Ep. 305: Researcher Profile — with Ben Scafidi

March 4, 2022

During this Researcher Profile episode, we talk to Ben Scafidi about his beginnings in the educational choice movement and his partnership with EdChoice.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt. EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. Today, I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to another amazing researcher. I’m here with Dr. Ben Scafidi, director of the Education Economic Center and professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, and a Friedman Fellow at EdChoice. Thanks for joining me today, Ben.

Ben Scafidi: Thanks, Drew.

Drew Catt: So Ben, would you mind introducing yourself a little other than your amazing titles and telling us a little about what attracted you to issues in K-12 education and educational choice?

Ben Scafidi: So, hi, I’m Ben Scafidi. I live here in Kennesaw, Georgia. We’re outside of Atlanta. So we’re in Metro Atlanta and I’ve been a Friedman Fellow for many years. I guess I started working with EdChoice around 2005. And the way I heard of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, your former name was I was at an academic conference and I had just given a talk and I came to the back and I saw this guy standing next to me who had a name tag. And it said, Robert Enlow, Friedman Fellow for Educational Choice. And I said, “Hey, I’d like educational choice.” And he goes, “Me too.” And so we just started talking and then a few years later I started working with EdChoice. That was pretty neat.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s awesome. I didn’t realize it’s been what? 16 years now?

Ben Scafidi: Yeah, but that conversation with Robert was probably around 2001 and he was different then. He had hair that was not combed in any way. And he was not dressed like he was going to be in an academic conference. He was dressed much more casual, but he had the name tag, so he was ready to go.

Drew Catt: That history and that connection is awesome. That’s a great story. So you said that when you met Robert, you were already interested in educational choice. What really got you interested in educational choice in the first place?

Ben Scafidi: That’s a good question. When I was a junior in college, so this would’ve been 1988 or 1989, I was taking intermediate microeconomics. It’s a class that all economics majors need to take. And a classic example in there is school vouchers. They draw graph and they say, this is the public education system and this is how it would change if we had school vouchers. It would give people more choices. And when I heard the idea, I was like, that makes perfect sense. Why don’t we do that? And then shortly after that, so this was the late 1980s, two movies came out. One was called Lean On Me with Morgan Freeman. And one was called Stand and Deliver with Edward James Olmos. And both were based on true stories. The Lean On Me movie was about an inner city high school in New Jersey that was going to be taken over by the state for low performance.

So they brought in this guy, Joe Clark to be the principal. And he was a radical in terms of the public education system. And he said, this school is not going to fail on my watch. And he took very extreme measures and the school improved. And so the state didn’t take it over because student achievement had improved. And in real life, a few years later, Joe Clark was pushed out, even though he had taken this school that everyone had given up on and he made it good. The students loved him. Parents loved him, but they pushed him out because he was an entrepreneur. He was someone who was willing to do things differently. And the same thing happened in the other film. The other film was called Stand and Deliver. And it was about this teacher in inner city, Los Angeles, Hime Escalante. I believe he had been an engineer and he was went to the high school to teach mathematics.

And when you’re new teaching at a school, you kind of teach at the lowest level. And so he was teaching like freshman and he was a really good math teacher because he used it in his day to day job, being an alternative teacher, being an engineer in his background. And so he moved up with that cohort of students. So he taught him when they were sophomores and they were juniors. And when they were seniors, he wanted to teach them calculus. But the public school did not want him teaching calculus. They’re like these kids can’t handle it. So in the other film, the students were predominantly African American. In this film in Los Angeles, they were predominantly Latino and he was like, they can do calculus, I’m Latino. I can do calculus. They can do…

And he said, they’re ready. I’ve been teaching them three years. So he had to fight with the school district to get, to be able to teach students calculus that he, the teacher, he the engineer thought they could handle. So they let him teach calculus after a big fight. And then the students took the AP exams in calculus and almost all of them got fours and fives, which is the highest scores is a five. Generally speaking, most colleges will give you college credit if you get a four. So almost all his inner city students got college credit. Well, the College Board or whoever administered him didn’t believe the results because oh, that high school shouldn’t have high achievement. And so he was forced to administer the test again. But this time they had like College Board monitors in there watching and they all got the same scores. And so it turned out, it was true.

There wasn’t any cheating going on. So the film of course ended with all these kids getting college scholarships and things and they all learned calculus and everyone’s happy. But again, a few years later, the public school district pushed Hime Escalante out as well. So again, here you have these two great educators who are doing things differently, who have very high standards for students. And the public school system said, we don’t want you. And they were doing it with the most disadvantaged students. And so I thought back after I saw those films about a year or two after I taken that microeconomics course, when I first heard about school vouchers, that made so much sense to me in theory. But then when I watched those movies, I was like, we have got to do this. And I’ve been a staunch choice advocate ever since.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So how through your illustrious career, have you advocated for school choice? So the listeners who don’t know your foray into politics, if you will.

