Ep. 64: Researcher Profile – Corey DeAngelis

August 28, 2018

In today’s EdChoice Chat, our own Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Marty Lueken talks with Cato Institute Policy Analyst Corey DeAngelis about what drew him to school choice, his educational career and his upcoming research.

Marty Lueken: Hello. I’m Marty Lueken, EdChoice’s director of fiscal policy and analysis. Today I’m in the studio with Corey DeAngelis, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and recent graduate from the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform. Thanks for joining me today, Corey.

Corey DeAngelis: Thanks for having me, Marty. It’s good to see you.

Marty Lueken: Yeah. Great seeing you again too. Corey, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about what brought you into that K–12 education reform and the school choice space?

Corey DeAngelis: Yes, of course. As you said, I’m currently a policy analyst at the Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom where I do a lot of work with Neal McCluskey. But I also was part of the Department of Education Reform where I studied under Patrick Wolf and Jay Green, and where I did a lot of school choice research there. But even before then, I grew up in San Antonio, Texas. And I did my bachelors and masters in economics, so kind of how I think about my work now is the economics of education. It’s introducing market pressures into the education sector through school choice. And so it’s kind of viewing the education sector through an economic lens.

But even during my master’s, I was working full-time as a manager at a call center. And so it’s kind of a different field to be jumping into the PhD. But I was lucky enough during my bachelor’s and master’s to study under Dr. John Merrifield, who is a Friedman Fellow for EdChoice, so I’m sure you know of his past work. He did some work with the Edgewood voucher program in San Antonio, Texas.

So I feel lucky to have studied under him because while I was doing my full-time job, he kind of nudged me at least a couple of times to go into this Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. So I’m glad I listened to him after the third time because I’ve enjoyed researching school choice and private schools around the United States and across the globe.

Marty Lueken: That’s great. And it seems like you and I have a little bit of overlap because we come from the same department in Arkansas. And of course, John Merrifield, he’s one of our Friedman Fellows, as well, so we work closely with him on some things. I know you’ve done some writing about economic of education topics, such as market failures and public goods. Can you tell us a bit about some of your research, what you’ve done and perhaps what you’re working on now or hoping to work on in the future?

Corey DeAngelis: Yeah. You touched on the whether education or schooling is a public good question. And that’s a recent study that came out of … It was a Cato policy analysis. And it just asked the question whether schooling is a public good. And if you look at the economic definition of public good, whether a good is exclude-able or rivalrous in consumption, you see that schooling easily fails both of these conditions required of a public good. So schooling is not a public good. And that piece, I argue that is probably is not a merit good either. It’s probably not very good for society overall if the schools aren’t producing good educational outcomes for kids. So the control group in that study is private schools of choice.

Marty Lueken: And for our audience, can you tell our listeners? What is a merit good? What do you mean by merit good?

Corey DeAngelis: Yeah. A merit good in the economic sense I what people typically think of when they say something is a public good. When people say education is a public good, they typically mean, or what they mean to say is, or what they’re thinking is that education is good for the public.

And something that is good for the public good is actually called a merit good. It’s something that has positive effects on others in society, so something that has, as economists would put it, positive externality. So the idea here in the education realm is, if I become more educated, let’s say Marty has a school, and I buy schooling from him, he benefits because he gets my money. And I benefit because I’m more able to get a job when I grow up. And I just feel more fulfilled with my life. But then everybody else in the room that I interact with benefits too, so that’s a positive effect on others in society.

Marty Lueken: Great. Yeah, thanks. And for those interested, we’ll put up a link to your report. You’ve worked on a lot of other issues and tried to answer a lot of other questions too. What else?

Corey DeAngelis: Yeah. I think one of my most interesting studies is actually my first study that I ever released out of the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform. And so this was joint work with Patrick Wolf. We used the state-mandated evaluation data, student level data for the Milwaukee parental choice program. And so we followed kids from that evaluation until they were 22 to 25 years old. So we looked up their criminal records online in 2015, and we compared them to the criminal records of public school kids.

