NYT Gets It Wrong on Student Success


The New York Times didn’t need President Donald Trump to speak in favor of parental choice in education in his address to Congress this week to doubt its value—though that helped. Trump has said plenty in spurts of 140-characters-or-less to provoke the Times’s editors to scrutinize (putting it mildly) the President’s agenda.

On school choice, the Gray Lady’s editorial page decided “free-market mechanisms that work well in business can be damaging when applied to the lives of schoolchildren.” Here’s where parents and state policymakers should have a closer look at the evidence.

The Times uses a recent study of Ohio’s K-12 private school vouchers as evidence school choice failed students. The publicly-funded private school scholarships in this study are available to children assigned to failing public schools—a situation that could also be damaging to students if left unchecked. Thomas B. Fordham Institute researchers found that voucher students performed worse academically than their peers in public schools.

Well-respected social scientists conducted Fordham’s study. They did their due diligence by stating that the project could not use the gold-standard research design for this project, a technique called “random assignment,” because of data constraints (all researchers have had this problem at one time or another). Random assignment studies have the benefit of avoiding some weaknesses found in other approaches.

This doesn’t discredit the results, but it calls to mind that 16 random assignment studies of other private school choice programs dating back more than a decade find positive (14 studies) or neutral (2 studies) effects on student outcomes.

If so many other studies found positive results for students using private school scholarships, what’s going on in Ohio? The authors suggest Ohio’s law has regulations getting in the way. States have different provisions in their state code and in state constitutions, necessitating different program designs. In the study’s forward, Fordham writers say, “Ohio’s private schools already face heavier regulation than those in many states.” Such regulations could interfere with student progress. Evidence here is suggestive but not conclusive, though the authors go on to say, “Policy makers should tread lightly when adding to a school’s regulatory burdens.”

Yet there are more suggestive results on this point from Louisiana’s private school scholarships. The Times also cited negative research results from these school vouchers. As Lindsey Burke from the Heritage Foundation and I wrote in National Review Online, Louisiana’s voucher law also has regulations not common in other states. Policymakers regulate everything from private school eligibility and student enrollment rules to admissions and testing requirements.

A survey of Louisiana private schools—conducted by one of the same social scientists that found negative student achievement results—found that the schools not participating in the scholarship program said “fear of future regulations” was their main reason for holding out. Forty-five percent of participating schools said existing paperwork and reporting requirements were a major concern.

Arguably, then, there are requirements for Ohio and Louisiana’s private schools that researchers point out as distinguishing features that may interfere with student success. Such regulations help explain why private school scholarship results from these two states are different from the other studies showing success.

One more note for families: The news isn’t all bad in Ohio and Louisiana.

In Louisiana, researchers found “the results [for participants] improved between the first and second years.” Test scores are trending upward. Additionally, the authors reported that the program “[improved] the racial integration in Louisiana schools.” This is a valuable finding because critics of parental choice in education argue that such choices produce the opposite result.

In Ohio, the authors found that achievement results improved for students who remained in a public school (pause here—why aren’t so-called public school advocates celebrating this finding? Odd that they wouldn’t point this out).

One study’s research findings are illuminating, but multiple studies with similar results are a trend. The school choice trend in favor of student achievement is well-established in social science literature. The studies with contrary findings suggest similar reasons for their results, the start of a trend.

Parents will need to read more than a tweet—or New York Times column—to capture these details, but it’ll be worth the effort.

Jonathan Butcher serves as Education Director for the Goldwater Institute. He has researched and testified on education policy and school choice programs around the U.S. His work has appeared in journals such as Education Next and the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, and he has appeared on local and national TV outlets, including C-SPAN and Fox News. He has also been a guest on many radio programs, and his commentary has appeared nationally in places such as Education Week, RealClearPolicy, National Journal, and Townhall.com, along with newspapers around the country.

There are 10 comments.

