Tag: educational choice

ACLU v. Nevada Children

The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it is filing a legal challenge against Nevada’s new education savings account program. The ACLU argues that using the ESA funds at religious institutions would violate the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states “No public funds of any kind or character whatever…shall be used for sectarian purposes.”  

What “for sectarian purposes” actually means (beyond thinly veiled code for “Catholic schools”) is a matter of dispute. Would that prohibit holding Bible studies at one’s publicly subsidized apartment? Using food stamps to purchase Passover matzah? Using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and priests on the payroll? Would it prohibit the state from issuing college vouchers akin to the Pell Grant? Or pre-school vouchers? If not, why are K-12 subsidies different?

While the legal eagles mull those questions over, let’s consider what’s at stake. Children in Nevada–particularly Las Vegas–are trapped in overcrowded and underperforming schools. Nevada’s ESA offers families much greater freedom to customize their children’s education–a freedom they appear to appreciate. Here is how Arizona ESA parents responded when asked about their level of satisfaction with the ESA program:

 Parental satisfaction with Arizona's ESA program

And here’s how those same parents rated their level of satisfaction with the public schools that their children previously attended:

Parental satisfaction among AZ ESA families with their previous public schools 

Note that the lowest-income families were the least satisfied with their previous public school and most satisfied with the providers they chose with their ESA funds.

Similar results are not guaranteed in Nevada and there are important differences between the programs–when the survey was administered, eligibility for Arizona’s ESA was limited only to families of students with special needs who received significantly more funding than the average student (though still less than the state would have spent on them at a public school). By contrast, Nevada’s ESA program is open to all public school students, but payments to low-income families are capped at the average state funding per pupil ($5,700). Nevertheless, it is the low-income students who have the most to gain from the ESA–and therefore the most to lose from the ACLU’s ill-considered lawsuit.

The Reigning School Choice Champion

On Monday, Education Next released the results of its 2015 survey on education policy. Neal McCluskey already summarized the key findings, but I want to highlight one finding in particular: scholarship tax credits (STCs) are the most popular form of private educational choice. 

STCs received the support of 55 percent of respondents compared to somewhere between 47 percent and 51 percent for charter schools (depending on whether the survey first explained what charter schools are), 27 percent to 46 percent for universal school vouchers (again, depending on the wording of the question), and 34 percent to 41 percent for low-income vouchers. Unfortunately, the survey did not ask about education savings accounts.

2015 Education Next survey: types of choice

Support for STCs was even higher among parents (57 percent), African-Americans (60 percent), and Hispanics (62 percent). This is not surprising since minorities are more likely to be low-income and therefore choice deprived. Those voicing support for STCs more than doubled those opposed in the general public (26 percent) and more than tripled the opposition among African-Americans (16 percent) and Hispanics (18 percent).

Previous Education Next surveys–as well as the Friedman Foundation’s survey last year–also found the most support for STCs among school choice policies. 

"A proposal has been made to offer a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools. Would you favor or oppose such a proposal?"

Support for STCs dipped slightly from a high of 60 percent last year, but it is still higher than any other year since Education Next first started asking the question in 2009. (They did not ask about STCs in 2013.) However, the poll also revealed the second highest level of opposition since 2009.

In the Friedman Foundation’s 2015 survey, released in July, scholarship tax credits, school vouchers, and education savings accounts all received high levels of support that were within the margin of error of each other when the question was prefaced with an explanation of how the policy worked:

  • Scholarship tax credits: 60 percent support, 29 percent opposition;
  • Education savings accounts: 62 percent support, 28 percent opposition;
  • School vouchers: 61 percent support, 33 percent opposition.

However, when not preceded by a prompt, only 39 percent of respondents supported school vouchers while 26 percent were opposed. (The other questions were only asked with an explanatory prompt because few Americans are familiar with STCs or ESAs.) Charter schools were the least popular with 53 percent in support and 27 percent opposed.

Encouragingly, support for STCs and ESAs in the Friedman poll was highest among Americans aged 18-34 with 72 percent and 75 percent support respectively. These results may well indicate a coming school choice tidal wave.

The School Choice Myth That Just Won’t Die

The myth that there’s no evidence that school choice works has more lives than Dracula. Worse, it’s often repeated by people who should know better, like the education wonks at Third Way or the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate education committee. In a particularly egregious recent example, a professor of educational leadership and the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education wrote an op-ed repeating the “no evidence” canard, among others:

The committee also expands the statewide voucher program. There is no evidence privatization [sic] results in better outcomes for kids. The result will be to pay the tuition for students who currently attend private school and who will continue to attend private school—their tuition will become the taxpayers’ bill rather than a private one. Additionally, the funds for the expansion would siphon an estimated $48 million away from public schools, decreasing the amount of money available for each and every school district in the state.

