Tag: school choice

Teachers Union Poll Is Not Credible

Yesterday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) released the results of a poll conducted by a Democratic polling firm supposedly showing that American parents don’t support a plethora of education reforms, including school choice, and would rather increase funding for public schools. A closer examination reveals that the some of the AFT’s poll questions were designed to push respondents into giving the answers that the AFT wanted, which is why their results are so different from previous polls from more credible organizations.  

Here’s an example of how the AFT phrased their questions:

With which approach for improving education do you agree more?

APPROACH A) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to a good public school in their community. We need to make the investments needed to ensure all schools provide safe conditions, an enriching curriculum, support for students’ social and emotional development, and effective teachers.

APPROACH B) We should open more public charter schools and provide more vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense. Children will receive the best education if we give families the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.

It’s no surprise that 77 percent agreed with the first approach and only 20 percent agreed with the second. Either “invest” in “good” public schools in your “community” and receive all sort of wonderful goodies (“enriching curriculum!” “effective teachers!”) or forgo all that so that some parents can send their kids to private school “at public expense.” Aside from the fact that this is a false choice (competition can actually improve public school performance and school choice programs can save money), the wording is blatantly designed to push respondants toward Approach A.

But what if we rewrote those options?

APPROACH A) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to a good public school in their community. Children will receive the best education if the public invests in better public school safety, curriculum, support services, and teachers.

APPROACH B) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to good public charter schools and private schools in their community. Children will receive the best education if the public invests in giving families the financial freedom to choose the schools that meet their needs.

This question is clearly more fair than the AFT poll’s since it employs similar wording in each answer. If we wanted to push respondents toward Approach B, we could replace “invests” with “at the public expense” and employ additional shenanigans like the AFT poll did (e.g. - “choose the schools with the most enriching curriculum and most effective teachers”).

Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine how the public would respond to fairly-worded questions. Harvard University’s Program on Education and Governance conducts an annual survey of the public’s views on education policy that meets the highest standards for fairness and rigor. The survey eschews language designed to push respondents in a certain direction and often asks the same question with multiple wordings. According to the 2012 Harvard poll:

  • 54% of parents favor giving all families a “wider choice” to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 21% opposed.
  • 46% of parents favor giving low-income families a “wider choice”  to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 21% opposed.
  • When not given a neutral option, 50% of parents favor giving low-income families a “wider choice”  to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 50% opposed.
  • When the question omits the words “a wider choice” and only asks about using “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools,” 44% of parents are in favor with 32% opposed.

Note that while support fluctuates depending on the wording, no matter how Harvard asked the question there was still more support among parents for school choice than opposition.

Moreover, when asking about scholarship tax credits instead of vouchers, the support was even higher:

  • 57% of parents supported “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools” compared with 16% opposed.
  • When not given a neutral option, 73% of parents supported “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools” compared with 27% opposed.

The AFT’s poll results only look so different from Harvard’s because their poll was designed to reflect what the AFT wanted to hear rather than what the public really believes.

Education Policy, The Use of Evidence, and the Fordham Institute

In recent weeks, the Fordham Institute has repeatedly called for government testing and reporting mandates to be imposed on private schools participating in school choice programs (here and here), on the grounds that such “public accountability” improves private school academic outcomes. In defense of this claim, the Fordham Institute cites a study of Milwaukee’s voucher program in which test scores rose following the introduction of such mandates.

Patrick Wolf, director of the research team that conducted the study, has now responded, explaining that his team’s results do not necessarily support Fordham’s claim:

[B]y taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime….

What about the encouraging trend that lower-performing schools in the MPCP are being closed down?  [Fordham] mentions that as well and attributes it to the stricter accountability regulations on the program.  That phenomenon of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” pre-dated the accountability changes in the choice program, however, and appears to have been caused mainly by low enrollments in low-performing choice schools, as parents “voted with their feet” against such institutional failure. Sure, the new high-stakes testing and public reporting requirements might accelerate the creative destruction of low-performing choice schools in Milwaukee, but that remains to be seen. [emphasis added]

But there is a deeper problem with the Fordham claim, to which Wolf alludes: a single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

And Fordham’s preferred policy not only lacks a body of supporting evidence, it is undermined by a large body of evidence. When I reviewed the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide in 2009, I sorted the results into two categories: 1) all studies that compared “public” schools to “private” schools, where those terms were loosely defined; and 2) studies that compared “market” schools to “monopoly” schools. “Market” schools were those paid for at least in part directly by parents and only minimally regulated. “Monopoly” schools were public school systems such as those common in the U.S.

The purpose of these separate categorizations was to see if limited regulation and direct parent funding make a real difference, or if private schools that are paid for entirely by the state and subjected to Fordham’s “public accountability” have the same advantages as their more market-like counterparts.

