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The Coulson Effect on Education

An education free market stalwart leaves us way too soon.

On February 7th, Andrew Coulson tragically passed away at age 48 from brain cancer. As Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, he led the charge for free market reforms in education. An unapologetic capitalist, he believed that the market would inevitably lead to better educational outcomes for all kids. And it was really more than a belief. When the former computer engineer saw a problem, he got busy tinkering under the hood to see what the problem was and how best to fix it.

Coulson was a kind, brilliant man whose sense of humor was always at the ready. His colleagues, Jason Bedrick and Neal McCluskey, found him to be “almost impossibly sunny.” Even those coming from a very different political/education angle appreciated and respected him. Reformer Doug Tuthill, a one-time union leader and self-described liberal Democrat, said of him, “Andrew loved facts and logic. He had an engineer’s mind and was relentlessly methodical in laying out his arguments.  I appreciated his commitment to civility and rationality in private and public discourse, and was always influenced, if not persuaded, by his reasoning and facts.”

Before I met Coulson in 2010, we had a brief email relationship, and in 2009 he sent me a copy of “The Effects of Teachers Unions on American Education,” a paper he wrote for the Cato Journal. While the teachers unions are quick to impress upon the world how much they do for teachers, they never get around to telling you specifics. Oh sure, they go on about salary and benefits, but are their claims true? Coulson, using piles of data, cut through union happy talk and left us with a very different view.

One of the claims of the teachers unions is that collective bargaining is the life-blood of the union movement, but Coulson handily debunks that. While collective bargaining has some effect on teacher salaries, it is not nearly as great as is commonly assumed.

Coulson cites Stanford economist Carolyn Hoxby who suggests that the real union wage premium is somewhere between zero and 10 percent. Looking at rural Pennsylvania districts, economist Robert Lemke found the public school union wage premium at 7.6 percent. Cornell’s Michael Lovenheim looked at three Midwestern states  and concluded that “unions have no effect on teacher pay.” Coulson clarifies that salary hikes have all undeniably occurred, but “they have occurred in both unionized and nonunionized public school districts.”

So if salary hikes (and other collective bargaining goodies) haven’t done much for union members, what have the unions accomplished for their teachers? Coulson maintained it protects them from having to compete in the educational marketplace.

Another great Coulson contribution came in the one (that I am aware of) interchange between Andrew and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and it didn’t work out too well for the union leader. In 2011, she wrote an insufferable op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which she claims that “Markets Aren’t the Education Solution.” Coulson responded with “Dear Ms. Weingarten: I’ll Show You Mine if You’ll Show Me Yours,” in which he wrote he’d “prefer to reach policy conclusions based on empirical research.” As Coulson pointed out, Weingarten came to her conclusion “based on the testimony of a few foreign teachers’ union leaders and government officials who… run official government education monopolies.” Coulson produced a most interesting chart that clearly shows how many studies favor education markets over state school monopolies, and vice-versa, in each of six outcome areas.

Coulson

Not surprisingly, Weingarten didn’t (because she couldn’t) deliver a rejoinder.

Coulson nails the subject: “The NEA and AFT spend large sums on political lobbying so that public school districts maintain their monopoly control of more than half a trillion dollars in annual U.S. k-12 education spending. And since both the U.S. and international research indicate that achievement and efficiency are generally higher in private sector—and particularly competitive market—education systems, the public school monopoly imposes an enormous cost on American children and taxpayers.”

To further bring Coulson’s thesis to light, one only needs to look at recent events. A small sampling:

  • In Jefferson County, Colorado, a “parent” group led the charge to get rid of a school board majority “with an extreme anti-public education agenda.” In reality, it wasn’t parent-led, it was union-led. The National Education Association and its state and local affiliates fully subsidized an ugly and unfortunately successful campaign to unseat the NEA-dubbed “right-wing school board.
  • In New York City, the unions are on an eternal mission to cripple Eva Moskowitz’s highly successful (non-unionized) charter franchise.

Coulson’s research led him to understand that we are “paying dearly for the union label, but mainly due to union lobbying to preserve the government school monopoly rather than to collective bargaining.” The good news is that because of Andrew Coulson and other school choice warriors, that monopoly is unraveling, albeit very slowly.

One final note: Losing Coulson was blow for those of us who are desperately trying to minimize the damage done by the teachers unions and the government education monopoly. But there was a second death of note last week. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away this past Saturday. The Friedrichs decision, which presumably would have favored the plaintiffs 5-4, is now on hold. In all likelihood, a vote on the case, which could kill mandatory union dues, hasn’t yet been taken and the result of the remaining Justices’ vote will probably be 4-4, leaving the current Abood decision in place. The plaintiffs’ best hope is that the case gets held until a new SCOTUS Justice is appointed – and that the appointee is not named by either the current president, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

In any event, we lost two great freedom fighters last week. Their life’s work must continue; it’s up to all of us to dig in and ensure that their efforts have not been in vain.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Anti-School Choice Goblins Haunt the Land

It’s October and the voucher-bashing ghouls are doing their best to fog the issues and trick us.

