Tag: school choice

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.

“… 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!

If They Gave Out Awards for Good Policy Design…

…the folks in South Carolina would be top contenders for the gold.

Here’s the thing: all the evidence shows that educators are human beings like the rest of us and that education benefits from the same market freedoms and incentives that have driven progress in every other field. So how do you unleash those market forces so that our kids have the best shot at fulfilling their potentials? For a start:

  • You minimize regulation on what and how teachers teach.
  • You make it easy for families to choose whichever schools (or homeschooling) they deem best for their kids.
  • You encourage people to pay directly for their own children’s education to the greatest extent possible, reserving third-party payment (which is inherently problematic) to an as-needed basis

As a result, schools compete for the privilege of serving each and every child and they are attentive to parents’ demands because otherwise their livelihoods will suffer. Parents, in turn, become more invested in their children’s education—both literally and figuratively—because suddenly they have the power to exercise their educational responsibilities, and they expect to get value for the money they spend.

There are already a few school choice programs around the country that move in this direction, but a bill under consideration in South Carolina would do a better job than any of them. First, it offers tax cuts to parents who personally shoulder the cost of their own kids’ education, and those cuts are more meaningful in size than the ones currently offered in Illinois and Iowa. As Milton Friedman (and Pliny the Younger) rightly said: people are most careful spending their own money on their own families. Second, it extends its benefits to homeschoolers, which few other choice programs do. Third, it provides tuition assistance to low-income families through nonprofit scholarship organizations (SGOs) that are funded by private tax-creditable donations—better than any other system of third-party education aid.

If enacted, this program will not only provide a wonderful new range of educational options to South Carolina families, it will save taxpayers millions due to the tremendous inefficiency of the existing state-run monopoly school system. That combination of improved education options and reduced tax burden will in turn attract new businesses to the state, spurring economic growth. All in all, a pretty darn good deal.

Cloning “Superman”

We all know there are too few good schools and too many lousy ones. The trouble is, we lack a mechanism for reliably scaling up the former and crowding out the latter. Competitive markets perform this service in other fields, from coffee-shops to cell phones. Can the same thing work in education?

To find out, we’ve invited experts from both hemispheres to tell us what their nations have learned from decades of experience with private-school choice. Peje Emilsson founded the largest chain of for-profit private schools in Sweden’s nationwide voucher program. Humberto Santos has studied the academic performance of public schools, independent private schools, and chains of private schools in Chile’s voucher program. Responding to their findings and asking challenging questions will be Education Week journalist Sarah Sparks.

I hope you can join us for this fascinating discussion, and lunch, at noon on January 28th. Click here to register. The sooner we can stop “Waiting for Superman,” the better.

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.

‘Chicken Smackers with Biscuit or School Choice’

My inbox this morning contained the following Google News Alert for “school choice” from the Evansville Courier & Press:

School menu
Evansville Courier & Press
The middle school menu is chicken smackers with biscuit or school choice, peas, mashed potatoes with gravy and pineapple. Monday’s elementary and K-8 school
See all stories on this topic »

My colleagues and I have been asking for school choice for some time — folks have even made movies about it — so it’s nice to finally see it on the menu. [Just for middle school, though; I really think it should run the gamut.]

In case the Courier Press decides to tweak that menu after the fact (you know, seasonal ingredients and all), here is a screen cap.

Demonstrating the Cheap-shot Defense

When I first started arguing that now is the time to press the case for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, I noted that the biggest obstacle to scaling down fed ed has long been the cheap-shot smearing of would-be downsizers. Today, I want to thank Kevin Carey, Policy Director at the think tank Education Sector, for brilliantly illustrating that very unsightly strategy.

Writing on Education Sector’s blog yesterday, Carey ripped into a post I put up that morning, a post that primarily linked to a call to abolish ED from a left-leaning educator. Carey’s rejoinder: Basically, Cato hates public education, and there’s a whole lotta crazy goin’ on:

The Cato Institute is dedicated to creating “a future where government-run schools give way to a dynamic, independent system of schools competing to meet the needs of American children,” i.e. destroying public education as we know it.  As such, Cato wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. This fringe notion was first advanced by Ronald Reagan, until A Nation at Risk was published and the Great Communicator abruptly made an about-face and became very interested in an expanded federal role in K-12 policy as way to appeal to moderate voters in the 1984 election. The idea come up again a decade later during the brief rise of Gingrichism before fading into deserved obscurity for the next 15 years.

Then Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle revived the kill Education platform, based on a general antipathy toward the federal government combined with not knowing anything about education….

