School Choice vs. School Choice

Policy Backgrounders | Education

No. 155
Friday, April 27, 2001
by John C. Goodman and Matt Moore

Are Bad Schools Really at Fault?

Our current system of school choice should be replaced by a new choice system - one that is more efficient and more fair. But before considering the alternatives, we must consider two objections to the above analysis frequently raised by teachers unions and their representatives.

Does the Fault Lie with the Children? How do we know that the poor performance by children in low-performing schools is due to the fact that they are attending bad schools? How do we know that the fault doesn't lie with the children themselves? When they are in a defensive mode (i.e., when they are not asking for more money) the teachers unions throw up the image of the school as a warehouse, in which the degree of learning that takes place is due to such outside factors as the student's background, home life, genes, etc. How do we know that the teachers unions aren't right?

One piece of evidence is student performance on standardized tests over time. For instance, a National Center for Policy Analysis study of student achievement in Texas found more than 70 percent of African-American and Hispanic first graders passed a state-sponsored test to establish minimum basic skills.5 At that point, children had spent six years with parents and only a few months with their teachers. But by the time they reached the ninth grade, more than half of the minority students in Texas were failing.6 The longer these children spent with teachers, the worse they did - relative to society's expectations and relative to their non-Hispanic white cohorts. If home life and parents were the problem, the pattern of these test score results should have been reversed.

"Test scores of low-income children improve if they are places in schools with middle-income children."

Another piece of evidence is that test scores of low-income children consistently improve if they are placed in schools with middle-income children. For example, a congressionally mandated four-year study of about 27,000 Title I students found that poor students who attended middle-class schools performed significantly better than those who attended schools where at least half the students were eligible for subsidized lunch.7 The contrast was even greater with schools in which more than 75 percent of students lived in low-income households.8 A report by Education Week magazine echoed this finding, concluding that poor students who had the opportunity to attend middle-class schools performed significantly better than their peers who remained trapped in high-poverty schools.9

Are the Worst Schools Starved for Resources? Another argument used by the teachers unions is that underperforming schools underperform because they are starved for resources - this despite academic research showing there is no relationship between student achievement and money spent, or any other input.10

The latest iteration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test found that from 1992 to 2000 the average reading scores for fourth graders remained flat.11 In fact, two-thirds of students fell below what the federal government deems proficient, and 37 percent fell below basic knowledge in reading, which means essentially that they cannot read.12 Although the U.S. has spent nearly $125 billion over the last 25 years, "we have virtually nothing to show for it," said Education Secretary Rod Paige.13

Consider the case of the District of Columbia Public School System (DCPS). DCPS is spending more than $8,000 per student on the average, enough to pay the tuition at some of our best private schools. Yet it is one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the country and consistently scores at the bottom on student achievement exams. For example, the average math score for D.C. fourth graders is 37 points below the national average and even 21 points below the lowest scoring state.14 Indeed, in a 1996 report, the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority warned that the "longer students stay in the District's public school system, the less likely they are to succeed."15

"After Kansas City spent $2 billion, students registered no improvement in test scores."

The typical teachers union response is: whatever the amount spent, the results would be better if we spent even more. But what would happen if an unlimited amount of money were made available to bad schools? A federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., decided to find out. Under his orders, Kansas City's school system spent $2 billion of taxpayers' money. The student-teacher ratio was reduced to 12 or 13 to one, teacher pay was increased and workloads were reduced. Television and animation studios were added, as well as a robotics lab and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The result? Black student achievement scores did not improve at all, and the black-white achievement gap remained the same.16

This is an amazing outcome. If you believe the academic studies, you could improve Kansas City student achievement by just giving the kids bus fare and sending them to a school in the suburbs. Instead, this judge spent $2 billion and achieved absolutely nothing.

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