Tag: school vouchers

DOJ Still Fighting School Choice in Louisiana

Last week I noted that it was “long past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its embarrassing lawsuit which would keep black kids in failing schools.” The Louisiana Department of Education released a study that completely undermined the DOJ’s case against the state’s school voucher program, showing that the program increased racial integration in most of the schools under federal desegregation orders and had a miniscule impact in the remainder.

Today, Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard reports that the DOJ has dropped part of its fight against school choice in Louisiana:

The Obama administration’s Justice Department has dropped a lawsuit aiming to stop a school voucher program in the state of Louisiana. A ruling Friday by a United States district court judge revealed that the federal government has “abandoned” its pursuit of an injunction against the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a state-funded voucher program designed to give students in failing public schools the opportunity to attend better performing public or private schools. 

“We are pleased that the Obama Administration has given up its attempt to end the Louisiana Scholarship Program with this absurd lawsuit,” said Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in a statement. “It is great the Department of Justice has realized, at least for the time being, it has no authority to end equal opportunity of education for Louisiana children.”

The move may have resulted from the bad press or a sudden acceptance of common sense, but more likely it was a simply legal maneuver to prevent the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Goldwater Institute, representing parents of voucher recipients, from intervening in the lawsuit as defendants. As Warren reports:

On Friday, Judge Ivan Lemelle of the U.S. district court of the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled the parents could not intervene in the case because the feds are “no longer seeking injunctive relief at this time.” Lemelle explained that in the intervening months since the Justice Department filed suit, it had made clear both in a supplemental filing and in its opposition to the parent group’s motion to intervene that it was not seeking in its suit to end the voucher program or take away vouchers from students.

Lemelle continued: “The Court reads these two statements as the United States abandoning its previous request that the Court ‘permanently enjoin the State from issuing any future voucher awards to students unless and until it obtains authorization from the federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case.’”

Lemelle will hold an oral hearing on Friday, November 22, during which Justice will make its case for the federal review process of the voucher program. In his statement on Friday’s ruling, Jindal criticized the federal government’s efforts.

“The centerpiece of the Department of Justice’s ‘process’ is a requirement that the state may not tell parents, for 45 days, that their child has been awarded a scholarship while the department decides whether to object to the scholarship award. The obvious purpose of this gag order would be to prevent parents from learning that the Department of Justice might try to take their child’s scholarship away if it decides that the child is the wrong race,” said Jindal. “The updated Department of Justice request reeks of federal government intrusion that would put a tremendous burden on the state, along with parents and teachers who want to participate in school choice.”

In other words, the DOJ is still seeking the legal authority to prevent low-income kids from escaping failing public schools if the feds say they have the wrong skin color.

New Study Completely Undermines DOJ’s Anti-School Choice Lawsuit

It’s long past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its embarrassing lawsuit which would keep black kids in failing schools.

The DOJ sued Louisiana earlier this year, claiming that its school voucher program may be negatively impacting desegregation efforts. When it became apparent that the DOJ’s evidence amounted to the thinnest of gruel, everyone from Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Eric Cantor to the Washington Post called on the Obama administration to drop its frivolous lawsuit. Even after two PhD students at the University of Arkansas released a study estimating that Louisiana’s school voucher program had a positive impact on racial integration, the DOJ refused to back down. I wrote then:

If the DOJ’s case was already like a house of cards resting atop a rickety stool, then the new University of Arkansas study kicked out the stool. The study, “The Louisiana Scholarship Program,” by Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills, finds that the transfers resulting from the LSP vouchers statewide “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” Moreover, in the districts that are the focus of the DOJ litigation, the “LSP transfers improve integration in both the sending schools and the private schools participating students attend (receiving schools).”

Now a study sponsored by the state of Louisiana finds that the voucher program improves racial integration in 16 of the 34 districts under federal desegregation orders while having little to no impact on the remainder. Whereas the University of Arkansas study produced estimates based on publicly available data, the Louisiana study reflects the actual effect of the program during the 2012-13 school year. Politicoreports:

Louisiana hired Boston University political science Professor Christine Rossell to analyze the effect of vouchers in 34 districts in the state under desegregation orders. Rossell found that in all but four of the districts – some of which are majority white, some majority black and some more evenly split – vouchers improved or had no effect on racial imbalance. And in the districts where racial imbalance worsened, the effects were “miniscule.”

Louisiana’s voucher program allows students to transfer out of failing public schools into private schools using public funds. The majority of the students participating in the 2012-13 school year — almost 76 percent — were non-white. A total of 551 students used the vouchers.

