Ep. 285: The Chicken Little Report

November 23, 2021

In this episode we speak with colleague Jason Bedrick the coauthor of a new report, Who’s Afraid of School Choice: Examining the Validity and Intensity of Predictions by School Choice Opponents. This report brings up the many predictions school choice opponents have and how they don’t really have a basis for these claims.

Mike McShane: Hello. And welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice. And I am joined online today by my colleague, Jason Bedrick, who along with our other colleague, Ed Tarnowski, is the author of the new report; Who’s Afraid of School Choice: Examining the Validity and Intensity of Predictions by School Choice Opponents. Jason, great to chat with you today.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks so much for leading this podcast today, Michael.

Mike McShane: Yeah. No problem. Around the office, we have lovingly referred to this report as you’ve been working on it as the Chicken Little report. But in the spirit of EdChoice’s TikTok channel, which for those of you that are listening, if you’re on TikTok, we are at edchoice.official. Now, Jason, I’m not going to ask you to do any sort of choreographed dancing or any of the like, but can you give your kind of one minute, because the TikTok videos are one minute long, can you give your kind of one minute summary of the paper? And then we’ll dig into the specifics.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, sure. So to answer the question, who’s afraid of school choice, a lot of people apparently. And for decades, anytime a school choice proposal is brought before a state legislature, you’ve got a whole bunch of people, whether they’re legislators or political commentators or special interest groups and especially the various groups that represent parts of the public school establishments side, the teachers unions, the school boards, associations, superintendents, and administrators, et cetera, they always have the same talking point, which is, this is going to destroy public education.

To be charitable 20, 30 years ago, maybe this was a legitimate concern. The idea was, well, if we give people a choice, then all the families who are the most interested in education, they’re going to leave and they’re going to take their money with them. And that means that the public school system is going to be left with the hardest to teach kids, less money to teach them, they’re going to enter into a debt spiral, and the whole system is just going to collapse.

Like I said, 20, 30 years ago, maybe that’s a legitimate concern, but now we have a few decades of experience. And so what we did in the first part of this report was first list a whole bunch of these predictions in the states that have the oldest and largest school choice programs. So that would be Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin.

And again, you hear like Florida representative at the time, Debbie Wassermann Schultz when Florida first passed its voucher program, “This is the day we abandoned public schools.” Somebody from the NAACP said, “This will kill public education.” But one of the newspapers in the state editorialized that, “This is going to open more holes in an already sinking ship.”

Okay. Well, fast forward a few decades. And what do we see?

Mike McShane: I was going to say, big if true.

Jason Bedrick: Yes. Big if true. Well, these five states have the most robust school choice programs in the country. All of them have at least 3.5% of their students participating in a school of choice program. In Florida, it’s about 5.5, Arizona it’s about 6.6% statewide, what we call the EdChoice share.

Florida alone has about 180,000 students that are participating in the program. And what we see is actually the NAP scores in all of these states are either flat or increasing. And we have more than two dozen studies on the effects of competition resulting from a school choice program on the performance of traditional public schools. And all but three of them find small but statistically significant positive effects. There’s one that finds no effect. And then there’s two that find small negative effects. Although those are in Florida and Indiana, where we have several other studies that find positive effects.

Essentially there is no evidence to suggest that school choice is going to harm public education, let alone destroy it.

Mike McShane: So that’s an important point. And I think to be clear, you all are saying about the NAP scores. So you sort of look at two different things. One are studies that sort of try to causally prove that school choice increases test scores for public school students. For that first bit though, you’re not making a causal statement there. You’re just saying, “These folks said that performance was going to go down. We’ve tracked the performance and it didn’t go down.” Do I have that right?

Jason Bedrick: That’s right. So when you’re looking at the NAP, you can’t really make causal statements because there’s a whole bunch of things going on. What we are doing is rejecting the claim that school choice is going to destroy or even significantly harm the public schools. And that I think you can do at the NAP. You can’t say that the improvement in these states is because of school choice. I think there’s suggestive evidence, especially when you look elsewhere, like the competitive effects research that in some cases I think gets close to causal. There, I think we’ve got solid evidence to say actually on net it’s positive. But at the very least we can say all of these negative predictions that you’re hearing just simply do not come to fruition.

Even the arguments that it’s going to reduce money, which I actually, I thought, okay, all of the claims that may be the more legitimate claim. No, actually over the time period in all five of these states where they had robust educational choice at the same time per pupil spending went up in every single one of these states after you adjust for inflation.

Mike McShane: No, I think that’s an important point. I mean, again, it’s a common claim that we hear about school funding going down or that our schools have been starved of funding or that. There’s some mythical time in the past when we funded schools more than they do. But almost anytime I hear a claim from someone in the past or even now looking backwards saying, “Oh, school funding was going to go down.” I don’t really think that’s going to happen.

You’ve done validity now let’s talk intensity. So I think the second half of the paper is talking about the intensity of claims. How did you measure that and what did you find?

