Highlights From The Comment Thread On School Choice

Several people including Yehoshua K and Freddie deBoer point out that “nonprofit” and “for-profit” are potentially meaningless terms in situations like these.

IrishDude adds some context to the for-profit hospital scene by noting that companies are not allowed to open new hospitals until they apply for and are granted a Certificate Of Need, apparently on the basis of a theory that an oversupply of hospitals would increase (?!) costs.

Algorizmi describes his work with a private school that costs less than half as much as most public schools, including how it saves money

Half a dozen people yell at me for saying that the grocery industry worked well for the poor, objecting that I had forgotten about Food Deserts. Various other people save me some time by pointing out that most of the claims about Food Deserts are kind of fake (1, 2, 3). There’s a defensible version of the term, which is that in very poorly planned car-centered zoning-regulated cities without good public transportation it’s not always possible for someone without a car to easily get to the stores they want, but just posing the problem that way makes the solution pretty obvious.

Spotted Toad is great as usual, pointing out among other things that Obama has already led the most pro-charter administration in history.

Douglas Knight proposes that college demand curves are upward-sloping, which is kind of terrifying but seems to have at least anecdotal support.

Robinson: “The things needed by poor people, if done well, will never be money-makers.” Matt M: “A bold claim considering that the biggest company on Earth, more than double #2, serves the needs of poor people almost exclusively.”

MDP has worked in the payday loan industry and explains how their interest rates can be so high and their profits so low.

Many people (1, 2, 3) point out the high cost to schools of misbehaving kids, and try to explain the rise in education costs by saying that kids today are raised wrong (or not at all) which makes them harder to control. But everybody who looks for this kind of thing finds the opposite – kids today have less teenage pregnancy, crime, dropouts, et cetera. I don’t know if anyone has specifically looked at classroom misbehaving, but it would be weird for that to be getting worse in such an isolated way.

Lots of people are very angry at me for posting the graph from the Cato Institute for various reasons. A few people object that it is dishonest because it didn’t adjust for inflation, even though it did adjust for inflation and is very clear about that. A few people object that it is dishonest because it puts cost increases and score increases on the same scale as each other, instead of skewing them to make the effect look bigger than it really is – this is a definition of “dishonest” I haven’t heard before (maybe I am being uncharitable here?). Several others say that test scores have increased more than they give credit for. You can look at a very good summary of test score changes here. You’ll see there are some gains among younger students, but much fewer among older kids – for example, 17 year olds’ math scores went from 304 in 1971 all the way to 306 in 2012. This is not just a race-related Simpson’s Paradox – among white students alone, for example, the gain was 4 points (though blacks did gain 18, as I mentioned before). I am not sure what good it is to have high gains in early years if those gains are all lost by the time kids leave school. Overall I think the Cato graph comes out looking pretty good. But even if you disagree, I would ask you to pick whatever metrics you want – your favorite test, racial group, axis scheme, whatever – and tell me whether it really looks like the doubling-to-tripling of education costs during the relevant time period has been money well-spent. If not, then as happy as I am to debate details in the comments, it all seems like basically nitpicking.

Jonah Katz brings up a really complete analysis of increasing costs in higher education:

The rising cost of higher education isn’t quite so mysterious, at least for the last 10-15 years. The Delta Cost Project has put together some fairly comprehensive data about this. What you see across most categories of post-secondary institutions is that basically *everything* is becoming more expensive, but ‘student ‘life’ and ‘academic support’ are rising fastest, followed by ‘institutional support’. Student life is all of the bells and whistles (athletic centers, movie theaters, etc.) that colleges use to try to entice prospective students into paying huge amounts of money to enroll in their institutions, and I believe it also includes health and mental health services, which I would imagine have become exponentially more expensive over the past couple decades (this is probably unavoidable, because health costs are going up in general and universities are enrolling a far wider range of students with more mental and physical health issues who wouldn’t have gone to college in the past). Academic support includes a mix of stuff that is crucial to the academic mission of a university (libraries, IT systems), stuff that is arguably not part of the core academic mission at all (Dean’s Office personnel, museums), and stuff that is well intentioned but tends to be useless in practice (central offices for teaching and curriculum development). Institutional support is administration proper. Note that these data come from 2003-2013, so they don’t capture the explosion in university administration that is generally agreed to have occurred from roughly the 1970s to 1990s. I’ve never been able to find categorized data that goes back that far, but I imagine the change in spending on administration during that period must have been astronomical. The cost of instruction is still the largest single category of expenditure, and accounts for the majority of absolute price increases, but proportionally it is not rising as fast as these other categories. Also, the NY times Op-ed piece you link to is either selectively pulling misleading data or is just plain ignorant about the state of public financing for higher ed. There has not been a ‘modest’ reduction in per-student funding: it has dropped around 30% in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2000.

Static brings up the role of pensions as a driver of schooling cost increases.

Swing finds there have not been similar cost increases in the Netherlands. And Politifact rates as true a similar claim – that we greatly outspend other First World countries in per pupil spending. This article notes that we spend about 25% more than Britain and almost 50% more than Germany. On the other hand, the Netherlands is only a little better than we are, so this doesn’t match a scenario where the Netherlands’ spending goes up by only a little but America’s goes up by 200%. I don’t know where the discrepancy comes from. {EDIT: Douglas Knight points out that most countries have per pupil spending as a similar percent GDP)

Various people chime in with their favorite anecdotes about school vouchers working very well (DC) or working very poorly (Sweden). Murphy describes a personal bad experience with school privatization. At some point I do want to go through and sum up all the empirical literature on this, but not now.

Many people mention the possibility for bad incentives or market failures in schooling. 1soru1 thinks that, absent better signals of quality, schools will compete on shininess and raise prices to have the biggest and most breathtaking stadium (which I think is what the post above was saying happened to colleges, so certainly plausible). Tanagrabeast describes finding the private schools in Arizona heavily politicized: “What Scott worries about is already happening. I was skeptical until I took my son to an open-house at a fast-growing chain of charters where they tried very hard to play conservative buzzword Bingo and did all but lead us in a prayer to the Founding Fathers.” In contrast, Doctor Mist says that as a rightist, he feels like going to a private school lets him escape what he sees as public schools’ existing liberal politicization.

EarthSeaSky is a purist and reminds us that the free market which can be named is not the eternal free market.

Steve Sailer argues that for-profit colleges are a natural comparison group for for-profit primary schools, and they are very bad.

I talked to Education Realist on Twitter. Their position is complicated but they recommend their posts The Fallacy At The Heart Of All Reform and Charters: The Center Won’t Hold as introductions/summaries. I am still not entirely clear on their position – the objection seems to be that successful charters succeed only by taking the best students who would get good test scores anywhere, then claiming charters raise test scores. Obviously charters are trying this, but every halfway-decent study on charter schools has tried to control for this possibility. Also, none of my points involved empirical claims that charter schools raise test scores, so I don’t see why this discredits me in particular. They also note that US education is already pretty good both compared to other countries and compared to its own past, something else I agree is true and have never denied.

Levarkin brings up James Tooley’s fascinating work on private schools for the poor in Third World countries.

And Justreggedthis on the subreddit makes what I find the most convincing argument in this whole discussion:

Sweden’s experiment with school vouchers showed a different problem: the market delivers what you want, not what you need. What (stupid) parents want is good grades. What kids need is good education. So precdictably, voucher schools ended up diluting grades. You can probably imagine how it works. We live in an age of narcissism. Many parents want to hear their kids is super, special, and a genius, and get straight-A grades for a performance that is at best average. Few parents have the character left to stand up to it, and want challenging education and honest grading.

Of course this is a problem with people, not vouchers. I am sure the very same narcissism in modern culture also rears its head in public schools as well.

The classic solution was school principals having low time preference and interested in preserving the long-term good name of their school. So they would not agree to grade dilution, they would not encheapen the brand of their school.

Seems like today time preferences are high.

Grocery stores are a good parallel. You need healthy food. You want (a stupider version of you wants) gallon buckets of ice cream. Hence, you get all kinds of special offers and discounts on tasty and cheap gallon buckets of ice cream. The market delivers what you want. Hence, obesity epidemic.

I don’t really know any solution that is acceptable within a democratic framework. Obvious someone somewhere should override personal preferences, but that someone should have a very good set of incentives and that is what we don’t get in this framework.

Overall reading this has made me somewhat more pessimistic about charter schools. But I’m still uncertain enough that I want to look into the empirical literature more, and I still think careful experimentation is the way to go.

…so maybe I should end with shadypirelli’s comment from the subreddit pointing out that Betsy DeVos’ policies cannot be described as “careful experimentation”.

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197 Responses to Highlights From The Comment Thread On School Choice

  1. morningpigeon says:

    Regarding Justreggedthis’ argument, I understand that the US has a fairly robust system of external assessment thanks to No Child Left Behind. Whether parents pay attention to this, I don’t know.

    When Rhee was being raised as a possibility I thought she looked quite interesting. She is quite pro-charter schools, but she has a demonstrated record of achieving improvements in education systems. I tend to suspect that this requires a few things going right at once, not just vouchers, or charters or whatever. Devos seems more like a hedgehog with school choice being her only trick.

    • shakeddown says:

      How good is the NCLB assessment system though? I’ve heard criticims of it, but I’m not sure if those were by objective evaluators or just people out to get the program.

      • cassander says:

        NCLB doesn’t have a system. it requires each state to develop its own. Results vary.

        • Tom Hoffman says:

          Well, we spent, oh, probably well north of half a billion dollars ($350 million in federal dollars alone) trying to come up with new Common Core tests that would be better than the previous NCLB state tests. If you’re American, you might have heard of PARCC and the Smarter Balanced tests. They’re rapidly losing market share now, so that didn’t work out so well…

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Schools should get out of the business of evaluating students. Testing should be done by some outside party.

  2. Douglas Knight says:

    Let me repost this graph of OECD elementary+secondary education costs. It is tightly clustered at 27% of GDP per capita per pupil. So there is nothing special about America.

    This is an international comparison, not a secular comparison, but it is exactly what Baumol predicts. I think it a lot more likely that the Netherlands have been rising in sync with America than that America spent decades catching up. But that doesn’t mean that the past trend is simply due to Baumol. It has gone up 50% above GDP growth. But that could just be that GDP is badly measured.

    • AnonEEmous says:

      But does that mean that all of the other countries have the same basic costs, but as a result of being a country with a larger GDP and thus a place where people expect more, that those basic costs have risen as a result?

      That’s the only reason that the GDP comparison makes sense, and also it’s probably pretty close to the mark so, the comparison probably does make sense. But I originally wanted to comment pointing out that this is really the only reason that this comparison makes sense, and the traditional reasons this type of comparison would make sense don’t seem to be present in this specific case

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Yes, that is what Baumol means, that the cost is all labor.
        But I can imagine other reasons for the cost of an industry to be a constant proportion of GDP.

        What does your last sentence mean?

        • AnonEEmous says:

          sorry, just

          usually a GDP comparison makes perfect sense, but that’s because it’s done in lieu of a per capita comparison. But if per capita is already present, then GDP becomes a weird way to measure it, unless other things also rise in reaction to it. Assuming that they didn’t, then the same percent of GDP is just more money, if you get what I’m saying.

  3. Sebastian_H says:

    I don’t understand the constant interest in trying to convert the cost into % of GDP instead of cost per pupil. If you are using PPP comparisons properly, cost per pupil should already factor in the important cost of living differences that you are trying to invoke when you talk about Baumol. % of GDP assumes that the systems are essentially similar everywhere in the world, when anyone with passing knowledge of Germany v South Korea v the US knows they aren’t.

  4. captainfluttershy says:

    The “for profit” vs. “not for profit” concept is not useful. The entity that is a public schooling district isn’t truly for educating children as best it can – it’s goal is, like any organism, it’s own survival. Educating children is merely their task, their job, not their method of survival. They work for the bureaucracies that pay their salary, not students. Schools, private or public, aren’t charities done exclusively for warm fuzzies. However much we may like to, we cannot remove the concept of profit.

    In the developing world private schools educate better than public school, and even poor parents try to pay and send their children to private schools rather than free, breakfast providing, public schools. (This may not be entirely applicable to the first world because many of the problems in developing world schooling are all the usual third world government inadequacies, incompetents, and gross corruption- all far worse problem in Angola or India than the USA.) But because private schools are “for profit” and public schools are “not,” charity is poured into the awful public schools rather than the decent private schools. There are actually exciting methods of education being experimented with in the developing world that stray from the design cemented into our traditional one.

    I’m concerned that because expensive schools will have better preforming students (simply because intelligence is both correlated with $earnings$ and test scores+educational attainment, and is heritable), people will believe expensive schools are better and 1. parents unnecessarily try to send their kids to the most expensive schools possible, and 2. people decide private schooling and wealth cause massive educational disparities and only public schools are ethical and fair. People already largely believe #2, but I can imagine this really “proving” it.

    • 1soru1 says:

      It’s more that the formal distinction doesn’t capture the actual boundary between companies that really are for-profit versus ones that really are for-education.

      Having an education system that actually is for-education is one of the distinguishing features of a first world country. Having a state Education Ministry run as a de-facto for-profit-by-the-minister is what happens in those Third World countries that are still going to be Third World in 20 years time.

      And some slight variant of that is a very plausible failure case of charter schools. Especially under Trump.

      • static says:

        The difference between a corrupt education minister that steals public funds and for profit school that has to run a program that attract parents and students to it is vast. In particular, the education minister is enabled by the inability of the consumers to switch to another option, while the for profit school that is ineffective will cease to exist. The risk with for profit is more one of consumer exploitation- where the good they desire is not really education. However, that appears to be the case with much government run education already.

    • salviahardon says:

      While I don’t mean to dismiss any of what you say regarding the ultimate high level decisions made by bureaucracies, because I agree completely; I think adopting this view as a hard-line stance neglects what happens in lower levels.

      That is, the bureaucracy’s job is either an explicit or implicit form of profit, but what of that of the individuals within those institutions? I think there is a significant number of people at different levels in those institutions who are motivated to “do the right thing” – that is, educate, all other considerations be damned.

      Now, one question that comes to my mind is in for-profit, non-profit, or state-run, which bureaucracies are the most effective at stamping out the individualism of its employees? Is it crazy to consider that some bureaucratic failures/inefficiencies actually serve to advance education as a result?

  5. AnonEEmous says:

    so let me put forth an idea

    maybe the best way to reform is as follows: firstly, school choice. Secondly, the money that public schools receive as a result of gaining one extra student is just enough to pay for that extra student.

    This sort of neuters the profit motive, but it allows parents to escape bad schools and it escapes the downside of the profit motive in these cases, of schools competing on stupid metrics like “most undeserved A+ grades given” or “most jesus loving conservative” (or maybe occasionally, “most earth loving progressive”)

    overall I don’t really know what to do honestly. The inner cities could really stand to be Made Great Again. We’ll see if Trump follows through – no matter what the media tells me, I won’t lose hope yet.

    • 1soru1 says:

      If I was going for a half-baked radical reform, I would use vouchers. But give the vouchers to teachers, not parents.

      Credentialed teachers earn ‘budget vouchers’ by teaching students, more for teaching more students well. A school that hires a teacher gets the associated budget, which is enough to pay their salary and overhead costs. Every dollar of budget has an owner, there is no more ‘someone else’s money’.

      So teachers have the market leverage, so they largely determine what happens. Assume you still train them so they are pro-education, and have salaries still set by union grade; a teacher can’t spend their budget on their own salary directly.

      They want to work where class sizes are large, so they can get more vouchers, so they can do more education. They want to read up on the latest best practises, so they can teach better, so be rewarded with the status of bringing more budget to their school. Schools want to be good places for good teachers to do that in.

      If a teacher fails to perform over a reasonable period, their salary cost will start to exceed their budget, so the school will want to replace them with someone better. Overall teaching becomes a rewarding profession for those who are good at it, and care about education, and a poor match for those who aren’t, or don’t.

      Details no doubt need work, but the point is to remember that market force is a vector, not a scalar. You need to ensure it is pointing in the intended direction.

      • Deiseach says:

        Credentialed teachers earn ‘budget vouchers’ by teaching students, more for teaching more students well.

        I’m going to poke at this a bit, because like everything, there are pitfalls to this approach as well.

        There are two prospective pupils: John and Mark. John is not academically bright, with a lot of effort you can pull his grades up to C. Mark is clever and will sail through with deserved and earned A+. Under this scenario, you the teacher want a class full of Marks, because that is where your money lies.

        So what happens to John? Somebody has to educate him. Under this system, we get the crappy public school with classes full of Johns, and bad teachers and poor resources.

        Unless we’re going to have vocational attainment given the same level of regard as academic attainment, in which case John is an excellent metalwork student and will walk into a top-level apprenticeship* at a prestigious manufacturing engineers, and as a Materials and Engineering Technlogy teacher you want a classroom full of Johns, not Marks, because that is how you will earn more. Are we talking that situation? Because unless we are, there will still be inequality.

        And there will always be the ones who are never going to be high-achieving in any field, so what about their education?

        *The school where I worked had one kid go on to this apprenticeship one year, and the principal was delighted with the result.

        • 1soru1 says:

          > Under this scenario, you the teacher want a class full of Marks, because that is where your money lies.

          Not true: union wages scale still applies. This is not performance-related pay, which I agree would be bad to the degree that the measurement of performance was imperfect.