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  1. I Walton Member
    I Walton

    The Administration, friends of education, parents who want their children educated, teachers who care must prepare to win a fight with the educational monopoly.    Democrats and dishonest former media such as the New York Times will fight to the death because that is what it is all about, the death grip of a political ideological monopoly that won’t give an inch.  For them it is not about education it’s about power. School choice already exists, parents who can afford to buy homes in neighborhoods with good public schools do so if they can afford to.  Others can choose private schools or home school.   But people of modest income who aren’t in a position to home school do not have choice.  We could talk about liberal hypocrisy, but anyone who still believes liberal democrats actually care about fairness, or the poor, or education are profoundly naive.  Honest educators have to provide counter evidence, but what is most important is to plow ahead, destroy the school monopoly and not look back.

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  2. Jonathan Butcher Contributor
    Jonathan Butcher
    @Jonathan Butcher

    Thanks for the comment @iwalton. You’re comment that “School choice already exists, parents who can afford to buy homes in neighborhoods with good public schools do so if they can afford to” is spot on. We need to make sure that the evidence on school choice is accurately–and completely–reported so that policymakers understand how these learning options can help families and students. Just a few days ago, a teachers union tweeted out that school choice causes more segregation–the opposite of what the Louisiana voucher study found. This sort of nonsense begs a response. Thanks again.

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  3. Percival Thatcher

    So, students who were attending schools described as failing didn’t do as well as students who weren’t.

    It would seem that the private schools’ first order of business would be to overcome the disadvantages of having attended failing schools. That would take time. The only real test I can think of would involve keeping some failing schools failing for a proper comparison.

    Maintaining failing schools just to test a theory would be unfair to the students of such schools, but on the other hand the New York Times future readership has to come from somewhere.

    • #3
  4. RyanFalcone Member

    One would think that by now, there would be some sort of literary short hand for the phrase “The NYT gets it wrong on…..”.

    • #4
  5. LesserSon of Barsham Member
    LesserSon of Barsham

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):
    One would think that by now, there would be some sort of literary short hand for the phrase “The NYT gets it wrong on…..”.

    Or, apply the Andrew Klavan rule: “The NYT, a former newspaper, gets it wrong on…”

    • #5
  6. Jonathan Butcher Contributor
    Jonathan Butcher
    @Jonathan Butcher

    @percival You’re right, there will be a transition phase when a child attends a new school. Charter school research shows that when a new charter opens, it may take up to 3 years before you can reasonably compare achievement scores between students. The more valuable findings from the research these days are that student test scores aren’t as useful as high school graduation rates, college attendance, college completion, and future earnings (in terms of student success). There are early studies in the charter school research field that are turning up interesting results on these issues.

    • #6
  7. CM Member

    LesserSon of Barsham (View Comment):

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):
    One would think that by now, there would be some sort of literary short hand for the phrase “The NYT gets it wrong on…..”.

    Or, apply the Andrew Klavan rule: “The NYT, a former newspaper, gets it wrong on…”

    The Carlos Slim Blog?

    • #7
  8. Fritz Coolidge

    I’m a product of public and private schools, and my own child attended private elementary school.  Now that school choice has come to the fore, I am disheartened by the apparent attitude that seems to assume one of two requirements to get school choice: either a “disadvantaged student” or a “failing school.” My grandson won’t likely meet either of those, but no doubt true choice would help him, too.

    With public schools receiving public support to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per student per year, it is all those of us who are not rich whose students are disadvantaged. Taxes are high to support the schools, so our available resources are lower, less  to pay for alternatives. These typical families have too much to qualify for the program, but too litle to send their kids to private schools all on their own: tuitions where we are for private day schools run from $7,000 a year to easily twice that.

    Better in my view would be vouchers for all, perhaps with some sliding scale to establish high and low parameters. If there were a wider net cast for potential voucher users, there will develop more choices to serve different student needs. A little more competition would do the monolith of Big Education a world of good. Hopefully, someone in the Education Department will think reforms big-league.

    • #8
  9. Topher Inactive

    Vouchers for all! Let educators compete for clients the way everyone in every successful field does.

    The Netherlands has had a universal voucher system for approximately 100 years. Surely they have some ideas to tweak the inevitable drawbacks of such an approach.

    • #9
  10. Nick Baldock Member
    Nick Baldock

    I’m sure students and parents are delighted to know that the school may be failing them, and the students may never reach anything like their potential; but they are at least served by schools where the ratio of skin colour makes people happy.

    • #10
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