Straw Man of the Day

[These school districts] believe that equity in education is essential and that all children, regardless of economic circumstances, should receive an excellent education.

That is Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, in the WSJ writing presumably this in juxtaposition with free market reformers alluded to earlier in the op-ed. I found this statement to be rather odd considering that fact that I favor both reforms to increase education in schools and believe that all students should be able to receive an excellent education. However, I recognize — apparently unlike the AFT president — that the current school system and, in particular, the nature in which school districts are funded do NOT enable all students to get an excellent education.

Beyond the straw man (there were actually many to choose from within the article), Weingarten defends public schools through attacks on charter schools, citing the Stanford study that shows that only 17% of charter schools showed improvement over their public school counterparts, 37% performed worse, and the remaining 46% perform about the same. Weingarten cites this as unequivocal evidence that charter schools are a waste of resources. However, these statistics are far from meaningful for three reasons.

First, the funding for charter schools is generally based in part on per pupil funding in the existing public schools. However, charter schools typically receive less funding than do traditional public schools. As such, an advocate of charter schools could use the exact same statistics to argue that 63% of charter schools perform as good or better than public schools at a lower cost.

Second, there is a large degree of heterogeneity across charter schools in different states and across the different schools themselves. As a result, the observations generated across schools could help to determine what works and what does not.

Third, and finally, I mostly do not care about aggregate results. My main concern is whether the individual students are better off than they were in the public school system. This is distinctly hard to measure given the absence of a counter-factual. However, one rather simple (simplistic?) way to analyze parent satisfaction with the charter schools. For example, one could determine whether or not the student is better off by looking at the enrollment patterns in the schools to determine whether parents move their children back to public schools or if there are trends in enrollment toward (or away from) charter schools. These methods, of course, are not perfect. There could be some type of educational policy equivalent of money illusion. However, this would likely tell us more than the aggregate data.

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