          Sure you can coast only teaching Marks. But they get excellent results in every class, so you share the voucher with every other teacher in the scheme. Move to a school where improvements are possible, and you could get 3 or 4 times that. Which allows you to make more difference to more kids lives.

          Which, if that is what motivates you, puts you where you are most needed.

          This works for vocational education too. If there is the possibility to engage a kid with a very specific work-related topic, then finding that topic is a search problem. And you have a million agents country-wide doing the search. If none of those teachers can find anything a kid can do well, so be it; that kid just got babysat for 12 years. How many such kids you think there will be depends on what you think of human nature.

          Thinking about it, this is not so novel, it’s just the way open source software works. Produce OSS, if people use it they are using their own budgets to do so. Their is fierce competition as to which OSS packages are best, and because everything is financially free, it is a near-perfect market as un-distorted by marketing.

          Producing OSS doing so is largely it’s own reward, but it is associated with status, and incidentally a better chance at a better job.

    • Tracy W says:

      Secondly, the money that public schools receive as a result of gaining one extra student is just enough to pay for that extra student

      Good luck calculating that. For a start, how do you know when the extra student is the student that provokes needing a new classroom? Or hiring a second cleaner?

  6. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Education Realist also recommended his “White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal” (I like his blog, so I followed your exchange with him on Twitter with some interest; too bad Twitter makes long conversations so unwieldy).

  7. ThomasA says:

    Does anyone know any good data on teacher quality over time? It would seem to me that as women have moved into other fields, the overall talent pool for teachers would have declined. Obviously not saying that this is something that should be reversed, but may be a factor in the perception that schooling quality has declined despite higher costs.

    • static says:

      It’s been studied, and your intuition is correct. There are fewer high aptitude (>60th percentile) teachers. Interestingly, the average aptitude of the male teacher rose. However, a randomly selected student in 2000 was likely to find a lower aptitude teacher than they would have had in 1970.

  8. Aapje says:


    Many people (1, 2, 3) point out the high cost to schools of misbehaving kids, and try to explain the rise in education costs by saying that kids today are raised wrong (or not at all) which makes them harder to control. But everybody who looks for this kind of thing finds the opposite – kids today have less teenage pregnancy, crime, dropouts, et cetera. I don’t know if anyone has specifically looked at classroom misbehaving, but it would be weird for that to be getting worse in such an isolated way.

    A possibility is that these kids used to be kept out of (regular) schools, but now aren’t. In that case, this may have gotten worse within the schools, even as it got better for society as a whole.

    I know that in The Netherlands, we have had a change where people with (mental) disabilities are now more often placed in regular schools (with extra funding), rather than special schools like in the past. Such a change in policy can result in schools having more disruptive students.

  9. Deiseach says:

    But everybody who looks for this kind of thing finds the opposite – kids today have less teenage pregnancy, crime, dropouts, et cetera.

    But part of that reduction is down to specific programmes that target teen pregnancy, dropping out early, etc. which do soak up extra funding. Jiggling with figures to sort them out into “Not in Education, Employment, Training” . Whereas in (say) 1980 Johnny dropped out of school at fifteen or sixteen and hung around on street corners, now there are measures in place so that if Johnny drops out, he gets shuttled into an Early School Leaver Programme, or some kind of training scheme for employment, or is otherwise accounted for. That will give you a decrease in the measured drop-out rate, but it’s not the same thing as “Johnny stays in full-time education at the same high school”. And as I’ve mentioned, such schemes do get gamed to a degree by lawyers trying to get their juvenile clients out of jail time, which does not mean Johnny wants to return to education.

    There is also, thankfully, recognition that it’s not like the old days: Johnny is not getting on in school, so he’s either stupid or a delinquent, so kick him out. Or Johnny is mentally/physically disabled, put him in an institution. Now we know Johnny may be on the autism spectrum, dyslexic, or a range of other diagnoses. Which means accommodations to help educate Johnny, which means more spending.

    If we measure school success by “what percentage went on to university” which is how a hell of a lot of the school comparison tables work, then we may not see that Sally went on to university despite being part of the expensive new state-wide programme. Sally didn’t get pregnant at sixteen, but that did not translate into the ‘let’s raise everyone up to the middle-class so the kids will all get good enough grades to go to some college or university, get a degree, and get a nice white-collar job from that’ improving mindset which is the optimistic basis for these interventions. I am not, by the way, mocking the people with these hopeful mindsets, it would be nice if everyone could get a well-paid indoor job but it’s not going to happen for various reasons and it’s a dreadful metric for “success in education/successful school”.

    But that is the basis on where we think we can see improvement: money in, higher grades out. Percentage of students who get This Grade instead of That Grade going up. Percentage going on to higher education going up. In a business, if increasing the marketing budget does not result in increased sales, you light a fire under your marketing team. We regard a successful result of increasing school budgets as “higher grades, more kids in university”. But schools are not businesses or industries. You may not see the same results, or the ends may be different – Johnny and Susie only got Cs or Ds, for all our increased spending, and didn’t go on to university? But before the interventions, Johnny and Susie might have failed, or dropped out altogether! Or never been diagnosed with behavioural/learning difficulties! Or not got the support that helped them have some stability in their lives where their situation was a chaotic home where there was no guidance or care due to absent/incapable/actively neglectful parent(s).

    And on top of that is using schools as childcare/baby sitting services, with dropping the kids off earlier (and programmes like Breakfast Clubs to feed them) and keeping them later while parents are at work also takes up money in paying teachers to supervise these programmes, without necessarily meaning “X more hours of teaching translating into improved grades”. Even when they’re not child-minding services (as in supervised after school hours study where pupils will stay on or come back to do homework and engage in study instead of at home), that also means “paying teachers an allowance to supervise, paying the caretaking staff to stay later and clean up/lock up, paying for light and heating and power for the extra hours, maybe even increase in insurance premium” which is more money out of the budget.

    tl; dr: we don’t know what we mean or want by education, schools are being increasingly tasked to provide more than merely “kids show up at half eight and go home at half four for classes”, there are (finally!) increasing knowledge of and diagnoses of and provision for all kinds of behavioural, learning, and other difficulties, governments are pushing to raise school-leaving ages/keep youth in education and training because the days of plentiful and reasonably paid manual labour are gone (it’s shifting to service work instead of ‘get a job in the box factory like your dad before you’) and they see the need for skilled and educated workers in the ‘knowledge economy’, and all this means money.

  10. JulieK says:

    Doctor Mist says that as a rightist, he feels like going to a private school lets him escape what he sees as public schools’ existing liberal politicization.

    I expected to see more commenters saying that, given how it’s been claimed that the commentariat here is mostly right-wing.

    • LCL says:

      It’s not now and probably never was, although there was a period when seemingly 80% of comments were from/about a particular rightist offshoot community that you are consequently no longer allowed to discuss here.

      But also, Scott kinda misleadingly paraphrases that comment so that it sounds like it might be about wanting your kid to go to a school that teaches creationism or somesuch. That’s not the kind of rightist you usually find in these comments, and not what the comment said.

      What it says is that if public schools aren’t going to inculcate civic values (read: traditional/conservative worldview) then there’s no point in having public schools, because there are cheaper/easier ways to teach your kid to read and do sums.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        As the commenter Scott quoted (yay!), I should say I don’t think Scott was paraphrasing me unfairly, and I didn’t take his paraphrase as an attempt to weak-man my point. I like your paraphrase, too. Perhaps someday I will learn to say what I mean more pithily.

  11. JulieK says:

    Robinson: “The things needed by poor people, if done well, will never be money-makers.”

    That explains why currently there are not a lot of private schools aimed at poor people. (Though a surprising number of poor people who are not even Catholic send their kids to Catholic schools, as the most realistic alternative to bad public schools.)

    But once you give out vouchers, a poor person’s voucher is as good as a rich person’s, so I don’t get Robinson’s point at all, unless it’s the paternalistic one that poor people, unlike middle-class and rich, are not qualified to make decisions about their children’s education.

    • rlms says:

      My interpretation of the planned scheme was that vouchers could be combined with normal fees — a generic public school charges precisely one voucher in fees, but a private school requires extra. Effectively, you are saying that a poor person’s money is a good as a rich person’s. This is true, but the poor person has less of it.

  12. HeelBearCub says:

    What do people make of the fact that the percentage of people in the US holding a HS degree rose from 25% to 80% between 1940 and now?

    Note figure 2 in this census document.

    Note that HS attainment is roughly flat at 80% from 1990 to now, but US born HS attainment seems be at 93%. I don’t see any trend line dat for US born HS attainment, though.

    The long term trend is that we are actually educating a higher percentage of our population. That’s not being reflected in cost comparisons per capita, is it? Even with HS attainment flat at this point, it’s not clear to me that we aren’t aren’t actually continuing to educate more people, as degree requirements have gotten more rigorous. “No Child Left Behind” is essentially an increase in educational requirements.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The Cato chart in the original post starts at 1970. The most relevant inflection point at figure 2 for “25-29 years, high school completion” appears to be at 1976, though it starts climbing again in 2005. Since most complete high school at 18, I think it’s reasonable to say that nearly all the gains in high school completion occurred before the Cato chart started.

      it’s not clear to me that we aren’t aren’t actually continuing to educate more people, as degree requirements have gotten more rigorous.

      More rigorous in what way? No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001; even granting that it’s an increase in requirements, that leaves 30 years of increases unaccounted for.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        @The Nybbler:
        Might be too late for you to see this, but …

        Here is a list of HS graduation requirements in Kentucky from 1979 through now.

        In 1979, 10 required and 8 elective courses. You need 3 English couses, with no specification as to the content. You needed 2 math courses without specification as to what math courses were required. 2 science course. US History and “Citizenship”. The was no specification on what the electives needed to consist of.

        Today it is 22 classes, 4 specified English and 3 specified Math. 3 Science classes. 3 social studies. 7 electives with four being restricted to “learning experiences in an academic or career interest”.

        Anecdotally, (at the top end of the scale) when I was in HS in the 80s, I took one AP course and got in to the top state school (one of the best public schools in the country) easily. Now, my kids are taking 2, 3 or 4 AP courses every year in HS. It is expected that college bound kids will have the opportunity to take AP courses and sit for AP exams each year in HS, and if you don’t, your choice of colleges becomes much more restricted.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Interesting. If that pattern is common, perhaps at least some of the cost increase is in adding courses not measured by the standardized measures. (Or alternatively, courses which are measured by those measures but don’t help, which would be bad)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @The Nybbler:
            My guess is that any standardized test won’t capture the effect of having to read and discuss a book like, say, “Of Mice and Men”. You may not be able to write any better, or know any more vocabulary words, but you have been exposed to some important concepts that you might not have heard discussed before. Ideally, with enough chances at exposures like this, you will be a better citizen on the margin.

            AP tests prepare you for AP tests and standardized tests that aren’t trying to measure the top end with much rigor (which I think describes NAEP) aren’t really likely to capture that. One objective measure would simply total accumulated AP test scores, which I would bet has risen astronomically in the last 30 years.

            I also really wonder about the validity of concluding that academic achievement hasn’t risen given that we accept that the Flynn effect is real. My guess is that NAEP isn’t actually capturing what it is trying to.

    • gbdub says:

      Unfortunately, the percentage of available jobs, and the quality of job, one can expect to compete for with only a high school diploma has gone down over that same period. Anecdotally, colleges are teaching a lot more remedial classes.

      So at least some of that increase has gone to making more students credentialed without actually giving them better prospects – either they aren’t really “better educated” or high school education hasn’t kept up with the pace of improvement of the economy. More cynically, it could be that the strata of students haven’t really changed, but all the efforts to increase high school attainment have just pushed the credential treadmill along and forced more students into college without a real benefit.

  13. HeelBearCub says:

    Let me note the irony of posting these two things in the same post:

    apparently on the basis of a theory that an oversupply of hospitals would increase (?!) costs.

    Student life is all of the bells and whistles (athletic centers, movie theaters, etc.) that colleges use to try to entice prospective students into paying huge amounts of money to enroll in their institutions

    • Deiseach says:

      To steelman the “more hospitals, higher costs” theory, let us say that in the county of MountainsTreesGoatsThat’s It, there are four hospitals. The population, however, can only realistically support two (whether that’s because of low numbers, poverty, or both).

      So each hospital is not alone competing for a limited number of patients, the patients they do get will have to pay over the odds in order for the hospital to stay open. This means “more hospitals, higher costs”. Well fine, the two worst hospitals fail, that leaves you with two hospitals that are all the Goat folks need, right?

      Ah, but those two hospitals are both located in the middle-western-south-east of MountainsEtcThat’s It, because that’s where BigTown (a whole two thousand people live here!) is located, which is the major population centre and so the biggest market for the hospitals. That doesn’t help the Goats folks living in the rest of the county, who have to travel long distances down to BigTown, which means by the time they get there (a) their condition has deteriorated so they need more extensive, longer-term, and more of it -and so more expensive – treatment (b) they’re so bad you may as well call the undertaker, not the doctor (c) they can’t get to BigTown because they have no transport/public transport is so bad.

      So if a new hospital comes along and says it wants to open up either in MountainsEtc county, or in ReallyAllCityFolks county where there are sixty hospitals offering a range of services (up to specialist clinics in CONTENT WARNING POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING DO NOT CLICK ON LINK UNLESS YOU ARE PREPARED FOR GRAPHIC PHOTOS OF BITS I CAN’T JUDGE YOUR SENSITIVITY TO THIS having your lady-parts re-tightened) since the folks there are all rich and can afford to pay through the nose, then you have to make a case that (a) you can and will provide a service for the Goats people that goes where it is needed and will not crash in two years’ time because it can’t keep itself financially solvent (b) why does RichFolks need a sixty-first hospital, they’re over-supplied as it is, and no, “I want a solid-gold stethoscope and they can afford the inflated fees” is not a sufficient reason?

      • BBA says:

        I had figured certificates of need as being roughly along the same lines as utility monopolies. Hospitals and power grids are extremely capital-intensive and nobody is going to build one without a guarantee that they’ll get enough business to pay off their capital debt.

        (Not strictly true in either case, but as a first approximation, it captures why it’s not necessarily an insanely stupid idea.)

        • tvt35cwm says:

          Whether or not someone gets enough revenue to pay off their capital debt is an ordinary business risk. You’re saying that as well as the ordinary impediments to starting a business, we should have political ones too…? I disagree.

          I don’t follow the GP’s logic at all. Why *not* let a thousand hospitals bloom in AllCityFolks, if the investors all believe they can make money? The competition will drive prices down, possibly to the point where folk in MountainsTreesGoatsThat’s It can afford them (and the travel).

          Some of the more enterprising hospitals might even arrange transport services to the further reaches of MTGTI in order to enlarge their customer base. Or offer a hospital-in-a-bus that travels to northern MTGTI and enables people there to have their disfiguring tattoos removed so they can get jobs in BigTown or ACF.

          Finally, hospitals are not particularly capital-intensive, compared to most make-to-order manufacturing industries. I’d argue that health care costs are rising in real terms in part because hospitals are becoming less capital intensive relative to other make-to-order businesses.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The missing confounder is that the prospective students are paying with Other People’s Money. This applies to hospitals as well, but in a totally different way; you generally don’t get to choose your hospital freely, in an emergency you go to the nearest with the facilities, but in non-emergency cases you go to the one your insurance company has a relationship with.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        You need 1 MRI machine to adequately serve the population. Each of 3 hospitals has an MRI machines.

        Do the hospitals compete for surgeons? Do they poach doctors from each other so that they can say they have the “best” doctors? The best outcomes?

        Does the hospital look pretty and inviting? Does that affect elective surgery choices?


  14. Ninmesara says:

    This is not entirely on topic, but I think it is relevant for this discussion. Scott’s Non-Libertarian FAQ is down, as well as the updated version and the entire raikoth.net website. Scott, could you upload at least the FAQ again?

    • doubleunplussed says:

      Other housekeeping: Not sure if it’s like this for anyone else, but some posts on slatestarcodex now have extremely wide lines of text that don’t wrap when you increase the text size. On my smallish but high resolution screen this means I can’t read them – if I zoom in I have to scroll to read a single line of text, and if I’m zoomed out the text is too small to read.

      It only happens for some posts, and I only noticed it in the last few days. Different posts seem to have different line lengths. Here’s a particularly bad one:


  15. Grocery stores don’t just have fifty different kinds of cereal and a hundred different kinds of soda, they’re also really cheap. You can buy a day’s worth of food for an hour’s minimum-wage work, maybe two hours if you want a little quality and variety.

    hmm earlier comment did not post

    the minimum wage is 7.25 USD per hour …is that enough to cover an entire day’s worth of food? doesn’t seem like it

    Not sure if I buy the argument that student achievement has not increased since the 50’s..it could be that standards have risen such that high school has become harder..its not too uncommon for high schoolers to learn algebra 2 and calculus whereas many decades ago , that was taught in college, if at all. More homework, too. More testing.

    this shows the opposite: that kids are getting smarter https://cloakinginequity.com/2014/02/04/were-kids-actually-smarter-decades-ago-student-achievement-data-trends-naep-etc/

    • keranih says:

      the minimum wage is 7.25 USD per hour …is that enough to cover an entire day’s worth of food? doesn’t seem like it

      Absolutely it is. It won’t buy “any sort of food I want” but yes, you can get 2K of calories with about(*) the right mix of nutrients with $7.25 in any grocery store in the country.