In the 2013-14 school year, more than 85 percent of the nearly 6,800 voucher students were black. So long as the DOJ refuses to drop its lawsuit — which would have opposite of its supposedly intended effect — the Obama administration’s message to these students is: “If you don’t like your school, you can’t leave your school.”

School Choice Lawsuit Roundup

School choice advocates have been winning in the halls of state legislatures and in the court of public opinion, so opponents have taken to the courts of law. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that school vouchers are consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, opponents of choice have been scrambling to find novel reasons to challenge school choice programs. Here’s a brief summary of school choice lawsuits around the nation:

1) In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to halt the state’s school voucher program, arguing that it hurts the desegregation effort. The DOJ’s already weak case was further undermined by a new study released today showing that school choice actually improves integration. Since 90 percent of the voucher recipients are black, the DOJ’s lawsuit would have the effect of keeping low-income blacks from attending the schools of their choice.

Earlier this year, Louisiana’s state supreme court ruled that the voucher program was unconstitutionally funded, but otherwise left the program intact. The governor and state legislators adjusted the funding mechanism in response.

2) Two days ago, a group of activists in Oklahoma sued the state over its special needs voucher program, arguing that it violates the state constitution’s ban on using public funds at religious schools. Last year, the state supreme court tossed out a challenge to the program by public school districts, ruling that they did not have standing since they are not taxpayers.

3) On the same day, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the state’s education savings account program, the first in the nation, is constitutional. Anti-school choice activists had argued that it violates the state constitution’s ban on publicly funding religious schools. The court held that students are the primary beneficiaries and that any “aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents.” The decision will likely be appealed to the state supreme court.

DOJ Backpedals on School Choice Lawsuit

In response to withering criticism and political pressure, the U.S. Department of Justice is backpedaling on its lawsuit against Louisiana’s school choice program, which provides school vouchers to low-income students assigned to government-run schools receiving a D or F rating for performance. The lawsuit sought to “permanently enjoin the State of Louisiana from awarding any school vouchers to students attending schools in districts operating under federal desegregation orders” unless the state receives permission from the federal government. Now the DOJ is claiming in a carefully-worded letter to Congress that they were just looking for information:

To be clear, we are neither opposing Louisiana’s school voucher program nor seeking to revoke vouchers from any student. […] Our goal in filing a motion for further relief […] was straightforward: The United States is seeking the court’s assistance in ensuring that the information Louisiana collects in connection with its school voucher program is provided to the United States in a timely fashion and that Louisiana implements its program in full compliance with federal law, including the desegregation order in this case.

Unfortunately, the DOJ is being disingenuous. While their lawsuit would not have revoked vouchers that the state had already distributed, it would have blocked all future vouchers to students in districts under desegregation orders without federal permission. In other words, rather than leaving the choice of school in the hands of parents, parents would have to beg the federal government to allow their children to escape from failing government schools. This is problematic since the DOJ’s absurd definition of segregation would prevent black students from leaving a school that the DOJ deems “insufficiently black” because there are a greater percentage of black students than black people living in the district. For example:

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.

State Rep. Balks at Voucher Funding for Muslim School

Just as Louisiana’s legislative session was wrapping up earlier this month, state Rep. Kenneth Havard refused to vote for any voucher program that “will fund Islamic teaching.” According to the AP, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans was on a list of schools approved by the state education department to accept as many as 38 voucher students. Havard declared: “I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this.”

For unreported reasons, the Islamic school subsequently withdrew itself from participation in the program and the voucher funding was approved 51 to 49. With the program now enacted and funded, nothing appears to stand in the way of the Islamic school requesting that it be added back to the list, and it is hard to imagine a constitutionally sound basis for rejecting such a request.

This episode illustrates a fundamental flaw in government-funded voucher programs: they must either reject every controversial educational option from eligibility or they compel taxpayers to support types of education that violate their convictions. In either case, someone loses. Either poor Muslims in New Orleans are denied vouchers or taxpayers who don’t wish to support Muslim schools are compelled to do so.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Education tax credit programs can ensure universal access to the education marketplace without violating anyone’s freedom of conscience. That’s because tax credits extend choice not only to parents but to taxpayers as well. Taxpayers in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and a half dozen other states can choose to donate to nonprofit tuition-assistance organizations that serve the poor. If they do make a donation, they pick the organization that receives their funds, whether it be Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, secular or entirely indifferent to religiosity.

Similarly, direct education tax credits for parents who pay for their own children’s education compel no one to support those parents’ choices. Such personal education tax credits, which already exist in Illinois and Iowa, merely let parents keep more of their own money. Far from increasing the tax burden on their fellow citizens, parents who pay for their own children’s education with the help of a credit save other taxpayers from having to pay for their children’s state schooling.

