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Funding Students Instead of Institutions: Corey DeAngelis on School Choice

“If a private school underperforms, it shuts down. If a charter school underperforms, it shuts down. If a district-run school underperforms, it gets more money.”

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Most US K-12 students are in the public school system. 82% study in the traditional school system and about 6% in public charter schools. But would that be the case if families and students were given a choice?

Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at Reason Foundation, author and co-author of over 30 peer-reviewed pieces on the topic, says no. He argues that public education funding should follow the student instead of institutions to give families a high degree of choice on the education their children will receive.

Why should everyone care about school choice? How to fund public education? What will happen with a Biden Administration? How to deal with school choice criticism? These were some of the questions Mr. DeAngelis answered.

Mr. DeAngelis spoke with us at El American in an exclusive, hour-long interview that has been edited for clarity and conciseness. For a full version of the interview, click the video above.

First things first, what is school choice?

School choice is funding students instead of institutions, it’s the idea that a child’s education dollars should follow them whenever they’re getting an education, so, that could be the traditional public school where children tend to be residentially assigned to, or that money could follow the child to a charter school, or a private school, religious or non-religious private school and that money could also be used to cover home-based educational costs as well.

We have so many other taxpayer-funded initiatives that already work this way. If you think about higher education, we have Pell Grants and the GI Bill for veterans where the money goes to the student. The student can pick a public or community college that they want or they could also take that money to a private university of their choosing. We don’t tell students using Pell Grants that they must use that funding at a residentially assigned community college, for example.

And you can go on and on with examples, with food stamps, for example. You don’t even have to be for or against food stamps to agree that if we are going to have that money allocated from the taxpayer to the system, it should go to a person that could have a choice in the matter, instead of a government-run grocery store. With food stamps, you can take the money to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Safeway. The family has a choice in the matter. 

Many people who tend to support funding families or students directly when it comes to higher education or pre-K level get all up in arms when it comes to all the in-between years K-through-12. Why would you support it for all these other institutions, all these other systems, but not when it comes to K-12 education? There is a difference in power dynamics.

When it comes to K-12 education, there is a special interest that profits from getting your child’s education dollars regardless of that choice. So, of course, they are going to fight really hard from allowing families to take their money to a different institution.

Why should everybody care about school choice in the US today, whether you have children or not, whether you’re a teacher or not, or are involved somehow in K-12 education? 

There aren’t any good arguments against it, first of all. The main argument against it is that it “defunds the public schools,” to which I respond that school choice doesn’t defund public schools, public schools defund families. School choice initiatives just take that money and return it to the hands of the rightful owners: the families. Education funding is supposed to be meant for educating the child, not to protect a government monopoly. 

You can take the money back to the public school if you want, and if the public school is doing a good job, they won’t be defunded in any sense of the word. Do you ever hear the argument that allowing families to choose their grocery store “defunds” Safeway or Walmart? That would be absolutely ridiculous, right? Because everybody understands that your money doesn’t belong to Safeway, it doesn’t belong to Walmart. It doesn’t belong to any of these institutions.

I similarly argue that it shouldn’t belong to any schooling institutions either, public or private. It belongs to the family because the purpose of education funding is the child. So, there are no good arguments against it. When it comes to K-12, we’re dooming children to a poor educational environment just to protect a special interest, which is a huge problem, we shouldn’t trap families into the system. 

The other moral argument here is that advantaged families already have a certain degree of school choice. If you already have a lot of money you’re more likely to be able to afford to purchase your way into the best public schools by buying a home in a fancy neighborhood, which happens to be residentially assigned to the best public schools in most places in the US.

You’re more likely to be able to pay out of pocket for private school tuition and fees if you’re a more advantaged family. So, school choice in a sense is an equalizer: at the same time, it allows the funding to follow the student and it funds the student directly allowing for more opportunities and more choices for a larger section of the population, which leads to more equity.

Earlier this year there was a law in New Hampshire trying to limit access to charter schools and private education funding, etc. and one of the arguments from one of the senators was, and I will paraphrase, that uneducated parents shouldn’t be able to decide what to do with their children’s education. What do you say about that?

It’s the paternalistic argument against school choice, and I think it’s the worst argument that anybody can make against it. You don’t have to be an expert educator to pick a school. You don’t have to be a doctor to pick your doctor. But it’s even worse than that because it implies that people who tend to come from a lower-income part of the community can’t make a choice, which is an absolutely ridiculous argument. 

