With Covid waves prompting controversial school closures and the critical race theory controversy still bubbling, I see more and more people talking about wanting to use “their tax dollars” to send their kid to another school, a charter school or private school, presumably. They don’t like public schools, for reasons that are more and less legitimate, and they want their tax dollars back to pay for an alternative. This entails a very selective endorsement of the idea that the money you pay into taxation is somehow still your money, that you can just demand to withdraw your portion of public funds to use it as you would prefer. (How your share would be calculated is never clear.) The EdChoice nonprofit approvingly summarizes this attitude in saying,
The biggest question policymakers have to answer when it comes to K–12 funding is whether the money set aside to educate children should follow them to the people and places that educate them—whether that’s in their district, outside their district, in a private setting, online or at home.
We believe it should.
And my response to this whole line of thought is summed up in the image above.
Public money is not set aside to educate any particular students. Rather, the money is allocated to public institutions that are tasked with educating whichever students are eligible, and those institutions divvy up the money as appropriate. That is, as with any expenditure the government provisions resources, in a manner subject to public control through elections. It’s essential to point out that educational dollars are not divided remotely proportionally, whether on a per district, per school, or per student basis. Despite what many assume, nationwide total state educational dollars are now at parity with or even greater than total local expenditures, and a great deal of state funds are earmarked for the poorest-performing schools. (My friends, I assure you: our achievement gaps are not resource problems.) Federal funds, too, are strongly slanted towards perceived need, such as with Title I funds. In what sense then can we say that education money is “set aside” on a per-student basis?
When you pay taxes, you’re not putting money into a bank account. You’re contributing to basic governance and the common good as defined by the democratic process. If you have a particular vision of how you want the government to spend, or if you want to pay less in taxes, you should use that process and work to elect leaders who will enact an agenda you agree with. If you can’t do that, well, tough nugs. Get better at politics. Campaign harder. I’m suffering under the same burden, given that I live in a country with a defense budge of almost $800 billion and would very much like for that number to be revised significantly downwards. But I don’t get any tax money back just because I don’t get my way, and neither do you. Nor should we. As Jonathan Barrett put it in a good piece on these issues, “unlike trust beneficiaries, we do not have an equitable interest in the government’s money.” I’m sorry if this seems pedantic but this rhetoric crops up again and again, and I think it’s quite corrosive to our basic understanding of civic obligation.
If you don’t like the city bus, you can try and elect politicians who will do a better job with public transit, but you don’t get to withdraw your portion of public funds to put towards a Honda Civic. Nor can you do that with the police and private security guards, the FDA with your own private scientists who test your foods and drugs for safety, or NASA and your own private spaceflight company. (Unless you’re Elon Musk, in which case you kind of can.) If you want to pay for your kid to go to private school on your own dime, go right ahead. But the idea that there’s some sort of fundamental reason that we should be able to demand “school choice” where we can’t demand “firefighter choice” is unjustifiable. The simple reality is that there are many kinds of public goods that can only exist if we all pool our cash together. There couldn’t be a public transit system anywhere if those who don’t use it weren’t helping to subsidize those who do, for example. You can avail yourself of that service so that it seems like a better deal but you can’t just opt out. If you could, government couldn’t function. There’s a political school that would actually prefer that outcome, and it’s called libertarianism. Libertarians are entitled to their opinion, just as I’m entitled to say they’re full of it, but none of us just gets to unilaterally withdraw from this basic bargain, from the social contract.
The rejoinder, in this context, is typically some version of “but the schools are doing such a bad job.” Longtime readers will know how little I think of that claim. American public schools are not, in fact, uniquely or especially bad; our median student does alright, given that they consistently rank in the middle of OECD nations in international comparisons and the OECD no doubt performs far better than the international average. (Don’t get me started on Chinese educational data, or the inherent unfairness of including Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore, city-states that are simply not good comparisons.) Plus we look better in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) than in the PISA, from where I’m sitting. (Play with the data viz tools there, they’re great.) Our top 5% or 1% are competitive with any nation on Earth, and we frequently win international STEM competitions. Please enjoy looking over the American kids absolutely whipping everybody’s ass in the International Chemistry Olympiad, for one example. Or the International Math Olympiad, where we won outright in 2015, 2016, and 2018, and tied with China for first place in 2019. The problem is not at the top nor, I would argue, in the middle.
