Archives: 04/2009

Support For Choice in SC Probably Even Higher Than Reported

I just wanted to follow up on a question Andrew Coulson raised last week about a poll showing a plurality of South Carolina African Americans in support of school choice. Andrew notes:

A new poll released today reveals that 43 percent of African Americans in South Carolina support private school choice while only 40 percent oppose it. What’s even more interesting, however, is that 53 percent said that “giving parents a tax credit or scholarship to choose the best school for their children — public or private — would improve the state’s dismal high school graduation rate.”

So an additional 10 percent of respondents think the program will work but don’t currently support it. Why? Perhaps because many black religious and political leaders in South Carolina have criticized the concept for years.

Certainly opposition from black leadership has probably softened support, but I don’t think that explains the difference in support between the first and subsequent questions. As Andrew notes, the other results peg pro-choice responses consistently at 53 percent.

Here’s the question in full: “Should parents, grandparents or custodial relatives be allowed to receive state scholarships for their children to go to private school if they feel the public school is not meeting their children’s needs?”

First, the description of the tax credit program instead implies a state voucher program. This is bad wording, but probably doesn’t drop support since black support for vouchers tends to be equal or higher than support for credits.

I think the real problem here is the phrase phrase “state scholarships.” This sounds to me like there very well could be conditions, such as academic merit, placed on who is eligible for the “state scholarships.” There are need-based and merit-based scholarships, but they are typically not available to all, and the question is at the very least confusing. This ambiguity, with the suggestion of limited availability, might have softened support/increased undecideds.

In the context of consistent 53 percent support on other, better-worded choice-related questions, I think we can reasonably conclude that poor question wording on the first question likely dropped support for school choice about 10 points.

We really need to be careful with public policy questions … small changes can have a serious impact on the results.

New Study: How President Obama Can Help Restore the Pro-Trade Consensus

Since taking office, President Obama seems to have discovered that anti-trade rhetoric, while popular on the campaign trail, isn’t so useful to a sitting president whose policies will have lasting consequences, says trade analyst Daniel J. Ikenson in a new Cato study.

In “Audaciously Hopeful: How President Obama Can Help Restore the Pro-Trade Consensus,” Ikenson and international trade attorney Scott Lincicome argue that the time has come “to arrest and reverse America’s misguided and metastasizing aversion to trade,” which has “been shaped overwhelmingly by relentless political rhetoric.”

The authors’ suggestions for President Obama include:

  • Establish a “trade transparency initiative,” with the goal of publishing independent findings about the effects of trade and trade barriers on the U.S. economy, without political interference.
  • Reinforce for Congress the fact that a unilateralist trade policy undermines multilateral foreign policy, as well as President Obama’s personal efforts toward repairing America’s damaged image abroad.
  • Craft a pragmatic, principled approach to enforcement of standing trade agreements.
  • Adopt a China policy of carrots and sticks, including a continued push for China to open more of its markets while resorting to the WTO dispute settlement system only when the situation and facts support doing so.
  • Craft a proactive agenda now for implementation when trade consensus re-emerges.

See more Cato research on trade policy.

The Government Shouldn’t Tilt The Speech Playing Field in Its Own Favor

New Hampshire passed a law prohibiting the transfer of doctors’ prescription history to facilitate drug companies’ one-on-one marketing — a practice known as “detailing” — because it believes detailing drives up brand-name drug sales and, in turn, health care costs.  The state knew that the First Amendment prevented it from banning detailing itself, so it made the practice more difficult indirectly. 

Yet data collection and transfer is protected speech — think academic research, or the phone book — and government efforts to regulate this type of speech also runs afoul of the First Amendment.  See, e.g., Solveig Singleton, “Privacy as Censorship: A Skeptical View of Proposals to Regulate Privacy in the Private Sector” (Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 295).  New Hampshire also engages in gross viewpoint discrimination: it exempts insurers’ efforts to persuade doctors to use generic drugs, and runs an “academic detailing” program to discourage brand-name drug use.

Remarkably, the First Circuit reversed a district court ruling that had invalidated the statute as unconstitutional, somehow finding that the statute regulates conduct rather than speech and that, in any event, the judiciary should defer to the legislative branch’s judgment.  Two companies that collect and sell health information and analysis filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the case.  Cato, joining Washington Legal Foundation, Reason Foundation, and a group of current and former state officials, has filed a brief supporting that petition.

