Tag: school choice

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.

‘Back to the Future,’ or: ‘The Math of Khan’

Oklahoma has just enacted a law that requires students to be held back a year if they are not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. The inspiration is sound: poor readers cannot keep up with their classmates as the curriculum becomes more sophisticated and relies more heavily on reading comprehension across subjects. But this particular approach doesn’t begin to tackle the larger problem of age-based grading itself. Kids are not all identical widgets who learn every subject at the same rate. Individual children even learn different subjects at different rates. So the idea that all children should be grouped by age and, by default, moved through every subject at the same pace is ludicrous on its face.

More than that, it is a retrogression from the pedagogy of the early 1800s. In an early 19th century one-room schoolhouse, children of different ages and aptitudes progressed through the material at their own paces. It wasn’t unusual for an 11 year old girl to be on McGuffey’s or Elson’s 4th Reader while her older brother was still on the 3rd. It wasn’t unusual, and it wasn’t a problem. Age-based grading is a problem. Fortunately, technology will dump it on the scrapheap of history within a generation, as services like Khan Academy and software like Dreambox allow children to progress at their own rate through the material.

We can’t get back to the future soon enough.

The Sodom and Gomorrah of Public Schooling?

I was tied up when the massive Atlanta School District cheating scandal broke last month, and so didn’t get around to blogging it. [Recap: nearly 200 teachers and principals in half of the district’s 100 schools were involved]. But, with other large-scale cheating investigations still on-going, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked about the problem yesterday during a video-taped “Twitter town hall” (minute 12:00). Specifically, he was asked if the high-stakes tests mandated by NCLB are to blame (minute 16:50). Though Duncan made an off-hand comment that high-stakes NCLB-required tests may have contributed to the pressure that lead to the cheating, he repeatedly blamed the cheating on a uniquely “morally bankrupt culture” in Atlanta’s public schools. That didn’t convince interviewer John Merrow, who cited several other cities where cheating investigations are underway—nor should it convince you.

The problem is not that Atlanta is the Sodom and Gomorrah of public schooling. The problem is that state schooling separates payment from consumption. The accountability mechanism of competitive markets—the only such mechanism that actually works—requires the payer to also be the consumer, because the central incentive for any service provider is to please the payer. So if the consumer isn’t paying, he or she is rendered relatively unimportant in the eyes of the provider. Atlanta parents want their children to be well educated, but a lot of work is required to meet that goal. State and federal bureaucrats just want high scores on NCLB-mandated tests—that’s much easier to achieve by cheating than by doing an excellent job teaching. So there is an incentive for school officials to cheat because they are paid by the bureaucrats, not by the parents. Not every teacher succumbs to this incentive, of course, but the incentive is very clearly putting pressure in the wrong direction.

Now consider the incentive structure of schools paid directly by parents in tuition. The incentive in that scenario is to give parents what they want, which is usually a high quality education for their children. Certainly schools could try to lie to parents about how well their children are doing, but this is much harder than lying to bureaucrats. A great many parents will notice a discrepancy if their illiterate children are awarded A’s. And parents considering a school will notice a discrepancy if the “A”-graded graduates of that school somehow cannot gain admission to, or often drop out of, the next higher level of education. Word of mouth—and now word-of-social-networking-apps—is a powerful thing. So it’s much harder for parent-funded schools to get away with cheating, even if they were predisposed to use that strategy.

This is why no system of education that relies exclusively on third-party payment will ever match the quality and progress that we have come to expect in every other field. Indeed, it argues for finding ways of ensuring universal access to education that rely, as much as possible, on direct payment of tuition by parents. Of all the currently viable education policies, the one that fits that description best is the education tax credit—particularly direct credits for families’ own education expenses. And, among third-party payment methods, scholarship tax credits also have advantages over the alternatives.

This is a reality many folks will not want to hear or accept, but reality is not optional.

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Here’s Where Better Schools HAVE Scaled Up…

Earlier this summer, I released a study comparing the performance of California’s charter school networks with the amount of philanthropic grant funding they have received. The purpose was to find out if this model for replicating excellence was consistently effective. The answer, regrettably, was no.

But a new study we are releasing today finds that there is at least one place where better schools HAVE consistently scaled-up: Chile. Thanks to that nation’s public and private school choice program, chains of private schools have arisen, and they not only outperform the public schools, they also outperform the independent “mom-and-pop” private schools.

For anyone interested in replicating educational excellence, this study by a team of Chilean scholars is worth a look.

Colorado Court Halts School Voucher Program

Last Friday, a Colorado District Court halted the new and unique Douglas County school voucher program with a permanent injunction. School choice legislation is a little like the Field of Dreams: pass it, and they will sue–and we all know who “they” are. So there’s a tendency to dismiss legal setbacks for the choice movement as purely the result of self-serving monopolists exploiting bad laws or partisan, activist judges. There are certainly cases that fall into that category, but this Colorado ruling isn’t one of them.

Oh, the self-serving monopolists and opponents of educational freedom are no doubt cheering it, but the ruling does not read like the work of a rube or an ideologue, and not all of the state constitutional provisions on which it was based can be dismissed as outdated examples of religious bigotry. The state’s “compelled support” clause, in particular, seems to uphold a fundamentally American idea: that it is wrong to coerce people to pay for the propagation of ideas that they disbelieve. Thomas Jefferson, in his Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, called this: “tyranny.”

Obviously, conventional public schools have been a source of such coercion for a very long time–everyone has to pay for the public schools, despite profound objections they may have to the way those schools teach history, literature, government, biology, or sex education. That’s why we’ve had “school wars” as long as we’ve had government schools. And obviously vouchers offer the advantage of giving parents a much wider range of educational options for their children than do the one-size-fits few public schools. But despite this advantage, vouchers require all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling, including types of instruction that might violate some taxpayers’ most deeply held convictions. That’s a recipe for continued social conflict over what is taught.

If there were no alternative to vouchers for providing school choice, perhaps it would make sense to have a debate over which freedoms should take precedence: the freedom of choice of families or the freedom of conscience of taxpayers–and then to sacrifice whichever one was deemed less worthy. But there is an alternative, and it does not require anyone to be compelled to support any particular type of instruction. I discuss this alternative, education tax credits, in a recent Huffington Post op-ed.

Education Tax Credits More Popular Than Vouchers & Charters

As Neal wrote about earlier, Education Next has released their new poll, and there are some interesting results.

Surprisingly, the authors buried the lede in their writeup; education tax credits consistently have more support and less opposition than any other choice policy.

This year, donation tax credits pulled in a 29-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 25-point margin of support.

The authors added a new, less neutral voucher question that boosted the margin of support to 20 points. They couched the policy in terms of “wider choice” for kids in public schools, and the implication was that it was universal. All three of these additional considerations tend to have a positive impact on support for choice policies.

The standard low-income voucher question showed a big jump this year from a -12 in 2010 to a 1-point margin of support. The last time Education Next asked a low-income tax credit question, it garnered a 19-point margin of support.

Last year, tax credits had a 28-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 22-point margin of support and vouchers for low-income kids went -12 points (more respondents opposed).

Public opinion is consistently and strongly in favor of education tax credits over vouchers and even charter schools. And thankfully, they’re a much better policy as well.