The trouble is that we’re dragged down by a relatively small number of students that perform so terribly that they drag down our averages. That is indeed a problem, but it’s not primarily (or even secondarily, really) an educational problem. Rather it’s a complex and multivariate social problem that can’t be solved at the school level. Given the amount of money, energy, and manpower this country exerts on public education, whether defined in aggregate or per pupil, we should be able to confidently say that if there were any silver bullets available we would have killed all the werewolves by now. Unfortunately wonkism rules in this domain and core to the wonkist philosophy is that every problem has a policy solution.
What’s more, our teachers deserve little of the blame (and, for consistency’s sake, the praise) for our current situation, as student-side factors dominate school-side factors in determining student quantitative outcomes. I’m not going to go through the paces of that particular claim here; I’ve written on this topic extensively and immediately above is a one-stop shop for my general take on the macro educational situation in this country. But for shorthand we might consider that the vast majority of American educational inequality exists within schools, not between them, making it very odd to blame schools for inequality. (For such blame to make sense, we would have to believe that schools are deliberately withholding the better education from the low-achieving students and hoarding it for the high-achieving, when in fact most schools do everything in their power to improve performance among their worst students, given how intense the pressure from above is to do so.) We could also look at serial failures of touted prescriptions like charter schools or vouchers, a world in which districts that are still referred to as “miracles” house tons of schools with terrible performance, where programs hailed as transformative turn out to be disastrous, and where the randomization tools that are so essential for equal access and effective research operate as a black box with little or no consistency or oversight. Like I said, I’ve made the case at length before.
And I’m not the only one who says that the individual student is more important than the teacher or school for determining outcomes. There is grudging but growing understanding of this reality in the policy world. For example RAND Education, which is very much in line with the broader neoliberal education reform movement, has estimated that student-side factors are four to eight times more responsible for student outcomes than school-side factors1. This should be common sense, it seems to me, and more and more people are willing to admit to it, but there’s still profound resistance to this idea, as a) there’s a large educational profiteering industry in this country and b) too many people are still addicted to Stand and Deliver-style romanticism about education, the cheery notion that all any student needs is a passionate teacher. And so our goal remains Lake Woebegone, where every student is above average.
Here’s the thing, folks: wherever your kid goes, there they’ll be. If they’re particularly talented, they’re very likely to perform well regardless of school. If they’re particularly untalented, they’re very likely to perform poorly regardless of school. Many studies that involve randomly assigning students to schools perceived to be of differing quality find no school effects, which is counterintuitive only if you assume every brain is the same. There are no magical institutions anywhere in the world where you can take a kid who is not naturally inclined to be a genius and turn them into a genius. If such a place existed, this would be a profoundly different world. If you’d like to learn more, my book is only $13 on Amazon. (Surely the mark of a best-seller.)
So, no. The case for “school choice” is not remotely strong enough to overwhelm the basic social contract that dictates public expenditure. Even many of the most ardent ed reformers will now concede, after several decades of yelling “no excuses!” and then making constant excuses for charter schools and vouchers, that neither of those programs provide fast, reliable, or scalable improvements. In many many cases students in such situations perform worse. Are the rest of us really obligated to divert precious public funds into institutions that do not operate under public control when the case for the superiority of those institutions is so thin and so contested?
The Rand report that included this estimation has been “superseded” and the specific numbers have been removed from the new report, in favor of perfectly vague language about the “many factors” which influence outcomes, which is pretty common for this world - inconvenient realities get whitewashed away. Luckily for us, I got the old report.