr. Paul Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck professor of government, and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and senior editor of Education Next, a very prominent journal of opinion and research. He is the author of a new Hoover Institution report titled, Toward Equitable School Choice, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Paul, welcome to the podcast.

Paul Peterson: Well, thank you, Jason, for having me on your program.

Jason Bedrick: It’s a pleasure. It’s a reversal of roles in a bit because I was on your podcast back in the day, but let’s dive into your report. I think one of the important things that your report does is it gives a broad overview of the state of play of school choice and clarifies where things stand in terms of the evidence. So, what does the evidence say about the effectiveness of school choice, particularly private school choice? You cover a variety of different areas, but we’ll start there.

Paul Peterson: Well, the most important point in this paper I think is that we have school choice. It’s not a matter of whether we should have school choice, but it’s what kind of school choice should we have. And the dominant form of school choice that we have in this country is residential school choice. You pick your place of residence and then you go to the local school that’s assigned to the area in which you live. Now, we know that there’s a great deal of residential differentiation. There’s a lot of segregation by race, and there’s a lot of differences in the property values from one part of a metropolitan area to another. So, the people who have the resources can migrate to the places where you tend to find the better schools. So, this is choice. You can’t call it anything other than school choice, but it’s about as inequitable a form of school choice as you can imagine.

So, when you look at private school choice, well, I suppose you can say, historically, there’s a lot of inequities there because private schools have to charge tuition in order to survive, and the schools that can attract a lot of students can ask for a higher tuition. So, yeah, there’s a lot of inequities there on the private side. So, what actually is interesting about the kinds of school choice that have been promoted under the name of the voucher program or the tax credits program or education savings accounts is they’re trying to equalize choice. It’s not that they’re introducing choice. They’re just providing more choices for those people who have fewer choices or less adequate choices under the existing residential choice system.

Jason Bedrick: And so some of these studies have looked at, for example, of the effect on test scores or the effects on educational attainment. What do we see in that area?

Paul Peterson: Well, you see a lot of… In studies, probably most of the studies show that giving students choice enhances student achievement. But I think the strongest evidence out there currently is that school choice is enhancing people’s opportunities to go to a school that prepares them for what’s going to happen when high school comes to an end and they have to decide whether or not they’re going to go on to college or whether or not they’re going to go into the workforce, and what’s going to happen to them downstream.

And there we’re finding… It’s taken a long time to get to this point because the choice programs really didn’t come into play until the beginning of the 21st century, and it takes about 20 years before you know what the effect of a school choice program is really going to be downstream for those people who had a choice of school, took advantage of it, and ended up making decisions later in life that are going to be very important for their social and economic wellbeing. And we’re seeing increasing evidence that private school choice is providing people from low-income families with an opportunity to graduate from college or attend college in the first place, graduate, and enter into the workforce as prepared adults for the kind of satisfying life that a college-educated person is more likely to enjoy.

Jason Bedrick: And so toward that end, your paper outlined six different principles and a wide variety of different action items that you believe policymakers should take to make our education system more equitable. We don’t have time in this short podcast to go through all of them, and so I highly recommend that our listeners find the report and read it as it’s very worthwhile, but let’s go through a few of them. The first principle is that states should encourage multiple forms of school choice. Why do you think that’s important?

Paul Peterson: Well, we’re sort of a big tent, a group that put this together. It’s my view that it’s better to embrace a wide range of school choice options than to sort of pick and choose among them, in part, because I think broad coalitions are more likely to be successful than narrow coalitions or groups that focus in on a very specific policy. So, we endorse charter schools. We endorse education savings accounts. We endorse tax credit programs, school vouchers. Universal school vouchers is one of our recommendations, not just for low-income families but for all families. And, finally, we support creating more choices within the district sector because it has some limitations, but we think it’s much better than the assigned school arrangement where you must go to the school in your particular attendance area.

