Elizabeth Warren’s $800 billion plan to improve public education, like many of her plans, is admirable in its ambitions but misguided in its approach. If the federal government is going to spend more money on schools, then Americans should be allowed more choice about which schools their children attend.
To her credit, Warren recognizes that competition for the best public schools increases residential segregation, leading not only to greater disparities in student performance, but also to runaway housing costs in preferred districts. The ideal solution would be to sever the link between students’ neighborhoods and their schools by expanding school choice. Indeed, Warren herself once advocated exactly that solution.
Warren’s ideas have since evolved, apparently, tracking the preferences of white Democratic voters, among whom support for charter schools has declined precipitously. Yet the families most acutely affected by racial disparities remain strong supporters: The majority of black and Hispanic Democrats have a positive impression of charter schools.
Warren’s plan not only rejects choice but also seeks to limit it, ending almost all federal funding for charter schools. Her plan relies on more money and a shifting portfolio of mandates to improve performance at low-income schools. This approach has failed countless times over the last several decades.
The relationship between well-funded school districts and strong educational outcomes is clear to every parent. Less clear is whether lack of funding causes weak outcomes.
In 1965 the federal government commissioned the sociologist James Coleman to conduct one of the largest social-science studies ever. His 737-page final report found that while there were enormous racial and economic disparities in educational funding across the U.S., a child’s performance was driven primarily by two factors: the educational background of his parents, and the socioeconomic background of his peers.
Since the Coleman report, legions of researchers have tried to tease out exactly what was going on and whether the seemingly obvious link between school funding and student performance could be proved. Using sophisticated techniques, analysts have been able to detect a relationship — but the results of those studies cast doubt on Warren’s proposal.
Warren’s plan cites two of these studies. Both look at the effect of state-level school-finance reforms that aimed to ensure adequate funding across school districts.
The first study shows that the achievement gap between poorer districts and richer ones can be reduced somewhat by reform. Yet the gap between high- and low-income students, as well as the gap between white and black students, remains.
The authors speculate that this is because not all disadvantaged students are in poor districts. That is, there is enough variation in income and race within both rich and poor districts such that increasing funding for poorer districts has little impact on achievement gaps due to income and race. This explanation is plausible, but it undercuts the argument that residential segregation is trapping poor and minority students in underfunded schools.
The second study also concludes that increased funding makes a difference, using a clever approach that involves predicting how districts would have been affected if they had received it. It also adds this caveat: “Importantly, we find that how the money is spent may be important.”
Warren says that her plan will encourage districts to use federal money in ways that benefit the schools and students who need it most. Yet that very intention highlights a core problem with top-down proposals to improve schools: They presume that experts, rather than practitioners and parents, can determine what’s best for students.
Affluent parents have little doubt about which schools are best for their children, and they are willing to pay exorbitant home prices to ensure that their children can go to those schools. Increasing support for charter schools gives lower-income parents that same ability to choose.
Warren is right that all Americans should have access to “a great public education.” She doesn’t seem to understand that offering parents and students more choice is a good way to provide it.
Karl W. Smith is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina's school of government and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior. He wrote this for Bloomberg News.