Tag: school choice

The California Legislature Is Being Misled

The California Assembly Committee on Revenue and Taxation is holding hearings today on bill AB 279, the “Great Schools Tax Credit Act.” This bill is much like the scholarship donation tax credit program in Florida, which is a bi-partisan success that saves the state $1.49 for every $1 it reduces state revenue.

But you wouldn’t know that if you read the Committee’s remarkably flawed official Bill Analysis.

Among other things, the Bill Analysis glaringly misrepresents Adam Schaeffer’s ”Public Education Tax Credit” paper, incorrectly calls tax credited donations public funds, omits crucial findings from other states that favor credits, and engages in unsubstantiated speculation.

To address its failings, I penned the following letter which is being distributed to the committee today.

Dear California state legislators,

The official Bill Analysis of AB 279 suffers errors of fact and omission, misrepresents the findings of a paper published by my organization, and will mislead legislators unless these problems are corrected. To address these problems, I respectfully submit this letter.

The Bill Analysis characterizes a 2007 Cato Institute paper as arguing that “vouchers and tax credits deliver similar results” (page 7-8 of the Analysis). This is false. The paper in fact argues that:

Vouchers and tax credits are, however, very different mechanisms for delivering school choice and it is those differences that will be analyzed below. The analysis reveals that tax credits are inherently preferable to vouchers across at least five dimensions.

The above text appears on the same page as one cited in the Bill Analysis, so the author of that Analysis can reasonably be expected to have noticed the boldface section title on that page of the Cato Institute paper: “Why Tax Credits Are Preferable to Vouchers.” The dimensions on which tax credits are found to be preferable include program outcomes such as maximizing the diversity of educational options among which parents are able to choose, maximizing parental and community involvement in education, and creating incentives for long term program efficiency. This directly contradicts the characterization of our paper by the Bill Analysis.

The Bill Analysis goes on to claim that AB 279 appears to be “patterned after the Public Education Tax Credit Act model legislation developed by the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Reform.” I would be pleased to claim credit for this if it were true, but since the PETC model legislation combines a scholarship donation credit (such as AB 279’s) with a direct credit for parents to use against their own children’s education, it does not appear that AB 279 was based on our model. It is worth noting that our organization’s name is the Center for Educational Freedom, not the Center for Educational Reform as it is referred to in the Bill Analysis.

Among the more surprising omissions in the Bill Analysis is that it fails to mention the only official government fiscal impact assessment of a scholarship tax credit program: a study released last December by Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability. The OPPAGA study finds that Florida’s program, which is similar to AB 279, saves the state $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue. This 49% annual return on investment represents a staggering windfall for the state treasury at a time when budgets are extremely tight. Not surprisingly, Florida’s legislature is currently considering legislation to expand the base of taxes to which the credits can be applied, to maximize the number of families who can benefit, and hence the state’s savings. This follows the Florida legislature’s increase of the program funding cap by 50% last year, with the support of one third of the state’s Democratic caucus, half of its black caucus, and its entire Hispanic caucus. The program is a bi-partisan success.

The AB 279 Bill Analysis is also confused in its assessment of the legal issues. It asserts that AB 279 “encourages the use of public funds for religious activities and education.” This claim is mistaken, and the Analysis unsurprisingly presents to no evidence to support it. Several court cases in Arizona and Illinois have addressed the question of whether non-refundable education tax credits represent the spending of government money, and all have found that they do not. The money donated to scholarship organizations never enters the state’s coffers, and so is not public money. The supreme court of Arizona, for example, has upheld that state’s scholarship donation tax credit program for specifically this reason, while recently striking down two voucher programs because they do use public funds in contravention of a state constitutional prohibition similar to that in California.

Finally, the Analysis is filled with unsubstantiated speculation about what might happen under scholarship donation tax credit programs, but presents little evidence from the most similar programs – those operating in Florida and Pennsylvania – on what is actually happening. Legislators would be wise to request testimony from people familiar with the actual operation of those programs and from families participating in them. Children’s futures are at stake.

Duncan: “I’m a big fan of choice and competition”

How does U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan live with what must be some of the most painful cognitive dissonance in the history of mankind? I mean how, fresh off of doing all he could to make even more untimely the untimely death of the D.C. voucher program – and opposing private school choice generally – could Duncan say this in a new Time interview:

I’m a big fan of choice and competition, and in our country, historically, wealthy families have had a lot of options as to where to send their children. And families that didn’t come from a lot of money had one option — and usually that option wasn’t a good one. The more options available, the more we give parents a chance to figure out what the best learning environment is for their child.

How could Duncan say all this great stuff about competition and maximizing choice right after what he’s done to private school choice – which maximizes options for the very poor who have typically had none – in the nation’s capital? It is simply impossible to reconcile the words and actions.