      If you go in with a full day’s wage (ie, eight hours worth, even w/ Unca Sam taking his chunk) you can get most of two week’s worth of food, because bulk is cheaper.

      Now – some details/context:

      – You’ll eat a lot of carbs and cheap sausage.
      – You’ll eat a lot of frozen veggies. (This is better for you than fresh, almost certainly, but you’ll need a working freezer.)
      – You’ll eat a lot of generic brand stuff, you won’t eat organic, and you won’t eat out-of-season fresh anything.
      – You will need to know how to cook rice, boil potatoes, and cut up a chicken.
      – You won’t need an oven (vs just a stove top) but it will help.
      – It will take some time investment to produce the food. If your hunger/time demands won’t let you put 90 minutes into meatloaf, you’re going to be spending more money.
      – As soon as you can,you should scrounge up some buckets and plant collards and/or kale. And green onions. And a mild-to-warm pepper plant. This will improve your life and the flavor of your table immensely.

      (*) I say ‘about’ because that is as close as we can get with human nutrition.

  16. Tibor says:

    About Justreggedthis’s comment – It seems to me that the problem of shortsighted consumption is at least partly caused by the consumers not bearing the full cost of their actions. Allow health insurance companies introduce a surcharge for obesity, or essentially anything that raises the costs of your healthcare and which is largely a result of your actions (I would cancel the tax on tobacco and allow insurance companies charge smokers more). This requires a regular visit to the doctor, which I think might not be a bad idea on its own. I’m not sure whether that is done in the US but it is very common in Bohemia (every two years), IIRC in Canada they do it every year (in Germany it is not common though). In the routine check-up the doctor could administer tests such as checking whether your throat and lungs are burned from smoking or not or measuring your body fat and mail the results to your insurance company. In most countries in Europe health insurance is paid as basically a tax (a percent of your salary), or as a flat payment (I think that is only the case of Switzerland – everyone pays the same for the basic insurance everyone is obliged to take but it is a fixed amount of money, not a percent of your income), but you could simply add a surcharge on top of that, just as when you want some kind of a premium health insurance.

    The only problem, at least in a welfare system, is that many heavy smokers and obese people are unemployed and so the state takes over their insurance costs. This means that these people now get cheap non-taxed cigarettes as everyone else but they don’t bear the cost. One solution not many people would agree with is simply to test whether these people smoke when admitted to a hospital and to refuse to cover medical care for smoking-related treatments, ditto for obesity. This will either motivate them to be more responsible or create a group of highly indebted people who are poor anyway, so they are unlikely to pay those debts – plus they now lack motivation to get out of their messed up life. One solution almost nobody would agree with, but which lacks these problems, is simply to refuse smoking or obesity-related medical care in that case. Assuming that the costs would simply be borne by the state in this case (which I gather is not the case in the US?), it is an empirical question whether the benefit of making the people with income bear the costs of their actions compensates the extra costs related to medical care of unemployed people whose tobacco consumption rises due to lower prices (although my at least anectodal experience is that at the price rises, smokers just respond by a shift from buying cigarette packs to buying bags of tobacco and rolling their own cigarettes…which might actually be even more unhealthy but perhaps not…it would be surprising if higher prices did not decrease the consumption at least a bit though, nicotine is addictive but I doubt the demand is so inelastic and also new smokers are not yet addicted to it).

    In education, standardized tests seem to solve the problem of grade dilution. They also introduce uniformity, which is a bit unfortunate, but it seems that even unschoolers who want to go to the University today manage to prepare themselves for the SATs while having enough time to learn other interesting things. I doubt that even a considerable minority of parents are so stupid that they would prefer a school where students have good grades but poor SAT scores to one where the graduates have good results in the SAT (or something) but mediocre grades.

    • US says:

      “simply to refuse smoking or obesity-related medical care in that case.”

      In theory I would be very much in favour of having health premiums reflect risk to a greater extent, but it’s difficult to make simple schemes that would accomplish this without introducing a significant number of new problems. Say smoking increases the risk of disease X by 50%. Say you can’t say which of the cases of X are caused by smoking, all you know is that smoking increases the risk at the population level. Say you don’t cover disease X at all if someone smokes. That’s not fair to the smokers who would have got disease X even if they had not smoked (a majority in this particular case, but of course this will vary with the conditions and the risk factors in question). A lot of the costs which are related to smoking are of this kind and this is actually a pretty standard pattern with risk factors – smoking, alcohol, physical inactivity, poor diet, etc. – you know that these behaviours increase risk, but you usually can’t say for certain which of the *specific cases* are actually (‘perfectly’/’completely’?) attributable to the behaviour. Usually risk factors interact with each other, often more than one risk factor is at play at the same time, and those interaction terms may not be linear, making the attribution problem even more difficult to deal with (if you can even estimate the interaction terms – this takes high-powered studies with large numbers of patients, which may not always be available). Often it’s even/also quite difficult to quantify the excess costs attributable to a specific condition, which will depend upon a variety of factors which may or may not be of interest to the party performing the analysis (I am currently doing diabetes research and I can tell you that cost estimates in that context vary a lot across countries and over time, and the estimates tend to have large error bars). You look at the data and you make guesses, but the doctor won’t know for certain if Mr. Hanson would have had a stroke even if he hadn’t smoked. Saying a patient is not covered in the case of an ‘obviously risk-related’ condition is always an appealing proposition, but it tends to be difficult figuring out just what those ‘obviously risk-related conditions’ are, and even harder to make even remotely actuarially fair adjustments to the premiums and coverage patterns to reflect the risk.

      A related problem is that complication risk – an important cost driver in the context of diabetes – is dependent on post-diagnosis behaviour. The risk of developing diabetes complications will depend upon the level of glycemic control. If you say you won’t cover complications at all in the case of self-inflicted disease X, then you also remove the option of designing insurance schemes which might lower cost and complication rates post-diagnosis, by rewarding ‘good’ (risk-minimizing) behaviours post-diagnosis and punishing ‘bad’ behaviours. This is not desirable in the context of diseases where post-diagnosis behaviour is an important component of the cost function, as it certainly is in the diabetes context (and diabetes is a really big variable in these types of discussions). And again, also in the context of complications things are not as simple as people might like them to be; some people may have a much harder time controlling their disease than others, or be more susceptible to complications given the same behaviour. Some may already have developed complications by the time of diagnosis.

      Sorry for the tangent. I’m not disagreeing with the idea that people who behave in ways that make them sick should ideally pay a larger proportion of those costs than they currently do, but this stuff’s complicated, and when you take a close look at the incentive structures of the people involved in these decisions, you quickly realize that it’s really very easy to give people perverse incentives. ‘We should not pay for treatment of disease X if it’s people’s own fault that they got disease X’ is not something with which I’d disagree, but that’s really not a position that will get you very far in discussions of this nature.

      • Tibor says:

        If you’re an insurance company you don’t need to know which particular case of lung cancer was actually caused by smoking and which would have happened anyway. You sort your customers by smokers and non-smokers, controlling for other factors (smokers will probably be poorer nowadays and have a less healthy diet). It turns out that smokers cost you, say 20% on average. Up till now you had to spread that extra costs among all of your customers, now you don’t have to do that any more, you charge non-smokers less and smokers 20% more than non-smokers.

        The problem is when the (basic) insurance cost is covered by the state, as is the case with unemployed people (at least in Europe). This was the case where I was considering not providing the care – the state simply would not pay for it. Then, in the absence of a tobacco tax, you have again an externality. But as long as the the increased consumption among the unemployed due to cheaper tobacco prices and the respective increased costs in their medical care (plus the lost revenue from the tobacco tax, assuming that it is actually used to pay for medical care) is outweighed by the benefits from having the rest of the population carry the costs of their actions, it is not a problem. My point was that if it is, you can still deny medical care in those cases – i.e. if you smoke, your insurance is covered by the state and you get a lung cancer, well, too bad. You are correct that might have developed a lung cancer anyway, even if you didn’t smoke and you’d be right.

        But this would not be without precedent. For example the Czech law automatically sees you as the offender in a traffic accident if you were drinking (regardless how much) – it could be that you were actually driving safely and that it was the other person’s mistake but as long as she was sober and you weren’t, you’re automatically to blame. I’m not saying it would be perfect – it would basically mean that if you are unemployed, smoking is much more dangerous than otherwise.

        • US says:

          “charge non-smokers less and smokers 20% more than non-smokers.”

          But that was not the solution I addressed. The one I addressed was this one:

          “One solution not many people would agree with is simply to test whether these people smoke when admitted to a hospital and to refuse to cover medical care for smoking-related treatments, ditto for obesity.”

          If you charge the smokers more for insurance to pay for their higher health care cost, then you don’t need to withhold treatment/deny coverage if the insurance contract is actuarially fair. If you don’t, it makes sense to deny coverage, but then you might get other unforeseen secondary effects.

          One of my points was incidentally that insurance companies may not know if the correct number is 20% or 150% except in retrospect (…and presumably not even then, though by then they’d at least have an estimate – the ‘true’ cost of smoking will not be found by comparing the costs of smokers and non-smokers, and such a comparison may indeed be very misleading, depending on which other variables are, and are not, included in the analysis, and which analytical framework is applied) which means they may not know how to initially price an insurance contract to smokers), because it’s very difficult to figure out what the right number is. This will often translate into them charging enough to cover their costs even if those costs are high, which may mean that that particular insurance market collapses because the group in question becomes unable or unwilling to pay the premiums demanded. And for example in the context of type 2 diabetes this might not be a desirable outcome, for some of the reasons outlined in the previous comment.

          A small point perhaps worth mentioning here is incidentally that in general it doesn’t really matter much whether an insurance provider is a public entity or a private provider. Publicly and privately run insurance providers face similar problems in terms of incentives, adverse selection, moral hazard, etc. etc.

          • Tibor says:

            @US: I was considering the option of not providing healthcare particularly in the situation where the insurance costs are covered by the government – as is the case of unemployed people, at least in Europe. Then the government might decide to refuse to cover the cost if the patient is a smoker. In cased of people with an income this is not an issue. In both cases the insurance company should be happy to insure you – just charging you extra in case you are a smoker. If you lack an income you won’t be able to afford that insurance and the state would pay it for you. But in order to make sure that unemployed people cannot free-ride on untaxed tobacco, you could allow the state to refuse to cover the costs as long as those people are smokers (since otherwise it has to pay the smoker surcharge). In any case, I don’t think it is such a big deal. Most people do have an income and pay for the health insurance and I find it unlikely that the unemployed would start smoking that much more (because of the lower prices of tobacco once you abolish the tax) for it to be significant cost even if the state decides to cover the cost.

            As for comparing smokers to non-smokers – you have to be a bit careful with your statistics of course and do the estimate right – like I said, for example smokers tend to be poorer nowadays than non-smokers and that also correlates with worse diet. When you make your estimate, you want to control for these kind of things. But the insurance companies have an incentive to estimate it well. In a free market system, this is obvious, so let’s consider the European style command economy where what you pay on insurance is determined by your wage (it is a fraction of your income rather than a fixed amount…except in Switzerland), the government determines what the healthcare standard is, collects your payments and pays your insurance company a sum for each customer. Now, the insurance companies want more customers than other insurance companies. Say that one company wrongly estimates the extra average costs related to smoking to be only 10% above what the average healthy client costs. Then the competition which correctly estimates it to be 20% can pay the corresponding difference back to its healthy clients. This means that if you’re healthy, it pays to be insured with the second company. If a third company incorrectly estimates the difference to be 30%, it will lose money, because the actual costs won’t reflect that estimate and they will then correct it. The problem with the socialist healthcare system is that the basic price (which the state pays the insurance company for each insured customer and unlike the money the state collects, it is fixed – I think) and what is defined as basic healthcare is subject to lobbying. But that is already true of this system today.

          • US says:

            No offense meant, but I don’t think you know enough about these topics to teach me anything new, so I think we’ll stop here.

            I’m an economics grad student (specializing in health economics), I’m aware of how competition is supposed to work ‘in a free market’. I’ve gone a bit further than ‘private insurance providers have an incentive to get their estimates right’, I’ve e.g. read books like this one from cover to cover (chapters 13, 14, 16, and 28 all include stuff relevant to this discussion, although lots of things which are also relevant are not included in those particular chapters). I can tell from your comments that you definitely have not. Usually I don’t mind ‘teaching’ people in the SSC comments by adding knowledge they’re unaware of from textbooks I’ve read, but I can’t justify spending time on that at the moment, so given that I assume there’s a low probability that our exchange will teach me anything new, I think I’ll stop here.

          • Tibor says:

            @US: Shame, I’d like to know why you think the argument is wrong.

          • US says:

            I decided to leave a follow up anyway, even though I probably shouldn’t have. 🙂 Oh well…

            Okay, so I don’t take issue with the idea that private providers have an incentive to get things right, it’s just that there are a lot of complicating factors which mean that you can’t really make the sort of conclusions you seem to be making without a lot of additional assumptions. This is part of the problem, I’m thinking you may be making a lot of assumptions you’re not aware that you’re making, because you’re not too familiar with the field. In particular I’m worried about the fact that you seem to equate different types of risky behaviours (smoking, overweight) and assume that they can probably be dealt with in a similar manner, regardless of the (many) details (which might play a role).

            Below some random off-the-cuff observations which seem relevant:

            One factor of interest: It’s costly to get things right. Larger insurance providers may be better at getting things right because they can afford to hire specialists who provide good estimates. Larger providers translate into fewer firms, which increases market power and collusion risk.

            When private insurance providers become active in a market that also includes a government entity providing a level of guaranteed coverage, total medical outlays may increase rather than decrease. The firms may meed an unmet need, but some of that unmet need may be induced demand.

            There’s a significant amount of literature on how the level of health care integration, both at the vertical and horizontal level, both in terms of financial structure and e.g. in terms of service provision structure, may impact health care costs, and this is an active area of research where we in some contexts do not yet know the answers.

            Optimization of shareholder value, which is what we’ll often have to assume private insurance providers aim at, may not equate cost minimization. And even when cost minimization is the aim of the firm, the firm may not internalize all relevant costs, which may paradoxically lead to higher overall cost due to coverage decisions taken ‘upstream’; I actually talked a little about this exact phenomenon in a blog post I wrote today. A diabetic might be denied coverage of testing materials by his private insurer, and that might mean that the diabetic instead gets hospitalized for a foreseeable and avoidable complication, but because it might not be the same people paying for the testing material and the hospitalization it might not matter to the people denying coverage of the testing materials. That sort of thing is quite common. If incentives are not well-aligned things may go badly wrong, and they are often not well-aligned in the health care sector. Having both a private and a public sector providing insurance and/or health services usually leads to highly complex systems. I would assume that in many cases it matters a lot more that incentives are well-aligned than which specific entity is providing insurance or care in the specific context.

            There’s a big discussion to be had about how to even estimate costs (and benefits) in specific contexts, and people write books about these kinds of things.

            General physicians have different incentives from nurses and specialists working in hospitals, and all of these groups may experience conflicts of interests when they’re dealing with insurance providers and each other. Patients also have their own set of incentives. Different approaches to how to deal with such problems lead to different organizational setups, all of which influence both the quantity and quality of care, subject to various constraints. It’s an active area of research whether decreasing competition between stakeholders/service providers may decrease costs; one thing that is relatively clear from diabetes research is that when different types of care providers coordinate activities, this tends to lead to better outcomes (and sometimes lower costs), because some of the externalized costs become internalized by virtue of the coordination.

            I already talked about this, but I’m not sure you understood this point. If you don’t cover smokers in the public sector they’ll probably not be covered privately either (they’re high risk and expensive to treat, so they probably won’t be able to afford the premiums demanded). Admission rates for COPD patients differ as much as 10-fold between European countries, and one of the most important parameters regarding pharmacoeconomics is the hospitalization rate (both observations are from this text). What does this mean? It means that we know that admission rate from COPD is highly responsive to the treatment regime; populations well-treated have much fewer hospitalizations. 4% of all Polish hospitalizations are due to COPD. If you remove the public sector subsidies, the most likely scenario you get is the poor-outcomes scenario with lots of hospitalizations. Paying for those is likely to be a lot more expensive than it is to treat the COPD pharmacologically in the community. And if smokers are poor, they aren’t going to be paying for it, so someone else will have to do that. If you not only refuse to deny them insurance coverage but also refuse them treatment they may just die of course, but in most cost-assessment models that’s a high-cost outcome, not a low-cost outcome (e.g. due to lost productivity etc. Half of people with COPD are of working age, see the text referred to above.).

            The same, but probably to a much larger degree, goes for diabetics. I know more about diabetes than I do about respirology, but certainly in the case of diabetes this is a potentially really big problem. Diabetics who are poorly regulated tend to die a lot sooner than other people, they develop horrible complications, they stop being able to work, etc. etc. Some of those costs you can ignore if you’re willing to ‘let them die in the streets’ (as the expression goes), but a lot of those costs are indirect costs due to lower productivity, and those costs aren’t going anywhere, regardless of who may or may not be paying their medical bills. Even if they have become sick due to a high-risk activity (or inactivity…) of their own choosing, their health care costs post-diagnosis will still be highly dependent upon their future medical care and future health insurance, and denying them coverage is highly unlikely to be the optimizing choice in a social welfare function including both economic and non-economic costs. Another problematic aspect is in terms of information management, related to my previous comments about potential conflicts of interests; people who suspect they might be having diabetes may choose not to disclose this fact to a health care provider because of the insurance aspects (denial of coverage problems). Insurance providers can counter this by things like mandatory screening, but this is really expensive, and then you again not only neglect to try to minimize the costs of the high-cost individuals in the population (the known diabetics), you also price a lot of non-diabetics out of the market. And some of those people are diabetics to-be, who may get a delayed diagnosis as a result (with an associated higher risk of complications). Again, as in the smoking context if the private insurer does not cover the high-cost outcomes someone else will have to do that, and the blind diabetic in a wheel-chair is not likely to be able to pay for his dialysis himself.