Jason Bedrick: Since you raised the issue, that was something that somewhat surprised me is that this is a report that is calling for greater equity. That’s the primary focus, and yet you don’t say that these educational choice programs should be geared only toward low-income families. You said that the best way actually to aid the low-income families is to broaden eligibility. So, that seems counterintuitive. What’s the case for universal school choice from an equity perspective?

Paul Peterson: Well, I know it’s hard this idea politically, at least in the current environment, but maybe that’s going to change in the presence of the COVID pandemic and people are going to see more generally that choice needs to be universal. So, the problem with setting up a choice program such as a voucher program that’s going to be available only to people of very low means, means then that you’re going to set up a school that’s primarily attended only by poor kids. Now, that’s been mitigated in the past because when these private school choice programs were initially established back in the 1990s, they were sort of small scale, and mostly the students went to a private school that was already serving a significant population of people who weren’t using vouchers and, therefore, were middle-class families, and so, therefore, you did have a socially integrated setting for the students.

And so you had low-income students getting a scholarship, a voucher to go to a school that also had a middle-class population. Now, that I think is a very healthy policy, a very healthy arrangement. But, over time, Milwaukee’s a good example of this, those private school choice programs have become exceedingly dependent upon the voucher program, and so more and more of their students, a larger share of their students, are of people who are eligible for a voucher that’s restricted to low-income families. Well, that means then that you’re creating class segregation, and I don’t think that’s a smart idea politically in the long run, and I don’t think it’s a healthy idea socially in the long run, or even in the short run. So, I do believe that the more we can create choice opportunities that bring people together across social classes, the healthier a choice policy is going to be, and the more successful a choice policy is going to be.

Jason Bedrick: Another one of the principles that you outline is that a family’s choice of school should not be distorted by fiscal policies that favor one sector over another. So, why is that important that the state not favor one sector over another and how can the state avoid doing so?

Paul Peterson: Well, this is a big debate with respect to charter schools. Right now, Patrick Wolf and his group of scholars associated with him have put out a report just I think, literally, today where they say that the amount of money going to charter schools on average in quite a number of cities is about 33% less than the amount that’s going to district schools per pupil. Well, that’s a big differential there. A one-third difference is a big differential.

Now, I can imagine some of this differential being acceptable if the district is, in fact, providing transportation to all the students, although the Wolf study adjusts for that so that, actually, even after you adjust for transportation, this is still there. There is a higher percentage of students in the district sector who are in need of special education and some of the most extreme and demanding instances of why you need expensive special education may fall more heavily on the district sector so you need to make some adjustments for that. Wolf has also shown that that doesn’t account for one-third. It’s more like 15% of that one-third. So, it’s a modest amount of the total differential.

So, that’s been a big issue out there. But, with vouchers, it’s even worse because vouchers tend to be a very small percentage of the amount that is going to the district school, and a lot of it has been sold to state legislatures on the ground this is a cheap way out. You can educate kids by giving them a voucher to go to a private school, and the private school will take them, even though you’re only going to give them like about 50% of the amount of money that would otherwise have gone to the district school.

Well, you can get by with that in the short run, and maybe that’s okay to get a program established and accepted. But, over the long run, that’s not a healthy situation because, in the first place, it’s just a matter of equity that all children should have available to them a roughly equal expenditure of resources on them. I’m willing to give the district schools a little extra money to pay for their legacy costs because this has been built up over a long period of time, and you’ve got to be politically realistic about that. But that can’t anywhere near account for this one third differential or one-half differential with a voucher program. So, I think parents should be given a choice of school, and if parents are to be given a choice, it should be an equitable choice, and equitable choice implies equitable funding.

Jason Bedrick: Now, another counterintuitive principle that you outline is that the focus should be on enhancing choice in secondary education. In recent years, there’s been a lot of focus on primary education, elementary education. Particularly in the early years, there’s a strong push, we have to have our kids reading by third grade or maybe they’ll never catch up. You’re saying that we should be focusing more on secondary education. Is this just a course correction or what?

