Tag: education

Two Terrible Tastes That Taste Even Worse Together

Few things irk me more than human-interest anecdotes parading as objective journalism, or college students/graduates complaining about how much money they owe – and think someone else should pay – for their educations.

Perhaps in a bid to break some sort of irritation record, yesterday the USA Today combined these two odious phenomena into one wretch-inducing article about how just cruelly difficult it can be to rid oneself of the student debt one freely entered into.

I won’t go into a detailed dismantling of the piece. Read it for yourself and you’ll see that it really is nothing but a long series of anecdotes delivered with way too little information to have any idea why the debtors shouldn’t, you know, take responsibility for debt they freely incurred. I’m just going to highlight one vignette that sickly typifies just how rationally and morally bankrupt (pardon the pun) both the sentiments of some debtors, and the article, are:

Lenders often fail to offer relief to the neediest borrowers, says a report issued last month by the National Consumer Law Center.

“I feel like it’s a real shame that people like me are coming out of college, weighed down by all this debt,” says Austin Light, 24, a journalist for The Mecklenburg Times in Charlotte. He and his wife have $100,000 in student loans. “My dream is to be a full-time children’s book author and illustrator, and if I wasn’t shackled with this debt, I would be pursuing that.”

In how many ways is this galling?

  • We don’t know anything about why Mr. and Mrs. Light have $100,000 in student debt, but we are supposed to become morally indignant just because they feel “weighed down” by it? Did they go to very expensive schools? Did it take them each seven beer-soaked years to graduate? Who knows, but since average student debt for graduates who have any debt is only about $20,000, the rational conclusion must be that they did nothing to control their costs.
  • We don’t know what these two studied, but we do know that Mr. Light really wants to be a children’s book author and illustrator. Well, you don’t need to go to college for that, especially one so expensive you incur a debt that even Stephen King – much less a neophyte kiddie lit author – might have trouble paying back.
  • Given the overall context of the article, readers are presumably supposed to feel that it should be easier for the Lights to discharge their debts in bankruptcy. But why should people who lent them the money, especially taxpayers who have no choice but to back federal loans, have to take losses on loans that these two freely agreed to pay back when they took them? Isn’t the word for that “stealing”?

Unfortunately, this seems all-too representative of the growing sense of entitlement exuded by many student interest groups. Students should get all the benefits of an education, but someone else should pay for it! And their will is being done in Washington, with several pieces of aid-enhancing, loan-forgiving legislation (which I sketch out here) having been passed in the last couple of years; the Serve America Act – which includes taxpayer-funded education stipends for qualifying “volunteers” – enacted in April; and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), according to the USA Today article, planning to re-introduce legislation that would allow private student loans to be discharged under bankruptcy.

And we wonder why higher ed costs, among other things, seem to be out of control…

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?

***

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.

***

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

School Choice Going, Going, Gone Bipartisan (In Some States)

The USA Today takes note of the fact that support for school choice is growing among Democratic, often black, politicians:

While vouchers will likely never be the clarion call of Democrats, they’re beginning to make inroads among a group of young black lawmakers, mayors and school officials who have split with party and teachers union orthodoxy on school reform. The group includes Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams.

I’d only add that this broadening support is hardly limited to black Democrats, and that support for education tax credits is spreading even more quickly among Democrats. And while choice might never become a Democratic “clarion call,” it just might become the new consensus among serious education reformers in both parties.

For instance, a Democrat-controlled and, I assume, mostly white legislature in Rhode Island passed a donation tax credit. And Democratic governor and legislature in Iowa raised their tax credit dollar cap by 50 percent in 2007. The paper mentions black mayor Corey Booker’s support for school choice in New Jersey, but the white, former Democratic state party chair, and current state Senator Ray Lesniak is also pushing for a donation tax credit bill.

The model case is Florida. When the Florida legislature passed its education tax credit program to fund private school choice in 2001, only one Democrat supported the measure. Last year, the state legislature expanded the program with the votes of one third of statehouse Democrats, half the black caucus and the entire Hispanic caucus.

In the past few weeks, nearly a third of Senate Democrats and half of House Democrats voted to significantly expand the program’s revenue base. Virtually all Republicans did the same, and Republican Governor Crist is expected to sign the bill soon. In all, 43 percent of state Democratic legislators in Florida voted in favor of education tax credits.

The toothpaste is out, and the teachers unions can’t put it back in with all the dues money in the world.

Do I Agree with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?

Well, sort of. From today’s USA Today:

Duncan recently acknowledged D.C.’s woes, calling its public schools “a national disgrace.” But he added: “We have to be much more ambitious for ourselves and have higher expectations — we have to help every child in D.C. The answer is not vouchers for a few. It’s massive change, massive reform for all, absolutely as quickly as possible.”