            More information may in some situations lead to a breakdown in insurance markets (particularly relevant in the context of genetics).

            I’m only scratching the surface here.

    • anonymousskimmer says:

      Obesity has been linked to whether a boy’s father smoked when underaged. Among various other transgenerational epigenetic effects (the wikipedia article is not even close to exhaustive): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgenerational_epigenetic_inheritance#In_humans

      Allow health insurance companies introduce a surcharge for obesity, or essentially anything that raises the costs of your healthcare and which is largely a result of your actions (I would cancel the tax on tobacco and allow insurance companies charge smokers more).

      It’s easier to not use drugs when you are in a better home environment or have a better socioeconomic status.
      Or perhaps you’re right: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/science/the-rational-choices-of-crack-addicts.html

      • Tibor says:

        I agree. I don’t like it when some libertarians say that a herion addict’s addiction is in a sense a choice. I also acknowledge that growing up in a fucked up environment (this includes friends, neighbourhood, school – perhaps more important factors than the non-genetic influence of parents) makes it more likely that you will do drugs or have an unhealthy diet.

        But the financial incentives work all the same. In fact, they are stronger if you have a lower income (mostly the case in the situation above) than if you have a higher one. If the smoking surcharge represents 10% of your yearly income it is a bigger deal than if it amounts to just 1%. The tax on tobacco also has this effect, of course. But the incentive the government has to set the right – so that it reflects the added healthcare costs – is much lower than that of the private insurers to set the surcharge right. If the tax is too low then non-smokers subsidize smokers. If it is set too high then smokers are punished for smoking beyond what their habit costs others, which I believe is also wrong (the only argument for that position is that “it is for their own good” and I really don’t like that kind of thinking in general, it might be acceptable when applied by parents to their own children or in some cases when applied to mentally handicapped, but that’s it). Also, eliminating the tax also eliminates the black market associated with smuggling cigarettes, which hurts organized crime in general (which also means you need to dedicate fewer resources to fighting it).

  17. Garrett says:

    If you’re looking for a more-likely-to-be-viewed-as-non-partisan source for the costs of education, you can get one from the Department of education, paragraph 5.

  18. Mazirian says:

    Education Realist is a woman.

  19. Murphy says:

    just an addendum to my previous post: I don’t think private run schools are inherently bad, just that getting such private entities goals to align with those of your children is a weak version of the alignment problem, those working against you are not superhuman but they are smart and inventive and will screw you, your community and your children over if they can get away with it and there’s money to be had and they will happily even endanger the lives of your kids if they can get away with it.

    Re: the constitution part, suddenly diverting 80% (or more, I’m betting more since the mechanics of that kind of market will tend to push most towards what the majority use and the majority are Christian) of the department of educations budget to funding explicitly Christian religious institutions is going to be fun when it rightfully gets challenged on constitutional grounds since it’s pissing all over the first amendment.

    Even the people in the last thread were pretty clear that their goal was religious.

    Of course that problem could be done away with if entities which wanted government funding through the voucher scheme simply needed to meet the same criteria for funding as any other entity directly funded by the US government but then you’d likely lose half your republican support base for vouchers since it would no longer serve their explicit goal of tearing down separation of church and state.

    In the last thread people were trying to hold up the fig leaf claim that as long as there’s “one” secular school in a district (up to 95,000 square miles) then everything is fine since there’s technically a school that the heathens non-Christian children can go to (thus forcing their parents to move out of our good christian town).

    • JulieK says:

      How are you getting the figure of 80%?

      Is there some smaller % at which you think it would be okay, or are you opposed on principle, no matter what the number?

      • Murphy says:

        Roughly the fraction of americans who identify as christian:


        71% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014 – down from 78% in 2007

        My numbers were a few years out of date but the point still stands whether it’s 70% or 80%.

        Businesses tend to cater to the majority. If the majority of funding is going into one set of religious schools then it becomes easier for a subset of that group to also represent the top performing schools along other axis as well dragging along many people who simply don’t feel strongly about religion but do care about other metrics or people who can’t quit their jobs and can’t physically get their kids to the districts 1 secular school 2 hours drive away. (the suggested “fix” in the last posts comment section was to mandate 1 secular school per school district. Ya. Seriously. )

        To draw a comparison to a different kind of market: there’s apparently now 2.2 million android apps. Symbian still controls about 1% of the smartphone market, there’s not 22000 symbian apps. That’s in a market which should look like an almost perfect market since it’s not subject to geogrpahical restrictions and one small business could in theory try to cater for the poorly served minority.

        Ditto malware authors, they target windows since it’s the dominant desktop, they don’t waste effort targeting minority systems, they go after the one which has 80%+ of the desktop market share.

        Any assumption that religious minorities will be even vaguely equally catered for is wishful thinking.

        if 5% of the people are one religion it’s extremely unlikely that 5% of the schools and 5% of the voucher money is going to go towards schools friendly to that religion.

        If your voucher scheme allows government funding to be channelled into church coffers then pretty much all of the money will end up channelled into the coffers of whatever the dominant religion is which will be given a massive competitive advantage vs all other faiths because they get to indoctrinate almost all children.

        If no one faith accounted for more than low double or single digit percentages of the market then it might work fairly but with one group already controlling the market it’s just a power grab by the dominant market player trying to cement it’s own dominance.

        • Mary says:

          Yet public schools magically are immune to their being 80% Christians in their district?

          • Murphy says:

            Of course not, that’s why the american civil liberties union has to fight a constant battle to keep schools from requiring students to pray and regularly has to deal with things like schools banning religious texts from school libraries while keeping bibles.

        • Tracy W says:

          Businesses tend to cater to the majority.

          Thus explaining why it is impossible to buy nappies/diapers or baby formula as only a minority of the pop ever makes it.

          Businesses seek to make profits. One way to make a profit is to find a niche that no one is serving yet and start serving that one. (Or a niche where you have limited competition.)

        • JulieK says:

          71% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014 – down from 78% in 2007

          How many of them attend church regularly? I think you’re greatly overestimating the number of people who want to send their children to a religious school.

          Any assumption that religious minorities will be even vaguely equally catered for is wishful thinking.

          if 5% of the people are one religion it’s extremely unlikely that 5% of the schools and 5% of the voucher money is going to go towards schools friendly to that religion.

          There are, right now, private Jewish schools and private Muslim schools and so on.

          Do you think they will disappear, exactly when thanks to vouchers it becomes much easier to send your kids to them?

          • Murphy says:

            I’m sure many of them don’t go to church regularly but a large majority of the ones who don’t feel strongly are not going to mind whether their school is secular or a religious institution roughly in line with their own nominal faith.

            There are a tiny tiny number of private jewish schools, mostly in areas where there’s a large, dense, jewish populations. That’s kind of irrelevant. You’re conflating “there exists one or more somewhere” with a representative number existing. There being a few jewish schools *somewhere* in the country does not make it fair if pretty much all the local publicly funded schools that are actually accessible are going to try to baptize your child and tell her than mommy and daddy are damned to eternal hellfire as heathens.

          • Zaxser says:

            I (a non Catholic) went to a Catholic college and it was nothing like that. My mom, a non Catholic, went to a Catholic school and it was nothing like that. Scott works at a Catholic hospital and it is nothing like that.

            Institutions that have a different ideology than you will have values that that you disagree with, but that doesn’t make them hateful or untactful or bad at teaching.

            This basically amounts to class starting with a thirty second prayer to a god instead of to a flag. You are being uncharitable to the point of seeming obtuse.

          • gbdub says:

            Went to Catholic elementary school and agree with Zaxser. Religious aspects consisted of: a crucifix on the wall (next to the American flag), 1 hour mass once a week, 1-2 hours of religion class a week (definitely not of a hellfire bent), and saying grace before lunch. For a couple years we had a morning announcements assembly that would start with a very brief prayer.

            We had real sex-ed – abstinence until marriage was pushed but contraceptives were covered (at an elementary appropriate level obviously). Science included discussion of dinosaurs, evolution, and a very old earth.

            Anyway you certainly wouldn’t like it if you were a militant atheist but we were more likely to have parents complaining we weren’t Catholic enough than the reverse.

          • Murphy says:


            I went to a catholic primary school and a catholic secondary school. (one parent catholic, one protestant, nor terribly into religion myself)

            mostly it’s fine.

            *Most* of the teachers were fine and not horrible in any way but highlights include a couple of teachers who refused to acknowledge my mothers existence at parent teacher meetings because she was protestant. They’d just turn their chairs to the wall and pretend she wasn’t there.

            Another fun one was a teacher arguing with the gay athiest kid in secondary school that he needed to accept god because god is good or else he’d go to hell.

            That was in a state school in a country without separation of church and state where they’re at least nominally supposed to not be assholes to people who aren’t catholic even if the school is catholic itself. (a limit which would not apply to private religious schools)

            Did the whole communion, confirmation etc thing through school, there was even a kid of another religion who had to go sit alone for a few hours whenever we were doing those things because there’s nothing that kids like more than being singled out and separated from their friends so there was no pressure on her to just start doing what all the other kids were doing.

            believe it or not I’m not talking from ignorance. I know damned well what it entails and the examples I mention are from my own schools or individuals I knew running into them in other similar schools.

            In a country that’s supposed to have separation of church and state it’s not OK.

            but fuck me right. Who gives a shit since it apparently doesn’t matter. The US constitution is just meaningless ink and paper, better recycled as toilet paper really.

            lets just get an alter set up and turn the white house into an official church since apparently it’s fine to throw out the first amendment and piss all over it! lets not just divert most of the education budget, you should turn over as many other government programs as you can as well, dump the money into the churches coffers and they promise to be nice to everyone and only try to convert people a little.

            Apparently, going on the majority position on here, there is absolutely no problem with that since everyone will be nice and so it’s really a *good* thing for the US government to dump truckloads of money into the favored churches.

          • gbdub says:

            I’m not going to question your experience, but it’s worth noting that yours appears to be pretty unusual in the United States, which is where the discussion was focused. But it sounds like talking about a country where Catholicism is de facto a state religion, that’s not the US, no state in the US is really “Catholic enough” for that to be a concern, and I think we’re just working from very different experiences.

            Actually I’d say your experience highlights a problem where, in theory, the government schools aren’t religious, but in fact, most people want their kids religiously instructed. That’s kind of the situation in a lot of Red states trying to get creationism taught (Evangelical, not Catholic). In a voucher system, at least the kids who don’t want to get indoctrinated in the de facto local religion would have the opportunity and some funding to set up a secular school. With the current system, if enough religious types get in charge of the only-choice government school, you’re screwed.

            And finally, if you want to call school vouchers spent on religious schools “pissing on the First Amendment”, fine, but I don’t agree. There’s a big difference, to me anyway, between establishing an official state religion and giving everyone a check which may be spent on the religion (or non-religion) of your choice.

          • Murphy says:


            There’s already a tried and tested solution for that: simply enforce the constitution.

            They’ve tried to teach creationism and the courts have shot it down as unconstitutional.

            The voucher system is a dodge. No less than claiming that “intelligent design” isn’t religious because no specific god is named.

          • JulieK says:

            The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that an Ohio voucher program was constitutional, even though most of the families that got vouchers chose to send their kids to Catholic schools.

        • John Colanduoni says:

          In your analogy, you compare a case where ~80% are part of the majority and ~20% are part of the minority to one where ~80% are part of the majority (fine) and ~1% are part of the minority (uh-oh!). If only the non-Android part of the smartphone market was mostly contained in one segment…

          Oh wait! It is, and most people have even *heard* of it! iOS has around 15% market share and 2 million apps. So I don’t think smartphones are where you want to go to prove your point. In fact, the iOS market share is smaller than the percentage of atheists in the US!

          You also ignore the fact that “identifies as Christian” and “wants their kids to have a religious education of any sort” are not the same category. THe former includes “well I was baptized and then never went to church again” Christians.

        • bean says:

          You seem to be assuming that all Christians are a homogeneous block, which is … really far off the mark.
          That article points to three main blocks, evangelical (~25% of population), Catholic (~20% of population) and mainline/liberal protestant (~15% of population). All three of these have rather different values, and are unlikely to send their kids to another group’s school if that school is strictly religious. I’m evangelical, and I wouldn’t send my kids to a school which taught liberal theology seriously, because I think that would be even more dangerous than a public school where they wouldn’t get any theology. Serious Catholic schools are a bit tougher to call without knowing details, but I’d probably avoid them, too. And I can’t imagine a liberal sending their kids to a school which taught that things like gay marriage were sinful. Suddenly, your ‘80% majority which will naturally take over all schools’ turns into three separate groups, none of which has nearly majority power, and all of whom will pick a neutral school over a strict school run by one of the others.
          Also, I’d like to point out that I’d be hesitant to send my kids to any of the strictly evangelical schools I know of. Places where parents send kids because the public schools are too worldly are generally not very good schools, an effect mediated in the statistics by the fact that they are private schools, and thus at least somewhat selective. Your theory relies on the assumption that all religious parents will prioritize spiritual instruction over secular instruction if given the chance, and I know that’s just not true.
          What it will do is make it more likely for public schools to stay out of controversial political issues altogether, which I think is a good thing. I’m not sure you do, but that’s not really my problem.

    • cassander says:

      > just that getting such private entities goals to align with those of your children is a weak version of the alignment problem, those working against you are not superhuman but they are smart and inventive and will screw you, your community and your children over if they can get away with it and there’s money to be had and they will happily even endanger the lives of your kids if they can get away with it.

      Unlike government bureaucracies, which are famous the world over for never screwing anyone?

      the agency problem is WORSE with government compared to markets, not better.

      >or more, I’m betting more since the mechanics of that kind of market will tend to push most towards what the majority use and the majority are Christian

      funny how this doesn’t happen to colleges and universities.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        funny how this doesn’t happen to colleges and universities.

        To be fair, this seems as more an illustration of the issue than refutation.

        The argument would be that colleges and universities only serve about 25% of the population now, and we are at a historic high. The population of people who sent their kids to college when the cultures of those institutions was formed were disproportionally the least interested in an explicitly Christian education. So even if 20% if students would like this, we don’t have 20% of the options being composed of Liberty University clones.

  20. onyomi says:

    Re. the idea of college demand curve sloping upward, I can report anecdotally that, when I was at my undergrad, a highly-ranked non-Ivy League university with a severe case of Ivy-envy, part of the literal, explicitly stated justification for a planned tuition hike was “if we don’t charge as much as Harvard, people will assume we’re not as good as Harvard.”

    That said, people are much more willing to consume expensive things for purposes of signalling when they are not paying for them or paying for them in an indirect, highly deferred manner. I vaguely recall somewhere a study showing that, if people are given a choice between three birth control pills, all of which are supposed to work equally well, they will nonetheless all chose the most expensive one if their insurance is paying for, say, 90% of it. If they are paying out of pocket, almost everyone picks the cheap one. If you get 90% off something expensive you feel like you are somehow getting a better deal than getting 90% off something cheap. And there must be some reason why it’s so expensive…

    Similarly, getting a highly subsidized loan to pay for an expensive education feels like a better deal than getting a highly subsidized loan to pay for a cheap education.

    • Mary says:

      Hmmm — I know I’ve heard of a college increasing its tuition and getting a jump in applicants — anyone else hear of that one (and remember which)?

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      If you get 90% off something expensive you feel like you are somehow getting a better deal than getting 90% off something cheap. And there must be some reason why it’s so expensive…

      Years ago at a start-up, we were given the choice of PPO or HMO, and the company would pay 90% of the premium either way. One guy says, “look, option B is more expensive, so the company is paying more. You should take it!” I saw the face of the person in charge of bookkeeping and her face just fell at that comment but she didn’t say anything.

  21. I don’t really know any solution that is acceptable within a democratic framework.

    At a first approximation, the school doesn’t award the grades, an independent body does.

    his objection seems to be that successful charters succeed only by taking the best students who would get good test scores anywhere, then claiming charters raise test scores.

    Private schools offer scholarships to bright kids for similar reasons.

    • Aapje says:

      At a first approximation, the school doesn’t award the grades, an independent body does.

      In The Netherlands, the final K-12 exam is national and thus not made by the schools. The exams are also graded by both a teacher from the student’s school and a teacher from another school, to prevent biased grading. In theory, this prevents schools from gradually making the exam easier.

      In the US, this seems to exists somewhat, as SAT and ACT, but those are optional and thus subject to market forces. If schools that do not use SAT or ACT grade just a bit easier, SAT and ACT may be pressured to go along with that to prevent more schools from abandoning the standardized exam.

      • The Nybbler says:

        The SATs and ACTs are not used by K-12 schools but colleges and universities; they are standardized entrance exams. So there’s no pressure from K-12 schools to make things easier, though there are other pressures.