Let’s say that you’re in a bad position economically. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make choices for your own family. I would argue that low-income families have more incentives to get the decisions right about their own children’s education. They have much more incentives and information than bureaucrats sitting in an office hundreds of miles away. The bureaucrat might not even know the name of your child. How will they know the best educational environment for any particular child more so than the individual family?

In my view, some families at some point may make a bad decision for their individual circumstance, but it’s not like there are not bad outcomes happening in the traditional school system. And the reality is that families are more likely to get that decision right than bureaucrats. 

Let’s talk about the current pandemic in the US. What relation do you see between current in-person classes restrictions and the fight for school choice in the US?

Families are seeing that the public system just isn’t going to be for them this year. I think it’s mostly from different incentives in the public school system. Think about the response in the private sector, if you look at private schools, daycares, grocery stores, and other businesses, they’ve been fighting really hard to reopen their doors for business and, in some places like in Kentucky, some of the religious schools are taking the fight up to the Supreme Court to fight against their governor to try to reopen their doors for their customers and their families.

Contrast that with the public schools and the teachers’ unions in so many places. They’ve been fighting to keep the schools closed. I don’t think it’s because people in one sector or the other are inherently better people or worse people. I think it has more to do with people rationally responding to the messed-up incentives we have today in the traditional public school system.

Long story short, one of these sectors gets your money regardless of whether they open their doors for business. So, it’s arguably rational for teachers’ unions to call to keep the schools closed because they understand they get your money regardless. Just imagine what would happen if your local grocery store received the same amount of money from you each week regardless of if they open their doors for business. They’d have a much different set of incentives in front of them than they have today. 

If your grocery store doesn’t reopen in your neighborhood, you can take your money elsewhere. Similarly, if your school doesn’t reopen families should be able to take their children’s education dollars elsewhere. We should fund the students instead of the institutions because, again, money is supposed to be for educating children; it’s not supposed to be going to buildings regardless of if they are providing adequate education and this year, whether they are providing any in-person instruction at all.

So, families are seeing that they’re getting the shorter end of the stick and that they’re getting a really bad deal and they’re re-evaluating how they fund education. So, I think families are seeing that “Well, I’m doing much of the work if I’m homeschooling and if I’m meant to pay out-of-pocket for a private school, why shouldn’t some of that money follow my child to where they are getting an education?”

In fact, the latest national poll we have on this information is by RealClear Opinion Research. They found that support for school choice has actually gone up by about 10%, from 67% in April to 77% in August. That’s a huge jump, and it’s because so many families are seeing that there’s no good reason to fund institutions when you can fund the student directly instead.

According to an EdChoice poll, about 75% of parents are very or somewhat concerned about their children getting exposed to COVID in their schools. Do you think that they are using all this for political gain or are they actually worried about the situation?

I think it’s a little bit of both. There’s a huge difference between the private and public school sector. I’m sure people in private schools are concerned about the risks of the pandemic. But they weigh those risks, tradeoffs and benefits, and they return to work understanding that if they don’t, they don’t get a paycheck. I think that every single individual school district should have the choice to reopen or not. I think every single teacher should have the choice to return to work or not.

But families need the choice too, and if the reopening decision that is made by the school district doesn’t work, families need to be able to have some type of power in this relationship, and the only way to do that is to fund the student directly.

Three studies look at the relationship between teachers’ unions’ influence and reopening decisions in schools. I was the first one to do a study on this. It’s actually available at Social Science Research Network. My co-author and I and these other two studies have all found that places that have stronger teachers’ unions are less likely to reopen their schools for in-person instruction. We also found no statistical relationship between the reopening decision and the covid risk in the surrounding areas.

I think it’s that our public school system has a messed-up set of incentives where the people in the system understand that they could not show up to work but still get the same amount of job security benefits.

There’s tons of evidence now that suggests that it’s safe to reopen schools and that there isn’t a strong indication of a link between reopening schools and transmission of the virus. Anthony Fauci, just a week or two ago on ABC News said that substantial data suggests that transmission from children and among children is not a huge issue.

The CDC director recently said there’s tons of data suggesting we can safely reopen schools. Brown University’s Emily Oster has tracked positivity rates in the schools relative to the overall community. She found that case rates are much lower in schools than in the overall community, which suggests that the schools aren’t causing upticks in the community.

