Tag: school choice

Equity vs. Excellence. Or…A Crank Phone in Every Home!

Education secretary Arne Duncan has just announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative to improve educational quality for low-income and minority students: pressure states to measure the distribution of “quality” teachers across districts; and then to make that distribution more uniform. The emphasis is on the pursuit of equity rather excellence. In fact, a state could make a massive leap forward on this scale by simply randomizing the assignment of public school teachers to schools. And if it turned out that some districts were badly managed and actually had a consistently negative effect, over time, on the performance of their teachers, well then the randomized teacher assignment process could be repeated every school year—or even every half-year!

But is a uniform distribution of today’s “quality” teachers really the best we can do for low-income and minority students (or, for that matter, everyone else)? Would they be better off today if Arne Duncan’s and Barack Obama’s equity focus had driven, say, the telelphone industry over the last century? Back around 1900, most telephones were hand-cranked, and not everyone had one. Would the poor, minorities, and others be better off today if we had achieved and maintained a perfectly equitable distribution of hand-crank phones?

The alternative, of course, is what we do have: a vigorously competitive phone market that has given rise to cell phones and then smart phones containing super-computers, global positioning satellite receivers, wireless networking, etc. But of course only rich whites have cell phones and smart phones, right? Not according to Pew Research. Based on 2013 data,

92% of African Americans own a cell phone, and 56% own a smartphone… blacks and whites are equally likely to own a cell phone of some kind, and also have identical rates of smartphone ownership.

In fact, Pew’s comparable smart-phone ownership figure for whites is 53%, but the difference is not statistically significant. With regard to income, Pew finds a 9 point difference in smartphone ownership between those making < $30,000 and those making between $30,000 and $49,999. Most of that difference seems to be accounted for by age, however. Among 18-24 year olds, 77% of those making < $30,000 own a smartphone vs. 81% for those making $30,000 to $74,999.

So pretty much everyone who wants one now has a cell phone which is rather more functional than the old hand cranked variety, and the majority of young people, at all income levels, even have smartphones. That’s a relatively high level of equity, coupled with excellence. Brought to you, again, by a competitive industry. Could the federal government’s Lifeline (a.k.a., “ObamaPhone”) phone subsidy programs be helping out? Certainly, to some extent. Though it’s far from true that every low-income American’s cell phone is paid for by Uncle Sam.

Ironically, many of the people who staunchly support subsidized access to the cell phone marketplace are dead set against programs that subsidize access to the educational marketplace. They’d much rather just redistribute teachers within our hand-crank-era public school systems, sentencing everyone—rich and poor alike—to more generations of academic stagnation. We can do better. We can encourage the same dynamism, choice, and entrepreneurship in education that have driven the fantastic progress in every other field, and we can ensure universal access to the educational marketplace via state-level education tax credit programs.

Educational Choice Fosters Political Tolerance

As America prepares to celebrate its independence, many Americans are caught up in the political squabbles over several recent Supreme Court decisions. If the SCOTUS decisions and their fallout reveal anything, it’s that too many Americans are willing to use the government to coerce their fellow citizens into behaving a certain way. Such people lack the virtue of political tolerance, which Thomas Jefferson believed was the foundation of “social harmony… the first of human felicities.”

What sort of education system is most likely to foster that political tolerance? 

People often assume that government-run “public” schools are the best inculcators of political tolerance. After all, Horace Mann’s vision of the “common school” involved bringing together students from ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds and training them to be good citizens. By contrast, private schools are not required to take all students and many of them are religiously sectarian. Indeed, even President Obama made this claim when visiting Ireland in 2013:

If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

Surely the common schools do a better job inculcating the value of political tolerance than the sectarian schools… right?

In reality, as my colleague Neal McCluskey has painstakingly demonstrated, government schools often force citizens into political conflict. Parents and educators clash over issues of pedagogy, curriculum, morality, sexuality, etc. Too often, deciding which policies a government school will adopt is a zero-sum game

Moreover, the empirical evidence demonstrates that private schools (including religiously sectarian ones) do as well or better than government schools at inculcating political tolerance. In 2007, Dr. Patrick Wolf conducted a literature review of the research on schooling and political toleration, finding:

The most commonly used method of measuring such political tolerance first asks respondents to either think of their least-liked political group or select one from a list that includes such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis, the religious right, and gay activists. It then asks whether respondents would permit members of the disliked group to exercise constitutional rights such as making a public speech, running for political office, and teaching in the public schools. Other studies simply ask respondents whether they would permit various activities from a group with whom they disagree, without first asking them to choose their least-liked group. In either case, responses are aggregated into a tolerance scale.

