Tag: school vouchers

People Think of Something as Their Business When It Is Their Business

A WSJ interview with Bill Gates includes this pivotal observation:

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

While it’s true that public school districts don’t spend a lot on R&D, a vast army of academics has been cranking out research in this field for generations. The Education Resources Information Center, a database of education studies dating back to 1966, boasts 1.3 million entries. So the problem is not a lack of research, but rather that most of the research is useless and that the rare exceptions have been ignored by the public schools.

Why? Because, as Bill Gates correctly observes, hardly anyone thinks of education as their business. And how do you get masses of brilliant entrepreneurs to think of education as their business? You make it easy for them to make it their business. When and where education is allowed to participate in the free enterprise system, entrepreneurs enter that field just as they do any other–and excellence is identified and scales up. It is a process that happens automatically due to the freedoms and incentives inherent in that system. More than that, it is the only system in the history of humanity that has ever led to the routine identification and mass replication of excellent products and services.

So what happens if you want market outcomes but reject the market system that creates them? You are left to re-invent the wheel… without the only value of pi that makes a circle.

Vouchers in Education and Health Care Reform

E.D. Kain has a post up here (and here) comparing and contrasting vouchers in education and health care. It’s an interesting post that manages both insight and remarkable oversights in a very short space.

And the insight and oversights are bound up with each other:

I think it’s a consistent position to support both single-payer health care – something many progressives advocate – and single-payer education – something many libertarians advocate…

[Medicare] is a lot like what many school choice advocates want. They want government to foot the bill, but they don’t want them to provide the service, or at least not exclusively. This approach works for Medicare, and it could work for schools also. What we really need is single-payer education – not single-provider education. Anyways, the point is that we think about these programs in somewhat inconsistent ways… Even people advocating single-payer want to be able to go to a private doctor. And yet, these same people are terrified of the government paying for education but not actively providing the schooling.

Kain is right that many school choice advocates want a single-payer, government voucher system. But he’s absolutely wrong to imply the libertarian preference is for a single-payer, government voucher system in education. [Note: I look at ideologies as structures reflecting what people think is valuable, what works and why in politics and society.]

In education, we begin with an almost fully socialized system unlike anything else in American society. So its no surprise that education reform discussions produce ideological confusion.

Vouchers, because they move the means of production out of the hands of the government, into the hands of private providers, and afford the consumer some decision-making powers, are improvements from a perspective that advantages individual liberty. But the single-payer, government funding, and regulation inherent in a voucher program remain massive defects from the libertarian perspective.

Our health care system is crippled by government regulation and single-payer (private employer and government) distortions. But it is not fully socialized or government-funded like our education system. A single-payer government health system would make matters worse from the libertarian perspective.

Think of these policy scenarios on a Left-to-Right ideological scale running from 1 on the far Left to 7 on the far Right, with 4 in the middle. Our standard government-financed, government-run, socialized education system is a 1, as far Left as one can go. Voucherizing the entire system would push it to a 2.

Kain is correct that  ”it’s a consistent position to support both single-payer healthcare … and single-payer education,” because both are completely and comfortably on the Left side of the policy spectrum. Vouchers can’t solve all of our problems in education policy.

Jay Greene’s Great New Manifesto

Education scholar Jay Greene has a great new pamphlet called Why America Needs School Choice. Concise and very readable, it does a fine job of introducing the general public to the arguments and evidence in favor of market forces in education. In the process, it debunks six “canards” put forward by defenders of the status quo school monopoly.

Of particular value is Jay’s explanation of why existing “school choice” policies, while often producing positive results, have not yet transformed American education. He notes that these existing programs are hobbled by enrollment limits and regulations, and thus represent only dim shadows of what truly free and competitive education marketplaces would offer. I couldn’t agree more! In fact, the manifesto might more precisely be called Why America Needs a Competitive Education Marketplace, though perhaps that would have narrowed its appeal.

One minor quibble: On page 46, Jay writes that:

No private school choice program has been eliminated legislatively. Aside from a few adverse state court decisions, every choice victory is permanent, and every defeat is temporary.

The implication is that legislative and court action are the only avenues by which choice programs can be overturned. A third, public referendum, exists–and was responsible for the repeal of a Utah school voucher program in 2007. Would-be reformers should remember that lesson: unless the public understands and accepts the value of a policy, it may well overturn it before the first student ever participates. Manifestos like Jay’s are a good way to help spread that understanding.

A more significant problem with this particular passage is that it seems to imply that every “choice” program is a victory, and it asserts every victory is permanent. There is good reason to conclude that neither is the case.

The worldwide historical and modern evidence indicate that private schools will ultimately accept government funding no matter what strings are attached, and that such subsidized schools can consume the unsubsidized sector. This has happened in the Netherlands, for instance, which no longer has an unsubsidized private school sector after a century of government-funded private schooling. And since subsidized schools may not be operated for profit, it has no entrepreneurial chains of private schools.

So what happens if the subsidies eventually accumulate so much regulation that government-funded “private” schools become indistinguishable from today’s government schools? The result would be a move from the current 90% government monopoly to a 100% government monopoly. Not a victory at all, as the international evidence shows that the least regulated, most market-like education systems enjoy the greatest advantage over centrally planned school systems such as our own.

Last year, I ran a statistical analysis of the level of regulation imposed on private schools participating in voucher and education tax credit programs. I found that vouchers impose a large and statistically significant burden of extra regulation on private schools, whereas tax credits do not.  There are other issues with vouchers and charter schools as well. So all “choice” programs are not created equal.

Still, these concerns aside, Jay has written one of the best introductions to the case for educational freedom I’ve seen. I hope it gets a wide readership.

