The Incompetent Parent Principle

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One of the major arguments given against educational vouchers by opponents of school choice is that parents – meaning poor, inner-city parents – are intellectually unequipped to choose schools for their children, if they are allowed to do so. No, these parents (unlike affluent parents and school administrators) are just too stupid to choose good schools. So it is better to keep their kids in the existing, bad schools.

Those of us who support vouchers have always found that argument specious on the face of it. To begin with, the people who say parents are not competent to choose their children’s schools have no problem with those same parents choosing their children’s doctors, or (for that matter) choosing elected representatives who oppose vouchers – as, ironically, many inner-city parents do.

But there is a limit to the persuasive power of mere argumentation. Observational data are always of welcome use. The fall edition of the Cato Journal has a nice article on this very issue: “Parental Valuation of Charter Schools and Student Performance,” by James VanderHoff.

VanderHoff, an economics professor at Rutgers University, consulted New jersey’s fairly extensive data on charter schools. In particular, he was able to look at waiting lists for these schools. This allowed him a measure of control in analyzing the data. Different charter schools have different educational missions, but looking at the length of the wait- ing lists allows us – as will be shown – to assess the degree to which an academic focus (as opposed to, say, a focus on sports, or the newness of the schools’ facilities) attracts parental interest. Remember, charter schools cannot charge tuition or use academic entrance exam scores to select for admission. Instead, they use a random lottery admissions process when the number of students desiring admission exceeds the available slots.

In New Jersey, the average waiting list for the 42 charter schools is 184 students, and the average number of openings is 40. Thus, a survey restricted to parents of students now in a charter school will leave out of the data set 80% of the relevant pool (on average). Moreover, some schools have longer waiting lists than others, so weighting schools equally is apt to overlook crucial determinants.

So VanderHoff looked at the size of the waiting list compared to a variety of other factors, including such variables as: the test scores at a school at a given time; the test scores of the grade equivalent students at regular public schools in that district at that time; the race and economic status of the students; and other school characteristics (class size, teachers’ salaries, student-teacher ratios, instructional time, and so on).

Given the great diversity of schools in New Jersey, the state’s long history of comparatively free school choice (Le., limited, but larger than that of most other states), and the fact that it is one of the few states that keep waiting list figures, it is a good data source to use for this kind of analysis.

The result of his statistical analysis of the data is clear. The primary factor in what makes parents want to send their children to a school is that school’s academic success and its endorsement of academics. Indeed, a l0% increase in a charter school’s test scores causes the number of students on the waiting list to rise over 60%. And schools that push academics in their mission statements had a 75% increase in the number of students on the waiting list, all other factors held constant. Those other factors had either a small or a statistically insignificant impact on the size of waiting lists.

The results support the idea that parents are indeed both desirous of seeing their kids succeed academically and able to figure out which schools will focus on academics. The par- ents are not incompetent, despite the slanders of the teachers’ unions.

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