Yes! They are a disgrace, and we do need quick, massive change from the current government-run system!

So Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports broad-based education tax credits or a massive expansion of the DC voucher program, right? What radical change! He is the heroic reformer everyone says he is!

Oh … wait … by “massive reform for all, absolutely as quickly as possible,” he means another pipe-dream 5-year plan to brow-beat a huge, unwieldy, and ossified government school bureaucracy into thriving mediocrity while killing a voucher program that actually brings immediate improvements to the more than 1,700 students who won the lottery for educational opportunity in the District.

Way to set your ambitions so high, Arne!

A Dialogue on School Choice

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. The next installment is here.


Rev. Darby

Rev. Joe Darby

Opening Comment, Con

My local newspaper, The Charleston Post and Courier, recently affirmed their continuing editorial suggestion that we “give School Tax Credits a Try.” I think that’s a very bad idea.

My wife is a public school teacher – and an excellent one at that. She spends much of her time either shaping young minds or preparing to do so, even supplementing meager supplies at her own expense and using creative means to reach and teach children described as “at risk.” Her school is almost 100% “free lunch,” but her students score well on state tests because she’s a good teacher. Most of her colleagues who labor under difficult circumstances are excellent teachers too. Rather than simply blaming an ominous “public education establishment,” we should note the truth – objective studies show that private education is not always a winner. A 2008 United States Department of Education study of the District of Columbia voucher program found that students in the program generally did no better on reading and math tests after two years than their public school peers.

A mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students. The major beneficiaries of private school choice in South Carolina will not be poor families, for the tuition tax credits and scholarships proposed will not cover the cost of many good private schools and will leave parents to take up the slack and to provide other things like uniforms, transportation and extracurricular activity fees. The major beneficiaries will be affluent parents who will simply have more disposable income when their share of their children’s tuition is decreased.

Before we give school tax credits a “try” we should first give equitably funded, staffed and equipped public schools a “try,” for many southern states have never done so. Excellence in public education for African-Americans was frowned upon after the Post Civil War period of reconstruction. In Paradoxes of Segregation by R. Scott Baker, Charleston, SC School Superintendent A.B. Rhett touted what was Burke Industrial School in 1939 as a place to “supply cooks, maids and delivery boys.”

His views matched those of the political powers that be when South Carolina’s schools were separate and unequal. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954, but South Carolina held out until the 1960’s. Our legislatively ordained strategies to maintain segregation included allowing parents to “choose” their children’s public schools and giving state “scholarships” to white parents who sent their children to private schools established to maintain segregation – the same essential strategies in the present quest for school tax credits. Many predominately African-American schools were woefully underfunded, and when whites fled the public schools for private schools, public schools sank into a state of chronic neglect. We can’t label public schools as “failures” when we’ve failed our schools. When we fully and equitably fund, equip and staff all public schools, we can then “try” tuition credits, for parents can then choose between quality public and private schools – although that might be bad for the private school business.

I serve as the pastor of a church in peninsular Charleston, where architectural preservation is serious business. Homes and businesses that have been long abandoned or neglected and are all but falling over aren’t torn down – they’re rebuilt and restored in spite of years of chronic neglect. If we can do that for neglected homes, then we should also acknowledge our past failings and do the same for our public schools instead of simply tearing them apart or abandoning them.

***

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

Opening Comment, Pro

On paper, the United States offers its citizens a solemn promise: work hard and you can succeed here – regardless of your race, sex, creed, or family wealth. But there’s a catch. To secure a good job you first need a good education. On paper, we’ve taken care of that, too. Over the past 150 years we’ve built up a monumental system of free state-run schools that aims to ensure every child access to a quality education.

In reality, it’s all lies.

If you’re in the top fifth of wage earners, there’s just a one-in-a-hundred chance that you are functionally illiterate. If you’re in the bottom fifth or have no income at all, the odds are that you cannot understand a newspaper or follow the directions on a pill bottle. Despite the relentless efforts of generations of reformers, America’s system of public schooling has failed in its most essential duty. We are not equipping all children to succeed in private life and participate in public life. America’s meritocratic promise is a lie.

What can we do about it?

There are those who still believe that the existing system can be fixed. Having compared different kinds of school systems from ancient Greece to the modern day, and from the poorest to the richest nations on Earth, I am convinced that that effort is futile. The problems with the status quo are endemic to its design.

