Thursday, January 13, 2011

Busing and libertarian-bashing

Writing over at Free Exchange, center-leftist blogger Ryan Avent bizarrely attempts to wield the issue of school busing in North Carolina as a cudgel with which to knock libertarians and the Tea Party:
Opposition to bussing [sic] on these grounds is only about five decades old, and I don't particularly want to get into Nixon-era debates on the subject. But I do want to point out...that schools in which the share of poor students is held below a certain threshold tend to perform much better than others on a range of measures. That is, a low income student will perform better in a school with a low share of low-income students than in school with a high share of low-income students. The intuition behind this is straightforward. There are positive spillovers to being in classrooms with motivated students and to attending schools populated by children with motivated parents. As important, it's easier (and cheaper) to recruit good teachers to schools with low poverty shares.
And so we see a tension within the policy preferences of the Tea Party conservatives. They seem to see bussing plans as an infringement on their liberty. But systems that prevent some schools from becoming concentrations of students in poverty produce better education outcomes for a given level of spending. Poor schools have dreadful outcomes and tend to require expensive remediation efforts. And as students in those schools fall behind, additional pressure is placed on public services at other levels of government—support for poor and unemployed adults, for instance, not to mention greater spending on public safety and imprisonment.
Note that while the entire crux of Avent's argument is based on the theory that busing and the ensuing mixing of the children of low income parents with those from more prosperous backgrounds produces better academic outcomes, he produces absolutely no evidence to support this theory. Indeed, to the extent he offers anything up it is an appeal to mere intuition. Suffice to say, that's pretty weak. More damning, evidence in at least one case suggests that busing students to suburban schools actually worsens their performance.

Anecdotally, a former elementary school I attended practiced a similar approach in which high-performing students were evenly distributed among all classrooms, with the thinking that their good habits would rub off on the others. Nothing I observed lead me to believe this theory played out in reality, and in fact one could make the argument that the reverse phenomenon took place. It's also worth noting that housing policy based on a similar premise -- that dispersing those who use public housing assistance rather than concentrating them in projects would lead to lower crime (presumably through the exposure to more traditional social norms) -- appears to be a failure.
Tea Partiers could maintain intellectual consistency by calling for, in addition to an end to bussing, [sic] an end to public schools, public funding of social services, and a public police force. This they generally opt not to do, presumably because such a platform would be wildly unpopular. But the result seems to be a policy position that's penny libertarian, pound foolish. The limited benefits of increased liberty and public spending associated with reduced bussing [sic] will be entirely offset, and then some, by an increased infringement on liberty from the higher taxes necessary to undertake later efforts at remediation for students failed by the public school system.
Following on his weakly-supported thesis, Avent then remarks that a more intellectually consistent approach by the Tea Party would be to demand the end of public police forces. This is an astonishingly intellectually dishonest tactic on his part which deliberately conflates libertarians with anarchists. If opposition to one government program means that one must oppose all government functions in order to remain consistent, then by the same token it stands to reason that someone like Avent -- who tends to favor a more interventionist government approach -- suffers from his own inconsistently unless he demands government run everything.

Trotting out spurious and/or fact-free claims combined with dishonest attacks on one's ideological foes is an unimpressive two-fer.


Plans to Prosper said...

Is busing in particular such a hot-button libertarian issue? I know plenty of libertarians who do want to end public schools (at least, publicly-run schools), myself included. I can't think of any off the top of my head who want to keep publicly-run schools but just end busing.

Colin said...

Yes, libertarians favor eliminating government-run schools. Among its other effects, this would eliminate the segregation of students based on geography -- both expanding liberty and accomplishing (although perhaps to a limited extent) one of the goals of busing.