Tag: education

Ditching Collective Bargaining Won’t Control Public School Costs. Here’s What Will…

Lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are seeking to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public school employees as a means of controlling runaway spending (it has tripled in real terms since 1970, despite stagnation or decline in student achievement at the end of high school–see the last chart in this post). But even if collective bargaining is forbidden to state school employees, the savings will likely be negligible.

Surprising as it may seem, that conclusion follows directly from the research on school employee unions, which I reviewed last year for the Cato Journal. Differences in spending between school districts with and without collective bargaining are modest to non-existent. Does this mean that the unions are impotent and that their members have been wasting their $600 annual dues payments? Not quite.

Though employee compensation varies little from one school district to the next, based on the presence or absence of collective bargaining, public school employees enjoy far better compensation than their private sector counterparts. The combined salary and retirement benefits of public school teachers are 42 percent larger than those of private school teachers (see link above).

Public school employees win this generous compensation premium through political action backed by monumental campaign contributions. Democrats receive the overwhelming share of these contributions (93% from the NEA; 99% from the AFT, see Cato Journal link), but many Republican lawmakers are also swayed, fearful that the unions will finance their primary opponents the next time they face voters.

To further increase their clout, union leaders have sought to grow their membership. More members mean more dues revenue with which to influence legislators. In this regard, too, they have been enormously successful: the number of public school employees has grown ten times faster than the number of students for two generations—a major factor in the system’s exploding cost and collapsing productivity (see figure below).

Public school employees clearly understand that union membership has benefitted them handsomely in both compensation and job security. Over the past forty years, union membership as a share of the public school workforce has increased from 42 percent to 70 percent. Even if collective bargaining were eliminated tomorrow, school employees would have every reason to continue funding the self-interested political action that has served them so well in the past.

So what would provide a counterbalance to unsustainable union demands?

To find the answer, it helps to know that while union membership was rising in the public sector it was falling steadily in the private sector—to just 6.9 percent of the workforce in 2010 (see figure below). The reason is simple: when a business makes excessive concessions to a union and is thereby forced to raise prices above those of its competitors, it loses customers. As it loses customers, it lays off workers. If this situation continues, the business fails. Private sector unionization is thus self-regulating to a significant degree.

Public school employee unions, by contrast, have no direct competitors. They cannot drive their employer out of business because there is only one employer in the sector and its existence is mandated by law. The only real solution to the spiraling cost of our state school monopolies is thus to open them up to private sector competition, so that both parents and taxpayers have an alternative to the no-longer-affordable status quo.

There are several ways of doing this, of which education tax credits seem the most promising. In Florida, Arizona and other states, taxpayers can claim a dollar-for-dollar credit for donations to non-profit scholarship organizations. These organizations, in turn, subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. In Illinois and Iowa, families who pay for their own children’s education are eligible for tax credits to directly offset part of the cost.

Though most of these programs currently impose tight caps on the total value of credits available, they are already generating substantial savings to taxpayers while simultaneously expanding the choices available to families. Florida’s k-12 scholarship donation credit saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, and the new private sector competition has improved achievement in public schools.

So while curtailing collective bargaining won’t rein in out-of-control spending, introducing real private sector competition will. And as the final figure reveals, we have got to get spending under control….

…..

Update: I should add that, as NRO’s Rich Lowry notes, the plan for the state to stop garnishing public school employees’ wages and sending the money to the union is highly commendable. If employees want to pay union dues, they should be free to do so, but the choice should be theirs.  Of course, since public school employees benefit very handsomely from the status quo monopoly (see below), it’s likely that most will continue to pay voluntarily for the lobbying and political contributions that will preserve their above-market compensation. So it’s still the case that introducing private sector competition is the best way to control education costs.

I Hope to See a LOT More of This…

In Indiana the other night, two grassroots groups–one on the left, the other on the right–got together to discuss the merits of state schooling, home schooling, and private school choice programs. There doesn’t seem to have been any high-profile organization orchestrating the event. It was just two groups of citizens getting together to try to find the best way forward on education policy. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend.

How to Think & Talk About Vouchers & Ed Tax Credits

School Choice Week is here, and there are a lot of people trying to spread the good word about the benefits of increasing educational freedom.

But what benefit of choice is best to focus on?

You can make at most a few points in an oped or on talk radio. On TV, and even in print reporting, you’re lucky to get one point across. And with friends and family, and even politicians, you need to keep the focus where it will do the most good.