Our brief argues that the Supreme Court should grant review because: 1) the speech at issue is worthy of First Amendment protection; 2) this case is a good vehicle for examining First Amendment issues attending state attempts to control health care costs (other states have passed similar laws); and 3) the lower court’s holding that a state may restrict speech to “level the playing field” conflicts with the Court’s precedent regarding both commercial speech and campaign finance regulation.

The Supreme Court will be deciding over the summer whether to grant review, with a decision expected after the “Long Conference,” which precedes the beginning of the new term in October.

Educational Productivity Has Collapsed — NAEP

The latest Long Term Trends results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress are out. They reveal a productivity collapse unparalleled in any other sector of the economy.

At the end of high school, students perform no better today than they did nearly 40 years ago, and yet we spend more than twice as much per pupil in real, inflation-adjusted terms. I can’t think of any other service that has gotten worse during my lifetime. Our school system has failed alone.

While the stagnation in overall achievement masks a 3 to 5 percent gain in the achievement of African American 17-year-olds since 1970, the scores for whites at the end of high school are virtually unchanged.

Anyone who points to the slightly higher scores in the early grades as cause for celebration is missing the point. What parents care about is that their children are well prepared for higher education and future careers at the end of their secondary education. The fact that scores have risen somewhat in the early grades means little since those gains evaporate for the vast majority of students by the time they graduate.

Update: The Associated Press story is now out on the Long Term Trends NAEP results… and it doesn’t mention the long term trends. The story only reports changes in achievement over the most recent 4 year interval of a test whose raison d’être is to reach back to the early 1970s. I wonder why…. Fortunately, the Detroit Free Press does a better job.

Galling Security Ignorance

In a post on Saturday at NRO’s the Corner blog, former Bush speech writer Marc Theissen exhibits ignorance of basic security concepts too galling to let pass without comment.

Attempting to refute the idea that hijacking planes and flying them into buildings was “off the table” as a terrorist tactic after 9/11, Theissen says:

Really? Planes were off the table after 9/11? That would come as a surprise to every passenger in the past three years who had their liquids confiscated in an airport security line. Those security measures were instituted because in 2006 we foiled an al-Qaeda plot to hijack airplanes leaving London’s Heathrow airport and blow them up over the Atlantic (a plot our intelligence community says was just weeks from execution).

(First, put aside some issues - “what the government says about its security measures must be true” and both the immediacy and viability of the liquid bomb plot in London.)

The difference between “hijacking” and “bombing” shouldn’t need explaining. The former is taking over the controls of a thing, enabling an attacker to direct it into other things. The latter is exploding something in it or on it so as to render it inoperable.

Americans ritually donate their toothpaste to sanitation departments in the cities they visit not because a liquid bomb could enable the commandeering of a plane, but because the alleged liquid bomb could take a plane out of the sky.

The bombing of a plane is a serious concern, but not as serious or potentially damaging as the commandeering of an aircraft. And commandeering is essentially off the table. The hardening of cockpit doors, new procedures at the fronts of planes, and newfound resolve of passengers and crews against commandeering have reduced the likelihood of future commandeerings to near zero. That was what the plane going down in Pennsylvania was all about.

If it weren’t made in debate about such serious issues, Theissen’s error would be quite comical. In his jumbled version of events, the liquid bomb plotters were going to go to the trouble of capturing the controls of an airplane, then fly it around for a while, and finally blow it up over the Atlantic. It’s reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine attacks the theory that an elderly couple running a nearby cobbler shop had shut it down just to abscond with Jerry’s shoes:

ELAINE (amused): So. Mom and Pop’s plan was to move into the neighborhood…establish trust…for 48 years. And then, run off with Jerry’s sneakers.

KRAMER: Apparently.

ELAINE: Alright, that’s enough of this.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here.

  • Marian Tupy discusses African aid in his new Development Policy Analysis, “The False Promise of Gleneagles: Misguided Priorities at the Heart of the New Push for African Development,” and an op-ed in the Washington Times.
  • Will Wilkinson argues for more liberal immigration policies in The Week magazine.
  • In Monday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Jim Harper explains why Obama’s record on following through with his campaign promise to post bills online for five days before signing is worse than the Washington Nationals’.