      • shakeddown says:

        SAT/ACT are meant as IQ measures, not learning measures – they’re designed to be difficult to teach, so they’re pretty lousy as indicators of teaching quality.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          AP tests. Every school I’ve encountered has worked on making sure the kids get a good grade on test, more than they worry about getting a good grade in the class, and they aren’t just spit-and-regurgitate so the kids really have to know the stuff well to get a good grade.

    • I think one possible reason why the Swedish system has failed so noticeably is that they also had got rid of the official national examinations such as abitur earlier. While that kind of exams have many problems, they are certainly much better proxy for measuring a school’s quality (or at least its students abilities) than what kind of grades school itself hands out to its students or if they have shiny new computers or any other bells and whistles and signaling that might impress those parents who are looking for wrong signals.

      Like I said…

  22. Tom Hoffman says:

    I don’t know if anyone has pointed out Bruce Baker’s blog on school finance to you, but here are a couple links:



    My rule of thumb on education at this point is that it is such a large global enterprise that every possible system has not only been tried, but tried at scale over an extended period of time, including into the present day somewhere. You don’t really need to imagine anything, just find what you’re looking for.

    If you want to know what more free market reforms would look like in contemporary America, look at Arizona. Is that the system you want? If so, great, you can just say, “We should do what Arizona is doing,” and then we can all look more closely at that and how it is really working. We don’t need to speculate.

    Finally, my read on the increase in test scores at grade 4 and 8 but not 11 is that we are trapped by a poor model of the problem. The incentive system we’ve created seems to incentivize early growth at the expense of the long term. It is a very difficult failure state to back out of now and is still a problem with a privatized system if you are still evaluating the schools based on a flawed model.

    • shakeddown says:

      meta-commentary – “Smart guy wrote dumb thing” is generally a dumb thing to say, since it’s more likely that the reviewer missed Smart Guy’s point than that Smart Guy is incredibly dumb (with the exception of cases where someone has clear emotional or ideological bias, e.g. libertarians on climate change or Democrats on race).

      • HeelBearCub says:

        “Smart guy makes comment outside field of expertise and it turns out to be really dumb” is almost a truism though.

        • gbdub says:

          And yet Neil deGrasse Tyson is more popular and wealthier than he ever was back when he was actually a scientist. Methinks we have poor incentives for smart people.

  23. disciplinaryarbitrage says:

    I missed the boat on the last thread so here’s my $0.02: nobody seemed to be looking at school construction costs, and they’re large and certainly outpace inflation. Without getting into details, I work for an organization that’s pretty closely involved in this process.

    (Before getting into it, I should note that major capital outlays are not typically captured in per-student spending figures, as much of the spending is channeled through local government bonding and state aid, not district budgets. I can’t tell if this is something captured in the Cato numbers, but if not things look considerably worse.)

    Building schools has become a lot more expensive, both on a per-square-foot basis and a per-student basis. This industry report shows costs increasing by >200% on a per-square foot basis (from about $100/SF in 1995 to $210-240/SF in 2014), so that’s about 4% annual growth in costs vs. 2.5% inflation over the same time period. Looking at it on a per-student basis, costs have increased by more like 400%, or about 8%/year.

    Why has this happened? First, the amount of programs stuffed into a school has grown considerably compared to (roughly) the 1950s-1980s. While a 1960s elementary school might have been designed with spaces for art, music, gym/cafeteria, a library, and a few offices for the principal, nurse, etc., one designed today will have all that plus computer labs, ESL classrooms, ‘learning support’ and special ed spaces, and so on. Post Columbine and then Newtown, more intensive security measures are standard (e.g. secure vestibules that visitors have to be buzzed through). All this is without getting into the absurd (/jealousy-inducing) bullshit that many new buildings get gold-plated with: pro-quality athletic facilities, robotics labs, planetariums (planetaria?), and so on.

    Second, while some urban systems do struggle with large class sizes and crowding, the overall trend has clearly been towards smaller classes, especially at younger grades. This report indicates that the average students/teacher has dropped from about 22 in 1970 to 16 in 2012 (this isn’t exactly the same as class size, as some of those teachers are ESL/special ed/etc, but reasonably close).

    I suspect that there’s something of a ratchet effect in play here on both dimensions: when normal fluctuations in the student body mean there are fewer kids to teach, people get accustomed to the extra breathing room and normalize having 18 kids in the class instead of 20, or get used to having a full-size room for the speech therapist instead of an 8×10 office. Then when a bigger wave of kids comes through, the school that was designed for 600 kids feels intolerably crowded with 450.

    If the district/municipality was on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in construction costs, it’d be easier to tell parents to suck it up and deal. However, many states subsidize school construction heavily, in my experience anywhere between 20% and 90% of overall costs. The process of getting new construction subsidized can be highly gameable and result in perverse incentives, not just to build more than necessary, but also to build a new school vs. renovating an old one (or vice versa), to orient the school around the educational trend of the year, to project greater numbers of students attending it than anyone expects to actually show up, or to jump through hoops to justify it as decreasing segregation or meeting other ‘equity’ criteria.

    With a large share of costs on someone else’s dime, the incentives to build can be high: yes, local taxpayers are on the hook for whatever share of the price is bonded, but they’ll also capture gains in their home values from having a shiny new school nearby. Parents, kids, and teachers all get to enjoy the new facility and whatever trendy programs get located there, e.g. the marine biology learning center that was added at the last minute to qualify for an extra 5% reimbursement as a STEM-themed school. The superintendent, who is often highly transitory, can pitch him or herself as someone who Gets Things Done to the next district in the line.

    Conversely, closing a school–even a deteriorating, unsafe, and half-empty one–is hard as hell, because it has a baked-in constituency, and righteously angry moms and teary-eyed third-graders are the most telegenic opponents of The Man taking away the neighborhood school in the name of mere dollars. When a district does struggle through shutting a building down, it’s often quite difficult to actually do anything with the property, and much of the staff ends up shuffled to other schools in the district, so the cost savings end up being disappointingly small. The property can end up becoming blighted if no good use for it is found, and in any case results in fewer homeowners getting to claim having a neighborhood school in walking distance, which drums up neighborhood opposition even from those who don’t have kids in school.

    TL;DR – capital investment decisions for school districts involves a lot of pretty dubious spending powered by state subsidies, asymmetry in upsizing vs. downsizing, and the political economy of residential property as a distribution system for education.

    (One caveat to all this, however: comparing the stats here and here suggest that growth in enrollment has outpaced growth in the number of schools. This could point in two directions: bigger schools mean less per-student duplication of roles like building administration, custodians/groundskeepers, etc., but potentially the administrative superstructure of running a larger building overwhelms the unit cost savings.)

    • Anthony says:

      I don’t know how it is outside California, but in California, schools are required to keep up with the current Building Code. This necessitates expensive retrofits every few years.

      School construction is mostly prevailing-wage, which increases costs in CA, and requires much more inspection and oversight paperwork than similar private construction. Hospitals are the same way, so much so that old-folks-homes with “skilled nursing facilities” attached are cheaper to build as two separate jobs, with separate job superintendents, job trailers, contracting and billing setups, and all sorts of other duplicate overhead, so as to keep the part that’s not regulated as a hospital from having to bear the overhead of hospital-construction regulation. States other than California may be more sane than this.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Here’s the $578 million public school building that opened in 2010 on Wilshire Blvd. in the Koreatown part of Los Angeles:


        The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, called the RFK Community Schools, is a complex of public schools in Los Angeles, California. The schools cost $578 million to build, making it the most expensive public school in the United States.[1] The school was designed for 4200 students, which can be filled by students within a nine-block radius.[2]

        The site was home to The Ambassador Hotel, the site of the June 1968 assassination of presidential candidate, United States Senator from New York, and former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

        Los Angeles Unified School District (known as LAUSD) wanted to build a school on the site since the 1980s, but was met with resistance: Donald Trump wanted to build the world’s tallest building on the site, …

        The hotel was razed in 2006.[3] The new school, designed by the architects of Gonzalez Goodale, built a modern interpretation of the original hotel.[3]

        … The school itself is six stories, with a replica of the Cocoanut Grove.[3]

        • Steve Sailer says:

          My father, a Lockheed engineer, once owned a tuxedo to take my mother dancing now and then at the Cocoanut Grove. The past is a different country.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Interestingly, most Baby Boomer Los Angelenos were educated in plywood shacks erected as emergency temporary school buildings in the 1950s and kept in operation for most of the rest of the 20th Century. A typical old Los Angeles public high school, such as Venice HS (shown in the movie “Grease”), had an impressive core quad of art deco buildings erected before WWII. But during the Baby Boom, public schools were expanded by putting up shacks. Oddly enough, most middle aged people I talk to in Los Angeles don’t feel like they missed out on much by being educated in cheap buildings.

          • Tom Hoffman says:

            A huge number of students in LA and around the country are still educated in the equivalent of of plywood shacks — essentially trailers configured as temporary/portable classrooms. There are some seemingly gold plated new schools (as there always have been), but it is not the core of the problem.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          And here’s Los Angeles’s new Visual and Performing Arts high school, which looks like a Japanese Robot from Outer Space attacking the LA Cathedral across the 101 Freeway:


        • Anthony says:

          UC Berkeley was using WW2 barracks (plywood shacks, basically) well into the 1990s. I don’t think they survived into the 21st Century, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Though by the 1980s, they were office space for small programs without political clout, not classroom or living space.

    • CatCube says:

      One other thing on school construction that I just learned yesterday evening while looking up information about professional liability insurance for engineers: PL claims for schools are tracked by insurers, with some companies not offering or sharply limiting their coverage for A/Es on school projects. (Condominiums are in the same boat.)

      I’ve found write-ups from lawyers and insurers for why condos are treated this way–they have a bunch of unsophisticated (about construction) owners who expect the world and sue when they don’t get it, and highly-duplicative units that mean that errors that *do* occur get copied a bunch of times–but haven’t seen why schools are in this boat. I imagine that some of the same reasons occur, plus the fact that people lose their minds when a photogenic kid is involved.

  24. anonymousskimmer says:

    Re: ER (Education Realist)

    I’d personally be grateful if you didn’t assign gendered pronouns to those who choose to remain anonymous with respect to gender.

    It’s causing a bit of unnecessary, and unpleasant, dissonance in my head.

    • James Miller says:

      “It’s causing a bit of unnecessary, and unpleasant, dissonance in my head.” Me too as Education Realist’s voice in my head is female.

    • Mazirian says:

      I think Scott previously changed the pronouns to feminine because of my comment above, but now that I’ve looked into it, it seems that Education Realist has never revealed what their gender is. I’ve just always assumed that ER is a woman.

      • Evan Þ says:

        Thanks for clarifying – I was surprised upthread where people were conclusively describing Education Realist as female.

        (FWIW, which is nothing, I’ve always guessed ER is male.)

      • anonymousskimmer says:

        I read one sentence on one of ER’s blog entries that I believe is technically more grammatically correct if ER is male*. But it’s still correct enough if ER is female.

        I’ve assumed ER is male.

        * – There’s no way I’ll ever find this sentence again. I don’t even know which year of blog entries to look in.

      • Anthony says:

        I always thought Education Realist was male. I have a slightly fuzzy mental picture that looks something like my high school calculus teacher.

    • anonymousskimmer says:

      Thanks Scott!

  25. Janet says:

    Lots of great comments on this, but one line of thinking that I’m surprised hasn’t come up is the question of liberty, of who gets to decide for whom.

    Let me back up: why do we have public schools at all? Who is responsible for the education of children? My answer is: the parents are 100% responsible for the education of their children. But, there is a serious public interest in making sure that the parents do a “good enough” job, that all children are able to participate in the culture, economy, political life, etc. of the society at large at adulthood. It’s also a simple fact that, in order to fully participate in the advanced economy and complex culture we have, children need LOTS of instruction, which is difficult-to-impossible for every parent to provide directly (because of cost, time commitment, skills, etc.) So, it is a reasonable approach for the state to use its broad taxing authority to raise funds from the general populace, and to provide for general education.

    So far, so good– but let’s not let the first sentence (parents are 100% responsible for this task) get lost in the further discussion! The parents know their kids better than any policy-maker, and have far more “skin in the game” and “long term outlook” than any possible bureaucrat could have; absent actual proof to the contrary, there’s nobody better positioned about what’s best for the individual child than the parents. Until the children are adults, and can make their own decisions, the best people to make the call are the parents. Vouchers should be the default, with cases of fraud, child endangerment, etc. dealt with as they occur. The state should be limited only to ensuring that the public interest is served (e.g. through periodic testing of the children to ensure progress is made). That’s roughly the system we actually DO use for adults.

    Much of the commentary has been one variant or another of the theme: nothing replaces competent people who love you. Life is bad, bad, bad if you don’t have at least one competent person who loves you (kids, adults, everybody). No government program, of any kind, is going to fix that. I don’t have a solution either. But also, I can’t help but notice that a lot of the comments seem to be about parents who have a different, even a fundamentally different, weighting of priorities in life. Lots of comments seem to assume that a large number of parents are too stupid to come out of the rain, when it comes to educating their children. Some commenters are quite literally advocating state paternalism, the state stepping in as the father, and somehow expecting this to come out better than, you know, the actual fathers and mothers making decisions about their own children. Sorry, folks, I’m not on board with that. Maybe, the parents know something about their kid, their situation, that you don’t?

    The US is a very diverse place, and our system is designed to take that into account– breaking the 300 million of us down into much smaller units of states, and counties, and school districts, to adjust better to local conditions. (I can’t think of a system which would work well both in NYC and rural Mississippi, for example.) We let people decide for themselves about their priorities, and we have a broad bias toward letting people take a shot, even if the odds seem pretty long. I take both of those facts very seriously. So, in my own family, I prioritize learning very highly– but there’s a substantial number of parents, or people in general, who don’t. That’s their call. It’s not my place, or the state’s place, to harass them with the laws and taxes until they do it my preferred way.

    I wonder if you know anyone who was NOT a success at school, but went on to be a success in life? One woman at work still refers to her high school work-study program as “work release”– the US term for letting prisoners go out to a job during the day, as a transition to final release. She’s an experienced Java developer now, but would have dropped out if she had had to keep her butt in a seat for four full years. (Looking back on it, I learned more things I actually use today at my after school, minimum wage job, than I did in all of high school combined.) Or do you know anyone who went to a for-profit school, and why they did, and what the outcome was? Like my cousin, also a near-dropout, went to an auto mechanics’ school out by the Interstate in Kentucky… made a wad on the NASCAR circuit, then settled down to be the manager of a large repair shop for a Mercedes dealership?

    • anonymousskimmer says:

      The parents know their kids better than any policy-maker, and have far more “skin in the game” and “long term outlook” than any possible bureaucrat could have; absent actual proof to the contrary, there’s nobody better positioned about what’s best for the individual child than the parents.

      Bullshit. Except in the most egregious circumstances, by the time you have “proof”, it’s too late.

      nothing replaces competent people who love you.

      Key word bolded. You don’t have to pass a test in order to become a parent.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Bullshit. Except in the most egregious circumstances, by the time you have “proof”, it’s too late.

        nothing replaces competent people who love you.

        Key word bolded. You don’t have to pass a test in order to become a parent.

        You are correct that there are plenty of incompetent parents out there. But one could counter-point that with uncaring and over-worked and yes incompetent bureaucrats in the government. Perhaps the bureaucrats on average are slightly more competent than the average parent, but the average parent is much more likely to be caring.

        I think that going with the percentages one would do better to follow the parent’s wishes than the government’s. We need to have government oversight to remove the clearly abused or neglected kids from homes, but the burden of proof should be on the government.

        And it scares the heck out of me to have all government controlled schools bringing up 100% of kids using somewhat identical propaganda. What does this portend for the intellectual skills of resulting adults? Wait, maybe this is what we have already? But let’s not let it get worse.

        • JulieK says:

          Perhaps the bureaucrats on average are slightly more competent than the average parent, but the average parent is much more likely to be caring.

          For example, consider the following viewpoints:
          Parent: Jane currently attend public school, where she is being bullied.* I’d like to send her somewhere else, but I can’t afford private school tuition.
          School Administrator: It’s not fair that these charters come along and skim off the cream. Jane is a good student; if she and others like her leave, our school’s test results will drop.

          Who do you think cares more about Jane’s welfare?

          * Disclosure: I attended public school (in a middle-class suburb) through 7th grade. Because I was being bullied, starting with 8th grade my parents sent me to private school.

      • Evan Þ says:

        Bullshit. Except in the most egregious circumstances, by the time you have “proof”, it’s too late.

        I see your point. Look at the unschooling movement, for example – they say that kids learn better without any formal study or classes, and in the end they’ll be completely ready for adulthood, and I’m willing to grant that it’s worked in some cases with good, attentive parents and naturally-motivated kids. But in a lot of other cases, with less attentive or just less motivated parents, it won’t. And you can’t tell which until we have a half-illiterate kid on the cusp of adulthood who doesn’t know basic arithmetic.

        On the other hand, we already have a lot of those kids coming out of the public schools. So you can’t just turn it over to bureaucrats, either.

        The best compromise – which is already required everywhere for public schools, and in a lot of states for homeschools – is yearly tests. You make sure the kids aren’t falling below some gradually-rising floor each year, and let the parents do whatever they want. Maybe they send the kid to some school and he gets tested there; maybe they homeschool him with some more-formal curriculum (like my parents did); maybe they even try unschooling and it actually works for them. But the state glances in each year to make sure the parents are doing a halfway-decent job.