So, should you focus on how horrible inner-city schools are, how many lives are destroyed in a failing government system? Maybe. Depends on the person, certainly.

But the evidence suggests that the best message overall is one that focuses on the financial benefits of school choice (and this is even before the financial crisis). People think about vouchers and education tax credits differently. And be careful trying to pull at Democratic heart-strings with arguments that choice will increase educational equity for poor kids … there’s evidence that it backfires!

Take a look at this slide presentation that describes how the public thinks about private school choice, what you should emphasize, and what you should be careful with … it’s not just my opinion, it’s based on evidence from a unique message experiment:

“… your month, or even your year”

At one time or another over the past two decades, most school choice supporters have felt like the subject of the “Friends” theme song; that it hasn’t been their day, their week, their month, or even their year.

Things are different now. For one thing, choice programs have proliferated and grown over time, more are being introduced this year than perhaps ever before. And for another, well, this IS their week: the first national School Choice Week.

Events are being held all over the country to celebrate the idea that families should be able to easily choose the best schools for their kids, and that schools should have to compete for the privilege of serving them.

Here at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, we’re dipping into the future to see what it holds. How are large scale public/private school choice programs working out in countries that have had them for two or three decades? To find out, we’ve invited the founder of the largest private school chain in Sweden and a Chilean economist researching his own nation’s program to share their experiences and findings on Friday at noon.

Given how alien for-profit k-12 schooling appears to most Americans, imagine the reaction Peje Emilsson got in 1999 when he proposed founding a chain of for-profit schools in Sweden. Already the founder of a multinational communications firm, Peje broached the idea with some of his nation’s top entrepreneurs and economists. If you’d like to find out what they had to say, and how his idea has turned out in practice, you won’t get another chance any time soon. Hope you can join us on Friday – to register for free, click here!

On Federal Education, Think Progress Should Think Harder

Over on the Think Progress blog, Ian Millhiser accuses Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) of never having read the Constitution. His grounds for the accusation? Coburn, citing Jefferson, doesn’t think that the Constitution gives the federal government authority to provide such things as Pell Grants and student loans.

Writes Millhiser:

Sen. Coburn might want to try actually read the Constitution before he pretends to know what it allows. Article I provides that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” a grant of power that unambiguously empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them on programs that are broadly beneficial to American welfare — such as education.

Moreover, while Coburn’s reference to Thomas Jefferson is true in the narrowest sense of the term, it also betrays Coburn’s ignorance of constitutional history. During the Washington Administration, Jefferson and James Madison led a minority coalition which believed that Congress’ constitutional power to spend money was too narrow to support spending programs such as the First Bank of the United States. President Washington, however, rejected their arguments. Moreover, while Coburn is correct that President Jefferson briefly referenced his narrow view of the Constitution in his 1806 State of the Union, Jefferson was an extreme outlier by this point in American history. Even Madison parted ways with Jefferson by the time Madison became president in 1809.

This might be a classic pot-kettle situation. At the very least, it is utterly impossible to say that the general welfare clause “unambiguously” empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them – with massive strings attached, of course – on education. Indeed, that the general welfare clause does anything other than introduce the specific, enumerated powers that follow it was expressly rejected by Madison in Federalist no.  41, in which he wrote:

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

The general welfare clause, quite simply, confers no power – it just explains why the specific powers that follow it were given.

But didn’t Alexander Hamilton – who had Washington’s ear – reject that notion? Well yes, in his 1791 Report on Manufactures he suggested that the federal government could do almost anything as long as it was done in the interest of the entire nation. But his report was not only shelved by Congress at the time, Hamilton’s argument was quite different from what he wrote in the Federalist Papers. Though speaking  specifically of the taxation and  ”necessary and proper” clauses, in Federalist no. 33  Hamilton wrote that seemingly broad powers were given to Congress only to execute “specified powers:”

[I]t may be affirmed with perfect confidence that the constitutional operation of the intended government would be precisely the same, if the clauses were entirely obliterated, as if they were repeated in every article. They are only declaratory of a truth which would have resulted by necessary and unavoidable implication from the very act of constituting a federal government, and vesting it with certain specified powers [italics added]. This is so clear a proposition, that moderation itself can scarcely listen to the railings which have been so copiously vented against this part of the plan, without emotions that disturb its equanimity.

How about the argument that Jefferson’s quaint small-government beliefs were way out of date by 1806? Well, they sure weren’t on education.