Public schooling hasn’t failed so many children for so long because teachers weren’t smart enough, or paid well enough, or because classes were too large, or the federal government played too small a role. It has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field. Public school teachers are hamstrung by regulations and are paid based on time served rather than classroom performance. Parents are not free to seek out the public or private educational setting best suited to their children, they are extorted into the state system because of its monopoly on $12,000 per pupil in government funding.

But should we prevent people from trying to fix it? Certainly not. If they think they can bring to public schooling the same incredible progress that other human endeavors have experienced over the past forty years, more power to them.

By the same token, no one who wants what’s best for kids should stand in the way of a program that would give parents educational alternatives today. Our children cannot wait to see if the current generation of public school reformers will somehow succeed where their predecessors failed.

I’m an engineer by training and a geek by nature. I advocate programs like the one under consideration in South Carolina because the evidence overwhelmingly supports them. Scientific studies comparing this kind of free enterprise education system to conventional public schooling favor the free enterprise approach by a margin of 15 to 1.

Others advocate school choice for more personal reasons. DC school voucher recipient Carlos Battle wrote a poem explaining his gratitude and commitment to school choice, and delivered it to the rally here last week in support of that program:

surrender me from the typical stereotype of a

black young man

one who slings rocks, smokes weed, and keeps a

gun at hand

i am a whole different guy

one who reads books and wears a tie

you see, I’m changing the perception of a young

black man

i’m climbing the ladder of success - try and stop

me, try as hard as you can….

 

Please don’t.

Please don’t stop Carlos or the children who would follow him up that ladder.

***

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

 

Patching up the Education Monopoly

The Eli and Edythe Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations have sponsored a report, “Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success,” on how to spend $100 billion of “stimulus money” on improving America’s schools, according to Jay Mathews in The Washington Post. Ideas include national standards, better teacher evaluations, special help for struggling students, and more.

But let’s try a thought experiment. Bill Gates made his money in software. Eli Broad made his money building houses. Imagine a slightly different universe, say one in which Henry Wallace and Al Gore had become president, and we had monopoly providers of both software and housing. How good do you think the software and the housing would be? And if the U.S. Department of Technology and the U.S. Department of Housing announced that they would be spending another $100 billion, what would happen?

minitelIt seems clear that the way to improve housing and software in that world would be to open the fields up to competition, or even to privatize them. A government monopoly provider of software would be lucky to have given us Minitel by now. And monopoly provision of housing was tried in much of the world during the 20th century, with poor results. So if we were afflicted with these albatrosses, surely we’d recognize that deregulation, competition, and privatization would produce better results by far.

So then why don’t we realize it when we’re afflicted with a virtual government monopoly on the provision of education? Why are zillions of smart people studying and debating how to improve the performance of a sluggish, stagnant, tax-funded government monopoly? Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure that we’d see the failure of the software or housing monopoly either. Whatever enterprise the government chooses to monopolize – and there’s really nothing inherent or inevitable about which enterprises that will be – will most likely become a massive bureaucratic undertaking, and we will find it difficult to imagine how the enterprise could be privately run.

But Bill and Melinda, Eli and Edythe, Jay, Barack – the evidence on monopoly vs. competitive provision of services is out there. To a great extent it’s the history of the 20th century. Check it out.

Barack Obama “Fatally Conceited” on Education

The AP reports today that president Obama wants the nation’s school districts to close 5,000 failing schools and re-open them with new principals and teachers. Here is why this won’t work:

  • Typically, public schools only dismiss teachers when they are forced to reduce their workforce for budget reasons, but the president has just infused the system with $100 billion to prevent such dismissals. And when teachers are let go, it is done starting with those with the least seniority, not the lowest performance. So the hundreds of thousands of teachers displaced from failing schools will simply move to other schools rather than being replaced by better teachers. This has been going on for decades. It is called “the parade of the lemons.” Overall, it achieves nothing.
  • The new principals who take over the formerly failing schools have to come from somewhere. So for every school that gets one of the system’s “good” principals, there will be another school that loses one. Public schooling has no incentive structure to ensure that it can identify, hire, and retain competent administrators to strengthen its ranks.

What the president is trying to do in education – as in the auto industry – is to replace the web of market forces that close failing businesses in the private sector with his own personal diktat. This is Hayek’s Fatal Conceit.

The market solves the problem of failing schools by allowing consumers to chose the ones that serve them best, which simultaneously accomplishes two things: it drives failing schools to either improve or go out of business, and it provides incentives for the expansion of successful schools and the hiring of effective teachers and administrators.

As I wrote here, and in expanded and updated form in vol. 3, no. 1, of the Journal of School Choice, the international scientific evidence reveals the overwhelming superiority of market over monopoly schooling. President Obama’s educational dirigism will fail.