Tag: educational choice

School Choice Lawsuits and Legislation Roundup

We’re only at hump day but this week has already seen the filing of a new anti-school choice lawsuit, the dismissal of another, the potential resolution of a third, and the adoption of a new school choice program. [UPDATE: Plus the passage of a second school choice program. See below.]

Alabama: Yesterday, a federal judge dismissed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ridiculous lawsuit against Alabama’s scholarship tax credit program which essentially claimed that the program unconstitutionally violated the Equal Protection clause since it did not solve all the problems facing education in Alabama. The SPLC argued that the law creates two classes of citizens: those who can afford decent schooling and those who cannot. In fact, those classes already exist, but the law moves some students from the latter category into the former, as the judge wisely recognized:

“The requested remedy is arguably mean: Withdraw benefits from those students who can afford to escape non-failing schools. The only remedy requested thus far would leave the plaintiffs in exactly the same situation to which they are currently subject, but with the company of their better-situated classmates. The equal protection requested is, in effect, equally bad treatment,” the judge said.

The scholarship program still faces a lawsuit from Alabama’s teachers union.

Georgia: Anti-school choice activists filed a lawsuit against Georgia’s scholarship tax credit program, alleging that it violates the state constitution’s ban on granting public funds to religious institutions. The lawsuit is longer and more complicated than similar suits in other states, and portions requesting that the government enforce certain accountability measures (e.g. - making sure that only eligible students are receiving scholarships) may actually have merit. However, the central claim that a private individual’s money becomes the government’s even before reaching the tax collector’s hand has been forcefully rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court and other state supreme courts with similar constitutional language.

Kansas: In the best school choice news of the week, as a part of its school finance legislation, Kansas lawmakers included both a scholarship tax credit program for low-income students and a personal-use tax credit. The former would grant corporations tax credits worth 70% of their donations to scholarship organizations that aid students from families earning up to 185% of the federal poverty line. The program is capped at $10 million. The personal-use tax credit grants $1,000 per child in tax credits against the family’s property tax liability up to $2,500 in total for any family without any students attending a government school. [UPDATE: The personal-use tax credit was not adopted in the final committee of conference report.]

Louisiana: A federal judge has mostly sided with the U.S. Department of Justice in its lawsuit demanding that Louisiana fork over data about students participating in the state’s school voucher program, including their race and the racial breakdown of both the government schools they are leaving and the private schools they want to attend. The DOJ wanted that data so that it can challenge individual vouchers if a student’s departure would leave a district “too white” or “too black” (no word yet on whether the DOJ will challenge families whose decision to move out of the district has the exact same impact). However, the judge required the state to provide the data to the DOJ only 10 days before issuing vouchers rather than 45 days beforehand, as the DOJ had requested. A study sponsored by the state of Louisiana determined that the voucher program has had a positive impact on racial integration.

Lawsuits against scholarship tax credit programs in New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oklahoma are still pending. Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina released the following video announcing their efforts to fight the lawsuit:

UPDATE: 

Alaska: Last night, Alaska’s House of Representatives passed a scholarship tax credit program. The bill still has to go to the state senate and the governor.

Cutting the Tie Between Education and Housing

We already have a market in education: the real estate market. Controlling for other factors, houses in districts with higher-performing government schools are more expensive than those in areas with lower-performing schools. In 2012, the Brookings Institution issued a report finding that in “the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.” The report also found that “the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams.”

Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school. That this is a horribly unjust policy for low-income children is obvious and oft-discussed, but what’s often overlooked is that the negative consequences also extend to middle-income families.

With quality education tied to housing, middle-income parents who desire the best for their children must seek out housing in areas with better government schools or scrape together money for private school tuition. Unfortunately, as a new Brookings report reveals, this too-often means purchasing a home that is just barely within a family’s financial means, creating a situation where millions of middle-income families live “hand-to-mouth” with very low levels of liquid savings though they have considerable non-liquid assets. The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien explains:

This shouldn’t be too much of a mystery. Imagine a couple that’s getting ready to have kids, and wants to buy a house near good schools. Well, that’s expensive. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out in The Two Income Trap, buying a house in a school district you can’t really afford is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcies. Couples can only afford the mortgage with both their salaries, so they’ll get in trouble if either of them loses their job. 

But even if everything goes right, they’ll still be cash-poor for a long time. They’ll probably have to use most of their savings on the down payment, and use a big part of their income on the mortgage payments. In other words, the wealthy hand-to-mouth are parents overextending themselves to get their kids into the best schools possible in our de facto private system.

