Tag: school vouchers

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).

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.

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.