It is astounding that a professor and a dean at a school of education in Wisconsin would be unfamiliar with the research on the Milwaukee voucher program, never mind the numerous gold standard studies on school choice programs elsewhere. Fortunately, Professor James Shuls of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Martin Lueken of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty set the record straight:

Why the World’s Poor Choose to Pay Private School Tuition

In The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, researcher James Tooley documented how low-cost private schools operated in the world’s poorest areas, from the slums of Hyderabad in India to remote mountain villages in China and shanty towns in Kenya. According to the international development crowd, these schools shouldn’t exist – after all, the governments in these areas provide schooling at no charge. Why would the poorest of the world’s poor pay for something they could get for free?   

The answer, of course, is that they know they get what they pay for. As one father in poverty-stricken Makoko, Nigeria put it:

“Going to the public school here in Nigeria, particularly in this area in Lagos State, is just… wasting the time of day… because they don’t teach them anything. The difference is clear… the children of the private school can speak very well, they know what they are doing but there in the public [schools], the children are abandoned.”   (Page 129, emphasis in the original.)

A recent article in The Economist illustrates this phenomenon:

THE Ken Ade Private School is not much to look at. Its classrooms are corrugated tin shacks scattered through the stinking streets of Makoko, Lagos’s best-known slum, two grades to a room. The windows are glassless; the light sockets without bulbs. The ceiling fans are still. But by mid-morning deafening chants rise above the mess, as teachers lead gingham-clad pupils in educational games and dance. Chalk-boards spell out the A-B-Cs for the day. A smart, two-storey government school looms over its ramshackle private neighbour. Its children sit twiddling their thumbs. The teachers have not shown up. 

What’s the difference? It mostly comes down to a matter of incentives. Asked why parents choose to pay private school tuition when the government schools are “free,” one government school principal in Ghana explained: 

It’s supervision. Proprietors are very tough. If teachers don’t show up and teach, the parents react. Private schools need to make a profit, with the profit they pay their teachers, and so they need as many students as they can get. So they are tough with their teachers and supervise them carefully. I can’t do that with my teachers. I can’t sack them. I can’t even remove them from [the payroll] if they are late or don’t turn up. Only the District Office can. And it’s very rare for a teacher to be sacked. (Page 71.)

It’s no wonder then that private schools are proliferating in the world’s poorest areas. According to The Economist, hundreds of new private schools are opening in Lagos, Nigeria, many of them charging less than $1 a week. In poor countries, official estimates show that private schools now educate more than one-fifth of all students, double the proportion a decade ago. And even that figure probably underestimates private school enrollment since a high proportion of private schools in poor countries are unregistered. As The Economist notes, “A school census in Lagos in 2010-11, for example, found four times as many private schools as in government records.”

The market is still emerging and although the private schools tend to outperform the government alternatives, that isn’t a very high bar. Parents often lack access to information about school performance from reliable sources. Schools have an incentive to exaggerate their performance, so some in the international aid community want the government to set and enforce national standards and mandate national exams. However, there is no good evidence that national standards or testing drive performance. Moreover, as The Economist observed, ”where governments are hostile to private schools, regulation is often a pretext to harass them.” 

The absence of government standards does not imply the lack of any standards. In a competitive market, schools have an interest in demonstrating to parents that they provide high-quality education. The rapidly expansion of the private sector will create opportunities for non-profit or for-profit private certifiers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, as The Economist highlights, there are low-cost ways to provide parents with the information they need:

In a joint study by the World Bank, Harvard University and Punjab’s government, parents in some villages were given report cards showing the test scores of their children and the average for schools nearby, both public and private. A year later participating villages had more children in school and their test scores in maths, English and Urdu were higher than in comparable villages where the cards were not distributed. The scheme was very cheap, and the improvement in results larger than that from some much pricier interventions, such as paying parents to send their children to school.

In a corresponding editorial, The Economist calls on the governments of poor countries to “boost” private education through school vouchers “or get out of the way.” The editorial also argues that “ideally” the governments should “regulate schools to ensure quality” and “run public exams to help parents make informed choices” but also observes that “governments that cannot run decent public schools may not be able to these things well; and doing them badly may be worse than not doing them at all.” Indeed

Rather than lobby the often-corrupt and/or incompetent Third World governments, the best thing NGOs could do to improve education would be to grant scholarships directly to the poor and provide private certification and/or expert reviews of schools. If we want to ensure that even the world’s poorest children have access to a quality education, schools should be held directly accountable to parents empowered with the means to choose a school and the information to choose wisely. 