Jason Bedrick: Essentially we came up with a 10-point scale that goes all the way from mild to 10 being catastrophic. And then in the spirit of Spinal Tap, our 10-point scale actually goes to 11. So we had an 11th level which is apocalyptic. So these are the alarmist claims that the policy is going to actually lead to not just great harm, but the destruction of the public school system.

And so what we did is we took five states that passed school choice bills this year. So Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and West Virginia. And we looked at the legislative testimony in committee hearings, the floor debates about it. We ran several searches on different search engines looking for discussion and of the bill in newspaper articles, in op-eds, in editorials and also public statements that various interest groups had released that often were on their own websites.

And then we isolated ones that talked about the effects on the public school system. So we ignored arguments like, “This is unconstitutional,” or somebody that just had a philosophical objection to public funds going through private schools. We set those sort of more philosophical arguments aside, or even some arguments. I mean, you’ve heard things like this is going to lead to balkanization. We set those arguments aside. We only look at the ones that talk about the school system.

And so there were some mild arguments, we are concerned that this is going to have a negative effect on funding. And then there were those, for example, Governor Beshear in Kentucky, who said, “This is going to lead to the end of public education.” For each of these states then we scored all of these arguments and then we compare it across states.

Now the important thing to note is that the types of school choice programs that were proposed in each of these states varied greatly in terms of their size and scope. So for West Virginia, for example, West Virginia is now the crown jewel of the educational choice movement. They have an education savings account that all K-12 students have access to, if they are switching out of a public school or if they are entering kindergarten. So actually 93% of kids in the state are eligible.

In New Hampshire, which also as an ESA, you’ve got about 30% of students who are eligible. And then in Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri, fewer than 1% of kids are eligible and funded in each of those programs, which was either a tax credit scholarship or a tax credit ESA. As a matter of fact, in Arkansas, it is fewer than 0.1% of students who are eligible.

So you would think, okay, in a state like West Virginia, which is going really big and bold and almost everybody’s eligible, they’re going to really ramp up the intensity of their rhetoric. We’re going to see a lot more 11’s and a lot fewer twos. Whereas in Arkansas, where it’s a $3 million program, there’s a few hundred kids who are eligible, like I said, less than 0.1%. So we should expect relatively mild… No, actually across the board, it was pretty much all high sevens and low eights. It actually ranged from 7.5 to 8.6. West Virginia was an eight. The state that had the most intensity was Arkansas at an 8.6, and that was the smallest.

What I think this shows us is that the opponents of school choice are always just going crank up the rhetoric. And as a matter of fact, in every single one of these states, we had several people who turned it up to 11. In every state I can identify somebody who says, again, Arkansas, “This is the last aspect of public education that has not been sold out to private interests.” In Kentucky, “Public education once again has its neck inside a guillotine, getting ready to have its head cut off.” This is the sort of language that the other side uses and it just-

Mike McShane: Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

Jason Bedrick: … Exactly, perfect Ghostbusters reference. What it shows is not only are these arguments totally divorced from reality as we’ve seen from the evidence the last few decades, but they bear no relationship whatsoever to the size and scope of the proposal before them. Any legislator who’s like, “You know what? I want to go for school choice, but I should probably have a smaller program because I want the other side to sort of tone down the rhetoric.” No, they’re going to come for you no matter what, you may as well go big and bold.

Mike McShane: So I think that that’s important. And I want to maybe put a pin in that for a second because I think sort of what this tells advocates and policy makers and others is important. And we’ll come back around to that in a second. But I think it is worth lingering for a second. Because you said that there recently, but we should underscore it, the idea that the apocalyptic language just on its face based on the sort of empirical data that you bring in is unwarranted. People saying this is going to be the end of public education, it’s like, “Well, look, we’ve seen these things in states across the country and it hasn’t been the end of public education. In fact, there’s a strong case we made that public schools are doing better and have more money than they had before these things happen.” So just that, anytime you hear apocalyptic rhetoric, you should probably dismiss it because there just isn’t there nothing to really back that up.

But then the second point that’s related is like, and even then there’s no relationship to the size of the program or whatever. It doesn’t matter. I think what I take away from what you just said was that basically it does not matter. People who oppose these things, the policy doesn’t matter, the size of it doesn’t matter, the structure doesn’t matter. People are going to use apocalyptic rhetoric to try and oppose it. Am I right coming to that conclusion?

Jason Bedrick: Yes. And again, we’re not talking about people on social media, on Twitter saying crazy things. Both those quotes earlier, including the one about the guillotine, those are state legislators that were making those comments. In our report we’re looking mostly state legislators, people who have official positions and are spokespeople or the presidents of various, the school boards association for the different states, the lobbyists for the teachers unions. These are not just random people. These are serious people who are down at the state capital, making these arguments. And again, their rhetoric just bears no resemblance to reality and is not connected at all to the proposal before them.

Mike McShane: Now how would you respond if someone’s says, “This is just politics. That when you’re trying to kill a bill you don’t like, you unleash everything that you’ve got on it. And someone says, “Well, this is just what you’re supposed to do.” How would you respond to that?