Unless, that is, the words don’t really mean what the words, to a normal person, really mean. And to Duncan – like lots of political creatures – they don’t. He offered those gushing words of love for choice and competition in response to a question about charter schools, and in continuing to answer the question went right into this:

To me it’s not about letting a thousand flowers bloom. You need to have a really high bar about whom you let open the charter school. [You need] a really rigorous front-end competitive process. If not, you just get mediocrity. Once you let them in, you need to have two things. You need to give those charter operators great autonomy — to really free them from the education bureaucracy. You have to couple that with very strong accountability.

And finally, it is clear how Duncan twistedly reconciles both killing school choice and competition, and loving school choice and competition: It is all about who is doing the choosing. If schools and potential schools have to compete for the approval of government – of the same smarter-than-thou, bureaucratic apparatchiks who have given us atrocious public schools for decades – then that’s competition Duncan can embrace. But compete based on the approval and demands of the people the schools are actually supposed to serve, the people most interested in schools performing to high standards? In other words, compete for the approval and business of parents, especially without the choices first being fully vetted and approved by parents’ government betters? Well, that just shouldn’t be any choice at all!

Juan Williams Blasts Obama, Duncan on Vouchers

juan-williamsYesterday on Fox News’ Special Report, Juan Williams had this to say about Obama’s silence and Duncan’s hostility to the DC voucher program, recently put on the chopping block by Democrats in Congress:

This is an outrage to me. … This is so important that you give young people a chance to have an education in America and especially in a failing public school system like you have in the District of Columbia. This voucher system is a direct threat to the unions. And so I think everybody on Capitol Hill, that’s getting money from the NEA or AFT, they should be called on the table. They should ask them, ‘where do you send your kids to school? And are you willing to say these kids getting the vouchers…and doing better than the rest of the kids, that these kids aren’t deserving of an opportunity to succeed in America?’ You just want to scream. Why Duncan and Obama aren’t in the forefront of education reform is an outrage and an insult to the very base that voted for them.

But we don’t have to ask President Obama where he sends his kids to school, do we? We already know he sends them to the prestigious private Sidwell Friends school also attended by several of the poor DC voucher students. But those voucher students will only remain classmates of Sasha and Malia for another year or so. After that, they’re out… because Barack Obama lacks the courage, the wisdom, or both to get his own party behind this program – a program that his own education department has shown is a success. Better results at a quarter the cost, and the reaction of our unified Democratic government ranges from outright opposition to malign neglect.

Future generations will look back on these politicians and bureaucrats as the Oral Faubuses of the 21st century. Like Faubus, they will ultimately fail.

Like Faubus, their names will live in infamy.

Are People Finally Seeing the Gloom?

Maybe, just maybe, word might finally be getting out, and people might finally be getting angry, about the dirty dealings in Washington, DC, that are quietly killing the city’s desperately needed school voucher program.

The story has been percolating for more than ten days, ever since the U.S. Department of Education staged a stealthy and too-late-to-matter release of a study showing that DC’s voucher program works. But the coverage has largely been restricted to the blogosphere, along with a smattering of newspaper opinion pieces.

What might be changing that? A smarmy Education Department letter released late last week telling parents who thought they had won a voucher for the 2009-10 school year that no such voucher would be forthcoming. This despite the fact that the voucher program is not scheduled to end until 2010-11. Apparently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – who seems to be doing all of the political dirty work against DC school choice – decided that it just doesn’t make sense to let kids have a year of private schooling if they’ll just have to go back to DC public schools. Never mind that a year of good schooling is better than no good schooling, or that the program can still be saved if Congress and the DC City Council vote to reauthorize it – barring the door to quality education right now is clearly in the children’s best interest.

The department’s letter has finally sparked some news media interest in the plight of DC school choice. Spurred by the letter, this afternoon Fox News ran what, to my knowledge, is the first non-opinion piece about the Obama administration’s quiet-but-deadly campaign against choice in DC. There is also word that voucher parents are beginning to organize a response to the assault on their children’s educational lifelines, with a strategy meeting scheduled for Wednesday night. Oh, and the opinion pieces keep on coming.

Sadly, as I and a few others have noted over the least week-and-a-half, when it comes to education it seems that President Obama’s rhetoric about putting evidence ahead of politics is just that – rhetoric. Hopefully, more people are starting to see the dim, disappointing light.

Week in Review: Successful Voucher Programs, Immigration Debates and a New Path for Africa

Federal Study Supports School Vouchers

arne_duncanLast week, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that students participating in a Washington D.C. voucher pilot program outperformed peers attending public schools.

According to The Washington Post, the study found that “students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school.” In a statement, education secretary Arne Duncan said that the Obama administration “does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation.”