Another piece of evidence is from UNICEF, which released a report from 190 different countries suggesting no consistent link between the reopening of schools and upticks in the transmission of the coronavirus. So, there’s tons of data, and it doesn’t seem like it’s very science-based, it seems more of a power grab and a political play.

You just mentioned that the pandemic had a positive impact on the perception of school choice. But at the same time, we have a potential administration that will likely be, in a worst-case scenario, aggressive against school choice, in a best-case scenario, maybe indifferent but not likely to improve it. So, how do you think that, in the next four years, both things will play out?

I think we’ll get many school choice programs passed in 2021 at the state level. It’s good that about 90% of the education funding at the K-12 level comes from the state and local levels. So, even if you have someone in charge at the federal level who isn’t very supportive of school choice, you can still get a lot done at the state level.

A few weeks ago, Ohio’s governor signed a bill, expanding the state’s private school voucher program by 25%. That’s a win, and it wasn’t at the federal level, and it’s arguably better than if we get something passed at the federal level because there’s more money available at the state and local levels. If we look at the results of the 2020 elections at the state legislatures, many states are looking very good for expanding school choice. 

Yet, there’s some risk to school choice with the new administration. If you look at Biden’s top two names for Secretary of Education, they are closely tied to the US’s biggest teachers’ unions. One of them is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation for Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union. The other one is Lily Eskelsen García, the former president of the largest teachers’ union in the US, the National Education Association. 

If you look at Stef Feldman’s (Biden’s National Policy Director) interview with the Education Writers Association, she said they’re going to implement policies to take away funding from charter schools if they don’t meet this or that criteria. 

Then, during that same conversation, the policy director was asked: “well, what about the traditional schools that aren’t providing results?” Because we have a lot of those, and the policy director said: “When it comes to those they just need more money, we just need to throw more money at that problem because they don’t have enough resources.” The policy director gets it absolutely backwards because charter schools in the US overwhelmingly get less money on a per people basis than traditional public schools. 

If charter schools do not provide results, why over three million families and students are choosing charter schools in the US each year? Why do you see hundreds of thousands of students on charter schools waitlists trying to get in if they are not a better option than their residentially-assigned traditional public school? 

They also argue for a defund of for-profit charter schools. Only 12% of charter schools are managed by for-profit entities, but at the same time, who cares if a charter school is for-profit if it’s doing a good job? Why take away money from the school that’s doing a good job for its customers? Profit is a good thing when it’s driven by voluntary selections. Profit is not a good thing if you’re profiting off of a geographic monopoly when your customer doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

You mentioned one of the greatest criticisms of school choice. It goes to say that charter schools and private schools don’t have enough oversight. An EdWeek study said that among the almost 30 states with private school choice programs, only 11 of them require teachers who have a BA degree, 14 mandate criminal background checks on all staff, and only 6 of them require reporting graduation rates. Don’t you think that these programs actually need some stronger oversight?

If a private school underperforms, it shuts down. If a charter school underperforms, it shuts down. If a district-run school underperforms, it gets more money. The reality is that private and charter schools are directly accountable to families. It’s not that all these regulations have led to high quality in the traditional public school system. Red tape doesn’t lead to quality. What actually leads to true accountability and quality is bottom-up accountability, not top-down accountability. 

Still, there are some regulations in place for private school choice. For example, with an Education Savings Account, the money has to be spent at a government-approved expenditure. So, when I say allow the money to follow the child, you can’t use it for booze or non-educational other expenses.

I think that kind of regulation is OK, but when you get into things like the teachers’ have to have a government certification, I don’t think that has led to a huge amount of quality expansion in the public school sector, and it actually is a barrier to labor market entry for a lot of educators who could do a really good job. Let’s say you are a retired economics professor, in some states, you won’t even qualify to be a public school teacher. Private schools have a little more flexibility with that; they have access to a much larger labor market supply, which could be a competitive advantage for private schools. 

Some people on the left have started a sort of “war on homeschooling.” Take, for example, Elizabeth Bartholet, from the Harvard Law School.  She’s been deeply critical of homeschooling and in an interview said, “many homeschooling parents are extreme ideologues committed to raising their children within their beliefs systems isolated from any societal influence.” Don’t you think that school choice, in general, might be next after this war on homeschooling? 