Paul Peterson: Well, there is this theory out there that was promoted by Nobel Prize winner, Jim Heckman. So, he came up with this theory and, of course, it’s plausible, that the mind is more malleable in the early years of life and, therefore, a preschool education is the most important education out there and elementary education is much more important than secondary education. So, a lot of people have bought into this idea. It makes intuitive sense. But, in fact, the evidence out there suggests that district-run schools, the old-fashioned residential choice program isn’t so ineffective when it comes to the very first years of schooling, whether you’re talking about kindergarten, first grade or third grade, fourth grade, even. But by the time students get into middle school, you begin to see increasing inequities in student performance, and you see increasingly differentials in the impact of a choice school on student outcomes.
So, when you look at the long-term effects of school choice, you’re seeing some pretty substantial effects of going to a private school when you’re going to high school, much more so than if you’re going to a private school say in third grade. So, why would that be? Well, I think one of the analogies out there is that adolescents create their own dynamic. And by now, in this modern age in which we live, the young people are becoming adolescent-like as early as sixth grade, and that the public schools, the district-operated schools that are subjected to all the legal constraints that the courts have imposed upon them, find it very difficult to set up rules of behavior that are educationally supportive.

Now, the private sector and the charter sector, because they are choice schools, can say, “Okay, this is our expectations for you at our school. If you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere. But this is a choice school. And the choice is yours. Either abide by our expectations.” They may even say, “You know what? We believe in a religious mission at this school. And we want you to participate in religious services at this school.” And that can create a tone at the school that builds character. Or if you don’t have a religious emphasis, you may have a secular emphasis that similarly creates a moral tone within the school that is enhancing. It’s very hard for a district school that operates under the rules and regulations laid down by the courts, and especially in modern times, to impose these kinds of expectations on students, and violations of these norms have to be tolerated, and teachers can find it very frustrating. Well, that is a much greater problem by the time you enter middle school and high school than it is at the elementary school level. It just increases over time.

So, the payoff from giving families a choice, I think, is greater at the secondary level than at the elementary level. Now, unfortunately, the cost of education is also greater at the secondary level so that when choice systems are put up on the cheap, as they have been, with charter schools operating at one-third less and with a voucher programs, tax credit programs at even less than that, well, it’s very hard to set up a secondary school that can survive with that inadequate funding that’s out there. So, we’ve got to change the funding policy in order to facilitate the creation of secondary schools of choice, which now are if you look at the numbers of students who are staying in the private sector or are going to charter school at the secondary level, it’s much less than it is at the elementary level. And I think that’s willy nilly developed without people thinking it through, and it’s time to think about how we could change that.

Jason Bedrick: On the subject to change, we can move from the principles to some of these action items that you have and two areas that you outline… You divide it, by the way, I should note for the listeners. There are specific recommendations for the district school sector, for charter schools or private schools, especially those participating in school choice programs, and then there are some broad recommendations for all sectors. And I wanted to focus on two of those. One of them is that the state should arrange for and cover the cost of comprehensive transportation systems that provide equal access to all students, regardless of school sector. Why is that an issue that policymakers should prioritize?

Paul Peterson: Well, transportation systems are surprisingly expensive. Transporting students is not an easy thing to do, and you’ve got all kinds of regulations on there and you have all kinds of safety concerns that parents have. And so it’s sort of silly to invent multiple transportation systems that pile up on top of one another. And transportation systems, I don’t think are subject to the same kinds of concerns that classroom settings are where you really want a setting which is really educationally friendly. I think transportation systems are more or less just hauling kids off to the school and life on the bus is not necessarily always the greatest thing in life, but it is sort of for a time specific.

So, I think as really is sort of… And a little bit influenced in this by the Boston experience where for decades it’s been that you are transported to whatever school you’re going to, whether it’s a private school, a Catholic school, a charter school, or a district school, the Boston school district transports you. And this was found to be constitutional in the decision by the Supreme Court as early as 1949 so there’s really nothing that’s controversial about this policy. So, it just sort of makes sense to me that you should have a comprehensive unified transportation system that will be more efficient, and we have enough crowding on our streets without having Catholic buses, and buses that serve only the district schools.