        • anonymousskimmer says:

          @Evan Þ and @Mark V Anderson
          I’m in favor of tests of personal traits as well. If they’re already taking an annual curriculum test, why not try to figure the kids themselves out every year or so?

          Maybe a well-meaning but clueless parent could be told that their kid isn’t a chip off the old block, but someone with their own desires and needs which are somewhat distinct from the parents.

          How many wrongs have been inflicted by parents who “don’t make their parents mistakes”, but unfortunately end up making brand new mistakes?

          And it scares the heck out of me to have all government controlled schools bringing up 100% of kids using somewhat identical propaganda.

          This annoys me too, yet you have it to some extent in all schools which standardize curricula (K-Postgrad). You’ve even got it in the home-schooling movement with their standardized regimes.

      • Janet says:

        “Bullshit”, that the parents don’t know their own children better than a bureaucrat? Come now, you can’t believe that. Somebody who has lived with the kids for their entire lives, has made every important decision for them for the first decade of their lives and most of the decisions for the second, expects to be a part of their lives for the rest of their lives*– doesn’t know ground truth about them better than some guy/gal with a manila folder with paper in it, and took a scantron test a few years ago?

        Of course some parents are incompetent, and some are even criminal– which is, well, about exactly what I could say about bureaucrats. Not surprising, since both parents and bureaucrats are– get this!– often the same people! They don’t suddenly get smarter at work, suddenly stupider at home; they aren’t as good at choosing for 300 other people’s kids than they are for their own. (And when teachers won’t send their own children to their own school district’s schools… then I believe in their professional judgment, it’s not a good place to be.)

        * As the old joke has it: be nice to your kids, they’re the ones who will pick your nursing home.

        • anonymousskimmer says:

          ““Bullshit”, that the parents don’t know their own children better than a bureaucrat?”

          These aren’t the only choices.

          “Come now, you can’t believe that.”

          Yes, I can believe that. And that’s as much as I’m going to say on the matter.

        • Spookykou says:

          Not surprising, since both parents and bureaucrats are– get this!– often the same people!

          I think you might be a bit confused if you think the barriers to entry are the same for parenthood and bureaucracy. Almost without exception the worst parents are not going to be bureaucrats, because they live in the depths of poverty, are addicted to drugs, might be in prison, and probably never graduated from high school.

          Is it really so shocking that a random middle class person might care more about a child’s well being than the physically abusive drug addict who happens to be the child’s father? Come now, you can’t believe that.

          Even if the average parent is better than the average bureaucrat, when you are talking about “the parents are 100% responsible for the education of their children.” then you are talking about a pretty large number of children who are going to be considerably worse off.

          • JulieK says:

            when you are talking about “the parents are 100% responsible for the education of their children.” then you are talking about a pretty large number of children who are going to be considerably worse off.

            But we aren’t really giving parents 100% control over their children’s education. This isn’t a complete change from the status quo. Parents are already allowed to withdraw kids from public school and send them to private school, or homeschool them. We already have truancy laws in case kids are not in an educational framework at all. Presumably private schools will have to satisfy some requirements in order to get voucher money.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Lots of comments seem to assume that a large number of parents are too stupid to come out of the rain, when it comes to educating their children.

      Well, they are. Why would you expect (e.g.) a 16-year-old dropout from one of the worst school systems in the nation (whether in Appalachia or Detroit), whose mother was basically the same, to have a clue about educating her child? There’s plenty of that sort of thing.

      Some commenters are quite literally advocating state paternalism, the state stepping in as the father, and somehow expecting this to come out better than, you know, the actual fathers and mothers making decisions about their own children.

      I don’t advocate that. But I think that if you make it top priority that children are not to be harmed by the circumstances of their birth, you actually have to do that. You cannot have parents 100% responsible for their children’s education and outcomes that are independent of the parent’s competence at the same time.

      • Janet says:

        So, if you poll adults ages 18-40, more than 90% will answer that they either have kids now, or they want/expect to have them in the future. If you poll adults over age 45, about 85% say they actually do/did have children. “Parents” are just “adults”– neither more nor less stupid, lazy, impulsive, or any other trait, than the general population. They simply are the general population, with all that implies.

        I don’t think that we can succeed in preventing all possible harms to any possible child due to the parents– we shouldn’t base our system on achieving the impossible. If there’s evidence of abuse, neglect, mental illness, whatever– we should handle the case depending on the actual facts at hand. But the “standard” policy should fit the “standard” parent, who is just a “standard” adult, and who can and should make these sorts of decisions by themselves.

        As I said, the state has a role, but it should be limited to ensuring that the public interest is served (e.g. all children achieve basic literacy and numeracy, frauds are not perpetrated, civil rights are not violated, etc.) Vouchers would shift the power from the state, to the individuals with the most to gain/lose from the decision. I think that should be the “default” position, absent a specific reason otherwise.

        • anonymousskimmer says:

          A simple non-parental adult* talking with the kid about their life goals, needs, desires, happiness or unhappiness with schooling, etc… for an hour or two every year would be far more than most kids get.

          * – A psychologist/facilitator/ombudsman with power and institutional knowledge.

  26. Mengsk says:

    “Markets lead to marketing” seems to be a major theme here. This can drive expenses very high if quality is difficult see and what can be seen (e.g. new, posh football stadiums) is very expensive.

  27. anonymousskimmer says:

    Overall reading this has made me somewhat more pessimistic about charter schools. But I’m still uncertain enough that I want to look into the empirical literature more, and I still think careful experimentation is the way to go.

    Or you could just encourage the creation of schools which focus on the kids. Which treat them as the majority stakeholder* in the educational system, and try to evaluate their individual preferences and needs appropriately. And then shunt them to the appropriate classes or schools for those preferences and needs.

    It’s not as if we don’t have a century’s worth of work in the study of individual differences to help in this process.

    * – Note that this doesn’t mean “cater to their whims”, though with certain children that might actually be the best approach. And with all children this should be done in limited circumstances and on limited occasions (people need to feel they are more than just a cog in a machine with no control over their lives).

  28. EarthSeaSky says:

    To Scott: This is really only tangentially related to school reform (I explain why I was reminded in the second paragraph), so if this is too Culture Wars-y then please let me know and I’ll delete it until the next open thread. I was originally just going to make a comment clarifying my stance in the comment on the previous thread, but I think this is much more interesting, so I leave it to your discretion. If anything is unclear, or you think I should reconsider a point, please let me know. Finally, when I say something will happen, note that this is my opinion on what I believe will happen assuming my priors are correct, and I recognize this. I didn’t want to make this even longer than it already is with constant hedging.


    I’m going to make a bold prediction about the 2020 election, and several other predictions that I believe are highly likely and supportive of my main prediction. The prediction is thus: Black voters who identify by race more than ideology, will help propel Trump to a second term.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but what finalized it for me was this article linked by one of the links that Scott linked. Black conservatism as an ideology is beginning to take off, and we’re going to see identity politics utilized as a weapon by the right far more often than we have.

    First, context and explanation. Firstly, black voters are obviously a varied bloc of voters (insert #notallblacks as needed), so the problem is that the current political paradigm doesn’t account for this. A large number of black voters vote for Democrats for identity reason, just as a large number of whites do for Republicans. Now, to analyze we need to examine 3 factors: The splitting of the Democratic party, the drifting of blacks away from the Democratic party, and the adoption of identity politics by the right wing.

    The split in the Democratic party ideologically is well documented, but widely ignored. During the primaries, 538 pointed out that compared to the rest of the Democratic party, black voters are far more conservative ideologically (I unfortunately can’t find the article right now). This was apparent in their voting: blacks voted primarily for Hillary Clinton, swinging the South in her favor, where they make up the majority of Democratic voters. Indeed, progressives bemoaned this inability to appeal to blacks, and it could be argued that Bernie Sanders lost the primary due to losing the black vote.

    This ties in with a second trend, that of low income blacks drifting farther from the Democratic mainstream on social issues, and closer to the Republican mainstream. If you haven’t watch this amazing SNL skit, and this related video. Taken together, these paint a picture of a community drifting away from liberal elites who share very few of their values, and closer to lower income Republicans with closer ideological biases. This makes sense. Race aside, a stereotypical black voter sounds more like the profile of a stereo-typical, low education Republican (Highly religious, believe in “traditional family values”, a strong belief in the value of hard work and self determination, anti-abortion), such as, for instance, the ones who voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Despite appearances to the contrary, black voters have far more daylight between the Democrats and themselves than they do with the Republicans on a host of issues.

    So why don’t blacks already vote Republican? I’d suggest that there’s a number of reasons. First of all, the Republican party has been painted for a long time as a bunch of big fat racists. While we can dispute the veracity of this, I will humbly point out that all the racists that I know in real life vote Republican (my father, for instance), so take that for what it’s worth. Even if this is untrue, people vote based on in groups and out groups. Did you vote against the Democrats because of SJWs, or identity politics? Congratulations, you do it too. Secondly, and I think more relevantly, identity politics is pushed hard both within black communities, and by those representing black communities. There’s a kind of sense that blacks need to vote as a mass.

    What makes 2020 different? Two factors. Firstly, we have someone in office that has been painted as a humongous racist. What happens when he doesn’t start rounding up black people? I suspect that police brutality (defined by myself as unjustified killings by police officers) will improve under Trump, simply because a ton of effort and energy has already been expended over it. People tend to attribute things to whoever the current president is, so that could also help swing blacks over to Trump 2020. Secondly, we’re seeing the right (not necessarily Republicans, but the “right wing”) adopt identity politics. To use an anecdotal example, talking with my father about politics is like listening to a bizarre amalgamation of /pol/, Rush Limbaugh, and Alex Jones. He’s been talking about how the government wants to institute sharia law, and Obama is planning to round up white Christians in concentration camps for the past 8 years. Whether or not Trump is a racist, “white pride” (and indeed, whether or not white pride is a racist idea) is coming down the pipe in force. This is borne out by the data. Again, I can’t find the link right now, but analyses by 538 showed that whites this election voted like a minority bloc. What’s to stop another minority bloc from voting with them? Expect to see advertisements in a couple years talking about how “white pride” and “black pride” aren’t mutually exclusive.

    So, where does this put us? Well, everything will be largely as expected for the next 4 years. PArt of the problem with such long election cycles is that we have a form of punctuated equilibrium in our politics, where we have (relatively) long periods of stability, with massive, tectonic releases of energy every 2 years. So expect to see some of these issues come up during the midterms, where Democrats will largely do as expected (they’ll get their asses kicked, but will be able to barely retain their filibuster. Where the real shift will happen is the presidential election, because that’s when most people pay attention.

    Right then, 2020, what everyone cares about.Consider 3 coalitions of the Democratic party: Corporatist, Progressive, Identity. The major conflict right now is between Corporatists (“establishment” or “moderate if you like; Clinton, Booker et. al.) and Progressives (Warren, Sanders), who are the two main economic interest groups. Identity is made up of all the groups that have been brought into the fold by identifying a certain way, including blacks and latinos, but also extending to lifestyle identities, such as gays and vegans.

    Right now, there’s a power vacuum. Progressives are furious at the Corporatists, because they think they could have won the election. Corporatists have debts they need to repay, and don’t want to lose power, just like anyone else. But what no one is thinking about is the Identity groups. They’re kept on board the train by being told the other side hates them and wants to take away their rights. They largely don’t identify with either other group’s economics, but fear is used to keep them in line. What happens next is largely up to Trump and the other Republicans. I really can’t think of any action that would be taken by them that would justify many black’s fears about his presidency, but we’ll see. He’s shown himself to be creative before.

    The heart of most liberals is with the Progressives. Now that the Coporatists have shown weakness, the Progressives will go for the throat, and I tend to think they’ll win. So in 2020, expect to see a number of establishment people (Gilliibrand and Booker are the two main ones I hear) become the Democratic equivalent of Marco Rubio: paper tigers with no real support behind them, who crumble at the slightest brush. I think we’ll see a Progressive, either Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, or someone like them run, and I think they’ll win. But they won’t have the support of the black voters.

    I believe that the impetus for this will be Kanye West’s presidential run. First off, I don’t think he’s going to win the primary. First off, this isn’t because I think he’ll be unpopular, I think it will be largely institutional. Now that I understand how the Republican primary works, I don’t understand why everyone was so doubtful of Trump. The rules are set up in the best possible way to give someone like him a great chance of winning. The Democratic primary has multiple safeguards against this kind of thing: to win them, you need overwhelming support from both the voters (since the Democratic party is very proportional) AND the elite (in the form of super delegates). Kanye will only appeal to a fraction of voters, primarily black, and even if he does appeal to a wider coalition and is running even with the progressive (let’s say Elizabeth Warren. If it wasn’t obvious, I’m discounting the possibility of any corporatists winning), the super delegates will likely support the progressive, simply because they agree with her more (this statement is beyond the scope of this comment, but I can expand upon why I think that if people want).

    So, Kanye is defeated, and the story will go that it was rigged against the negro. We see this narrative with Bernie Sanders already with Bernie Sanders, and he endorsed Clinton. Will Kanye endorse Warren? I think not. His ego couldn’t handle that.

    So black voters have been raised to think of themselves as a “black voter”, they have been shunned by the current leader of the Democratic party (in their mind), and they don’t even really agree with Democrats on policy issues that much to begin with. Where will they go? Well where would you go? We’ve seen this in a way. Bernie Sanders voters supporting Donald Trump, even though they couldn’t agree on less. Kanye is much less of a jump to Trump, the ony difference is that Trump isn’t black.

    A few caveats:
    – Firstly, if Kanye doesn’t run, I think we’re still headed in this direction, just much more slowly. I don’t know that it will happen next election if he doesn’t. Look for black conservatism (identified by the idea that being supported by the government is equivalent to modern slavery, that liberals are trying to keep the black folk down through social programs) to take off online for cues on this.
    – Secondly, keep in mind that this isn’t all blacks, mainly low education blacks. Blacks are considered a homogenous voting bloc, but really there’s a lot of variety that gets swept under the rug. Consider the Black Professor of African American studies, vs. the black engineer who plays MtG with his white buddies during the weekend, vs. the black mother of 14 children vs. the black family that goes to church together on the weekends. All very different groups, who will vote differently for different reasons… If given the chance.
    – Thirdly, keep in mind that all of this assumes the null hypothesis is true: A Trump presidency will be incompetent, overall corrupt, but not sufficiently different from what we’re used to to actually disturb our current trajectory. If Trump isn’t actually elected in 15 days, expect this process to take longer. If Trump’s administration is sufficiently hateful, and actually implements white nationalist policies, same.

    • Aapje says:

      I also don’t understand the optimism with a lot of left wing people that changing demographics will automatically mean a progressive majority. I agree that a portion of the black voters will start to switch at one point, possibly when the Republicans run a black candidate against a white Democrat. They’ve already been fairly close with Herman Cain, but he was going to be up against Obama. What happens if a black Republican runs against a white Democrat that the black community has no special love for?

      And as you said, the spread of identity politics by parts of left means that individual attributes become more important than actual platforms. The groundwork for black people voting for a black Republican, because ‘he is like us’ is being laid.

      • EarthSeaSky says:

        I don’t necessarily think it would even have to be a black Republican, just that black voters need to feel slighted enough by the Democrats that they would consider switching to whoever the Republican is. As I stated, I think blacks are generally closer to the stereotypical Republican on most social issues than they are to the Democrats, so this really is a powder keg waiting to go off.

        • Aapje says:

          There is usually a tipping point though, especially as there is a very strong social normative component. When it becomes socially acceptable to vote for the other side, it can suddenly go very fast.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Very interesting analysis. You make a very good point about Blacks being Democrat because they are part of identity group, not because of similar ideologies. And I think you are right that the identity group’s connections to Democrats are more tenuous than the ideological groups. But the one piece you left out is other identity groups. Yes, there is some chance that a big chunk of Blacks leave their comfortable niche in Democrat land in 2020, but that is even more likely for other identity groups, such as Latinos or Asians or gays.

    • educationrealist says:

      I wrote about this here (the morning of election day):

      Next steps: win or lose, Trump voters need to see that class, not race, is the way to grow their ranks. This Sheryl Stolberg story on the decimated black working class that see no hope from Hillary but hate Trump–they’re the first step. I believe that African Americans can be convinced that our immigration policies are incredibly harmful to their interests: in jobs, in education, in reducing their political viability. Working class Hispanics, those of long-standing in this country, are also a great opportunity for actual outreach.

  29. Kevin says:

    I think an important example has been left out of this discussion so far: Chile. They have been running a voucher program for decades, designed by Milton Friedman himself. How is it going?

    Three-fourths of the public school enrollment in Chile are students from the lower 40 percent in family income. Only 10 percent of disadvantaged students use vouchers to attend private schools. Ninety percent of the private school students come from the top 60 percent.

    The opportunities, where they have existed, have been for the benefit of upper-middle income families. Students in private schools, especially in those that charge fees above the voucher amount, are doing pretty well. Students in public schools struggle amid a host of challenges. Budget cuts have led to overall decline in quality. Disadvantaged students and students with disabilities – the students Romney’s plan is said to help – are vastly overrepresented in the public schools, in large part because public schools are the last resort for students turned away because of income, ability or discipline issues.