And we found that the kids that got at least four years of the treatment of the voucher program were about half as likely to commit crimes when they grew up to be 22 to 25 years old. So this really is what I’m mostly interested in, is these effects of schools or school choice programs on non-cognitive skills like the character development, whether you grow up to vote, whether you grow up to be a criminal, because schools do a lot of other things besides shaping standardized test scores. They influence the character of the student, which I think is more important for the long-term outcomes of the kids and the rest of their lives. So I think it’s one of the most important studies that I’ve done.

But then more recently I’ve been focusing a lot on the effects of regulations on school choice programs because I think the school choice debate is moving from: Should we have school choice at all? To: If we’re going to have school choice, what should school choice look like? Should it be highly regulated? Should we require standardized testing? Should we require private schools to accept all students? Should they have to take the voucher payment as full payment? Should we have private or public schools of choice?

I think that’s where my research is going. Lindsey Burke and I are doing a paper with EdChoice, for example. And we looked at the effects of regulations that are attached to voucher programs on the specialization of schools. And we’re finding that, that’s not surprising to me, but when you start telling private schools that they must do every single thing that the public schools are doing, they start to look a lot like the public schools. So we’re find a homogenizing effect of regulations on the private school market overall.

Marty Lueken: Your work has included studying both academic and non-academic outcomes. You’re tackling really interesting and, I think, important questions as well, for policy making. What lessons should policy makers and families take away from your work in the context of the broader body of research of school choice?

Corey DeAngelis: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think the biggest thing is, we need to start realizing that we should start looking at other things besides test scores. I know it’s very tempting to focus a lot on test scores. One of the reasons for that is because test scores are the most accessible forms of data that we have available for students, especially with all these student privacy issues. We don’t want to infringe on the rights of the students’ privacy, so a lot of times we focus on test scores. And that just makes it very difficult to focus on the important things in life like the crime stuff. The crime study I alluded to earlier, it’s the only one that exists that links private school choice to criminal activity, and that’s partially because it was so hard to get the data. I was just lucky enough to study under Patrick Wolf, who was commissioned to do the state mandated evaluation of the program.

Even though school choice has been around for decades, we only have one study looking at that. We have hundreds of studies looking at test scores, but that doesn’t mean … Just because we have more data on test scores doesn’t mean we should focus on test scores.

It’s kind of like the economists that I’m sure you’re familiar with the economics joke where the economist lost his keys at a bar or something, or when he was out at night. And someone sees the economist looking under a light post in the light. And the person asked the economist what happened. And the economist says, “Well, I lost my keys. And I think I lost it at the bar or down the street somewhere.” And so the person says, “Well, why are you looking under the light post if you lost it down the street somewhere?” And the economist responds, “It’s the only place that has a light,” so economists and other researchers like to put a lot of focus on the data that they have available.

But that doesn’t mean that policy should be made on what data is available, so we should be looking at other things.

For example, just to bring this home is the recent American Enterprise Institute report by Patrick Wolf, Collin Hitt, were both from the University of Arkansas. Collin Hitt recently left the University of Arkansas, but Mike McShane’s also on that paper, who’s also EdChoice. And they looked at the effects of school choice programs on students’ test scores, and they also looked at how those test score effects, you follow the same kids over time and looked how those test score effects did or did not predict effects on longer term outcomes, such as high school graduation. And one of the big things that I think is important to take away from that report, for example, is that if you look at the effects on reading scores and see if they predict the high school graduation rates, only 61 percent of the reading score effects did not successfully predict the high school graduation effects.

And so what that tells me, and should tell policymakers, is that regulating programs based on test scores could actually harm students in the long run unintentionally by incentivizing schools and teachers to focus on test scores, or how to bubble in answers, or just these skills that are captured by test scores. And it could have opportunity costs.

The teachers could be focusing less on character development, having debates in class to make students more tolerant of one another. I think that’s where the research discussion is going. And I think that it’s great that the AEI report came out. And I’m also trying to add to that body of literature with a study that I have under review that’s similar to the AEI report.

Marty Lueken: Yeah. And to be sure, it’s important that we make sure that these programs are working as intended and benefiting children. It’s important to generate this information. But the question you’ve brought up is how we use that information and who uses it and for what purposes is also really important. And I think that test scores provide valuable information for parents, but I have a different view from many others and how that is used. I think that it’s better for parents, too.

Corey DeAngelis: Yes. I definitely agree that having test scores captures something. It captures some type of cognitive abilities. And I agree. I think this information should be used just to supply parents with the information they need to choose the schools that work best for their kids because parents choose schools based partially on test scores.

