Tag: school choice

‘School Spending Predicted to Climb 50%’*

*by 2005…

Defenders of the educational status quo have long argued that we don’t need wholesale reform because our state-run school system can be fixed. If we simply raise spending, shrink classes, hire more teachers, or wait for the latest government mandate to work, they’ve promised, our problems will be solved. Reformers have predicted the opposite: that pouring more resources into the public school monopoly will only make it more expensive, not better, and so we need to inject real parental choice, get rid of the red tape that hobbles educators, and unleash market incentives. Who’s right?

My colleagues and I at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom normally answer that question with empirical research, but in honor of School Choice Week

we’re taking a different tack. We’re letting the status quo defenders and reformers speak for themselves, by dredging up their predictions of decades past to see who was a Nostradamus and who a Nostradumb—. To kick off this week-long series, here’s our first blast from the educational past:

“School Spending Predicted to Climb 50% by 2005” [Education Week, Sept. 22nd, 1994]

A report published by the American Legislative Exchange Council predicted that public school spending would climb “from nearly $262 billion in 1994 to $386 billion by 2005.” ALEC also warned that the new spending would do little to help children learn, because public schooling is a government-run monopoly and monopolies are notoriously wasteful and inefficient.

Not everyone agreed. The Ed. Week story cautioned that ALEC’s “projections do not square with [substantially lower] federal estimates, and school finance experts have questioned their methodology.”

Who was right? To find out, we first have to adjust ALEC’s prediction to account for inflation (their estimate of what spending would be in the year 2005 was, of necessity, made in 1994 dollars, which were worth a lot more than dollars in 2005). Using the BLS inflation calculator, we find that ALEC’s prediction amounts to $509 billion in 2005 dollars. That turns out to have been… too low. Real U.S. public school spending in 2005 was $529 billion, according to the 2008 federal Digest of Education Statistics.

As for student achievement, ALEC was right about that, too. Tested near the end of their k-12 schooling, students performed no better in 2005 than they did in 1994—or, for that matter, in 1970 (see chart below).

Back When Democrats Cared Enough to Advocate What Works

Many, if not most, of the stated goals of the Democratic Party have universal appeal in the United States. Foremost among those would be reducing poverty and ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education.

The problem with the Democratic Party today is that its leadership seems not to understand the kinds of policies that will achieve those goals. Instead of finding out what works and implementing it, they simply call for new government programs on the assumption that those programs will work (or, if you’re jaded, on the assumption that doing so will get them re-elected).

It wasn’t always like that. There was a time when one of the most prominent Democrats in the nation was so deeply committed to these goals that he was willing to advocate the policies that would achieve them—special interests be damned.

Scott Walter has a little of that story at Philanthropy Daily.

To plagiarize Instapundit: more like this, please.

And the Other Washington Is Messed Up, Too

In a new op-ed, I have the regrettable task of pointing out to my fellow Washingtonians (of the PNW rather than D.C. variety) that we have increased public school spending in the past decade by $1.6 billion and gotten _________ in return. Nothing. Nada. Rien du tout, mes concitoyens.

NAEP scores are pretty much flat at the end of high school, as are SAT scores. It is hard to argue that we really care about children’s education when we’re willing to waste $1.6 billion that is purportedly meant for that purpose. If politicians and voters in the Evergreen State do decide, at some point, to do something for children, the first step would be to stop wasting that $1.6 billion. The next step would be to follow the lead of other states, like Florida, that have found ways to improve student achievement while _lowering_ taxes.

Ed. Policy Reality Check (Now with More Reality!)

The Orlando Sentinel published an article over the weekend titled “Education: Big reforms haven’t yet produced big results.” It seems to have been meant as a reality check, and certainly it does contain a few relevant facts, but it also leaves this statement from “critics” unchallenged: “schools won’t get better without more money.”

Slight problem: Florida’s k-12 scholarship tax credit is raising academic achievement at less than half the per pupil cost of the traditional state-run schools. That’s according to academic studies commissioned by the state of Florida and by the state’s own spending and enrollment data.

Figlio and Hart, 2010, found that the scholarship tax credit program improves academic performance in public schools; and Figlio, 2011, found that students using the scholarships to attend independent schools are also benefiting academically. As for cost, the average scholarship is about $4,000. For comparison, the state’s public school districts spent $27 billion in 2009-10 (bottom of page 21, first column), for 2.6 million students, for per pupil spending of just over $10,000.

Michelle Obama on Personal Responsibility and the Limits of Federal Programs

Yesterday the First Lady addressed high school students visiting Georgetown University for a day. Her message was to encourage students to strive for academic success and college degrees, but her answer to one question said a whole lot more. Here’s the question:

about the community, like, about this violence and teen pregnancy that’s going on…. What could you and your husband do to change or help out us young people?  Because it’s like someone dying every day.  Like, it’s just crazy.

Mrs. Obama answered at length, stressing the need for every individual to take responsibility for his own life and his own destiny, going so far as to add that

there’s all this stuff the President and Congress can do, but trust me, they can’t fix that.  No matter what, they can’t get in your head and change that.  You have to do that.

