Education: A “Choice” of Public Good and Private Gain

During her appearance before the Senate confirmation hearing,  Secretary of Education nominee Betsy Devos displayed a shocking ignorance of many of the core issues involved in our nation’s education system. She had no idea about the debate over growth versus proficiency as the standard for measuring student performance (and even conflated the two principles). She seemed confused about the legal guarantee to an education for those protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. She was misinformed about the problem of student debt, and had nothing to say that was coherent about the numerous aid plans the Department of Education oversees. And she refused to answer when asked if she believed private schools should be held accountable to the same minimum standards required of public schools. Deovs’s historical support for charters and vouchers makes this last point all the more important.

Misdiagnosing the Problem

The advocates for so-called “education reform” (a linguistic mask for privatization), like Devos, insist that we need vouchers and charter schools as a matter of choice. This “choice” will naturally improve education in America.  This is one of those lines that sounds intuitively true, but when subjected to the slightest analytical scrutiny, it becomes apparent that this is more of an axiomatic statement of belief than it is a conclusion based on evidence.

“Choice” is not the problem with American education. Funding is. As a 2006 study of aggregated data at the state level found:

  • States with higher per-pupil spending outperformed their lesser-funded counterparts on the two measures best suited for comparing educational performance across states – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the SAT.
  • Local revenue is the most important source of funding for driving better educational performance.
  • School system quality is positively correlated to property values and property taxes.[1]

These conclusions present some serious challenges, especially regarding the question of how to increase property values in communities affected by a large inventories of vacant housing, higher crime rates, low employment, and other factors that depress home values. However, the research here clearly dispels certain myths often invoked in opposition to increasing public school funding. Two myths central to such opposition are: 1) Just throwing money at public schools won’t fix the problem, and 2) Public schools only benefit households who have kids attending them. As the study shows, more spending per pupil does in fact improve performance, and everyone in the community benefits from better schools (due to the numerous benefits that higher property values have for a community).

Public Cost, Private Gain

It should not be a shocking conclusion that better funding leads to better schools. Better funded school districts can recruit and retain better teachers, provide more resources for students, and maintain staff levels adequate for manageable class sizes. What is shocking is that Devos and others in the “reform” clique want to divert taxpayer dollars away from the public schools that serve all of the children in a community. Instead, these grand visionaries want to give those public funds to charters which are not obligated to serve all children in a community, and which operate with a primary motive of profit, not education. In short, Devos and other “reformers” want taxpayers to fund the entrepreneurs who see education as a lucrative enterprise rather than a public good.

There is perhaps no better example of how misguided it is to turn over public education to profiteers than the case of William Larger’s online charter, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Larger has exploited Ohio taxpayer dollars to purchase products and services from his two other companies which manage the charter – a lucrative scheme of self-dealing at the public’s expense. In return, Ohio got a school with a pitiful 38 percent graduation rate, which also accounts for 28 percent of the state’s dropouts – even though it only enrolls 1 percent of its students. And while taxpayers were subsidizing Larger’s profits, 589 school districts in Ohio suffered annual funding shortages of about $180,000 per district.

No one would claim that cases like Larger’s are representative. There are certainly many good charter schools. And there are many bad ones. That’s the problem. Discussion about charter schools are too often based on anecdotes and extremely narrow examples.

What We Know

Wide-ranging studies of charter schools are lacking, but there have been a few to date. Most notable is the 2009 study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).[2] In addition, there have been at least two meta-analyses studies which rigorously examined aggregated data compiled from numerous smaller studies.[3][4] There are four key conclusions taken from this research:

  • Charter schools perform better than public schools in reading at the elementary and middle school levels.
  • The advantages of charter schools over public schools are reversed by the time students reach high school – that is, charter schools perform worse than public schools in reading and math at the high school level.
  • Results vary widely from state to state.
  • In general, the overwhelming majority of charter schools performed no better, or worse than public schools. While 17% of charters performed better, nearly half (46%) were neither better nor worse, and more than one-third (37%) performed worse.[2][3][4]


So what do we make of all of this?

The evidence available suggests that funding levels have a clearly positive affect on educational performance. The evidence also suggests that while a small number of charter schools perform better than public schools, the overwhelming majority of charters are either the same or worse than public schools. Therefore, if charters are generally no better than public schools, then why divert public money away from the public schools and into for-profit ventures with no proven benefit? If better funding positively affects educational performance, then why not increase the funding to the public schools, which serve all children? Why should taxpayers subsidize the private profits for the sake of similar or worse academic results? Why set up a two-tiered system where both public and for-profit schools receive taxpayer dollars, but the for-profit schools are not held accountable to the same standards of curriculum, testing, or evaluations?

There may be valid answers to some of these questions, but “choice” is not an adequate answer to any of them.

And one more question for the road: Could it be that the charters that do outperform public schools might do so because of things that could just as easily be done in public schools – less high stakes testing, smaller class sizes, and greater autonomy for classroom teachers? Of course, implementing these reforms in the public schools would require that politicians decide to set aside ideological pursuits and instead listen to educators about what actually works. That decision is the real “choice” we need in education.


[1] Mackenzie, J. (2006). Public School Funding and Performance. Christina School District (DE) Board of Education. Newark, DE: FREC/CANR, University of Delaware.

[2] Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2009). Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States.

[3] Betts, J. R., & Tang, Y. E. (2008). Value-added and experimental studies of the effect of charter schools on student achievement. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education.

[4] National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter School Achievement: What We Know. 5th Edition, April 2009.