Jason Bedrick: Another area that you outline is special education. And you suggest that policymakers should provide special education in a wide range of settings without imposing specific numerical constraints on certain schools or networks. Parents should be given opportunities to choose programs from the district charter and private sectors. Why is that so important for special education?

Paul Peterson: Well, the special education population is something that I care a lot about because I have a son who is extremely challenged and has been his entire life and requires living in a very specialized setting. And I’m fully aware of how expensive it is to provide that, and I’m very grateful that the federal government has a program that provides resources that makes it possible for him to be in an appropriate setting, and I think every child needs that appropriate setting regardless of their situation. And it can vary enormously, and I find it just really strange the way in which the rules have been set up in special education, and all the complexities when you’re talking about moving from one sector to another. So, it turns out that where school vouchers have been set up, specially for people who are in special education, that there’s a lot of families who find the school that makes a lot of sense for them in the private sector that they would rather place their child in, even though it may be less expensive, and that’s been one of the most successful voucher programs out there.

So, we should be encouraging many more of those. But I think we leave that up to the parent because there’s plenty of good district schools out there, and plenty of district school programs where they work with the private sector to provide a private placement through their own individualized education plan. I don’t think it’s a smart idea to ask every charter school to have the same percentage of students with special needs because no district school does that. I mean, you have a huge variation because some students with special education needs require a highly specialized setting and others don’t. I mean, the heterogeneity within those in need of some special education is enormous, and some of these needs are fairly modest, very minor, and you have probably shouldn’t place them outside of the classroom. They should be in the mainstream. If they have a learning disability, you don’t want to isolate them from their fellow students. So, it’s just sort of a common-sense kind of idea, it seems to me to say, let’s make sure we give lots of opportunities without imposing a lot of rules and regulations on each and every school.

Jason Bedrick: Moving to some of your private sector specific recommendations. One is that states should preclude low-quality private schools from participating in government-sponsored programs but resist the temptation to regulate the private sector. That does seem to be some form of regulation. So, how do policymakers find the right balance between ensuring academic accountability and not unduly interfering with the operation of private schools?

Paul Peterson: Well, Jason, that is a shrewd question you’re asking there because this was the hardest recommendation for me to come up with, and there’s not an easy answer here. I do feel like the Milwaukee program, when they initially established it at scale, they pretty much allowed any institution that called itself a school to participate, and that meant that a lot of students went to schools that really weren’t schools or very problematic schools. So, just having a wide-open door seems to me irresponsible. You have to sort of have some public oversight to make sure that you don’t have fly-by-night operations that are unacceptable. So, that I think is going to protect a voucher program or a tax credit program from embarrassments that could be politically devastating downstream. So, when they did start to impose more rigorous controls over their definition of what a private school was in Wisconsin, that was all to the good for the voucher program, and it’s prospered as a result.

Now, at the same time in Louisiana, they imposed from the very beginning a lot of fairly stringent regulations, such as you have to have all your students tested on the statewide test. Well, that’s not necessarily a brilliant idea because there’s plenty of private schools in Louisiana that are doing quite well, and don’t really feel a strong obligation to participate in a voucher program that is really going to bend its policies. And if you have a curriculum that’s quite different from the state curriculum and, in Louisiana, the state curriculum is quite well-defined. It may be not a bad idea for the state curriculum to be well-defined, but there it is. That’s the way it is, and if a private school doesn’t want to do it, they’re just not going to participate. And they shouldn’t participate because their students are going to be assessed on a test for which they are not preparing themselves. So, I think that the recommendation was written in such a way as to address both of those kinds of situations.

Jason Bedrick: So, what sort of regulations then would keep out low-quality private schools and how are they defined as low quality, and who gets to define them that way?