The First Lady is right that people must take responsibility for themselves, but what she seems not to realize is that government programs often stifle that kind of behavior. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The only way you learn how to behave responsibly is to actually have real responsibilities. Government has gotten in the way of that process in a host of ways, but nowhere so perniciously as in education. Today, the only educational responsibilities most parents have is to get their kids up in the morning and point them in the direction of the school or the school bus. They don’t decide where their kids go to school, who teaches them, or what they’ll be taught. The natural result—the inevitable result—is the atrophy of parental responsibility towards their children’s education and the horrendous cascade of social ills that flows from it.

Most of this is the fault of our state school monopolies that automatically assign children to schools based on where they live. But the federal government has exacerbated that problem by centralizing control over schooling even further. By abolishing their failed k-12 education programs alone, Congress would save the nation’s taxpayers roughly $70 billion annually. And by encouraging states to return power over education to parents instead of leaving it with bureaucrats, they would dramatically increase the exact kind of responsible behavior that Mrs. Obama knows is essential to solving so many of our social and economic problems.

Consider that the state of Florida has a program that cuts taxes on businesses that donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship funds. Those scholarship organizations subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. According to two separate studies, this program improves achievement in public schools, by virtue of the new competitive pressures it introduces, and it improves the achievement of the students who participate. And by requiring parents to make the difficult decisions as to where to send their children to school, and by requiring most parents to contribute at least a small co-payment, this program builds exactly the kind of responsibility and exactly the kind of social capital that Mrs. Obama so rightly yearns for.

Oh, and, by the way, it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, so it makes economic sense in the immediate term as well as in the long term.

But there’s a catch: This practical and proven solution does not seem to fit well with Mrs. Obama’s political ideology—or, more damagingly, with her husband’s. So instead of ending failed federal education programs and encouraging parental choice, power, and responsibility, the president will keep pursuing federal programs that even his own wife recognizes are doomed to fail.

But while it’s hard for a person to change his ideology, it’s easy for a country to change its president.

Government, Education, and Freedom

I did the above interview recently with ChoiceMedia.tv on the subject of education tax credits and vouchers, in which I argued that credits are a better way of ensuring universal access to the education marketplace. Credits can either directly reduce the taxes owed by families who pay for their own children’s education (as in Illinois and Iowa), or they can offset donations taxpayers make to non-profit k-12 scholarship programs that provide tuition assistance to the poor (as in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and several other states).

The interview elicited an important question from a commenter: If financial assistance for the poor comes from scholarship programs, isn’t there a risk that those programs will impose restrictions on how the scholarships can be used, thereby curtailing poor families’ educational options?

Minimizing that problem is actually one of the many reasons to prefer education tax credits over vouchers. Any time someone other than the parents is footing the bill for a child’s education, there is the risk that this third party is going to limit parents’ choices. The worst case, historically, has been when that third party is the government. When governments pay for schooling, there is a single set of regulations on what choices parents can make, and there is no way to avoid those regulations short of rejecting the financial assistance altogether—which the poorest families have difficulty doing. Vouchers bring with them this single set of government rules (and it is often an extensive one as I discovered in this study).

By contrast, scholarship tax credit programs, like the one in Pennsylvania, give rise to a multitude of different organizations that provide tuition assistance to poor families. If any one of those organizations decides to impose a particular set of restrictions on the use of its scholarships, it has no effect on any of the other organizations. Parents looking for financial assistance are thus free to seek it from a scholarship organization that aligns with their needs and values. The multiplicity of different sources of funding is instrumental—in fact it is essential—in ensuring that poor parents’ choices are not curtailed.

I’ve made this argument in a variety of places, most recently in a U.S. Supreme Court brief in the Arizona tax credit case ACSTO v. Winn.

College Board’s SAT Drop Spin Doesn’t Hold Up

Nationwide verbal SAT scores fell to their lowest level in years on the most recent administration of the test, and the College Board, which administers the SAT, has an explanation:

Average SAT scores fell slightly for 2011 high-school graduates, as the number of test takers and the proportion of minority students grew, according to a report released on Wednesday by the College Board, which owns the test.

The idea—which has been offered as an explanation of earlier declines—is that the overall average score can fall even if the performance of every participating group was stable or improving—if the groups that tend to score lower comprise a larger share of the total test-taking population than they did in the past. And, indeed, minority students (who often score below white students) now comprise a larger share of the test taking population than ever before.

So: case closed? Nope. If you actually look at the score breakdown for the major race/ethnicity groups (see chart) you’ll notice that only white students’ scores held constant from last year. The scores of all the minority groups declined. And, since 1996, white students’ scores have been flat, those of Asian students have risen appreciably, and those of Hispanic and African American students have declined.

Since there has not been any government program targeted exclusively at improving the achievement of Asian students, these data don’t exactly bolster confidence in the effectiveness of either state or federal education policy. If we want to see improved educational productivity, we might just want to look at more free enterprise education systems that offer schools the freedoms and incentives that actually make it happen.