Jason Bedrick: Look, I mean, I’m a former state legislator, but the New Hampshire legislature is a bit different. It’s more, I guess, salt of the earth. And we didn’t…

Mike McShane: Because there are what 400 plus members.

Jason Bedrick: 400, so it’s one for every 3,300 citizens, and so you’re very close to the people. But look, the point there is, if you’re constantly turning it up to 11 people stop taking you seriously. I think it’s actually a mistake for our opponents to constantly be turning it up to 11 like that, for that exact reason. And I guess my argument there is if they’re going to do that, we should not take them seriously because their rhetoric just is not based in reality at all.

Mike McShane: So then this comes to the sort of take away from this, which would be your advice to school choice advocates, to policymakers who are looking to advance school choice. What can you take away from… You’ve already mentioned a couple things, but maybe kind of tying them all together. What should advocates take away from this report?

Jason Bedrick: I think that there are a number of legislators I’ve talked to out there who in their heart of hearts, they know that school choice is the right way to go. They know that families really need and deserve options, and that there is no school that is the right fit for every child who just happens to live in new or by. But they have two concerns, one political and one policy. The policy concern is, well, look, if I do this, it may help those families who get access to it, but it’s going to hurt the public school system that provides an education for most of the kids that live in my district. And I can’t sacrifice the many for the needs of the few, which I understand, but that’s why we’re showing the evidence actually goes the other way. School choice is the rising tide that lifts all votes. Not only do those students who participate benefit, but at the very least their benefit does not come at the expense of others.

And there is very strong evidence that actually the ability to choose improves the education, even for those students who are not directly benefiting from the program. Because when those schools are subject to choice and competition, they have to be more responsive to the needs of parents and up their performance, and so everybody benefits when you have multiple choices. The political concern is, “Well, you know what? The other side is just going to go crazy. They’re going to say all these terrible things and they’re going to scare people and it’s going to hurt me. And therefore if I’m going to have a school choice bill, I’m just going to go small. I’m not going to go big.” And the argument there is, “No, they’re going to come after you. It doesn’t matter if you’re helping 100 kids or 100,000 kids, they’re going to come after you with everything they’ve got. So you may as well have as many students that are benefiting, meaning as many families as possible on your side, because they’re coming after you no matter what.”

Mike McShane: I agree with all of that, I think that’s great. I come from really research world, so you know more about this than I do. I want to float one more thing for you. Something that just as I read the report, I thought of. And again, I have my researcher hat on. You’ve forgotten more about advocacy than I know. So one thing that I was thinking about this too, was for advocates to not fall into the kind of inverse of this report, which is the idea of saying, “If we create a voucher program for 1000 students in a state with a million school kids saying this will solve all of the problems of the American education system. Or even if we’re creating an expansive voucher program to basically promise that with this one fix all of the ills of the earth will be solved. And I haven’t followed it closely enough, I think if I’m being honest, some people may have been more guilty of this before. I don’t feel like advocates do as much of that now. The people tend to be more measured and more realistic about what they think the program is going to accomplish, but it is a good sort of reminder to not sort of promise that one program will fix everything.

I don’t know. Am I crazy to think that? Is that a bad strategy?

Jason Bedrick: No. There was the famous statement that school choice is a panacea. It is not a panacea.

Mike McShane: Oh my goodness. We’ve been hearing about it. I think they wrote that in… John Chubb and Terry Moe. Remember we’re talking about 1991 or something. And just finally, I think folks have stopped bringing that up. I’d forgotten about that.

Jason Bedrick: Right? So my view is that school choice is a necessary condition for systemic reform. It is not a sufficient condition.

Mike McShane: I agree 100% with that, by the way.

Jason Bedrick: There’s a lot more that you need than just school choice alone, but you can’t really get broad reform unless you are putting the locus of power in the hands of parents. So what you ultimately want is a system where education providers have the freedom to try new ways of doing things, families have the freedom to choose the providers that work best for their kids. And then we see that the whole system reforms, it’s not a revolution, but reforms incrementally over time in response to the choices of the end user, the choices of parents. In other words, this is a market-based reform strategy. It is not miracles. It is not overnight. It takes time, but the district school system simply does not have the feedback mechanism necessary to improve itself on its own. So we need a system that is much more nimble, much more innovative, and much more connected to the desires and concerns of families.

Mike McShane: I could not have put it better myself and thus can think of no better way to end our conversation. So Jason, a joy as always to chat with you. Again, the name of the report is Who’s Afraid of School Choice: Examining the Validity and Intensity of Predictions by School Choice Opponents. You can get that on our website www.edchoice.org. As always, thanks everybody for listening.

Thank you so much, Jacob Vinson, for your outstanding podcast editing. There were several attempts to begin this podcast that did not work out well, that were cut even though maybe many of you listening would’ve been entertained by them. We are going to be professional and we are not going to include them, and that will be all Jacob’s handy work. So again, it was great talking with you all and I look forward to talking with you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.