Tuesday Links

  • “Vouchers and tax credits differ from one another in important ways, and Pennsylvanians deserve to have their representatives consider them one at a time.”
  • “So, if the Supreme Court’s precedents defer to Congress’ assessments of its powers, but Congress is relying for ‘constitutional authority’ on the Supreme Court’s precedents, then NO ONE is actually looking at the Constitution itself to see if a bill is within Congress’ enumerated powers.”
  • “Carbon dioxide, thought to be a significant cause of the warming of surface temperature since the mid-1970s, is currently the respiration of the world’s economic civilization. Getting rid of it isn’t as simple as banning CFCs and switching to another refrigerant.”
  • “As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained in his book of that name, the presidency’s transformation from limited, constitutional office to Supreme Warlord of the Earth has been ‘as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.’”
  • It’s the expenditures, stupid:

An Accounting of Indiana’s Voucher Regulations

I’ve been trying to draw attention to the dangers that regulations like those in Indiana’s new voucher program pose for long-term educational freedom and choice.

It’s a difficult thing to do, in part because we have little freedom at all in the public school system that educates the vast majority of kids. Destroying the independence and diversity of the private education sector seems a reasonable risk to run for many if it means more choice for the majority of families. I disagree, and think that we’ll trade the possibility of a dynamic and innovative market in education for a new era of stagnant secular and religious public schools.

The other difficulty in explaining the threat of regulations like those in Indiana’s voucher law is that it is a complicated bill, linked to complicated existing state code.

In the interest of clarity and transparency, I’ve uploaded a two-page overview of the regulations, with citations and links for those who would like to take a look themselves. You can access it here: Regulations Associated with HB 1003 Indiana—2011-05-20

Let me know what you think, and whether I have missed or misinterpreted anything.

Matt Ladner replied to my concerns recently with some interesting qualifications and questions. He notes, “I haven’t seen an example yet of a voucher program in the United States swallowing up the private school sector and homogenizing them, but I agree that it is possible and a grave concern.”

The primary reason we haven’t seen this yet is that these programs have all been too small and constrained by funding caps. And that’s the problem with the Indiana plan and other plans to expand heavily regulated voucher programs; the better they are on coverage and access, the more devastating the consequences for educational freedom.

I find it horrifying to contemplate looking back 15 years from now at this moment of great opportunity and realize that, in the pursuit of choice, we imported the dysfunctions of government education and top-down control into the private sector and reduced both choice and freedom in the process.

Pennsylvania School Choice Bills

Much attention and controversy have been focused in recent months on Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1, which would create a government-funded school voucher program.  Less attention, and far less controversy, accompanied the passage yesterday of an expansion of the state’s existing education tax credit program out of the House education committee. The vote was 21 to 4.

Apart from the seemingly more favorable reception it is receiving, the tax credit program has three notable advantages: it is less likely to curtail educational freedom by suffocating participating private schools with regulation (which would defeat the purpose of a school choice program), it does not force taxpayers to support types of education that may violate their convictions, and it encourages direct co-payments by parents toward the cost their children’s education, when they can afford to do so (which is associated in the international and historical research with higher school efficiency and greater responsiveness to parents’ demands).

Worth thinking about.

Tax Cuts vs. Government Checks … NRO Conclusion and Correction

VerBruggen signs off on the tax cut/government check debate by doubling down on the core issue; he believes that there is no meaningful difference between government spending and a tax cut.  I will quote him in full: “If some libertarians want to keep insisting that there’s a meaningful difference between (A) the government spending $500 on something and (B) a person “donating” $500 to that thing and then getting a $500 break on his taxes in return, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.”

In this, he has the company of the 9th Circuit and the Progressive wing of SCOTUS.

VerBruggen has also rightly asked for a correction to one of the numerous quotes I pulled from his blog posts on tax cuts vs government spending. I thank him sincerely for reading through to the end of my interminable post. The correct quote is below, with the omitted, qualifying language in italics, a new note on charitable giving and government spending, and my otherwise unchanged commentary:

He insists that “much (most?) deducted charity spending does not offset government spending in the slightest,” yet also agrees that “voucherizing the tax subsidies for charity would remove the incentive to donate” to the range of charitable and social welfare activities the government supports. [Note: There is much evidence that government spending on “charity” crowds out charitable giving. And most, not to mention much, charitable giving in the U.S. is devoted to health, educational, social welfare and religious organizations which in turn focus on assistance to the poor, health and educational activities. Needless to say, the government is deeply involved in health, education and welfare spending. See the index of Arthur Brooks’ fascinating book, Who Really Cares, for more details.]

Charity does not reduce pressure on the welfare state? The billions of dollars donated to health, education, welfare … these offset nothing in the public sector? In the absence of tax expenditures for employer-provided health care, how likely is it that the U.S. would have retained a relatively robust private medical market?

The charitable deduction allows the people who earned the money our governments spend on public “charity” to keep some portion of what the government would otherwise have spent on government “charity” or some other wasteful project.

If VerBruggen is concerned that the tax burden will marginally increase on some citizen as the result of another’s charitable deduction then the answer is to balance that lost revenue with a reduction in government “charity,” not to eliminate the deduction.

Perhaps most concerning is VerBruggen’s breezy assumption that all income belongs to the government. He insists that “taxpayer money is already allocated” in the form of deductions for charity, and therefore that “voucherizing the total amount of the deductions wouldn’t change that …”

Really? Tax credits and deductions belong to the taxpayer who earned them. They are not government funds; that is a legal and logical statement. To insist otherwise is to argue that all income is the governments, and what it does not claim is ours. The money that a taxpayer spends is HIS money, not the government’s.

And, as is noted above, voucherizing charitable deductions will convert a huge portion into direct welfare payments and eliminate the core of the charitable act; giving away one’s own money.