As O’Brien notes, a system of school choice would sever the ties between housing and education, which is a policy that could keep “many people from becoming cash-poor and wealthy—a precarious thing—in the first place.” School choice also provides a passport out of poverty for those students whose parents could not afford an expensive house at all.

The Silver Lining in the Florida School Choice Expansion Loss

Supporters of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship (FTS) program are understandably disappointed that the state senate abandoned legislation to expand the program on Thursday. The FTS assists low-income families that want to enroll their children in private schools by offering tax credits to donors of nonprofit scholarship organizations. This year, the state’s only active scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, was able to aid more than 60,000 students but there were not enough funds to aid the more than 30,000 additional applicants. The proposed expansion would have provided enough funds to aid about 6,000 more students. The bill’s withdrawal therefore leaves 6,000 students without the funds they need to attend the school of their choice.

However, the disappointment should be tempered by a large measure of relief. While the legislation contained several praiseworthy changes and eliminated some red tape (including a requirement that would-be scholarship recipients spend a year in a government-run school first), legislative negotiations threatened to add a poison pill that would have severely affected school autonomy and parental choice.

The FTS currently mandates that all participating schools administer a nationally norm-referenced test. Nevertheless, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz insisted that the FTC expansion bill include a provision requiring that scholarship students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is soon to be replaced by a Common Core-aligned assessment.

While the existing mandate is unnecessary because private schools are already directly accountable to parents, it still allows schools and parents some measure of flexibility in deciding how best to measure performance. By contrast, the proposed state testing mandate would have forced all schools into a uniform testing regime. Since tests dictate what is taught, when, and how, this mandate would have induced conformity at the expense of diversity and innovation. As explained in the open letter on choice and accountability that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others, such mandates undermine the central purpose of educational choice:

Educational choice has also been repeatedly shown to produce far higher levels of parental satisfaction than does centrally planned schooling. That’s because choice empowers parents to find the best education for their children, and test scores are not their only consideration. Research shows that many parents care more about safety and discipline, graduation and college acceptance rates, and moral values.

Dictating uniform standards and tests threatens those other valued features by redirecting educators’ focus from serving families to catering to bureaucrats. It also contributes to a culture of “teaching to the test” that has already resulted in several large-scale public-school cheating scandals.

Children are not interchangeable widgets that can be beneficially fed through their education on the same conveyor belt. Even within a single family, children often learn different subjects at different speeds. Myriad new options are arising in response to that reality that allow students to learn at their own pace in every subject, helping all to fulfill their individual potential — the very antithesis of uniform government mandates.

Fortunately, the FTS already contains an “escalator” provision that allows it to grow over time, albeit not as quickly as it would have under the expansion bill. Hopefully, Florida legislators will take a second look at some of the important reforms that would have expanded access to the program. Meanwhile, other states that are considering scholarship tax credit legislation should learn from Florida’s experience. Design matters.

WaPo Blogger Wrong About School Choice… Again

Once again, the Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Strauss, failed to do her due diligence before posting a hit piece on school choice. A year ago, she falsely claimed that scholarship tax credit programs benefit corporate donors and wealthy recipients. In fact, donors break even at most and the best evidence suggests that low-income families are the primary beneficiaries even in the few programs that are not means-tested. Unfortunately, Strauss has still failed to issue a correction.

Now Strauss has posted an op-ed from an anti-school choice activist in Florida that contains numerous additional errors, which the good folks at RedefinED.org have thoroughly debunked, including the following canard:  

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

Not only did the op-ed’s author fail to correctly explain the law, she failed to understand that school choice is accountability. As explained in an open letter that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others: “True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs.” 

Moreover, the claim that “private entities receive public tax dollars” is also false. The money flows from private donors to private nonprofits to private citizens to spend on their children’s tuition at private schools. That the donors receive a tax credit does not transmogrify their donation into “public” money. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this view erroneously “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.” Likewise, neither tax deductions for donations to a church nor the church’s own property tax exemption mean that churches are therefore funded by “public tax dollars.”

The Washington Post has an in-house fact-checking team. They should not have to rely on RedefinED.org or others to ensure the veracity of what their bloggers post. 

Educational Choice IS Accountability

There’s been a lot of confusion over what constitutes “accountability” in education lately. In response, representatives of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, and the Center for Education Reform have issued a joint open letter explaining why the best form of accountability is directly to parents.

To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced and their prescription is inimical to the most promising development in American education: parental choice.

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.

This confusion about accountability is not limited just to tests. It even extends to personnel management. An example of this confusion comes to us today from a Republican legislator in Tennesee:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, a voucher critic, has filed an amendment that would tweak Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill by requiring private schools that take public scholarship dollars to use the controversial Tennessee Evaluator Acceleration Model [TEAM] to grade its teachers.

