Commentary elevates ideological 'beliefs' over evidence

Commentary elevates ideological 'beliefs' over evidence

By T. Jameson Brewer and Chris Lubienski

In their guest commentary in the Sunday News-Gazette, James Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson, former presidents of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, insist that Illinois must "upgrade" its education system. It is sad that such esteemed figures in Illinois policymaking circles are so willing to engage in evidence-free policy in emulating other states.

Of course, there is real need for change in Illinois schools. And we certainly would not quibble with their first two points: that the funding structures for Illinois' schools are drastically inequitable, and that the school calendar is an obsolete relic. However, Nowlan and Johnson then take a sudden leap from the obvious to the presumptive, making assertions about school choice and competition based simply on what Illinois' neighbors are doing, with no attempt to even consider the results of those policies.In fact, there is a substantial empirical track record for these reforms that deserves attention before policymakers embrace Nowlan and Johnson's fact-free claims.

After making their points about school financing and schedules, Nowlan and Johnson state that they "believe that choice in schooling generates creativity and positive competition." Of course, they are free to believe whatever they want. But their beliefs are not necessarily a good basis for public policy for the children in Illinois.

To support their claims, they simply refer to the fact that choice options such as charter and voucher programs are growing in Indiana, and that Iowa allows cross-district enrollment. Yet in neither case do they tell us anything about the actual effects of these policies, particularly in crucial areas such as student achievement, academic opportunities, and social segregation.

What this leaves us with, then, is simply policy "me-too"ism. Without any evidence on the effectiveness of these measures, Nowlan and Johnson write that "Illinois should follow its neighbors." That's hardly a compelling case, especially considering that those states have very different programs, and for very different reasons.Politicians in Indiana, spurred on by the conservative Friedman Foundation, have embraced choice in the form of publicly funded vouchers for private schools, as well as charter schools, largely for ideological reasons. In contrast, Iowa's choice program is essentially limited to the public school sector.

Yet, even then, Nowlan and Johnson don't bother to tell readers anything about the results of these programs, probably because there is little evidence from these cases. Iowa's program has not attracted much interest, and Indiana's reforms are newer, and are only beginning to draw the attention of researchers.

Yet we have a developed track record on such programs overall. For instance, despite what Nowlan and Johnson seem to suggest, Illinois already has tuition tax credits to support families' choice of private schools, and also has a growing list of charter schools in the state. Other more comparable states, such as Michigan and Ohio, have a longer history with charter schools, open enrollment options, and school voucher programs.Are these programs producing the "creativity and positive competition" policymakers want?Not exactly.

The experience with charters in Chicago, New York and other cities provides ample evidence of these schools excluding students, and too many cases of fraud and corruption.Overall, our research, as well as studies out of Stanford and the federal Institute of Education Sciences, suggest that charter schools usually perform no better, and too often worse, than public schools. After two decades of vouchers and charters, Milwaukee's school system remains in shambles. Charter schools in Ohio are so bad that the attorney general threatened legal action to close the worst offenders.Research (including our own) finds that the charter sector in Michigan has been an entry point for profiteering in public education, where for-profit school management companies open often mediocre charter schools near urban areas, and market these schools to more affluent families, leading to greater segregation.

Nowlan and Johnson's claims surrounding the benefits of school choice lack evidence.In short, their opinion piece should be read as such, as their claims rely more on "beliefs" than evidence.Educational policy should be grounded more on empirical evidence and proven track records than on ideological assumptions and naive "me-too"isms.

T. Jameson Brewer is associate director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education and a Ph.D. student of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois. Chris Lubienski is director of the Forum and professor of Education Policy at the University of Illinois.