It’s a depressing time to be teaching public policy.
As I tell my students, there is an analytical process that should be followed by lawmakers who are considering legislation to address a problem, questions that need to be answered before a bill is introduced, let alone voted on.
Is this a problem that government can or should address, or is it more properly left to the private and/or nonprofit sector? If it is appropriate for government action, is it the sort of issue that should be handled by government’s own employees, or is it appropriate for contracting out? (There are a number of additional questions we ask to determine that–and judging from the problems that have arisen with “privatization,” it would appear that those questions are seldom asked). Are there potential negative outcomes of the proposed solution(s), and if so, what are they? Do the anticipated benefits of the proposal outweigh the likely costs?
And finally, what do we know about this issue? What does the evidence say?
It may seem obvious that this sort of analysis should always precede policymaking, but too often, laws are based upon ideology rather than a consideration of the available evidence. The recent tax bill is an example. Those who voted for it evidently never heard of Kansas.
School voucher programs are another example.
At the beginning of the voucher experiments, it may have been reasonable to hope that taking poor children out of poorly performing public schools and giving them vouchers to attend private ones would somehow overcome the barriers that make it difficult for poor children in public school classrooms. But as evidence to the contrary has accumulated, policymakers with ideological fixations have ignored or discounted it.
Scholars at the University of Virginia conducted one of the more recent investigations.
For this new study, researchers analyzed data collected from a group of 1,097 kids in nine states who were followed from birth through age 15. The scholars looked at how many had attended private school between kindergarten and their freshman year of high school. They also looked at how the kids performed as ninth graders on a range of benchmarks, including test scores.
When the scholars did a simple comparison, they learned that students who had attended private school at any time in their academic career performed better on most benchmarks than students who only attended public school. But when the scholars controlled for factors related to family resources — the household income-to-needs ratio, for example — they got a very different picture.
They discovered that kids who went to private school and those who only attended public school performed equally as well in the ninth grade in terms of math achievement, literacy, grade-point averages and working memory. They were just as likely to take more rigorous math and science courses, expect to go to college, have behavioral problems and engage in risky behavior such as fighting and smoking.
In other words, the apparent ‘advantages’ of private school education–the academic results that led early voucher proponents to theorize that the private schools were somehow doing something different, something that produced better results –were really due to the socioeconomic advantages of the children whose parents placed them in these schools, not to what went on in the classroom.
In states with voucher programs, desperately-needed resources are being siphoned from the public schools and sent to private, mostly religious schools. This is problematic both fiscally and constitutionally. These programs have been justified by claims that they will improve the academic achievement of children who would otherwise be “trapped” in “failing” public schools. The evidence simply does not support those claims.
it would be comforting to think that the growing body of research–virtually all of which has reached the same conclusion as the Virginia study–would result in policy change.
It would be comforting, but inaccurate. As a friend of mine used to say, you can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.