    The education marketplace has grown in Chile, as Friedman predicted, but quality is not the only factor people take into consideration. For parents, price and proximity also matter. For private schools, the emphasis is on serving students that are cheapest to educate, not tailoring different programs to the unique needs of students.

    (How one national school voucher program fared, emphasis added)

    This is a textbook example of a market failure. It makes me highly skeptical of school vouchers as an effective approach to optimize what we actually want to optimize.

    Now, one can design a voucher program that forbids using ability as an admission criterion. It turns out Sweden has a such a system – but others here have already discussed the significant problems there.

    As far as the question of “where is all the public school money going?”, let’s not forget about Baumol’s cost disease:

    No matter how innovative people were in coming up with new technology and new ways of organizing their work, Baumol and Bowen reasoned, it would still take a pianist the same 23 minutes to play a Mozart sonata, a barber 20 minutes to cut the hair of the average customer and a first-grade teacher 12 minutes to read her class “Green Eggs and Ham.” Based on this observation, the duo predicted that the cost of education and health care would inevitably outstrip the price of almost everything else.

    • RicardoCruz says:

      “[Chile] have been running a voucher program for decades, designed by Milton Friedman himself.”

      Do you have sources?

      The Chicago University had a program with the University of Chile whereby they received students from Chile. These were later known as the “Chicago Boys”. Also, some professors gave lectures in Chile. Milton Friedman was one of the lecturers in Chile. This happened to coincide with Pinochet revolution, and Milton Friedman had a meeting with him, where he talked about inflation with him (not school vouchers).

      Policies in Chile might have been inspired by some of Milton Friedman’s ideas, but Milton Friedman “himself” did not design the school voucher program there.

      I don’t know if the school voucher in Chile is any good. But if your sources are so ideological that they cannot get very simple facts straight, I would not place much weight on them.

  30. Sebastian_H says:

    Baumol’s cost disease would strongly suggest that teacher pay has skyrocketed, causing the per student cost to skyrocket.

    That isn’t true. Therefore the answer isn’t likely to be Baumol’s cost disease.

    It seems to be some weird other thing, where the string quartet in 1980 requires 8 members in 2016.

    • tvt35cwm says:

      … the other four members being an intellectual property rights management clerk, a social media viral marketing manager, a podiatrist,* and a mini-bus driver to transport them all.

      * if desired, substitute any other occupation totally unrelated to music performance, to your taste.

  31. educationrealist says:

    Oh, hey. It told me there was a failure connecting when I tried to link up, but it looks like I’m logged in.

    Thanks for the mention of my links. Here’s a couple more, in answer to some questions. I’ve probably linked some of them before.

    1)Teacher quality: Has the average intellect of teachers declined, since women have more avenues for employment? Answer: No. The average teacher intellect/preparedness is the same. The range of female IQs has tightened (fewer super hi IQ women), but far more higher than average IQ men.

    Further on that point, slightly tangential, the notion that teachers are low quality material is pretty much a non-starter. High school teachers have been taking difficult subject matter tests since the 1970s–cut scores vary by states, but they’re all fairly high, and got more difficult after NCLB. Teachers are all above the average SAT scores for college graduates in their teaching field–and except for math, just slightly below in the other subject (math teachers are above the average in both). I haven’t seen it mentioned here (thankfully) but it’s not common to see someone maunder on about the low quality of ed majors. But ed majors don’t all become t3eachers, and not all teachers are ed majors. Besides, that stat predates the 1998 higher education act, which basically prevents ed schools from committing affirmative action.

    Functionally, this means that HS teachers have been qualified by any definition since the 70s. ES teachers were simply college graduates. Now, for whites and Asians, this is enough. But blacks and Hispanics are a different matter (they are the source of the “low ed scores”). It was and is…not impossible for a black or Hispanic to graduate from college with fairly low abilities–at least tested (an important distinction). So when credential tests were first instituted in the mid-80s, they were very simple, and nonetheless decimating for blacks (Hispanics to a lesser degree) and led to a major fraud chain in the South for close to 15 years. Many black teachers graduated from college and never passed the credential test. But in the 90s, this was dealt with by getting an “emergency credential” and just never upgrading it. NCLB closed that loophole, and so for 5-7 years, a guy ran a fraud ring in which existing teachers and new teachers trying to pass the credential test paid large sums for someone else to take the test. He’s in jail now. (It was reported, but the racial link was left entirely unmentioned.)

    Middle school teachers are now required to pass high school (specialized) subject tests, which resulted in a wholesale upgrade of skills in a decade for new teachers. I don’t know if there’s been any research done on whether that resulted in higher algebra scores for 8th graders.

    So both elementary school and middle school teachers have had major increase in demonstrated ability, but no major increase in student outcomes. Research has not been promising on this–generally, all studies show the same thing as this one: a huge upgrade in teacher ability leads to a barely noticeable uptick in student scores. Race, on the other hand, has a pretty strong link to student outcomes, particularly black teachers to black students.

    2) hey also note that US education is already pretty good both compared to other countries and compared to its own past, something else I agree is true and have never denied.

    But in that case, why decimate public schools? Simply to save money? But the reason for the additional cost is a bunch of requirements–requirements put in place with good intentions, even though they don’t help. Decentralizing public schools will simply take away from the havenots even more than ever. It will remove a community. And for what? You don’t even know for sure why schools cost more, and you think charters will save money and not do any harm? That’s a big bet.

    3)On my anonymity: I don’t mention name, gender or location online. If you ever see anyone say “Education Realist is Fred Yabbitz from Twin Falls Idaho” then that person is either breaking a confidence or simply repeating what someone other than me has mentioned. If I’ve told someone my name, etc, I’ve asked them not to violate a confidence and they’ve agreed. I don’t like “they”; I’m fine with either he or she. Or you could alternate! More here: Wearing Anonymity

    • anonymousskimmer says:

      I don’t like “they”; I’m fine with either he or she. Or you could alternate!

      Yeah, well that doesn’t help my cognitive dissonance.

      As a compromise, I’d prefer people use “ED” or “ER” (personal favorite) instead of any pronoun.

  32. Besserwisser says:

    I’ve got an email from one of my professors recently which linked to an article which might explain some of the reasons why we spend so little on higher education. For one, we pay employees at universities who aren’t professors jack shit. Really good at keeping prices low and there are numerous people interested in working in academia who we can treat like shit.

    Then we have this great system where we rank our universities and only pay those we consider “elite”. This has the nice consequence that they use the extra money to build up infrastructure they can’t afford to lose once they lose out in the rankings. And every other expenditure is lowered as much as possible.

    Also, keep in mind that universities are as good as free over here, so any incentive to rise prices won’t work, so they have to make do with what they get. It’s a very different system than the US, so it’s hard to compare just one aspect like costs.

  33. reytes says:

    They also note that US education is already pretty good both compared to other countries and compared to its own past, something else I agree is true and have never denied.

    This is also my sense, and to me it raises the question – how confident are we that radical education reform is, in fact, necessary, or likely to be effective and helpful? How urgent is the need for improvement here?

  34. Wrong Species says:

    I wasn’t thinking about thinking about this at the time but just because the price increase might increase demand doesn’t mean it’s an upward sloping demand curve. It could simply be a shift in the demand curve because the price is signalling higher value.

    But this is because the price increase served to increase people’s taste for the toll lanes, which shifted demand to the right. To a certain degree, this is a question of semantics that exists with the explanation of Veblen goods in general- how direct is the price effect on quantity? In this sense, the latter model seems more appropriate in one important way- let’s say that you could communicate the information that the price increase supposedly conveys here without actually changing the price. What would happen to demand in this case? Logically speaking, it should be higher than with that same information conveyed through a price increase. In the diagram above, this point is labeled as Q3, and is in fact higher than point Q2. In the upward-sloping demand curve model, we would be stuck at quantity Q1 in the absence of a price increase.

  35. Null Hypothesis says:

    There is one concept that seems to have yet been touched upon. If someone else has mentioned it, my apologies.

    And that is, capitalism, or more specifically free-market competition, is not a profit system.

    It’s a Profit and Loss system!

    Things that work make money. Things that don’t work lose money. Things that work better get more money and can expand. Things that don’t work well enough shut down and go away and stop spending resources on a wealth-destroying system.

    I have high hopes for the potential of charter schools. But every now and then I do come across some article showing how horrible and unaccountable they can be. Devastating stories of fraud or just poor educational outcomes, where students learn next to nothing and the schools fail and shut down. Gleefully I see articles written about hundreds of such charter schools shutting their doors. And it’s sad to see any school suffer such a fate, and inflict it on their students.

    And this is exactly why charter schools are better.

    Because when they fail – they shut down!

    There are some truly horrendous people out there that have used lax regulations meant to encourage charter school experimentation to make a quick buck. But for every one of those stories, there are several horrendous public schools, where kids are illiterate, violence is rampant, little learning is done, and the administration or teachers involved are nearly impossible to fire. When a public school fails, it’s given more money. Sure it’s ‘accountable’ in that ultimately it gets funding from a state or school board, and can have dictates directed at it. But that doesn’t guarantee anything gets fixed.

    People always seem to neglect that ‘loss’ part of the market, and it’s incredibly important. A negative feedback system isn’t functional if it only goes one way. Charter schools are accountable to parents and finances and the market itself.

    It’s much like how our state politicians are ‘accountable’ in that we hold one one-millionth of a share of control over them in terms of a vote, while our state itself is accountable in that if we don’t like how it’s spending our money, we can just take all of it – income, sales, and property taxes – and move to another state that we feel is more effective and deserving of our money. Voting with your feet is FAR more effective than voting with your actual franchise. Always has been and always will.

    Charter schools are accountable to their profit, or lack thereof, and to individual’s choice. And when they fail they go away. That’s what makes them superior to public schools. Every failed charter school that shuts its doors shows the private system works, while every chronically failing public school with an unadjusted workforce shows that the public system doesn’t.

    • onyomi says:

      This is an important, if easily overlooked point.

    • beleester says:

      Shutting down is only a “success” if the kids have somewhere better to go. Which, if you remove the legal obligation to make public schools available for everyone, is not always going to happen.

      People always forget that “you don’t get served because you’re not worth the effort” is an acceptable outcome in the free market.

      • Skivverus says:

        People always forget that “you don’t get served because you’re not worth the effort” is an acceptable outcome in the free market.

        Well, it beats “you don’t get served because you spend your days trapped in a ‘school’ providing you less than zero educational benefit”.

        People always forget that positive intentions do not guarantee positive results. /hyperbole

        Seriously, though. Of course you have situations where getting served isn’t worth the effort. This is practically a thermodynamic law (there are fruitful analogies, I think, to be made between the movements en masse of particles and the movements en masse of people).

      • Matt M says:

        “People always forget that “you don’t get served because you’re not worth the effort” is an acceptable outcome in the free market.”

        Acceptable to who? Every major company has highly paid teams of people whose entire job is to try and locate un/under-served markets for growth opportunities. Many of the most successful (and profitable) innovations of the last couple decades have involved making products and services increasingly affordable so as to offer them to fast-developing economies in the third world.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          If you are 3% of the electorate, no one cares.

          If you are 3% of the market, you get a lot of attention.

  36. dsotm says:

    In his comment mdp says that the average cost of customer acquisition is 200$ – what does that do to the often made claim that payday loans are a demand-driven necessity ?

  37. dumky2 says:

    Regarding the problem of gallon buckets of ice cream (“what parents want”), I must point out that grade inflation exists in government school systems too (see plot for France’s GED [1] below).

    My first reaction to grade inflation is to suggest some independent scoring or at least auditing, to limit the conflict of interest.
    I don’t think that independent scoring is a panacea, since the French GED tests and scores are generally dispensed by another school (which should increase independence and decrease inflation).
    You can also measure results in terms of success in higher-ed or industry, although that has limitations and introduces lag. A simple example: some of the most prestigious higher-ed establishments in France have entrance exams (more like a competition since seats are limited), so for those schools GED scores don’t matter (and there is data about success rate by high school of origin).
    In the US, a lot of colleges seem to face the problem of letting sub-par students in and having to help them catch-up.

    [1] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CnFCaamXEAAdHyq.jpg

  38. dsotm says:

    Re the problem of grade inflation (which exists in both public and private systems) it can and should be solved by fully separating schooling from examination, in-school grades should not mean much more outside of it than smiley stickers given by kindergarden teachers.
    This does not work for higher ed. since colleges and universities by definition have the freedom to decide what qualifies for a degree, and still in most licensed professions people are required to pass standardised tests in addition to (or regardless of) a related degree.

    • onyomi says:

      One problem in universities is that, to the extent they care about teaching quality, the primary measure is student evaluations. And studies have apparently shown that teachers who give better grades get better evaluations. Making the class challenging, therefore, is not only not rewarded, it may be punished.

      One suggestion I’ve seen to address this is to include some consideration of how well a teacher’s students do in subsequent classes not taught by him or her, ideally of the sort which come in a sequence or build on one another. If all of Professor so-and-so’s Intro Chemistry students do poorly in Chemistry II, then that should count against him even if his students all claim to love him. Conversely, if Professor so-and-so’s Intro Chemistry students perform better than average in Chemistry II, that should be at least somewhat to his credit, even if all his students think he’s a hardass.

    • dsotm says:

      What about courses that have no direct continuation ? How should a prospective employer weigh a graduate GPA from this Uni vs. another one other than some vague reputation/personal-bias based hunch ?

      Teach/exam separation would work better here too imo (though the GPA would still be subject to the problems above) – A course gets assigned a teaching professor and an examining professor in the relevant fields, they agree on the syllabus, the teaching professor teaches the course while the examining professor writes and grades the exams, the students know that and provide teaching feedback ahead of the exam anyway. The next semester the teaching professor and the exam professor switch roles.

    • Tom Hoffman says:

      There is no reason to have faith that centralized testing is less prone to grade inflation than assessment by teachers of their own students, particularly when test scores are politically important at every level of government. Also, there are plenty of accounts of officials basically showing up at test scoring contractors and essentially demanding scores go up. It is a lot easier to quietly get one firm dependent on your business with a bunch of temps to do that than than to get the same result from a bunch of individual teachers.

      Also, the research on success in college indicates that GPA is a better predictor of success than tests — which is not surprising if you think about it.

      • dsotm says:

        I’m not sure what ‘test contractors’ are but obviously the private firms hired with the administration of the exams shouldn’t even have the technical ability to affect either the exam or it’s grading. Also the scores should be normalised.
        This won’t prevent pressure on the body designing the exams to make them easier but the idea is to provide comparability within the same class across different schools rather than throughout time which I agree is basically impossible.

      • Zaxser says:

        In order to work you would also to have a free market for test makers, and in fact, there is a little bit already, mostly in the form of certifications.

        It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a market for easy tests, but it also seems like there would be more prestige around harder tests.

        (It’s also annoying that success in college is such an important metric, rather than knowledge or ability, but this is a whole different track.)

        • dsotm says:

          For the purpose of subjective/employer consideration you already have that, for the purpose of vouchers or tax funds allocations it shouldn’t be a free market at all but rather be standardized across the level the funds are coming from – just like you pick supreme/federal court judges that you believe are best qualified to represent your nations idea of justice and then have the lower-level judges electable directly but which can be overruled by the supreme/federal ones.

          • Zaxser says:

            The whole idea is to allocate funds by the number of students. Schools could advertise how awesome they were by the ability of their students to pass tests, or they could judge students for placement by tests that they feel are appropriate.

          • dsotm says:

            Yes but those tests which they advertise their students to have passed successfully need to be a. comparable b. represent some succinct notion of education – ‘100% of our students aced the tests of our choice’ is snakeoil, as is ‘100% of our students aced the standardised national counterstrike/call-of-duty test’.
            Re the funds allocation of course it should be per-student but there should be a minimal standardised level required to maintain accreditation as a school to begin with, and you don’t want that level to be subject to market forces.

      • anonymousskimmer says:

        Also, the research on success in college indicates that GPA is a better predictor of success than tests — which is not surprising if you think about it.

        Of course not, given how similar the pedagogical structure of secondary and tertiary schools tend to be.

        GPA is the single best measure of adaptability to this pedagogical structure. Too bad it doesn’t measure much else.

  39. Squirrel of Doom says:

    As a Swede I feel compelled to say that the consensus of “Sweden tried vouchers and it failed” that seems to be emerging here is not the mainstream opinion in Sweden, though some do think that.

    Swedish education has some real problems, but there are several other strong candidates for causing them.

    • Tom Hoffman says:

      Perhaps it is more accurate to say Sweden’s reforms have not produced good international test results, which does not necessarily mean there is a problem.

      All arguments of educational quality based on comparison of test scores rest on dubious ground.

      • dsotm says:

        Do you have any better metrics in mind ?

        • Tom Hoffman says:

          The bottom line is that education is too complex — has too many competing outcomes, each of which is difficult to measure independently — to be reduced to just a few metrics. If people insist on doing so, that’s just a statement about their preferred way of viewing and managing the world, not an understanding of the problem domain.

          • dsotm says:

            Only if you define the problem domain as optimising for some epiphenomenal definition of education, there are some very measurable tests for literacy, numeracy, knowledge and learning ability as well as many specific skills, sure if we start treating those tests as generic indicators of human value (or monetary value as a proxy) then there will be a strong reaction and tendency to politicise the tests and their results.

