Response to ‘A Decade Left Behind’

(link to the article: A Decade Left Behind)

Matthew Brouillette in his commentary on public schools places a lot of emphasis on incentives.  With incentives he and apparently The Commonwealth Foundation believe that public education could rise to great heights. With the right incentives that is.  I couldn’t agree more.

Incentives, according to economists and sociologists, are the basis of all courses of action; why we do what we do.  Unfortunately, in his argument the only adequate incentive is money; creating school choice by the use of a voucher program.  This would, in fact, make schools reliant on attracting customers.  If a school can not attract enough customers to pay the bills then they would be shut down.  What Mr. Brouillette fails to mention is that there are other types of incentives and not all are remunerative or financial.

Moral incentives would be one of these.  These incentives are ruled by our moral compass therefore compelling us to act in a certain way not because we would make more money or attract more customers but because it is the right thing to do or because not doing something would be viewed as morally apprehensible or indecent.  In this instance, I am sure; we could have a rousing debate on whether it is more morally apprehensible to take money from poor schools and give it to private schools or to support and maintain public schools as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania establishes.

There are also coercive incentives.  In this scenario if you don’t do what is asked of you or you act in a way that is not desirable, physical force will be used against you.  I don’t perceive that Mr. Brouillette is advocating physical punishment but I do believe that the he is indeed advocating coercion.  In his opinion and that of the Commonwealth Foundation, schools that are charged with educating the poorest, most at-risk students should be bled of any capital because they can’t bring their students to proficiency. No consideration is established here for environmental context.

Finally, economists and sociologists also talk about natural incentives.  These may include the innate desires to be the best that you can be and to be mentally and physically fit.  It is shortsighted to imply that there are no natural incentives in places like Chester Upland, Steelton Highspire and Harrisburg.  These natural incentives may lead students to charter schools or private schools, but it also may lead to students rising above poverty, discrimination, single parent households, and high crime rates and being role models in struggling districts.

It would be hard for anyone to argue that urban and rural schools are struggling.  Can the answer possibly be to shut them down?  Those students are going to go somewhere.  Those families who have the wherewithal or the natural incentive will take them to the best school they can get into.  Those who are relying on financial incentives won’t find any.  They will find a voucher that will help them get there child in a “better” place but without the natural incentive would they even make the effort?

I read the summaries of the research on vouchers that Mr. Brouillette sited and interestingly what he refers to as minor gains when discussing PSSA scores in his article seem to be more significant in the research he sites concerning charters.  Even in the poorest school district PSSA scores continue to climb and in looking at 2011 PVAAS data only one charter school in Pennsylvania made AYP in 11th grade math and only two showed at least one year’s worth of growth. Reading wasn’t much better with six charters making AYP and 12 making a year’s worth of growth or more.  It’s also notable that only one of those charters is in an urban area (City CHS in Pittsburgh).

Another great economic property is correlation without causality.  Just because the number of people carrying umbrellas when it rains increases doesn’t mean that an increase in umbrellas causes rain.  In instances where charters or private schools show improvements over related public schools it is important to keep in mind that these schools also have choices.  For the most part they choose the students who they want to attend. The will prey on students who have that natural incentive to achieve.  They also choose the location where they are located.  In many cases they choose to have less rigorous standards (especially in the case of cyber charters) in order to attract students.  [It is important to note that schools that have established their own cybers are struggling to fill them because the rigor is so high.] The incentives here are obviously remunerative. The more bodies we get in our chairs or in front of our computers, the more dollars we generate.  When was the last time you saw a public school with a billboard on the turnpike or a television commercial during a football game?  Attract the best and the brightest and the Commonwealth Foundation will rally around us and probably conduct some “research.”  Take all comers and your demographic changes dramatically as well as your student bodies’ natural incentive.  Place a charter school in Bucks County or Lehigh County and watch how well they do.  Place one in Greene County or center city Philadelphia and compare the results. It’s the clouds not the umbrellas.

It’s a funny thing about statistics.  As Marilyn vos Savant (arguably the most intelligent person in the world) said, “Be able to analyze statistics, which can be used to support or undercut almost any argument.” They can pretty much say what you want them to say.  That’s what I love about Economics.  Economics questions everything.