While there are some education traditionalists who may embrace charter schools, they frequently draw a strict line in the sand when it comes to vouchers. For the uninitiated, a voucher enables a parent to take education funding issued by the government and apply that money toward tuition at a private school.

Those who rail against any sort of privatizing have either an obsessive and romanticized notion of the “neighborhood public school,” or they belong to a group that benefits financially from the status quo. The undisputed ringleaders of the latter are the teachers unions. For them, privatization means fewer dues-paying public school teachers – and nothing drives Big Union crazier than losing market share. Last week, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten wrote a piece in Huffington Post that typifies the union mentality, trashing school choice, before donning the good-witch mask to end with “We are at a pivotal moment – a moment when we must reclaim the promise of public education without further detours, distractions and delays.”

The promise of public education? I learned early in life that promises should not to be taken seriously after they are shown to be lies.

The AFT website moves into Bizarro territory when it concludes its mini anti-choice rant by informing us that public money used to subsidize private school tuition means “less accountability for taxpayers’ dollars, a false hope for a handful of kids, and fewer resources for school reforms that actually work.”

The “less accountability” crack is especially hypocritical given the fact that the unions are forever railing against teacher accountability, and do their level best to keep every teacher – no matter how incompetent or criminal – in the classroom.

Perhaps the most ridiculous attempt to bash privatization this month came from Jon Overton, writing for The Daily Iowan. He starts sensibly writing that, “People learn in different ways, speeds, and are from backgrounds that place varying levels of importance on academics.” One might think that this statement would lead him to be pro-choice. But, no, he maintains that choice hurts failing schools. So I guess his answer is to ignore successful private institutions and force kids to stay in failing public schools … because, well, they’re public. He attempts to bolster his argument using a report from the Economic Policy Institute which claims that the results of the Milwaukee voucher program have been unimpressive. (Yes, the same EPI where Weingarten is on the board and the chairman is none other than AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka. Only tricks, no treats from that crowd.)  But independent researcher Patrick Wolf finds that,

Students enrolled in the Milwaukee voucher program are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their public school counterparts, boast significantly improved reading scores, represent a more diverse cross-section of the city, and are improving the results of traditional public school students….

Among the new findings are that students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)—the nation’s oldest private school choice program currently in operation—not only graduate from high school on time by seven percentage points more than students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), but they are also more likely to enroll in a four-year college and persist in college.

In a close second to Overton’s article, Politico’s Stephanie Simon writes“Vouchers don’t do much for students.” Her entire argument can essentially be summed up in one sentence: “Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition – and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”

Adam Emerson of the Fordham Institute quickly lays the “little evidence” argument to waste.

Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New York, Dayton, and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results). But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other. (Emphasis added.)

Then there is the sound-good-but-dead-wrong traditionalist argument used by Simon that vouchers “siphon money from public schools.” Citing Harvard econometrician Carolyn Hoxby, Arnold Ahlert addresses that issue:

The hand-wringers are further incensed that public funds are being “siphoned” from public schools to pay for vouchers, insisting–as they invariably do–that more money will lead to better public schools. This argument was completely debunked by Caroline M. Hoxby, an Associate Professor of Economics at Harvard, during an interview with PBS’s Frontline. At the time she noted that the average spending per pupil in the U.S. was $7500 per year, while voucher costs averaged $2000. “Even if the vouchers came completely out of the local public school district’s budget, every time they lost a student, they’d be losing $2000, but they’d lose a whole student and $5,500 remains behind,” she explained.

As biased and wrong-headed as the Overton and Simon pieces are, they can’t hold a candle to a piece written by Allison Benedikt for Slate a couple of months ago. In the second sentence of “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person,” the author writes, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.”

Yes, Ms. Benedikt, I should send my kid to a rotten pubic school just because you have some misguided notion that I if I don’t, it would ruin one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions.” Sacrificing your kid’s future to prop up a failing government-run operation is collectivism at its scariest.

There is another facet to the public-private discussion that the traditionalists and the teachers unions have never quite got around to addressing, which is that many rank-and-file teachers eschew their local public school and go the private route themselves. As Larry Elder writes,

About 11 percent of all parents — nationwide, rural and urban — send their children to private schools. The numbers are much higher in urban areas. One study found that in Philadelphia a staggering 44 percent of public school teachers send their own kids to private schools. In Cincinnati and Chicago, 41 and 39 percent of public school teachers, respectively, pay for a private school education for their children. In Rochester, New York, it’s 38 percent. In Baltimore it’s 35 percent, San Francisco is 34 percent and New York-Northeastern New Jersey is 33 percent. In Los Angeles nearly 25 percent of public school teachers send their kids to private school versus 16 percent of Angelenos who do so.

Seems as if these public school teachers might know something that their unions are loath to acknowledge: that many public schools just aren’t getting the job done, and that choosing the best education option for their children is not only their right – it’s their responsibility.

In fact, all parents should have a right to sidestep the tricks of the traditionalists and teachers unions, knock down doors and demand the best education treat possible – a choice of a public or private school for their children – and let the edu-dollars follow the student.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.