A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 2

The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. Our initial comments were posted Tuesday. The next installment is here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

First Response

Since this is a “dialogue,” let me focus on something that Andrew said in his first installment – that public education “…has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field.” I take that as a defense of the “free market,” where competition allegedly leads to quality and success. I don’t think that the “free market” is the best model for education. To quote African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop John Hurst Adams, one of my mentors, “the free market has limitations when it comes to the human condition, because it’s an amoral concept that ‘lets the market decide’ who swims and who gets swept away.” That’s applicable to the standard argument that private school choice would improve public schools through “competition.”

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Public funds going to private schools would revive that tradition, for every tax dollar that “follows” a child to private schools in tough economic times will lead to understaffed and under-equipped public schools. Public school funding is set by legislators who are well aware that their constituents without children in the schools are loathe to fund them, and who’ve catered to those constituents by cutting funding for public education. There can be no true “competition” between public schools that only receive public funds and private schools that would have public and private funds at their disposal, for the free market turns on available capital.

The economic crisis now rocking markets in our nation and the world is also instructive. That crisis was, at least in part, created by policies that deregulated the free market and promoted not only innovation, but sheer greed which crafted a shaky, “house of cards” economy that has collapsed and taken people down with it. The lesson now, as it was during the Great Depression, is that unregulated free market activity can have disastrous results. I believe that the current financial crisis is also an element in the push for Private School Tuition Tax Credits. Many private schools are hurting because parents who can no longer afford high tuition are considering public school alternatives – private schools are hungry for the “bailout” that the pending South Carolina legislation would provide.

America makes the lofty claim in our Pledge of Allegiance to be “one nation under God.” If we’re serious about that, then we should heed the words of the Jesus who is seen as the Messiah by Christians and as God’s prophet by Jews and Muslims. He said that the Creator’s standard for right behavior includes equitable treatment for all people. That equity is at the heart of public education but is not a factor in free market competition, where the vagaries of the market decide outcomes and impact success in life. I said so six years ago in one of my conversations with my friend Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina. He laid out his argument for private school choice over more funding for public schools in familiar, logical and compellingly Libertarian free market terms, but he never answered one question that I asked – why can’t we provide good public schools because it’s simply the right thing to do?

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The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

First Response

Glad you brought up the objective studies, Joe, but you only mentioned one of them. I recently collected every scientific study I could find comparing outcomes between public and private schools (Journal of School Choice, vol. 3, no. 1). I came up with 65 studies that compare student achievement, cost-effectiveness, parental satisfaction and other measures. The results overwhelmingly favor private schooling. What’s more, the least regulated, most-market-like school systems stand out as the best of all (here’s an earlier version of the paper).

Interestingly, there’s one study I couldn’t include because it wasn’t released ‘til a few weeks ago. It’s the 3rd year DC voucher study (the successor to the one you mentioned), and it shows that students who’d been attending private schools for the full 3 years are 2 school-years ahead of their public school peers in reading! Even including the kids who’ve only been in the program for 1 year, the vouchers are now producing significant gains.

And there’s no evidence that school choice weakens the public schools. Professor Jay Greene looks at this question in his book Education Myths. He finds that public schools either improve under school choice programs, or are unaffected. So even the families that don’t choose to attend private schools will likely be better off, and certainly no worse off, than they are now.

Who would be the biggest beneficiaries of the SC education tax credit bill? Low-income kids. As noted in the preamble at the top of this column, only low-income families would be eligible for tuition aid from Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The amount of aid each family could receive from an SGO is not capped, so that assistance can be allocated based on individual need. Pennsylvania already has such a tuition-assistance program, serving over 40,000 students with bi-partisan support.

Parents who earn enough to owe state taxes would be eligible for direct tax credits to offset their own kids’ education costs, but those credits are explicitly capped (at around $2,800, if their kids are not zoned to attend a “failing” public school – more if they are).

It’s certainly reasonable to wonder how poor families would cope with transportation and any non-tuition costs, but we can just look at how scholarship tax credit programs are working in states like Pennsylvania and Florida: some schools provide transportation, some are within walking distance, some families form carpools, and others use public transportation. Tens of thousands of poor children manage to get to their private schools under these programs every day, and to obtain uniforms for the schools that require them. Many others do so even without scholarships.

As for wanting to start by fully funding public schools… we’re already there. The 2007-08 budget for Charleston public schools lists total expenditures at over $548 million (p. 21) for 40,202 students (p. 4). That’s $13,650 per pupil – more than the state and national averages, which are both about $12,000. These numbers are vastly higher than the median U.S. private school tuition, which the Department of Education reported as $3,500 in 2003-04 [the most recent year available]. And only about a fifth of private school revenue comes from sources other than tuition. Even if tuitions have doubled since then, they’d still be barely half of Charleston’s per pupil spending.

I’ll have to wait ‘til next time to address your concern about the history of school choice, since I’ve run out of word count. In the meantime, here’s a thought:

There’s nothing wrong with trying to fix the public schools. But you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.