Where's the Beef?

Posted on November 14, 2005
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Republic columnist Jon Talton recently used his Sunday column to describe a school-choice program that passed the Arizona Legislature with bipartisan support as "right-wing utopianism." ("As Democrats go, Napolitano makes a good Republican," Oct. 9). Researchers familiar with the academic work on choice programs have tired of such ill-informed rhetoric.

Citing the example of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I challenged Talton to back up his claim in a friendly contest: Produce two control-group studies showing that academic performance declines in a school-choice program, or that parents become less satisfied once participating in such a program. The prize: a free steak dinner.

When Mr. Talton failed to produce, I extended the same offer to the whole community. Mr. Talton's fellow Republic columnist Richard Ruelas replied in a column headlined, "School choice hurts, steaks are tasty." 

Let's begin with the subjects upon which Mr. Ruelas and I agree. First, Mr. Ruelas is a clever writer. Second, steak is indeed tasty. Third, Mr. Ruelas also said that school choice is a myth for low-income families.

That is all too true: buying a house in the suburbs remains the most common form of school choice and is decidedly biased against children in low-income families, a powerful reason to expand, not withhold, choice.

Mr. Ruelas' response essentially consisted of declaring himself the author of two non-existent studies and then noting that he likes a baked potato with his steak, leaving one to wonder, "Where's the beef?"

Because Mr. Ruelas is a paid columnist attempting to disguise himself as a researcher, allow me to explain the difference between control-group and imaginary studies. Control-group studies use random assignment to divide subjects into experimental and control groups to allow measurement of the impact of a particular variable, which, in this case, is school choice. Control-group studies represent the "gold standard" of social-science research.

Control-group studies allow us to get away from the sort of armchair theorizing of the sort offered up by Talton and Ruelas. As noted originally, the consistent conclusion of such evaluations on school-choice programs is that parents are much more satisfied with the school their child attends, and students demonstrate varying degrees of academic gains. None of these studies shows any academic harm to students or a decline in parental satisfaction.

For example, a 1998 Harvard study found school-choice parents "very satisfied" at significantly higher levels regarding school safety, teaching, parental involvement, class size, school facility, student respect for teachers, teacher communication, extent to which their child can observe religious traditions, parental support for the school, discipline, clarity of goals, staff teamwork, teaching, academic quality, and sports programs.

Another control-group study led by a Georgetown scholar found that 46 percent of the private-school parents participating in a privately financed school-voucher program gave their school an "A" compared with just 15 percent of the control-group parents. The research goes on.

Forty-eight percent of Arizona fourth-graders scored "below basic" on the most recent national reading exam. Arizona's lawmakers, no doubt, view decisions about education policy as deadly serious business, even if others do not.

Control-group studies by Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown researchers trump the sort of no-substance ad hominem attacks offered by opponents. I am happy to give Mr. Ruelas another chance by extending the deadline an additional month.

I suggest calling the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, or the National School Board Association. They have legions of lobbyists and researchers who dislike school choice, and they can offer all sorts of imaginary fears and windy rhetoric on the subject, but nothing in the way of high-quality evidence.

Moynihan warned that "ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance." Mr. Ruelas' glib response certainly qualifies. If opponents of choice can offer no proof to back their assertions, they deserve neither my steak nor anyone's confidence.

This piece originally appeared in the Arizona Republic, Sunday, November 13, 2005

Key Links:

-Goldwater Institute: "The Moynihan Challenge"
-Arizona Republic: "Studies: School choice hurts; steak is tasty"

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