So now reporters are calling me all the time asking me whether to take this stuff seriously. The answer is: No. Do not take it seriously. Nobody is shutting down the U.S. Department of Education. If one thing is sure in this life, one certainty that can be clung to like a rock in a storm, it’s that Congressional Republicans don’t actually want to shrink the size of the federal government, reduce the deficit, or cut federal programs in any meaningful way, particularly programs that enjoy broad public support as education programs do.

That plain fact, however, hasn’t prevented Cato’s education analysts from excitedly suggesting that the Department of Education abolition movement is on the rise. Few have joined their cause, because few people want to destroy public education as we know it. However, today Cato’s Neal McCluskey identified an ally in the reactionary anti-reform left….

[Long quote from my post]

There you have it: if you were wondering who besides the Cato Institute, an organization dedicated to applying principles of extreme privatization to all walks of public life, is out there enough to abolish the Department of Education — well, now you know.

That said, beyond the “There will always be strange bedfellows in Crazy Town” aspect of this, it does raise the interesting question of whether the NEA and other hardcore anti-accountability / anti-charter / anti-testing / anti-merit pay / anti-TBD people would be willing to join forces with Congressional Republicans to visit some kind of serious harm on the federal education framework of standards, testing, and accountability.

Where to begin…

Let’s start with what’s not in Carey’s big bag o’ belittling: substance. At the root of my argument for eliminating ED is the reality that federal intervention in education has produced little by way of educational improvement while costing significant amounts of money. It is also of highly questionable constitutional validity. So my argument isn’t driven by blind ideology, or just plain wackiness, but serious policy concerns, foremost of which is that ED isn’t actually good for education – which is our main concern, right? – or the country. But those concerns are nowhere mentioned in Carey’s post, and he implies that if you share my opinion, as Sharron Angle does, you probably know nothing about education.

Carey’s dismissal of George Wood, whose blog post is the heart of the entry I wrote that sent Carey over the edge, is similar. Wood makes very logical arguments for why ED is a net loss and should be absorbed into a department like Health and Human Services. I don’t agree with all of his reasoning, but it clearly shows logical thinking about why ED should go. Carey’s response: Forget your arguments, you belong in “Crazy Town” with McCluskey.

How about the stuff that is in Carey’s post?

First, there’s the usual attack that Cato-types are nutty fringers who want to destroy “public education.” As I have (obviously ineffectually) tried to explain to Carey before, I am not against public education, in which government ensures that everyone can access education. I am against public schooling, in which government runs the schools. This gets directly to the bedrock question of how best to operate education in a free society, as well as make schooling work primarily for parents and kids. And contrary to the connotation of phrases like “destroying public education as we know it,” government run schooling with a huge federal presence has hardly been the standard for most of American history.

Here’s another bit of history Carey misrepresents. He suggests that Ronald Reagan’s efforts to abolish ED in the early 1980s were part of a “fringe notion” that there shouldn’t be an ED. That’s a little hard to take, considering that ED was created by legislation signed in 1979, and didn’t start functioning until 1980. Oh, and the final House vote on the Department? It won by a scant 4 votes, 210 to 206. And heck, even American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker opposed the new Department. So yeah, very fringy.

Where Carey does make sense is in his argument that for political reasons it is not very likely that the Department of Education will be abolished.  “If one thing is sure in this life,” he writes, “it’s that Congressional Republicans don’t actually want to shrink the size of the federal government, reduce the deficit, or cut federal programs in any meaningful way, particularly programs that enjoy broad public support as education programs do.”

Carey is far too certain about what’s in Congressional Republicans’ hearts – I bet many really do want to shrink government and reduce the deficit – but based on recent history it’s certainly reasonable to be dubious that as a group they’ll do those things. But I have never said anything different – indeed, I fully acknowledged the political obstacles:

Yesterday, Tad DeHaven wrote about an interview with Rep. John Kline (R-MN), likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee should the GOP take the House majority. Tad lamented that Kline seemed to declare any potential effort to kill the U.S. Department of Education (ED) already dead in the water. Unfortunately, Kline is certainly right: Any effort to kill ED in the next couple of years would not only have to get through a (presumably) GOP-held House, but (also presumably) a Dem-controlled Senate and Obama-occupied White House. There just aint no way ED will be dismantled — and more importantly, it’s profligate programs eliminated — in that environment.

That said, if many Tea Party-type candidates win today, it will be precisely the time to start pushing the immensely powerful case for ending fed ed.

I have been very clear in stating that now is the time to start pushing in earnest to end ED, not that success is almost here. But that just doesn’t fit in the “Crazy Town” narrative, I guess.

Anyway, thanks to Kevin Carey for furnishing a terrific example of this most crucial of points: The federal education war is rarely fought with reason and evidence. No, cheap shots and demonization, sadly, are the weapons of choice.