The reason government schools need such heavy-handed evaluation systems is because tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “School and Staffing Survey,” during the 2010-11 school year, only 1.9 percent of Tennessee teachers were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to poor performance, up from 1.1 percent in 2007-08.

By contrast, private schools have greater flexibility than government schools over hiring, firing, and evaluating teachers. They’re also held directly accountable to parents, so there is market pressure not to retain teachers who perform poorly.

Moreover, the legislator’s argument that the government should force its evaluation system on private entities because they are accepting students who are publicly subsidized is patently absurd. It’s like arguing that all employees at grocery stores that accept food stamps or hospitals that accept Medicaid must be evaluated according to the same metrics as DMV employees.

State and local governments have the prerogative to devise whatever accountability measures they deem necessary to operate their schools and manage their employees. Private schools should continue to enjoy the freedom to set their own goals and to determine how best to measure their own performance and we should empower parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.

New Lawsuit against School Choice Program

A North Carolina teachers union and fellow defenders of the government’s near-monopoly over education filed a lawsuit against the state’s school voucher program for low-income students, joining half a dozen other lawsuits against educational choice programs around the country. Plaintiffs made the same, tired, factually-inaccurate arguments against letting low-income parents choose where to send their children to school that we’ve come to expect. For example:

“Vouchers are bad public policy,” said Mike Ward, former state school superintendent and one of the plaintiffs. “They tear away millions of dollars that are badly needed by the public schools.”

Apparently no one told Mr. Ward that 22 of 23 studies found that public schools improved their performance in response to the competition that school choice programs generate. The last study found no statistically significant impact. NC’s government-run school system is in dire need of competition. As Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina point out, the latest report card from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction reveals that “nearly 70 percent of low income students in North Carolina failed to meet proficiency standards.”

The lawsuit argues that the voucher program violates Article IX, Section 6 of the North Carolina Constitution, which requires that “all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to the State for purposes of public education…and not otherwise appropriated by the State… shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.

DOJ Still Fighting School Choice in Louisiana

Last week I noted that it was “long past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its embarrassing lawsuit which would keep black kids in failing schools.” The Louisiana Department of Education released a study that completely undermined the DOJ’s case against the state’s school voucher program, showing that the program increased racial integration in most of the schools under federal desegregation orders and had a miniscule impact in the remainder.

Today, Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard reports that the DOJ has dropped part of its fight against school choice in Louisiana:

The Obama administration’s Justice Department has dropped a lawsuit aiming to stop a school voucher program in the state of Louisiana. A ruling Friday by a United States district court judge revealed that the federal government has “abandoned” its pursuit of an injunction against the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a state-funded voucher program designed to give students in failing public schools the opportunity to attend better performing public or private schools. 

“We are pleased that the Obama Administration has given up its attempt to end the Louisiana Scholarship Program with this absurd lawsuit,” said Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in a statement. “It is great the Department of Justice has realized, at least for the time being, it has no authority to end equal opportunity of education for Louisiana children.”

The move may have resulted from the bad press or a sudden acceptance of common sense, but more likely it was a simply legal maneuver to prevent the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Goldwater Institute, representing parents of voucher recipients, from intervening in the lawsuit as defendants. As Warren reports:

On Friday, Judge Ivan Lemelle of the U.S. district court of the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled the parents could not intervene in the case because the feds are “no longer seeking injunctive relief at this time.” Lemelle explained that in the intervening months since the Justice Department filed suit, it had made clear both in a supplemental filing and in its opposition to the parent group’s motion to intervene that it was not seeking in its suit to end the voucher program or take away vouchers from students.

Lemelle continued: “The Court reads these two statements as the United States abandoning its previous request that the Court ‘permanently enjoin the State from issuing any future voucher awards to students unless and until it obtains authorization from the federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case.’”

Lemelle will hold an oral hearing on Friday, November 22, during which Justice will make its case for the federal review process of the voucher program. In his statement on Friday’s ruling, Jindal criticized the federal government’s efforts.

“The centerpiece of the Department of Justice’s ‘process’ is a requirement that the state may not tell parents, for 45 days, that their child has been awarded a scholarship while the department decides whether to object to the scholarship award. The obvious purpose of this gag order would be to prevent parents from learning that the Department of Justice might try to take their child’s scholarship away if it decides that the child is the wrong race,” said Jindal. “The updated Department of Justice request reeks of federal government intrusion that would put a tremendous burden on the state, along with parents and teachers who want to participate in school choice.”

In other words, the DOJ is still seeking the legal authority to prevent low-income kids from escaping failing public schools if the feds say they have the wrong skin color.

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