For one thing, it is notable that President Washington probably had a more expansive view of the federal government’s role in education than one might expect. He wanted a national university, after all. But he didn’t get it – that notion was well out of sync with the limited federal government most Americans wanted. 

Next, Coburn was actually quoting Jefferson from Jefferson’s call for federal involvement in education, an idea that went nowhere because it would have constituted more federal intrusion – not less – than most Americans wanted. Indeed, Jefferson was generally on the big-government fringe of his time when it came to education. He only got the University of Virginia after four decades of trying, and never got the rudimentary public schooling system he wanted for Virginia.  Most people at the time simply didn’t think government’s role – especially the federal government’s – was to run education.

One last bit of information demonstrates just how truly mistaken Millhiser is in his attack on education ”tenthers.” In 1943 – when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president – the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House, published The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution. It noted in a section titled “Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution:”

 Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

Even FDR’s people, apparently, didn’t find that the Constitution ”unambiguously” gave Washington authority to involve itself in education – quite the opposite!

In light of all this, it is clearly not Mr. Coburn who can reasonably be accused of having never read the Constitution. Indeed, not only has he almost certainly read it, it seems he has even taken the time to understand it.

The Private Sector Lacks What?!?

So there I was, checking e-mail this morning on my JooJoo when I came across this editorial about how the private sector lacks accountability unless the government provides it through regulation! This naturally caused me to expectorate New Coke all over over myself and my Apple III, forcing me to toss my Levi’s Type 1 jeans in the wash and hop back in the shower. (You know, that Touch of Yogurt shampoo by Clairol is really… uh… something).

Twenty minutes later I was still so preoccupied about responding to the editorial that I backed over my neighbor’s Segway as I pulled the Edsel out of the garage. Oops. Sorry Dean.

Anyway, once I got into the office I popped a couple of Ben Gay Aspirin to ease my now ferocious headache, but realized as I did so that I’d left my Colgate Kitchen Entree frozen dinner at home. Argh!

You get the idea, yes?

The fact that consumers have demands, and that they can go elsewhere if you fail to meet them, makes producers accountable. We see this in every sector of the economy. Provide a product or service that people don’t want, take away one that they do want, or charge more than they are willing to pay, and they will kick you right in the bottom line.

The result is the same in education as in other fields: the least regulated, most market-like education systems consistently outperform highly regulated state-run school systems such as we have in this country—across every measure people care about.

Regulations are an attempt, crude and usually unsuccessful, to imitate the accountability inherent in competitive markets. So as long as you allow market forces to work in education, and you allow people to allocate their own money rather than taxing it and spending it through the state, regulations are not only unnecessary they are generally counterproductive. (Milton and Rose Friedman had a good chapter on this in Free to Choose.)

Note that this is true under both personal use education tax credits (for parents’ own education costs) and scholarship donation tax credits (in which taxpayers donate to non-profit organizations that subsidize education for the poor). If a scholarship organization becomes corrupt or inefficient, taxpayers can easily redirect their donations to better-run competing organizations. The accountability is built into the system’s design. No other private school choice program has this feature, and certainly public schools do not.

There is no evidence that layering government regulations on top of this market accountability system improves outcomes, and ample evidence that heavily regulated school systems perform badly. Unless those facts change, there is good reason to fight off attempts to regulate private schools under education tax credit programs.

Remarkable Interest in School Choice in Colorado?

In Douglas County, CO, a jurisdiction with 240,000 residents south of Denver, there is strong public interest in the possible implementation of a sweeping school choice program.  Here’s a blurb from the Denver Post:

Douglas County School District officials say an unexpected level of interest in a retreat exploring school choice today and Saturday is forcing them to add an overflow room and a video feed to allow the public to watch the discussion. The school board is investigating a voucher program that would allow students to use public money to help with tuition at approved religious schools and other private ones. The two-day retreat will discuss the findings of a school-choice task force that has been mulling several issues, including vouchers.

…The board will officially discuss the school-choice recommendations at a meeting Tuesday night, during which the public will be allowed to comment. No Colorado school district has a voucher program.

Here’s a link to the full proposal. I’m told that parents will have a voucher for about $4,500 per child that can be used to finance tuition at any qualifying school. This is more than enough money to cover costs at most non-government schools, and the population is sufficiently large to make this program a dramatic test case.

Keep your fingers crossed that Douglas County officials resist special-interest groups that are seeking to thwart this reform. The teacher unions have been vicious in their efforts to stop this kind of development. If Douglas County succeeds in putting kids first, this could break the logjam and lead to better education policy across the nation.