Ben Scafidi: Sure. So I was teaching at the time at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. And I started there in fall ’98. And so about February ’99, the Dean came around and grabbed three of us who were all working on education policy. And the Dean said the new governor, Governor Roy Barnes, Democrat in Georgia, it’s going to have a big education reform commission and we want you to staff it. That’s an unusual request for a tenure track faculty member, right? Who needs to publish or you can’t keep your job, right? You need to do academic publishing in academic journals. Well, all three of us really liked education policy. So we were all excited. So Governor Barnes was putting in accountability before No Child Left Behind. And so I went to the first meeting and I was on the staff of the accountability committee for his reform commission.

And I get to the first meeting and they’re like, oh, this is Professor Scafidi. I didn’t know a soul in the room. And they said, he’s going to write our report. And I was like, what? So we had all these meetings and heard all this testimony and talked to the commissioners. And so that summer I was actually in upstate New York, sitting at a public library outside using their juice with my laptop to plug it in. No internet. And so I wrote that report sitting there in upstate New York while we were on our family vacation. This was crazy busy time, because again, I’m trying to be published to get tenure so I can keep my job. And then I had to do this thing for the governor and it was on this quick timeline. So the way I set it up in the report is, yeah, you could have centralized accountability by giving students tests, monitoring their test scores, looking at improvements.

And then, having the state come in and do some intervention if the schools weren’t doing well and maybe giving some reward, if the school’s doing well. I said, but another way to do it is what I call decentralized accountability. And that is you could give the money we spent on public schools and instead divide it up among parents and give them their pro rata share. And let them decide if the public school is the best school for their student. And if it’s not, they can use that money to go to a public school in the other district or to go to a private school.

And so I was saying that would be a better way to do accountability because the parents could do it directly. Because even though that school might be good, it might not be good for your child. Or that school might be bad in some respect, but it might actually be good for your child in some respect. So the idea was let the parents hold them accountable or you could have the state hold them accountable through these tests and things and these sanctions. And I think Governor Barnes was open to choice, but he was a Democrat and his party was not. And so, they went kind of the No Child Left Behind style route, but they put in the tests and they put in the sanctions again a couple years before No Child Left Behind. But that’s how it started for me.

Drew Catt: Feel like this is the perfect opportunity, dear listeners, to plug Mike McShane new report, the Accountability Myth. Check it out at edchoice.org.

Ben Scafidi: That is a great report. I totally second that recommendation.

Drew Catt: So it’s fascinating to think about that though. Especially since now your area of expertise, at least in terms of the school choice world is so much on the fiscal side to think about how you wrote this report focused on accountability.

Ben Scafidi: Yes. I had done some school finance work in my academic research. And then after Governor Barnes was governor, there was a new governor, Sonny Purdue and he asked me to work for him full-time as his education advisor. And in that job, I was working on the state education budgets very intensely. So I worked with the education budget staff, basically weekly for those three years. So I took a pause from academia for three years and worked for Governor Purdue full time. And that’s where I really saw how education policy is implemented. And when the rubber hits the road, how it really works or doesn’t work. And I also learned a ton about education finance. Because education finance, I think by design is super complicated.

It doesn’t need to be super complicated, but a lot of interests groups want it complicated so that the money’s earmarked for their occupation and it’s earmarked for their political power. And so, parents and legislators and others, the media, researchers don’t know what’s going on. So I learned a lot of stuff I would never have learned if I hadn’t worked for those two governors. Again, especially about school finance, but also about policies that sound good. Do they really work? Do they really work as intended?

Drew Catt: School finance and obfuscation, that’s fascinating. So I’m not sure if I’ve ever asked you this. What got you started on your staffing surge reports where you really looked at the difference between the percent increase in students versus the percent increase in teachers and all other staff?

Ben Scafidi: Yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that. I was talking to some public school teacher friends, and they were complaining about their school district hiring more people outside the classroom. And I looked it up, it turned out they were true. And then I looked it up for the whole state of Georgia and it turned out that was true. Then I looked it up for the whole country and it turned out that was true. And so I pitched your colleague, Paul DiPerna. He was the head of research at EdChoice. And I said, look, what I’m finding, do you think I can write this as a report? And he was like, oh yeah, this is awesome. And so we wrote the report and then we needed a name for it, this growth in employment. Because this had been going on, I showed since at least 1950, because the data only goes back to 1950. But since 1950, public schools had been hiring teachers and especially non-teachers, all other staff at rates significantly higher than their growth rate in students.