Elizabeth Bartholet’s 80-page Arizona Law Review article calls for what she says to be a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling. It’s actually an all-out ban on homeschooling if you look at the deep tales of her proposal because she says even if you prove yourself worthy to the elites and the government that you can homeschool your child in your own household, she’d still want to require those families to send their children to the government-run schools.

In that same article, at the very end of the 80-page article, she has a little section on private schooling, which kind of hints that she might come after private schooling because she says that private schools have a lot of the “same problems” as the homeschool populations because of religion or other things. I think that she’s kind of hinting at a presumptive ban on private education as well, based on my reading of that 80-page article. 

Her main argument for banning homeschooling is using extreme outliers of negative cases of abuse or extreme educational neglect. She applies that to the entire population of homeschoolers trying to paint with a broad brush to make homeschoolers look bad and, essentially, make everybody prove their innocence, which is exactly backwards of how we usually do in the US.

Usually, the burden of proof is on the government, the proof of why they should take your liberties away. She says that the burden of proof should be on families to get permission from the government to prove that they’re innocent and not guilty. Just imagine if that logic was applied to so many other areas in our everyday lives, it would infringe in so many of our individual liberties. But that’s her main MO: to use exceptions to prove the rule.

The downside of online education during the pandemic and public education, in general, is disproportionally worse among minorities. So, how can school choice help minorities get a better education for their children? How do you think the Republican Party and its better support among minorities, especially Latinos, should take this as a policy to pursue and get more support among minorities?

Keeping the schools closed and not having school choice simultaneously leads to inequities by race and income levels. If you look at individual school districts like Fairfax County public schools, their failure rates for students failing two or more classes jumped 83% from last year. In Saint Paul, MN, high school students’ failure rates in their public school system actually increased by 127%.

So, we’re seeing that the inequities are growing as well. Keeping the schools closed is adversely affecting the least advantaged in society, which is a great argument to open the schools and give families the option of whether they want virtual or in-person.

It’s also a good argument to fund the students directly so that families could choose if they want a public school or choose a Catholic, private, parochial, homeschool setting, pandemic pod or micro-school setting. That would lead to more equity and I think this could be a very beneficial policy area for Republicans to start talking about more if they want to get a larger section of the vote.

There was a Wall Street Journal article on how DeSantis won Florida’s governor’s race in 2018. WSJ made the case that it was “school choice moms” that, who would’ve not otherwise voted for De Santis actually voted for him in large numbers. This is interesting when you look at the fact that Florida has over a hundred thousand students using just one of their private school choice programs. 

So, when you get families benefiting directly from these types of options, it creates a new special interest. We hear about the teachers’ unions being a special interest all the time, trying to take away options from families. But once you get school choice, you can create a new, special interest: the families fighting for their own children. It leads to more equity; it leads to more competition; it benefits family from all different backgrounds; the voters from both parties support it.

It also benefits teachers. A lot of the teachers complain rightfully so that the additional dollars aren’t going towards their salaries. The thing is we put more and more money into the public school system each year. Since the 1960s, we’ve increased inflation-adjusted per-person education expenditures in public schools by 280%. But if you look at just between 1992 to 2014, inflation-adjusted education expenditures went up by 27%, but teachers’ salaries in real terms actually dropped by 2%. 

So, the money is all going toward administrative and support staff and to the teachers’ unions. If you add competition through school choice, the teachers would see more of that money because the public schools would see they better spend their money wisely.

What better way to spend it wisely than to spend it on the teachers, since they are such an important educational resource? And there’s only five studies that I know of on this particular topic, all five of the studies find that school choice competition, either through private school choice or charter school choice, they all find that, in response to that competition, public school teachers actually get higher salaries.

Last question, what do you see in the future of school choice in the US? Do you see a Biden administration attacking school choice? Do you see Republicans and even some Democrats at the state level fighting for school choice? What do you see in the next four years and beyond?

I’m thinking 2021 is going to be the year of school choice. If you look at the election results at the state legislatures, they are looking good when it comes to passing private school choice programs, like Education Savings Accounts and that’s where the bulk of the money is. It’s at the state and local levels. We’re probably not going to see an advancement of school choice at the federal level. We might see some attacks from the federal level when it comes to funding charter schools. But other than that I’m feeling pretty good at the state level for school choice expanding.

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