The Year of Educational Choice: Update IV

This is the fifth post in a series covering the advance of educational choice legislation across the country this year. As of my last update in mid-June, there were 13 new or expanded choice programs in 10 states. Since then, South Carolina has adopted a new school choice program and three states–Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin–have expanded existing programs, bringing the total to 17. That’s considerably more than the 13 new and expanded programs that led the Wall Street Journal to dub 2011 the “Year of School Choice.”

Educational Choice: Getting It Right

Over the last couple weeks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been holding its second annual Wonk-a-thon. In the wake of Nevada enacting a groundbreaking, nearly universal education savings account (ESA) law, Fordham asked practitioners, scholars, and policy analysts what Nevada must “get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers.”

Readers can vote for the wonk who offered the wisest analysis here. For a summary of the various recommendations, see here.

ESAs have the potential to radically remake the education landscape. Rather than choose just a single school, parents can use ESA funds for a variety of educational goods and services. Students may spend part of a day in a classroom, part on a computer, and part with personal tutors. Someday, students may even learn in “education malls” where they will choose from among numerous education providers for each subject, each with a different approach or focus. Or perhaps there will be explosive growth in full or partial homeschooling or blended learning. Frankly, we cannot predict with any certainty how education will change over the next few decades in a robust market.

The Year of Educational Choice: Update III

This is the fourth post in a series covering the advance of educational choice legislation across the country this year. As I noted in my last entry in May:

[At the beginning of the year,] the stars appeared to be aligned for a “Year of Educational Choice.” By late April, state legislatures were halfway toward beating the record of 13 states adopting new or expanded school choice laws in 2011, which the Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Year of School Choice.” The major difference in the types of legislative proposals under consideration this year is that more than a dozen states considered education savings account (ESA) laws that allow parents to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services and save for future education expenses, including college.

Since the end of May, five more states enacted new or expanded educational choice programs, bringing the total to 13 new or expanded programs in 10 states so far this year. Of these, the most exciting new choice program is Nevada’s education savings account, the fifth ESA in the nation and the first to offer nearly universal eligibility.

In addition, at least eight states are still seriously deliberating educational choice legislation. Here’s the tally so far:

New Educational Choice Programs

  • Arkansas: vouchers for students with special needs.
  • Mississippi: ESAs for students with special needs.
  • Montana: universal tax-credit scholarship law.
  • Nevada: tax-credit scholarships for low- and middle-income students.
  • Nevada: nearly universal ESA for students who previously attended a public school.
  • Tennessee: ESAs for students with special needs.

Expanded Educational Choice Programs

  • Alabama: Raised the annual scholarship tax credit cap from $25 million to $30 million and raised the contribution cap from $7,500 to $50,000. However, the expansion came at a price: the legislation lowered income eligibility threshold from 275 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent (from about $67,000 to about $45,000 for a family of four). Current scholarship recipients are grandfathered in.
  • Arizona: Expanded ESA eligibility to include students living in Native American tribal lands.
  • Arizona: Expanded the types of businesses that can receive tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations.
  • Indiana: Increased amount of tax credits available for donations to scholarship organizations ($2 million over two years).
  • Indiana: Eliminated cap on the number of vouchers available for elementary school students.
  • Louisiana: Expanded school voucher program (funding roughly 600 additional vouchers).
  • Oklahoma: Expanded eligibility for its special-needs tax-credit scholarships and raised the tax credit value from 50 percent–tied with Indiana for the lowest in the nation–to 75 percent. 

Pending Legislation 

  • Delaware: Considering ESA legislation.
  • Florida: Earlier this year, both the FL House and FL Senate unanimously passed slightly different versions of legislation to expand the state’s ESA program. However, due to a legislative standoff over unrelated matters, the legislature failed to reach an agreement before adjourning for the summer and the legislation appeared to be dead. Nevertheless, on Monday legislative leaders reached an agreement to include a significant expansion of the ESA program in the budget, more than doubling the funding and expanding the eligibility requirements to additional categories of students with special needs. 
  • North Carolina: Both the NC House and NC Senate passed budgets that expanded funding for the state’s voucher program and increased the size of vouchers for students with special needs.
  • Ohio: Considering an expansion to the state’s school voucher program.
  • Pennsylvania: Considering an expansion to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit.
  • Rhode Island: Considering ESA legislation.
  • South Carolina: The legislature is considering a new “refundable” scholarship tax credit that blurs the line between tax credits and vouchers. A wiser path would be expanding the state’s existing scholarship tax credit to include all students and provide enough tax credits to meet demand for scholarships.
  • Wisconsin: The WI Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved an expansion to the statewide school voucher program that eliminates the restrictive and arbitrary 1,000-student enrollment cap. The proposal would also make students with special needs eligible.

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