But if you look at a lot of the surveys that EdChoice has done, and other researchers, parents often value other things more like the safety of their children, for example. So it shouldn’t really surprise us that the most recent DC Opportunity Scholarship Program results found very large positive effects on student safety. It was a reported measure of safety, but it was still a causal experimental evaluation that actually found that the kids that got to use the voucher program ended up reporting to be more safe in school.

We need to consider all these things. If we start closing schools or preventing kids from picking schools based on their test score levels and not considering these other factors, we could inadvertently be forcing kids to go into less safe environments just because of these crude measures that we focus too much on.

These are all things that we should think about. And I don’t think we should prevent people’s choices based on test scores even if the evidence for private school choice around the world mostly finds positive effects on test scores. Even in the United States, 17 evaluations that are experimental, the majority are positive effects on test scores. But to be honest, even if they were almost all negative, which they’re not, I still don’t think we should use that information alone to prevent people from making decisions for their kids’ educations.

And I always compare it to this idea that we’ll just imagine we had experiments where we had one group, the control group, that had the government start to choose everybody’s food, grocery shopping for them. And then we had an experimental group where we said, “Okay. Let’s let everybody choose their grocery bill, their grocery packages.”

And if that experiment found that the government had lower calories on average than the parents choosing food for their kids, I don’t think that information should be used to prevent people from choosing the groceries for their kids. So again, it could be beneficial to learn about, but it’s not something that we should use government force to prevent people from freely exercising their educational decisions.

Marty Lueken: Corey, you’ve also devoted quite a bit of time to addressing criticisms of school choice and how some individuals characterize research. Can you talk about some of the critiques and challenges that school [choice] advocates face right now?

Corey DeAngelis: Yeah. This has been a big problem for me, especially trying to engage in debate, intellectual debates on Twitter. And I think I first need to learn that Twitter’s not the best medium for having a well thought out, intellectual debate. Facebook might be a little better, but you still have the same problems on social media. A lot of the times, people will say that there’s no evidence that vouchers improve student test scores.

Diane Ravitch is famous for quoting this, that there has never been a positive effect of a voucher program on student outcomes, which is just demonstrably false. As I said earlier, there are only 17 experiments that exist in the United States that use random assignment connecting voucher programs, private school choice programs, to student test scores. The majority of them are positive and only two of them are negative. And one of those two negative studies actually turned null, so no differences for public and private school students, which is Louisiana by year three.

And in DC, that’s the only one that remains negative by year two. And that’s only for math scores, not even for reading scores. Reading scores are no different across sectors.

But I’ll show some people these studies and they’ll just say, “Well, those studies must be made up.” And so I think that’s the most difficulty I’ve had, is arguing with people that just don’t care about what the scientific evidence says, or just they don’t want to listen to results if the results do not confirm their preexisting biases.

So I think a better approach that I should take going forward and school choice advocates should take going forward is to not engage with these people as much. Provide the evidence for third parties that are watching the debate. But focus more on the marginal consumer of knowledge, the people that are willing to be convinced otherwise, the people that are on the fence. Because as much as I hate it, hate to say, is there are some people out there that just don’t care about the evidence. They don’t want to be convinced. And I think we’re wasting a lot of time focusing on those individuals.

And our time could be better well spent focusing on people that actually care about what the science says, doesn’t deny the science. I’ve been quoted a few times, comparing these types of people that just deny the science to climate change deniers or flat Earthers, because it’s kind of like saying, “Look. I have all this evidence saying that school choice is doing a good job. And you’re just saying it’s all fake.”

That’s similar to me saying, “Look. We have all these pictures of the Earth being round from space.” And what if those people just responded saying, “Well, the government made up those pictures. The Earth is actually flat. I’m not going to believe all the evidence that you had.” So I’ve been quoted as saying before that with all the evidence to the contrary claiming that the evidence is highly negative or not in favor of school choice is similar to claiming that the Earth if flat.

Marty Lueken: Interesting. And we certainly also need to continue studying these programs as well, in addition to discussing the current body of research. Moving forward, what needs and priorities do you see for the future of school choice research?