Why then did the Obama administration “let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed?”

The answer, says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, lies in special interests and an unwillingness to embrace change after decades of maintaining the status quo:

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction — public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory — but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

Susan L. Aud and Leon Michos found the program saved the city nearly $8 million in education costs in a 2006 Cato study that examined the fiscal impact of the voucher program.

To learn more about the positive effect of school choice on poor communities around the world, join the Cato Institute on April 15 to discuss James Tooley’s new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

Obama Announces New Direction on Immigration

The New York Times reports, “President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.”

In the immigration chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Cato trade analyst Daniel T. Griswold offered suggestions on immigration policy, which include:

  • Expanding current legal immigration quotas, especially for employment-based visas.
  • Creating a temporary worker program for lower-skilled workers to meet long-term labor demand and reduce incentives for illegal immigration.
  • Refocusing border-control resources to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country.

In a 2002 Cato Policy Analysis, Griswold made the case for allowing Mexican laborers into the United States to work.

For more on the argument for open borders, watch Jason L. Riley of The Wall Street Journal editorial board speak about his book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.

In Case You Couldn’t Join Us
Cato hosted a number of fascinating guests recently to speak about new books, reports and projects.

  • Salon writer Glenn Greenwald discussed a new Cato study that exadead-aidmines the successful drug decriminalization program in Portugal.
  • Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute explained his project to build self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of national governments and start their own societies on the ocean.
  • Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid, spoke about her research that shows how government-to-government aid fails. She proposed an “aid-free solution” to development, based on the experience of successful African countries.

Find full-length videos to all Cato events on Cato’s events archive page.

Also, don’t miss Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast with legal policy analyst David Rittgers on Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan.

Whitehurst: “Duncan Is Not Lying”

Brookings senior fellow Grover Whitehurst has just come to the defense of education secretary Arne Duncan over charges that Duncan sat on (or remained “willfully ignorant” of) a study showing that the D.C. voucher program is boosting achievement. The Senate passed a bill sunsetting funding for the program on March 10, but Whitehurst contends Duncan wouldn’t have known about the study’s results until a week or so later (it was released on April 6th).

Until last November, Whitehurst was head of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), which released the new voucher study. He obviously knows its timelines and procedures. But even Whitehurst acknowledges that there is ”substantial reason to believe that the secretary didn’t want to draw attention to the report,” citing the choice of a Friday release (Friday releases were deliberately discontinued by the IES years ago) and the mysterious absence of the news briefing that typically accompanies the release of such reports.

So what is a fair observer to think of Secretary Duncan based on Whitehursts’ revelations? Duncan may not have had an opportunity to sit on the report, because he may not have known about it. But Duncan had ultimate control over its release and it looks as though he went out of his way to bury it.

Why would a secretary of education bury a study showing that one government program (vouchers) produces better outcomes than another government program (D.C. public schooling) at one quarter the cost? No flattering explanation comes to mind. Perhaps someone else will come forward to defend Duncan on this point.

Or perhaps the secretary himself might like to share with the American people why this study was buried at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in the basement of an abandoned building with a hand scrawled “beware of leopard” sign affixed to it. Maybe he would like to let us know why he isn’t touting private school choice as a model for the states to emulate at a time when outcomes are languishing and money is tight. The only justification he has offered for not doing so is risible: it doesn’t serve enough kids. As Cato’s David Boaz pointed out earlier today, it is only limited in size because, uh…, Congress statutorily limited its size. We know that many more parents would like vouchers. We know from the international evidence that the supply of schools rises to meet demand, just as supply rises to meet demand in other fields.

But we also know that the Democratic party is beholden to the teachers unions and that the National Education Association sent a letter to congressional Democrats — not to all of Congress, mind you, it’s addressed “to Democrats” — demanding that they kill the D.C. voucher program.

Because of the constant pressure exerted by the NEA, Democrats who might otherwise have supported the program have voted to let it — and the hopes of 1,700 poor kids — die. To reverse their decision, a countervailing public pressure must be brought to save it.

And that is why Grover Whitehurst is mistaken when he says that ”the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is far more important than the contretemps” over the secretary’s handling of the voucher study. The future of the program depends on that “contretemps.” Were it not for the public outcry, there would be no political pressure on Democrats to rethink their decision to feed these children back into the D.C. public schools.

And as someone who is much happier under divided government than under the unitary rule of either major party, I hope that Democrats figure out that long-term political calculus demands support for educational freedom. When the $100 billion ”stimulus” spending on public schools accomplishes little or nothing — as it will — the public will be even angrier at the politicians extorting them into those schools. And the party associated with defending that system to the bitter end against the wishes of families won’t recover for a long while.

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.