The result of this breakdown of the literature was stark. Studies looking at truly market-like education systems are twice as consistent in finding a private sector advantage as those looking at “private” schools more broadly construed (and thus including state-funded and regulated private schools).

The pattern of evidence thus seems to contradict Fordham’s belief in the merits of “public accountability” in market education systems. What it favors are policies that promote the rise of minimally regulated education markets in which parents pay at least some of the cost of their own children’s education directly themselves, whenever possible.  That’s just the sort of system likely to arise under education tax credit programs.

Parents Want More Education Options

A record number of low-income families participated in Florida’s scholarship tax credit (STC) program this year.

According to the Florida Department of Education’s latest report, the number of scholarship recipients grew by 10,827 students from 40,248 in 2011-12 to 51,075 in 2012-13, an increase of 26.9 percent. More than half of the scholarship recipients are in grade 3 or lower, indicating that the program will continue to grow over time.

Florida’s sole scholarship organization, Step Up for Students, focuses aid on the families that are most in need. Florida’s STC program requires that the families of first-time scholarship-recipients earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($43,568 for a family of four), but the average scholarship recipient’s family income is only about 106 percent of the federal poverty line ($23,579 for a family of four). 

Scholarship recipients are much more racially diverse than Florida’s general population. Scholarship recipients are 25 percent non-Hispanic white, 33 percent non-Hispanic black and 35 percent Hispanic compared to 78 percent non-Hispanic white, 17 percent non-Hispanic black, and and 23 percent Hispanic in the general population.

According to Jon East, spokesperson for Step Up for Students, there are still more than 10,000 students on the waiting list due to the program cap. This is consistent with the demand for STC programs in other states. For example, just one of Pennsylvania’s roughly 250 scholarship organizations, the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, had to turn away 104,500 of 115,000 scholarship applicants over the last decade due to the state’s program cap.

Florida’s STC program is allowed to grow to meet demand over time because the law contains an “escalator” provision that automatically raises the cap whenever the program grows to at least 90 percent of the cap. While STC programs in Arizona and New Hampshire contain similar provisions, most do not. That’s unfortunate, since the caps limit the program’s ability to expand education options to low-income families.

Schools of Choice Promote Civic Values

As Americans celebrate our independence this Fourth of July, we should reflect on the institutions that sustain a free society. Chief among these is an education system that instills the civic knowledge and values necessary for self-government. While our freedom was won on the battlefield, it must be nourished in the classroom.

The Founders cherished education as the surest means to preserve liberty. James Madison, considered the father of the U.S. Constitution, proclaimed that:

Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. […] What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?

 Likewise, Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to a friend that a proper education was the best safeguard against abuse of power:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

For over a century, the “common school” has been hailed as the cornerstone of democracy. Where else will students learn what it means to be an American citizen but at a government school? What other institution is better suited to inculcate the civic values of our constitutional republic?

Of course, this is an empirically testable question, and it has been tested. A literature review from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice published earlier this year finds that private schools outperform government schools in teaching civics:

Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.

The largest and most comprehensive of these studies, Dr. Patrick Wolf’s “Civics Exam,” found that private school students are, on average, more politically tolerant, more knowledgeable about our system of government, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more politically active than their government school peers.

 Unfortunately, over the last few decades, civic education in government schools has significantly declined:

When asked whether they are “very confident” that students have mastered important content and skills, only 24% of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15% think that their students understand concepts such as federalism and the separation of powers, and 11% believe their pupils understand the basic precepts of the free market.

Indeed, earlier this year, Washington D.C. education officials considered a proposal to drop the requirement that high schools students in our nation’s seat of government learn anything about that government.

On average, schools of choice outperform government schools at instilling the civic knowledge and values necessary to preserve a free society. The Founders’ vision depends on an educated populace, but it does not depend on the government to educate them. 

New Hampshire Court’s School Choice Decision Was Flawed and Unprecedented

Last week, a New Hampshire trial court declared that the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program could not fund students attending religious schools. The Granite State’s STC program grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid low- and middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Professor Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado at Boulder mocked supporters of the program who criticized the decision. Welner argues that school choice advocates should have expected this decision, declaring that it was “unsurprising” that the court should find the program (partially) unconstitutional. But what Welner calls unsurprising is actually unprecedented.

Only toward the bottom of his post does Welner reveal that the only high courts to address the issue thus far—the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona supreme court—have ruled STC programs constitutional in their entirety. Indeed, though all but two of the remaining ten states with STC programs have similar “Blaine Amendment” provisions in their state constitutions, opponents haven’t even bothered to challenge their constitutionality. Additionally, other state courts have ruled on the question of whether tax credits constitute “public money” in a manner consistent with the previous STC cases, demonstrating that the courts’ rulings were not the aberrations that Welner imagines them to be.