With one exception, the findings regarding the effect of school choice on political tolerance are confined to the neutral-to-positive range. Eleven findings—five of them from the more-rigorous studies—indicate that school choice increases political tolerance.

The studies do not tell us why the private schools tend to outperform the government schools at fostering political tolerance. Prof. Jay P. Greene, the author of two of the studies in Wolf’s literature review, offered two potential explanations:

It may be that private schools are better at teaching civic values like tolerance, just as they may be more effective at teaching math or reading. It is also possible that, contrary to elite suspicion, religion can teach important lessons about human equality and dignity that inspire tolerance.

It may also be that private schools recognize the importance of the political tolerance that allows them to operate without government intrusion. The same political tolerance that protects them also protects other institutions and groups, including those with diametrically opposite values. Whereas the government schools force zero-sum conflicts—meaning that some people ultimately prevail at forcing their view on others—a market in education allows parents to select the schools that reflect their values. 

A free society requires political tolerance. The most likely education system to foster that tolerance is one that is rooted in free choice.

The Coming School Choice Tidal Wave

Last week I reviewed the latest survey on education policy from the Friedman Foundation but I missed something that should warm the cockles of the hearts of everyone who supports greater choice in education: each generation is progressively more favorable and less opposed to educational choice. 

Scholarship tax credits (STCs) remain the most popular form of educational choice. Even among the 55+ cohort, there is a 20 point spread in favor of choice, 53 percent to 33 percent. Support increases in each cohort by 8 to 13 points. Meanwhile, opposition falls precipitously from 33 percent to only 14 percent. The 35-54 cohort has a 39 point spread in favor of educational choice and the 18-34 cohort has a whopping 60 point spread, 74 percent to 14 percent.

Friedman Foundation survey: popularity of scholarship tax credits

Vouchers are the second most popular of the three reforms. While the oldest cohort is slightly more pro-voucher than pro-STC, opposition is 7 points higher at 33 percent, for a spread of 16 points. The margin widens considerably to 32 points for the middle cohort (65 percent support to 33 percent opposition) and 44 points for the youngest cohort (69 percent support to 25 percent opposition), which is 16 points narrower than the spread for STCs.

Several States Expand Educational Choice

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that expands eligibility for the Florida’s longstanding scholarship tax credit (STC) program and creates a new education savings account for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Oklahoma expanded its STC program and Arizona expanded both its STC and education savings account programs. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation creating a new STC program, though unfortunately it is limited only to low-income students assigned to government schools that are designated as “failing” by the state’s board of education. Students in “non-failing” schools that are nevertheless failing to meet their needs are not eligible to receive scholarships.

The changes to Florida’s scholarship program were mostly positive. Florida eliminated the requirement that students first spend a year at a government school before being eligible to receive a scholarship. Also, starting in 2016-17, the income eligibility cap for first-time recipients will increase to include middle-income families (from 185 percent of the federal poverty line to 260 percent), with priority given to lower-income students. Students from middle-income families will receive smaller scholarships. Students in foster homes will be eligible regardless of their foster family’s income.

Unfortunately, the law adds new rules regulating the operation of scholarship organizations. Florida already has the most regulated scholarship program in the nation, which explains why the state has only one scholarship organization while other states have dozens or even (in the case of Pennsylvania) hundreds.

Back in March, the bill’s prospects seemed dim. The Florida Speaker of the House and Senate President battled over whether to mandate that private schools administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) as a condition of receiving scholarship students. As a result, the bill’s sponsor withdrew the legislation. That poison pill would have severely restricted school autonomy and parental choice. Fortunately, the resurrected bill that the governor signed into law did not mandate state tests. Participating schools must still administer nationally norm-referenced tests.