Corey DeAngelis: Yeah. The big thing, as I alluded to earlier, is looking at program design because we have a ton of research looking at test scores, looking at other types of graduation effects. We don’t have enough in that area yet, graduation effects, attainment effects. Longer term outcomes definitely need to be … They are still under studied.

Marty Lueken: Wages, yeah.

Corey DeAngelis: Yeah. But the biggest thing that is lacking right now is the effects of different types of program design on student outcomes or just the private school market overall in a given location.

For example, we have some regulation evidence that suggests that more voucher program regulation does a couple of things. One, what it does is reduces the amount of schools that participate in the program. If you start telling schools that they must do X, Y, and Z, if you start increasing the cost of participation, unsurprisingly, fewer schools participate. So we know that fewer schools participate, but then we also are starting to find that more regulation is leading to less specialization. If we truly want good outcomes for students and a different option than what they already have, and we want real choices, diverse choices, unique choices, then we need to stop telling the private schools to do the exact same thing as the schools that the students are desperately trying to leave, so that’s another thing.

But all of these regulation studies that we have right now are suggestive. They’re not experimental. They are descriptive. We try to use strong econometric techniques, but we have no experiments. And so work that I’m currently working on, that I think is very important, is doing experimental evaluations to see exactly what type of regulations drive away participation in school choice programs, what types of regulations do the private school leaders not like all that much. So I’m doing joint work with Lindsey Burke and Patrick Wolf on this. We have data for 14 different states in the United States for private school leaders.

And I’m not going to divulge on the exact methods because we’re at the early stages of this. But I will just say we have a true experimental methodology using random assignments to determine the effects of these types of regulations, stuff like open enrollment, standardized testing, prohibiting copay, forcing schools to take the vouchers as full payment. And so we have experimental evidence coming out in Florida right now. But then we’re also going to be working with 14 other states as well. And I will say that we’re already finding effects, but I’m not going to say what those effects look like. But they are pretty exciting and very important that we should be focusing on in the future.

Marty Lueken: That’s great. That sounds like our listeners can keep an eye out for that. Is there anything else that you have forthcoming that you’d like to plug? Or that our listeners should-

Corey DeAngelis: If you’re going to give me more time, I’ll just hit on a couple of other ones. One is with Angela Dills, who is a friend with EdChoice. I’ve been looking at her work since I started on the crime stuff because she had a study looking at Tiebout choice, residential school choice, the ability of people to move with their feet and vote with their feet to go to schools, and how that relates to criminal activity. So I’ve been looking at her research for a while. She’s a very good researcher. But we joined up on a study recently looking at the effects of schools of choice, so private schools, on the mental health of students. And we think we’re going to get causal estimates, and we’re also looking in the long run. We’re looking at individual student level data for thousands of students. And we’re tracing them until they’re about 30 years old. And we’re looking at various measures of mental health.

And the way that we believe we’re getting at causal estimates is two ways. We use tons of … We have a wealth of control variables for parent education, income, student level controls, background characteristics. But most importantly, we control for a baseline measure of mental health. So that should be able to get rid of the selection into private school issue because we’re controlling for the outcome at baseline. I’m not going to tell you the result for that, but again, it’s exciting. It should be coming out soon.

And then also, one that’s coming out even sooner is with Danish Shakeel, who was also at the University of Arkansas, who is now a post doc at Harvard University. But we looked at the effects of schools of choice, so charter schools and private schools, for a nationally representative sample in the United States on problems that are happening in schools, so discipline problems like fighting, gang activity, drug activity, weapons possessions. And we also looked at student liberty restrictions like metal detectors, the presence of metal detectors in schools, clear backpacks, random dog sniffs. And we’re finding school culture advantages for schools of choice, private schools and charter schools relative to public schools, even after controlling for a wealth of student, school, and teacher background characteristics. That’ll be coming out in the Journal of School Choice, I think within a couple of months, so be on the lookout for that one first.

Marty Lueken: Wow. A lot on the horizon, a lot of exciting stuff and important stuff on the horizon. Corey, it’s been great. Thanks for being with us today.

Corey DeAngelis: Of course. It’s always great to see you, Marty. And it’s great to be on the podcast with you. Thanks for having me.

Marty Lueken: Be sure to subscribe to our podcast 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 soon for more EdChoice Chats.