The school choice movement does not need to throw taxpayers’ freedom of conscience under the bus to secure freedom of choice for parents.

Education Tax Credits Aren’t New and Aren’t Just a Work-Around for Voucher Failure

Among the many things that were wrong or at least grossly misleading in Stephanie Saul’s hit piece on education tax credits is her claim that credits were invented in the late 1990s as some underhanded work-around for political and constitutional problems with vouchers. Here’s Saul’s creation myth for tax credits:

Vouchers … were unpopular among many voters and legislators, and several state courts had found them unconstitutional. Proponents decided to reposition themselves, and in 1997, Arizona’s Legislature adopted the first tax-credit scholarship program.

Credits are much more popular and legally protected than vouchers, but these characteristics are the result of important differences in function and principles. Moreover, the credit concept goes back more than forty years (more for deductions) and dominated the school choice landscape for over a decade. What changed in the late 1990s was an equity-focused twist on the concept, bringing the benefits of education tax credits to families without significant tax liabilities.

Reporters often mistake this relatively recent policy innovation for the origin of the credit approach and overlook credit advantages in policy principle and function in favor of the practical/cynical drivers of support for the policy. Sadly, Saul and many other reporters skip serious research in favor of collecting anecdotes that help drive their predetermined narrative.

So, a bit on the origins of education tax credits that Saul and even many school choice proponents miss entirely. (Note: Much of this material comes from my dissertation, which relies heavily on an excellent chapter in The Future of School Choice by Martin West, 2003.)

Despite the pedigree of vouchers as the first school choice proposal and the preferred mechanism of Milton Friedman, and despite the rise of progressive voucher plans in the late sixties and early seventies, education tax credits were arguably the dominant school choice policy from the 1970s through the mid-1980s.

Education tax credits first entered the federal agenda during the Nixon administration, during which he assigned the problem of the struggling private school sector to be studied by a panel within the President’s Commission on School Finance. The attention came in response to growing financial problems among the private school sector—in particular, among Catholic schools pressed by the rapidly declining numbers of priests and nuns who had traditionally provided a quality, low-cost labor pool.

Voucher policies, despite their libertarian lineage, were typically framed in progressive equity terms. Tax credits were typically been framed as a fiscal matter, a way to bring tax relief to the middle class. In taking up a proposal for a federal education tax credit, Nixon explicitly framed the issue as a matter fiscal prudence in support of middle-class families, placing “particular emphasis on the dire fiscal consequences should the nonpublic sector be allowed to collapse” (West 2003, 161). A subsequent panel report released in 1972 included a recommendation for a Federal income tax credit for private school tuition, but legislation would not be introduced until four years later. In 1976, a maximum $1,000 education tax credit for tuition at any school from elementary school to college and vocational school was defeated in the Senate by a surprisingly close 52-37 vote that included support from over a third of the Democrats and half of the Republicans. The fiscal argument for tax credits lacked the power it might hold at the state level, as the overwhelming burden of financing education was shouldered by state and local governments.

Efforts at the state level during this period were sporadic and uncoordinated. The attention of school choice supporters was directed toward federal policy and nothing approaching a school choice “movement” had yet developed.  Many of the state-level efforts throughout the 1970s attempted to enact tax credit and voucher policy through ballot initiatives and referenda (Catterall 1984).

The tax credit issue came back at the federal level during the Carter presidency with a bill introduced amidst discussion of a similar proposal for higher education. Although the bill passed narrowly in the House, it was defeated 56-41 in the Senate and faced a veto by Carter in any case. It was during this battle over k-12 tax credits that opposition from the government education establishment coalesced and began to flex to full extent its considerable power. Literally hundreds of lobbyists descended upon Capitol Hill to argue the interests of the recently formed National Coalition to Save Public Education and the National Education Association (West 2003).

The school choice issue was a relatively stable fixture on the national education agenda during the 1980s, first in the form of tax credits and shifting back to vouchers again in the mid-1980s. The hopes for school choice success at the national level peaked with Reagan’s arrival in the White House. Reagan and the Republican Party gave strong and explicit support for education tax credits throughout the 1980’s—with tax credits, but not vouchers, mentioned specifically in the Republican Party platforms of 1980, 1984, and 1988. Tax credits were the primary focus for the conservative policy world as well. The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think-tank, published a book in 1983 assessing the failures and accomplishments of the Reagan administration that had an education chapter proposing tax credits to help the middle-class supplemented by vouchers to help low-income parents (White 1983).