Paul Peterson: Well, the state does. I’m not a libertarian who says we should have no state involvement in education. I think somebody has to decide, is this a school or is it not a school. And I don’t want to just leave that to the market. There’s too many hucksters out there, and I don’t think that’s healthy for a voucher program. So, this is sort of what I would say is your regulation should be towards assessing whether or not this entity is actually providing educational services that are appropriate, not trying to determine their admissions policy, or their testing policy, or specific policies that they find appropriate for the goals that they’re pursuing.

Jason Bedrick: Sure, but how then do they figure out… I mean, you’re saying don’t use the state test. Are you saying instead that there should be some menu of nationally norm-reference tests and the state could then see how the private schools do on that test or you’re saying forget testing altogether, but there’s some other way that they can determine quality, then what would that be?

Paul Peterson: Well, a lot of private schools do have their own tests and they find that good for marketing reasons. And they can say, “Look at our students are performing this well on the AP test,” or they can say, “We give the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to our students and monitor them,” or they say, “We give tests because we want to use those tests for informational purposes, for appropriate placement for the child.” But I would leave it up to the school to decide what tests they think they need, not to … as a state law. And the market is going to be regulating these private schools because nobody has to attend them. The parents can decide them. And I do want to have a minimum level of assessment to make sure that we don’t have shysters creating schools and the government paying for them. But I don’t like the idea of having detailed supervision of measurement of how well they’re doing if those measuring sticks aren’t appropriate for that school.

Jason Bedrick: So, this question is a bit of a curveball because it’s not directly addressed in your report, but how do you think that these school choice programs should address micro schools? I mean, we are in the era of COVID-19. A lot of families have been moving into micro schools or pandemic pods. This was already something that was on the rise before the pandemic, and many of these families may decide that they’re a better option for their children than the school that they were enrolled in before and may stick with it even after the pandemic passes. Where do micro schools fit?

Paul Peterson: It’s an interesting question, and I haven’t given it adequate thought so I don’t have any firm opinions on this. I do see it as sort of… They’re occupying a space somewhere between a private school and homeschooling because a lot of these pods are basically… My daughter is actually participating in one of these pods in New York City. One of the mothers is a former teacher, and she’s doing the heavy lifting, and she’s very committed to homeschooling in any case, and so the pods are, in her case, they have a very nice arrangement. But this is going to vary enormously from one apartment building to the next, to say nothing one community to the next. So, if this becomes a significant part of the landscape, then there’s going to be a lot of conversation about it.

And whether you want to think of them as private schools that need to be identified as such or whether or not you want to see them as simply an extension of homeschooling, I think it’s a gray area. So, then when you get to homeschooling, how much regulation do you want to have of homeschooling, and the states are varying a lot in that respect. There’s no consensus out there as to the degree of homeschooling. I think, generally speaking, I think states are fairly permissive, but some states are saying, “Okay, we want to make sure that the children are following this curriculum or something like this curriculum,” without imposing anything too specific, and others are just saying, “Just let us know that you’re homeschooling your child.” And so that’s a huge complex thing. I think we’re going to run a conference on that sometime this year at Harvard, but it’s one that I have yet to really fully comprehend.

Jason Bedrick: I look forward to seeing that conference. Again, I want to remind listeners that this is a very comprehensive report and so we’ve barely scratched the surface today. But, Paul, before we close, were there any other topics or ideas that you wanted to share with our listeners?

Paul Peterson: Well, you’ve covered the key topics. I think the main point of this study is to communicate to legislators and policymakers that they’re not creating a system of choice. They’re being asked to consider how to create a more equitable system of choice. They already have inherited a system of choice but it’s extremely inequitable. And if we are going to address the inequities in our society, as the country is being asked to do, and as it needs to do because it has not done very well over the last 50, 60 years at rectifying the inequalities that develop as a result of differential family resources, if we’re going to make any progress on that, we’ve got to create choices that are more equitable than we have had in the past.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Dr. Paul Peterson of Harvard University. His new report with the Hoover Institution is titled, Toward Equitable School Choice. Paul, thank you so much for joining us.

Paul Peterson: Thank you, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.