If school choice supporters had a reason not to be surprised, it was because the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State shrewdly went judge shopping. That’s why they brought their lawsuit in Strafford County instead of Merrimack County, where the state capital is located. Their strategy seemed to pay off, as the judge’s decision relies heavily on the dissenting opinions in the U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona supreme court decisions, and misapplies the limited precedent from New Hampshire. Nevertheless, the final decision rests with the New Hampshire supreme court. As I detail below, logic and precedent suggest that they should overturn the lower court’s decision.

South Carolina Adopts School Choice

When South Carolina’s legislature narrowly rejected a school choice proposal last month, it seemed that the education reform movement would have to wait another year to make any progress in the Palmetto State. That changed yeseterday when both legislative chambers approved the conference committee’s state budget, which includes a scholarship tax credit (STC) program for students with special needs.

South Carolina’s legislation is only the latest sign of the increasing popularity of school choice. Last week, Arizona’s legislature voted to expand the types of corporate donors that could participate in its STC program. Earlier this year, Iowa and Georgia expanded their STC programs so that more students could receive scholarships and Alabama enacted a new STC program.

As with Alabama’s STC program, South Carolina’s program is very limited in scope relative to STC programs in other states, particularly New Hampshire. According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice:

Under the proposal, taxpayers can receive a credit worth no more than 60 percent of their state tax liability when donating to nonprofits that distribute private school scholarships to children with special needs. Scholarships cannot exceed $10,000 per pupil. The statewide limit on tax credits distributed is $8 million. According to 2011-12 data, more than 12 percent of South Carolina students are identified as having a disability that would qualify them for the program.

A cap on donations makes fundraising more difficult for scholarship organizations while a cap on the total amount of tax credits limits the number of students who can participate. And while it is understandable that policymakers would prioritize students with special needs, they are far from the only students who would benefit from expanded educational options. Despite these limitations, South Carolina’s decision yesterday is a great step toward an education system that meets the individual needs of every child.

NH Court: You Can Choose a School So Long as It’s Secular

Earlier today, a New Hampshire district court upheld the “Live Free or Die” state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program, but limited the use of scholarships to non-religious private schools.

Earlier this year, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit claiming that New Hampshire’s school choice law was unconstitutional under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the public funding of religious schools. The law grants tax credits to corporations in return for contributions to non-profit scholarship organizations that fund low-and-middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

The decision hinged on whether or not tax credits constitute “public money.” Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court held that they do not, noting that when “taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizaions], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers.”

Likewise, the Arizona state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s STC program, forcefully rejecting the “public money” argument:

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “public money” is “[r]evenue received from federal, state, and local governments from taxes, fees, fines, etc.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1005 (6th ed.1990). As respondents note, however, no money ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. Nothing is deposited in the state treasury or other accounts under the management or possession of governmental agencies or public officials. Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with “public money.”

While neither the Arizona supreme court nor U.S. Supreme Court serve as binding precedent for how a New Hampshire court may interpret the New Hampshire state constitution, their reasoning should have carried great weight as the question before the court was the same. Nevertheless, the NH trial court rejected this traditional understanding of “public money” in favor of the plaintiff’s “all your money are belong to us” argument. In the words of the trial court judge:

This Court concludes that the program uses “public funds,” or “money raised by taxation” … Money that would otherwise be flowing to the government is diverted for the very specific purpose of providing scholarships to students.

This is precisely the understanding of “public money” that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected: 

Respondents’ contrary position 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.

The U.S. Supreme Court held, in essence, that your money is your own whether or not it qualifies for a tax deduction of some kind. A taxpayer’s money only becomes “public money” once the government actually collects it in the form of taxes. The NH trial court judge, by contrast, holds that any taxpayer’s income on which the government might have a claim is instantly “public money,” even before collection, and it remains so even if the existence of a tax credit or deduction means that government will never collect it.

Unfortunately, the legal theater of the absurd doesn’t end there. Charlie Arlinghaus, President of the Josiah Bartlett Center, which advised legislators on crafting the law, noted that the trial court’s logic leads to another absurd conclusion:

This ruling is particularly odd. The entire program is fine unless a parent by their own choice chooses a religious school. By this logic a program is illegal if neutral and only legal if actively hostile to religion. 

The Institute for Justice, which intervened on behalf of the Network for Education, the state’s first scholarship organization, will be appealing the decision to the state supreme court. IJ Senior Attorney Richard D. Komer stated:

The court’s ruling inflicts again the blatant discrimination that motivated New Hampshire’s bigoted Blaine Amendment in the first place.  We will immediately seek a stay of the court’s decision so that parents receiving scholarships can choose the educational options that best suit their child’s unique educational needs, regardless of whether that is a religious or secular school.

The trial court’s order halting the program is wrong on both the facts and the law. As a factual matter, the program is funded with private, not public dollars.  As a legal matter, the federal Constitution prohibits states from preferring non-religious schools over religious schools, which is precisely what the court’s ruling does.

We can only hope that the Granite State’s supreme court will exercise better judgment.