Tag: school choice

“Winning”

I have an op-ed in the Huffington Post today arguing that it’s possible to ensure universal access to education without compelling anyone to support types of instruction that violate their convictions. This eliminates the central objection that the ACLU and ADL have given for their opposition to private school choice. Indeed, if those organizations really care about freedom of conscience, they should prefer the policy solution I outline to the status quo system in which every taxpayer is compelled to support a single government organ of education. Or is there some other reason why the ACLU and ADL oppose liberating American education?

Feel free to chime-in in the comments section on Huff Po.

It’s All In How You Define ‘Community’

Every week, the National Journal’s Education Expert blog tackles a different issue, and from hereon out I’ll be weighing in on many of them, crossposting at Cato@Liberty. I sent in my first entry today, which appears as a “guest response” while they set me up to appear as a regular. It’s on my favorite topic – education and social cohesion – so hopefully I’ve started with a bang.

Enjoy, and thanks to the National Journal for bringing a libertarian perspective on board:

Looking at the evidence suggests that school choice is the best educational system to build strong communities. A lot, though, depends on how you define “community.”

Diane Ravitch essentially defines a community as a “neighborhood,” and certainly neighborhoods can be a form of community. But neighborhoods are hardly close to the only type of community, and to the extent that neighborhoods – or, given education reality these days, school districts, states, and the federal government – often include people with very diverse backgrounds, desires, and norms, public schools can be very destructive to social cohesion.

Start with simple logic: If diverse people are required to support a single system of schools, is it more likely to result in unity or conflict? The answer, of course, is conflict. If people cannot agree on what math curriculum to use, they have to fight it out politically. If they cannot agree on whether or not there should be school uniforms, they have to fight that out. Indeed, any disagreement has to be resolved in a political arena, and the term “arena” certainly does not connote cohesion.

We see this forced conflict manifested constantly in education. States and communities are regularly inflamed over the teaching of human origins, whether we’re talking Scopes Monkey or Intelligent Design. We have disputes of which religious groups will get their holidays off from school. And then there’s the ever contentious teaching of U.S. history.

And conflict is only one manifestation of the division caused by trying to bring diverse people under a single government umbrella. Renowned social capital theorist Robert Putnam has found that where there is significant diversity there is also major atomization – people “pull in like a turtle” – quite possibly because they have few recognized, shared norms to hold onto. So not only don’t you have cohesive – but separated – groups, you have seriously compromised intra-group cohesion as well. Communities of all types are weak.

How do you overcome these very real problems through the education system? Let people choose schools – especially private schools – with the money that currently all goes to public schools. Then, not only can you phase out the inherently adversarial system that is public schooling, you can empower people to choose schools based on their shared norms and values.

But won’t this “balkanize” Americans? Maybe, in that many people will choose to attend schools with people like themselves. That, though, is certainly preferable to forcing us at each others’ throats. Moreover, there is evidence that allowing people to choose schools helps to meaningfully overcome serious divisions. Research by Jay Greene and Nicole Mellow, for instance, found that lunch tables – where students sit by true, voluntary choice – at private schools were better integrated by race than those at public institutions. Why? There could be many explanations, but a very reasonable one is that the ties that bind kids at private schools – common religious values, perhaps shared interest in a particular curriculum – help to overcome divisions such as race.

Does more work need to be done to prove that choice is crucial to building communities? Absolutely. Unfortunately, for the most part we haven’t even considered that government schooling might be more divisive than unifying, despite the very real – and painful – evidence that that could indeed be the case. Well, we need to seriously consider the possibility that choice is better mortar for building communities than government schooling because, respect for “neighborhood schools” notwithstanding, the evidence in favor of choice – and against government schooling – is both real and mounting.

Government Can Tax Your Income, But It Doesn’t Own It in the First Place

As Andrew and Adam have already explained, today’s decision in ACSTO v. Winn, though grounded in the technical legal doctrine of “standing,” is a big win for school choice and state flexibility in education reform.  Even more importantly, it makes clear that there is a difference between tax credits and government spending; to find that tax money was used for unconstitutional ends here would have assumed that all income is government property until the state allows taxpayers to keep a portion of it.  That is not, to put it mildly, how we think of private property.

