School Choice Increases Income in Colombia

by Dr. Corey DeAngelis

There’s an ongoing debate about how we should evaluate the effectiveness of school choice policies. Last month, two education professors argued that standardized test scores should be “the measure of success.” Other education researchers – includingmyself – contend that we should take a more holistic approach by looking at other relevant long-term outcomes as well. After all, schools can do so much more than shape test scores. Here’s a case in point.

just-released evaluation found that a school choice program Colombia improved vital long-run outcomes up to 20 years after students applied for private school vouchers in 1994.

The research team, led by Stanford University’s Eric Bettinger, found that winning a lottery to use a voucher to attend a private school in 6th grade increased earnings by 8 percent overall and 11 percent for females by the time the students reached around 33 years of age. In other words, it looks like school choice could help close the gender wage gap in Colombia. The program also increased adult earnings by 17 percent for students who applied to vocational schools.

Higher earnings should be enough to demonstrate this voucher program’s success. But don’t drop the mic just yet.

The study also found that winning the voucher lottery reduced the likelihood of having a child as a teenager by 18 percent. Voucher lottery winners were also 17 percent more likely to complete secondary school on time and 13 percent more likely to enroll in tertiary education than the control group. The authors also reported that these long-run gains “occur at a low or possibly negative cost to taxpayers,” implying the program has a positive return on investment.

We should consider all relevant outcomes when evaluating any education policy, especially since families don’t want schools solely focusing on standardized tests. Families want schools to help their children succeed in life. And it looks like private schools in Colombia are doing just that.


Note: Originally published at Cato on Liberty.


Charter School Audits and the Rights of the Accused


by Justin Olson

The drafters of the Bill of Rights were careful to protect the rights of the accused in criminal proceedings. They understood that the power of government could easily be abused without proper checks and balances. It is for these reasons that our Constitution includes important protections such as the right to a speedy and public trial, provisions against double jeopardy as well as several other rights that collectively establish the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.


While the civil proceedings of the modern regulatory state differ from the criminal court, these protections that Americans recognize as a critical component of our justice system should continue to be respected. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.


A recent example is seen in the complaint proceedings against C.P.A. Joel Huber. Mr. Huber made a career specializing in charter school audits. According to the Arizona Republic, Mr. Huber had 26 charter school clients in Arizona for whom he would annually perform required independent audits of the schools' financials, but the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools will not allow Mr. Huber to conduct these audits while a complaint is pending before the Accountancy Board.


While the policy of the State Board for Charter Schools is likely designed to prevent audits from someone that ultimately receives disciplinary action, the outcome appears to violate the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.  The government completely eliminates Mr. Huber's livelihood while he awaits the adjudication of his case.


What's more, Mr. Huber's attorney filed a 32-point complaint detailing flaws in the investigation conducted by the Board's investigator. In response to this filing, the Accountancy Board voted earlier this month to engage a new investigator and to prohibit the current investigator from issuing the final report in Mr. Huber's case. This seems to indicate that the board finds merit in the complaints filed by Mr. Huber's attorney, but, instead of ruling in his favor, the Board seeks a do-over of the investigation.


So, while Mr. Huber has been unable to practice his profession for months due to the report issued last December by the investigator now deemed to be the improper investigator to issue further reports in this case, Mr. Huber continues to wait while a new investigator conducts a new on-site review and new investigative procedures.


This hardly seems consistent with the rights of the accused guaranteed in our Constitution.


The Limits to Research on the Effectiveness of Unschooling


by Dr. Corey DeAngelis

Note: This article originally appeared in Cato Unbound.

Kevin Currie-Knight points out that we should advocate unschooling because the research suggests it works—and that we should oppose unschooling if the evidence suggests otherwise. Scientific evidence is a potentially powerful tool that can help us learn about education policy. But research shouldn’t be the main factor determining whether society should support unschooling. Here’s why.

To my knowledge, no random assignment studies exist linking unschooling or homeschooling to student outcomes. Put differently, while the research base currently leans in favor of home education, none of the existing studies can overcome the problem of selection bias. At the moment, families choosing unschooling for their children are likely more advantaged than families sending their children to government-run schools. Students with access to unschooling likely have families with the resources and motivation it takes to pull them out of the ‘free’ government-run schools. In other words, the superior outcomes demonstrated by students educated at home might be explained by background rather than education type.

What if unschoolers become a relatively less advantaged group in the future? The research—limited by design—could very well swing “negative” because of the change in the student population rather than a change in the effectiveness of unschooling. In this scenario, the true effect of unschooling on student outcomes could be positive while the evidence appears negative. In other words, we would actually harm students if we decided to forbid unschooling based on limited evidence.

But let’s assume we had a rich body of random assignment studies with large samples (the gold standard of research design) to evaluate the effectiveness of unschooling. It would be more useful and more informative.

But we’d still have some serious problems.

Even studies using random assignment rely on the law of large numbers. In other words, the best scientific tool we have available still only allows us to calculate average effects for large groups—even with random assignment, we are not able to determine the effect of any program for an individual student. This limitation is important because, mathematically, individual students in the sample might have benefited from unschooling even if the overall average effect is negative. In other words, a uniform policy banning unschooling might harm individual students in the sample that were actually benefiting from unschooling.

Then comes the question of external validity. What we can learn—even from the best studies—is limited by the students in the sample and the program being evaluated. A rigorous study might reveal negative effects of a specific unschooling program for one cohort of students in a specific year. But student cohorts change over time. And program effectiveness changes over time. Government officials could decide to close down an unschooling community—based on historical evidence—that would improve over time and start working really well for newer sets of students.

And we’re still not done yet.

What outcomes will be used to determine whether to forbid unschooling—and who gets to pick the metric of success? My bet is that regulators would primarily focus on standardized test scores. It is, after all, the state’s preferred “accountability” metric for government-run schools and schools of choice. The main problem is that standardized test scores aren’t strong proxies for students’ long-term outcomes—and families want to do so much more for their children than simply maximize math and reading test scores. In other words, regulators could harm students’ long-term outcomes by shutting down their unschooling community based mostly on lackluster test scores.

What’s worse, I’m not confident that government officials would use random assignment methodology to determine which unschooling communities are permissible. School choice regulators, for example, have focused primarily on standardized test score levels, which do not account for differences in student backgrounds.

Even the best tools available to central planners are limited in important ways. Those limitations can lead to severe unintended consequences. But what should we do about the small set of parents who might make objectively bad education decisions for their kids? Where should we draw the line when it comes to educational freedom?

This is a very tough issue. The state should obviously intervene if other members of society report clear acts of abuse or negligence by the parents but that is much different than the government defining and enforcing what education quality means for everyone. I agree with Kerry McDonald’s argument that although “there will be instances when parents fail,” granting the government the power to regulate the education of all children is the bigger risk. Most families know much more about their children’s needs than bureaucrats sitting in offices hundreds of miles away.