And so for example, since 1950, the number of public schools students has basically doubled. The number of teachers has gone up about three and a half times, but the number of non-teachers has gone up by a factor of like eight, eight and a half probably by now. So I needed a name for this phenomenon and we batted around a bunch of things. And I think it was me that came up with this idea of calling it the staffing surge. I’d gotten that name from the military surge in the Middle East that had gone on earlier this century.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s really fascinating to think about that. And it just shows how much really looking at the whole ecosystem of education, how many different ways that one, the funding flows. Two, how choice works and three, determining what really a school looks like. What should the student teacher ratio be, if you will, student staff ratio be? Not that anyone has the perfect answer on that by any means. Although, there’s plenty of research on it looking at one or two classrooms.

Ben Scafidi: But the thing is on that one specifically, the optimal class size is going to vary by teacher and by group of students. So there’s certainly no one answer, but that’s not what we do in this country. Right? We have, district wide or even statewide class size limits, that’s one size fits all. But again, what we do know is class sizes keep dropping. Staffing keeps going up, far and beyond what they need to meet student enrollment growth. Even when school districts decline in enrollment, they tend to have an increase in staffing. And what I found in actually the second staffing surgery report I did for EdChoice, and I didn’t expect this obviously, there’s an opportunity cost when you spend a bunch of money on staff. But what I didn’t know was one place where that opportunity cost showed itself was in teacher salaries.

So teacher salaries have been stagnant for a couple decades. So we’re putting more and more and more money into public schools, but it’s not showing up in teacher’s pockets. Your colleague, Marty Lueken has shown that a lot of that goes to teacher pensions and other benefits of course, but it’s not showing up in their salaries. So I let them have the staffing surge from 1950 to 1992, which was massive. And so I just do this calculation that if we kept staffing ratios, if we kept class sizes the same, we kept the ratios of other staff to students the same, teachers could get like 14, $15,000 increases in compensation. So the opportunity cost is very large and it really hits teachers in their pocketbook.

Drew Catt: I’m going to say that is probably the perfect research finding to end our research conversation on it. I like to slightly pivot for a second. Ben, how do you feel about sci-fi choice? Are you a Star Wars or Star Trek or is it one or the other, a little Battlestar Galatica in there? What is the best sci-fi specific movie?

Ben Scafidi: Okay. That’s a great question for me actually, because I would not consider myself a sci-fi person or a sci-fi junkie. When I was in high school, a lot of my friends would just read those sci-fi novels, just incessantly. I think I read two. I think I read 1984 and Animal Farm, but they were reading all the Isaac Asimov’s and et cetera, but I love what I consider good science fiction films. And I like a lot of the Star Wars films. I like the old Star Trek TV show. I like the old Battlestar Galactica TV show. Now I might not like it now, but I did like it when I was a young boy. I don’t like some of the newer Star Trek stuff, but the most recent movies with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, those are awesome. I really like those films.

And a lot of people are down on the Star Wars since Disney bought them. I actually like a lot of those. Rogue One’s a great film. I even like some of the last trilogy. I didn’t like the Han Solo film, like I don’t think anyone did, but I like it.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s entertaining. Okay. Now to marry the two topics, how much would school choice be impacted if we could actually have instantaneous transportation such as in Star Trek?

Ben Scafidi: Well, the real answer is the public employees unions who are stopping choice would still stop it. They would just work harder to stop it. But in the states that did pass it, which I’m amazed like this past year, how many states passed big school choice programs for the first time or big expansions in their existing school choice programs. West Virginia, New Hampshire, big expansion in Indiana, et cetera, big expansion in Florida. If we had instantaneous transportation like the [sound effects] right from Star Trek and the transporter, school choice would be unbelievable. I still think school choice would be unbelievably great if we had universal full school choice, but it would be even that much better if we had instantaneous transportation.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It makes me think of… I just blanked whether it’s Bill and Ted or Back To the Future, whether in like a futuristic classroom and the students all have headsets on.

Ben Scafidi: I know the scene you’re talking about.

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Ben Scafidi: Now I’m not confident in my answer. I can’t remember which one.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So I just hope that we don’t turn into the metaverse if you will, where people are like putting on their goggles to go to school. That will make me feel a little sad, a lot sad for humanity. Yeah. Hopefully, we just go to the instantaneous transportation route instead.

Ben Scafidi: That’d be better because then you could go to school in Singapore. You could go to school in Russia, go to school in Ireland, right? Go to school Argentina. Anywhere you want.

Drew Catt: You’d have kids going to five different countries, one each one day a week becoming multilingual before they’re in third grade.

Ben Scafidi: Yeah.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s a fascinating thing to think about.

Ben Scafidi: Sure is.

Drew Catt: Awesome. Well Ben, thank you so much for the conversation and great to hear about some of the history and the backstory, especially meeting Robert for the first time.

Ben Scafidi: Well, thanks for having me, Drew, and you’re a great interviewer. I appreciate it.

Drew Catt: Thanks, Ben, gracious as always. Well, to our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you choose to listen to them, for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more. Thank you for listening. And we’ll see you back soon with more EdChoice Chats.