Florida’s new education savings account for students with special needs is based on Arizona’s highly popular program, but with a twist: nonprofit scholarship organizations will administer the program rather than the state, though the accounts will still use public funds.

Parents will be able to use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services. … The maximum amount for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account shall be equivalent to 90 percent of the state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula that would have gone to the student had he or she attended public school.  

Students qualify if they reside in Florida and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten through 12th grade who have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina-bifida, Williams syndrome, and kindergartners who are considered high-risk. 

Unfortunately, New York legislators ended the session without passing an educational choice bill, despite majority support in both chambers of the legislature and a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Timothy Cardinal Dolan that he would support STC legislation. Given the legislative support, the New York Post faulted Gov. Cuomo for the failure to pass the legislation:

The human tragedy, of course, is who will pay the price for Cuomo’s alliance with the Working Families Party & Co.: i.e., the children of actual working families, who have no avenues of escape from rotten public schools where they aren’t learning.

Hey GOP: Just Because It’s Choice Doesn’t Make It Right

It is increasingly clear that the congressional GOP will be using school choice – especially charter schools – as an election-year weapon [$]. And certainly Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens – whatever – should support school choice because educationally, socially, and financially it is the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean Republicans should ignore that the Constitution gives Washington no authority to meddle in education outside of controlling the District of Columbia, federal installations, and ensuring that states and districts don’t discriminate when they provide schooling.

Congressional Republicans’ primary vehicle for showing how much they care about choice is a bill – the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) – that would use $300,000,000 annually to expand charter schooling. Charters, recall, are schools authorized to function by public entities such as school districts or states, but that are run by ostensibly private entities.

The biggest threat that typically comes from federal funding, of course, is that regulation will follow. That said, as public schools, charters already have to follow federal laws such as No Child Left Behind, so regulation isn’t the primary threat from charter aid. No, it’s another major threat: unintended consequences. And the most dangerous – and real – of those consequences is the damage charter schooling does to private schooling, by far the truest form of school choice.

As a 2012 Cato analysis revealed, between 8 and 11 percent of all charter students, depending on the level of schooling, came from private schools. In urban areas the numbers are much more stark, with nearly a third of elementary charter students having been likely private schoolers. As a new Friedman Foundation report describes, the problem for private schools is a clear one: It is very hard to compete when parents think they are getting a private education at public school prices: $0.

It’s great if congressional Republicans, or anyone else, wants to talk up school choice. But the Constitution exists for a reason: to keep federal politicians from inflicting harm, even when they think they’re doing good.  

School Choice Lawsuit Explained

Last week, the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Duncan v. New Hampshire, concerning the constitutionality of the “Live Free or Die” state’s trailblazing scholarship tax credit program. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the program. Over at the Friedman Foundation’s blog, I summarize the law’s history and the primary legal arguments on each side, including legal standing, public versus private money, and the use of public funds at religious schools. I conclude by outlining four possible outcomes:

1. The court rules that the plaintiffs lack standing. In this case, the trial court’s opinion would be overturned and scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

2. The court rules in favor of the program on the merits. That would mean either the court holds that tax credits are private money or that public money may be spent at a religious school so long as it reaches the schools in a manner that is indirect and incidental to the choices of parents. As in the first scenario, scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

3. The court upholds the trial court’s decision. In this case, the tax-credit scholarship program would continue as it has in the last year. The trial court forbid the use of scholarships at religious schools but allowed their use at secular private schools, out-of-district public schools, and homeschool environments. In this scenario, the Institute for Justice likely would challenge the decision in federal court for violating the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment since such a decision would require legislative hostility toward religion rather than neutrality.

4. The court rules against the program and rejects the severability clause. The trial court found that the severability clause that the legislature had added was valid, therefore the program could continue for parents selecting secular schools or homeschooling. The state supreme court could reach the same conclusion on the merits, but reject the severability clause. This would be the most devastating outcome for educational choice in New Hampshire, as it would completely obliterate the tax-credit scholarship program.

Ideally, New Hampshire’s Supreme Court will follow the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona Supreme Court by holding that taxpayers’ money is their own until it reaches the tax collector’s hand.

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:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YzEs1t6hDsA

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.