  40. ChelOfTheSea says:

    > Many people (1, 2, 3) point out the high cost to schools of misbehaving kids, and try to explain the rise in education costs by saying that kids today are raised wrong (or not at all) which makes them harder to control. But everybody who looks for this kind of thing finds the opposite – kids today have less teenage pregnancy, crime, dropouts, et cetera. I don’t know if anyone has specifically looked at classroom misbehaving, but it would be weird for that to be getting worse in such an isolated way.

    I think fewer dropouts might resolve the paradox: kids who would otherwise have dropped out, had a kid, been in jail, etc. are staying in school instead. I’ve got no data at all on the subject, but it might be a weird sort of sampling bias where the trend has shifted positive but the local sample in the ed system shifted negative.

    This sort of plays into the debate on tracking. Hypothetically, what if teenage pregnancy/dropouts/crime rates were actually playing the role of socially-acceptable tracking? Setting aside the question of truth for a moment, it’s not popular to go “sorry, little Timmy just can’t do Calculus”, but very few people object to “sorry, little Timmy just robbed a 7-11 and so can’t be in school”. So maybe what we had was a self-organizing segregation that didn’t look like segregation within the educational system.

  41. nimim.k.m. says:

    Actually, the thing from the comments I found most interesting was that a public school is a public space and (at best) an important part and platform for the local community. Not for the reason that it’s managed by a local school board, but because it’s not owned by a private entity who wants to charge a price for every and all uses of the space. I’m not US, but I can recognize this useful portion of having the school building as a part of the public sphere of life.

    My old school had poetry nights and evening lectures. The gym hall was used by the “sport activities for teens who can’t make it into the junior division of city football club who play competitively” club. The school network is also used for all elections as polling stations (they are owned by the government, so government can use them as they wish, and schools are located where the people live).

    • eccdogg says:

      I think charter schools can also create or save communities as well.

      I know very little about Michigan’s Charter law, but I did spend about an hour this summer chatting with the founder and chairman of a rural Michigan charter school.

      In this case the public school in the town was shut down and the kids were to be bused to another part of the county. The local leaders realized that without a school it would be a death spiral for their community. So they used MI charter school law and private donations to start their own school. The town now has a school again.

  42. Jules says:

    “Off course, this is a problem with people, not vouchers”.
    Of course, a system that is maladapted to “people” is at issue itself, it’s not the people that you need to change…

  43. gbdub says:

    There has not been a ‘modest’ reduction in per-student funding: it has dropped around 30% in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2000.

    So I’ve seen this argument a couple times, and it appears to me to miss a couple things:
    1) 30% is a lot, but “30% of state support” is unfortunately pretty modest compared to the total increase in tuition.
    2) is “per-student funding” really the right metric? State higher education budgets go to students, but they come from taxpayers – how much of the problem is an actual decrease in per-taxpayer funding, vs a big increase in number of students being served by state funded colleges? The number of college students seems to be going up faster than the number of taxpayers.

    • jonahkatz says:

      I’m the guy who posted that originally. Your questions are excellent, and I don’t have a firm immediate answer. But I do have some indirect evidence that bears on them. For (1), I think I see what you’re saying: so even if the states had held their support steady, there would still be an enormous shortfall. This is true, as far as I can tell: the 2 public universities I’ve worked at receive somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of their budgets from the state. So upping those allocations by 30 or even 60 percent wouldn’t close the funding gap. And this is because the cost of public higher ed really is out of control; I don’t think anybody denies that. However, I do still think that a smaller shortfall would be better and more equitable than a larger one, all else being equal.
      For (2), this is a good point. I don’t have data that bear on this directly. But both the AAAS report here and the California one here show expenditures on public higher ed declining drastically, 25-35%, as a percentage of state general funds from 2000 to the latest data. So we are committing less of our tax money than ever before to public higher ed. A quick google search suggests that the US population has grown by about 15% since 2000, while the number of students enrolled in public post-secondary institutions has risen by about 23%. So, assuming that the number of taxpayers has grown at roughly the same rate as the population, this would entail some cut to per-student spending, but my calculations suggest it would only ‘explain’ about a 10% drop (so one third of the total). And the very little data I can find on total numbers of US taxpayers, which is limited to the highest income bracket, suggests that number of taxpayers may actually be growing much faster than the population (in the neighborhood of 30% since 2000), at least if the rich are indicative of the broader trend, which I have no idea if they are.
      So, upshot: I agree with you that the decline in state funding can’t explain all of the current shortfall in education; cost is clearly a big problem. And I see your point about per-student funding, but there’s good reason to believe that state funding really has declined significantly relative to the average taxpayer and relative to overall tax revenues.

  44. pyroseed13 says:

    I am generally supportive of vouchers and school choice, but I have some concerns:

    1. It’s not obvious what metrics we should be using to measure school quality. Measures such as simply “grades” can easily be gamed. Standardized tests seem like a better idea, but this could also led to a curricula where everyone just “teaches to the test,” which for the most part is how my AP classes were in high school.

    2. Charter schools are subject to a bevy of regulations, which will limit how competitive those markets can actually be. But then again, if we are going to funnel public money into these institutions, shouldn’t we care about what these schools are actually teaching? It seems that we would need to have some kind of accountability measure, otherwise we are just giving away money without actually improving quality.

    3. Why does no one seems to be addressing the elephant in the room: Immigration. How much of our public school failure and excessive spending is simply do to due an inability to educate students who do not speak English very well?

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      I am curious about your experience of teaching to the test in AP classes you had, and why you thought that was bad. In my opinion teaching to the test is exactly what should be done if the test is good. Or to put it another way, both the test and the teaching should be based on a comprehensive look at the subject matter in question. Thus teaching to the test merely means covering those areas that are important. Teaching to AP tests sounds like it might be very successful because the teachers and students are both heading for the same goal, which is rarely the case in high school.

      • pyroseed13 says:

        Hi Mark,
        The class I had that best captured the problem I am discussing would be my AP Statistics class. I didn’t really have a good grasp of the material until college because the high school class was so focused on cramming as much material as possible into the year to prepare us for the AP exam. I think I would have been better served if the teachers had more leeway to really help us develop understanding of a few core topics, rather than just encouraging rote memorization of a wide variety of concepts.

  45. wysinwygymmv says:

    Algorizmi describes his work with a private school that costs less than half as much as most public schools, including how it saves money

    Just want to point out again that this system “works” by using a bunch of voluntary labor and donated material. If you factored in the cost of all the voluntary labor and donated material, would it still cost less than half as much as most public schools?

    Almost certainly not. The biggest issue here is the payroll, where Algorizmi points out that most of the teachers are either retirees working below market rate or new teachers working below market rate. This is really important because it means these solutions are not scaleable. This school cannot afford to pay middle class salaries to teachers who are trying to start families and buy houses, which means that teachers who want to develop their careers and not live like paupers (or rely on a spouse’s income) cannot work here. This school is, to some extent, taking advantage of teaching skills that were honed elsewhere.

    And as I pointed out before, the success of this school is contingent on the ability of the community volunteering all this labor and material. Running schools this way guarantees that poorer neighborhoods have shittier schools — which, again, already true, but do we want to make that state of affairs the official way school works, or do we want to try to get better about that?

    I’d really like to know the cost per student of this school if all the voluntary labor was priced in. I think it would still be a success story, but I think it would give a more realistic picture of what is attainable at scale.

    • Zaxser says:

      I don’t really see it as a problem that a school relies on community labor. Who wouldn’t use the labor if they could reliably get it? Teachers run school plays and school choirs and often work as coaches without extra pay. They are essentially volunteers, and often ask adults to act as chaperones during school events. Using that labor is just good sense.

      Is it scalable? Some of it probably is; some of it probably isn’t. It probably depends a lot on the community the school is a part of.

      So then we get to jobs. When I was in school, we already had some online classes in high school. If people were interested in getting rid of some teacher jobs, I suspect we could. If people were interested in leveraging technology to make it education faster or allow teachers to focus on individual students, I suspect we could. If we wanted to downsize education, we probably could. If students cost 10k/ year, we could probably have everyone have a private tutor for two hours a day instead, or have them in a class with two other students, if class size is really that important.

      Right now, we have teachers that basically give the same lecture six times a day. You think we could just have the lectures as homework they watch on their computers at home? You think they could do it at school and have the teacher do something else with their time? I sure do.

      I can’t guarantee that all of these will work, but having a bunch of people try makes a ridiculous amount of sense.

    • SamChevre says:

      I think that having a school whose structure includes a bunch of part-time teachers and new teachers who don’t plan to stay long-term is actually a sustainable, spreadable system. For one thing, it’s been the typical prep school model for a long time from what I can tell–a few experienced teachers, and a lot of new college graduates who stay a few years and then go to grad school. It’s the typical university model as well–a few tenured professors, a lot of graduate student TAs.

    • gbdub says:

      That there are apparently teachers willing to teach for that low price may mean the solution is not scalable, but it does speak to a couple significant failures in the way the public school teachers are compensated:
      1) Public schools are letting teachers retire too early – at my school, the union contract let teachers retire on a full pension after 25 years of service, so you’ve got a pile of mid-50s very qualified teachers willing to work for pocket money. That’s a failure of the schools and the teachers’ unions to be realistic with their pension contracts
      2) If young capable teachers are willing to work for less, why aren’t they working for less at the public schools?

    • Tom Hoffman says:

      Algorizmi describes a hippie school. Which is fine, I like hippies and their schools! However, if this was readily scalable, there would already be a lot more hippie schools. They’ve been around for 100 years (under various more serious names). There are lots of books about them!

  46. The whole “food desert” thing seems to be a mixture of (1) the fact that people in poor neighborhoods who don’t own cars have a relatively limited degree of shopping choices, and (2) Oh, noes, those poor people seem to prefer to eat cheap junk food instead of the artisanal organic vegan gluten-free health food us enlightened people like, and those evil capitalist exploiters deal with this by supplying more of the former than the latter in those neighborhoods!

  47. Tom Hoffman says:

    Found this a little late in the game, but I highly recommend this FAQ about how choice works in other countries from what was originally called the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

    They have a nice table that clearly shows that the top 5 countries according to the PISA exam do not use vouchers or tuition tax credits. The top Western country — Finland — has no private schools at all. One can quibble with the implementation of each choice system — as one can quibble with the implementation of each public school system — and perhaps cite some marginal gains for private vs. public schools under choice systems, but there is no reason to think vouchers would transform the quality of a nation’s schools.

    Of course, you can always argue that these test based evaluations of a national system are bogus anyhow.

    • cassander says:

      the finnish system is incredibly decentralized and amounts to a nation of charter schools, by US standards.

      • Tom Hoffman says:

        The Finnish system doesn’t have much in common with American charters beyond decentralization, and American charters aren’t even that decentralized anymore, as more and more are centrally controlled by private networks (KIPP, Gulenist charter schools, etc).

        But I will be happy to encourage SSC readers to believe that Finland is exactly what they want.

        • cassander says:

          >The Finnish system doesn’t have much in common with American charters beyond decentralization,

          since de-centralization is precisely the thing that matters with charters, that’s beside the point

          > American charters aren’t even that decentralized anymore, as more and more are centrally controlled by private networks (KIPP, Gulenist charter schools, etc).

          in other words, there are many people controlling them, precisely the opposite of central control? Pointing to the existence of firms doesn’t prove that markets are centralized.

          • Tom Hoffman says:

            There is no real consensus about what the point of charters in the US is. Implementation and regulation across states varies widely. This evening the debate before the state of Rhode Island’s Board of Education was whether we are going to create a group of seven charter schools serving 3,000 students that will be directed by an organization from Connecticut that controls dozens of schools across New York and Connecticut. That’s not decentralization, it is a different kind of centralization. It would be inconceivable in Finland.

            Other charter schools aren’t like that necessarily, but some are. It is difficult to make any generalizations about charter schools nationally.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      This is a week late, but in the case someone reads this… Finland does have private schools, though their amount is very small: there’s Waldorf / Steiner style schools, as well as some international / foreign language schools, and some religious schools, and a couple of “prestigious secondary level schools with strong tradition in e.g. latin”. All of them are private as in ‘not operated by government’, but non-profit as mandated by law and not allowed to collect tuition fees, and mostly located in the large cities.

      In addition to that, in university towns there’s schools run by universities’ departments of education (but universities are state-owned, so that’s still public … but some are more prestigious than regular schools). However, vast majority of children go to regular schools, owned and run by local municipalities; each child is assigned to a school according to their school district, but if municipality is large enough to have multiple schools, usually parents are able to choose and send their child into some other other school if there’s a good reason … and then especially in the larger cities there’s some schools with special language / sports / arts / science / etc programs (sometimes with aptitude tests) that everyone can apply to.

  48. fwiffo says:

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned the famous argument from Exit, Voice and Loyalty by Albert Hirschman.

    As more and more of the rich move into private schools, there are few influential voices remaining to preserve the quality of public schools. We end up with an equilibrium like Medicaid, where services are low quality in many states, but only the poor and voiceless are required to use them, so there is little pressure for them to change. When the vast majority of the population uses public schools, the poor and voiceless benefit from the efforts of the influential to improve the school system—it’s very unlikely that a fully private system can achieve the same equality of opportunity as a fully public system—unless you disallow spending over the size of the voucher (as is done in Canadian healthcare).

    One manifestation of exit would be the erosion of voucher sizes over time (e.g. due to inflation). There will be no constituency to raise voucher sizes, since the rich will be happy paying extra for high quality schooling. This is roughly what has happened with Medicaid.

    To be fair, due to the tying of school funding to property taxes, it’s already the case that the rich can exit low quality school systems rather than work to change them.

    • cassander says:

      >As more and more of the rich move into private schools,

      the opposite is happening.
      Please don’t make up facts.

      >One manifestation of exit would be the erosion of voucher sizes over time (e.g. due to inflation). There will be no constituency to raise voucher sizes, since the rich will be happy paying extra for high quality schooling. This is roughly what has happened with Medicaid.

      comparing a service 90% of people use to one 20% of people use is pure cherry picking.

      >To be fair, due to the tying of school funding to property taxes, it’s already the case that the rich can exit low quality school systems rather than work to change them.

      this largely no longer happens in the US. poor schools are usually better funded than good, not the other way around.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        poor schools are usually better funded than good, not the other way around.

        The nominal budgets of poor public schools are higher than those of rich public schools, but the budgets are lies. The cost of the buildings are often simply left off of the budgets of suburban districts.

      • Tom Hoffman says:

        >As more and more of the rich move into private schools,

        I think the point was this will happen under vouchers, or at least that is the idea of having vouchers, right?

        Of course in the US wealthier families either move to districts with better public schools or send their kids to privates, and the idea that school quality is inversely correlated to funding is ridiculous.

        If you just look at per pupil expenses, generally your affluent suburbs spend the most, have the best facilities, and get the best results. Urban districts outspend rural, because their labor markets (and real estate, etc) are higher cost, and they generally have a more difficult population to educate, which is sometimes reflected in state and federal funding formulas. Urban districts don’t have much to show for this in terms of facilities and programming (in most cases), because it just ends up being soaked up by higher labor costs and more special ed, ESL, etc. spending.

      • fwiffo says:

        Sorry for the confusion about the first statement — I was describing Hirschman’s hypothetical scenario, not claiming more and more of the rich are using private schools.

        Speaking of making up facts, poor schools are funded better than good? Schools are funded by local property taxes. There’s a direct relationship between local housing prices and school funding. Federal money corrects some of this disparity, but not all. Try a quick google search for “school funding inequality” or “school funding distribution by community” and pick any of the top 20 links.

    • The Nybbler says:

      This is basically an argument for taking the rich kids hostage.

    • FacelessCraven says:

      “When the vast majority of the population uses public schools, the poor and voiceless benefit from the efforts of the influential to improve the school system—it’s very unlikely that a fully private system can achieve the same equality of opportunity as a fully public system—unless you disallow spending over the size of the voucher (as is done in Canadian healthcare).”

      This argument has been made rather more straightforwardly elsewhere.

      Sample Quotes:

      it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.

      I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it. If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education—the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.

      If you want to see the platonic ideal of a losing argument, this is it.

  49. I’m very cynical about anything for-profit school related.

    What are charter schools actually going to do differently? the countries peforming best on the international tests often do cram-style. Is the style of learning any different than normal schools?

    What will they *actually* do differently? Do they force them to cram and study more, which is how learning is done? Are they run by the most brilliant hard-ass educators? Are the teachers of a higher quality(smarter, did better in school)? (Though I dislike blaming teachers for much. Are they going to do a better job showing the material then the textbooks + 2 supplementary textbooks and just forcing the student to read them? Or having them get aid on khan academy for the subject? Probably not.)
    How are the corrective measures for disruption and lack of turning in homework actually different?

    I suspect they can simply kick out non-performing and disruptive students more easily then normal schools, and take their final metrics from there. Maybe some charter schools can actually serve some types of students with strange cognitive/personality profiles better then typical schools, but in general I think i’m cynical.

  50. kaleberg says:

    re: “apparently on the basis of a theory that an oversupply of hospitals would increase (?!) costs”

    Places with more doctors and hospitals do have higher costs. That is well documented. It doesn’t need question marks.

  51. Matthias says:

    Sorry, I don’t have time to read whether somebody brought this up before: you can separate the grading from the teaching. Then any grade dilution incentives don’t apply to teaching. (The grading can even stay in government hands, though I don’t think that’s a good idea.)