Of course, even had the Court found that Arizona’s scholarship scheme involved the use of state funds, the program would have been insulated from Establishment Clause challenge because it offered the “genuine and independent choice” that the Court has long required in such cases (most notably the 2002 school voucher case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). Many layers of private, individual decisionmaking separate the alleged entanglement of taxpayer funds with religious activities: the choice to set up a scholarship tuition organization (STO), the choice by an STO to provide scholarships for use at religious schools, the choice to donate to such an STO, the choice to apply for a scholarship, and the choice to award a scholarship to a particular student.  

Far from being an impediment to parental control over their children’s education or an endorsement of religious schooling, the autonomy Arizona grants taxpayers and STOs ultimately expands freedom for all concerned.  For more on that, see Cato’s amicus brief.

Also interesting about the case is that it offers us Justice Elena Kagan’s first significant opinion, for the dissenting four justices.  While not surprising that she would be in dissent here, in a “conventional” 5-4 split – although the “conservatives” adopted the position advocated by the Obama administration – there do appear to be some eyebrow-raising turns of phrase.  I won’t comment until I finish reading the opinion, but Ed Whelan offers an initial reaction at NRO’s Bench Memos blog.

New Jersey Canceled for Lack of Funds

New Jersey is broke. In an effort to get the state back on its financial feet, governor Chris Christie has made across-the-board cuts–including cuts to public school spending. This week, a judge ruled that his school cuts are unconstitutional, in light of state supreme court precedents dating back decades.

Basically, New Jersey’s highest court has ruled that the state must spend a fantastically large sum of money in order to meet its constitutional requirement of providing a “thorough and efficient” school system.

Slight problem: by definition, a system that spends outrageous sums of money for outcomes that are merely “thorough” cannot also be “efficient.” The courts seem to have resolved this logical contradiction by ignoring the word efficient. So now they just demand that the state spend more money on public schools, while acknowledging how futile that is. In Judge Doyne’s words:

Despite spending levels that meet or exceed virtually every state in the country, and that saw a significant increase… from 2000 to 2008, our “at-risk” children are now moving further from proficiency.

Spending more on public schools will do one thing for the state, though: bankrupt it. Unless something changes soon, we could well see the Detroitification of New Jersey: an exodus of residents fleeing failed government services and rising taxes, creating a death spiral as the shrinking tax base exacerbates the fiscal problems and perpetuates the exodus.

The only way that I can see for New Jersey to survive the court-mandated burden of its public school systems is to provide families and taxpayers with an alternative to them.

The state legislature is currently considering a k-12 school choice program that would subsidize private school tuition for poor kids by giving businesses a tax break if they donate to non-profit scholarship organizations. Florida has a program like this and it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces tax revenues. That’s because monopoly public schooling is so much less efficient (there’s that word again) than parent-chosen private schooling.

If the state doesn’t enact this program–and make it large enough to make a difference… fogettaboutit

Unions and Kids

Over at Think Progress, a bevy of commenters dispute an anecdote shared in my book Market Education. Here’s what I wrote, in the teaser to chapter 8:

In late October of 1995, officials of the Pepsi company announced at Jersey City Hall that their corporation would donate thousands of dollars in scholarships to help low-income children attend the private school of their choice. The immediate response of the local public school teachers’ union was to threaten that a statewide boycott of all Pepsi products could not be ruled out. Pepsi vending machines around the city were vandalized and jammed. Three weeks later, company officials regretfully withdrew their offer.

What are government school teachers’ unions so afraid of?

The source article for this episode is of course cited in the book, but here is the link to that article on the Education Week newspaper’s website.

Some of the commenters made the point that policy should not be driven by anecdotes. I agree, which is why I already blogged the evidence that only private sector competition can control skyrocketing public school spending.

Profits Do Oft Disprove Jesters

A new study of Sweden’s nationwide private school choice program reveals that both non-profit and for-profit private schools outperform state-run schools. And, after the most comprehensive set of controls for confounding variables, they do so by an almost identical (and highly statistically significant) margin.

Is there any reason, then, to prefer one form of private organization over the other? Yes. While non-profit private schools have tended to increase the size of their waiting lists in response to growing demand, their for-profit counterparts have done what all commercial enterprises would do in that circumstance: they’ve grown.

For more insights on this crucial distinction, have a look at Peje Emilsson’s presentation from our “Cloning Superman” event, which was broadcast on CSPAN.

If you want more good schools and fewer bad ones, make it easier for entrepreneurs and investors to team up with great educators, and let them earn profits or suffer losses in direct proportion to their ability to serve children.

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.