Tag: school

Why Should We Pity These People?

A couple of weeks ago, I ripped apart a factually anemic but all-too-typical USA Today article decrying the plight of student debtors. Today, the grand journalistic tradition of anecdote-and-pity laden reporting on student debt continues with offerings from Business Week and The New York Times.

In an article about tight times for student loan forgiveness programs, The Old Gray Lady sticks with the journalistic tried-and-true by leading with an extreme anecdote that readers, presumably, are supposed to see as illustrating typical suffering:

When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both special-education teachers — were in trouble.

“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that they expected the program to help them repay over five years.

Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this year was next to nothing.”

Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg, Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just eat.”

Please, Mr. Gay (and Mr. Glater, the author of this heart-string puller)! You, and presumably your wife, are only in your mid-twenties, have what appears to be a very nice home according to the picture accompanying the article, and yet have the nerve to assert that taxpayers should eat your student loans lest you not eat at all!

Excuse me if I don’t start singing “We Are the World.”

This is simple greed – you know, the stuff for which the media regularly excoriates “big business” – but readers are expected to see it as suffering because it involves recent college grads. Oh, and grads who have gone into teaching, according to Glater “a high-value but often low-paying” field. That the Gays have felt wealthy enough to buy a house despite holding much greater than normal student debt – and the fact that on an hourly basis teachers get paid on par with comparable professionals – doesn’t present any impediment to the reporter repeating the baseless underpaid teacher myth. It’s all just part of the standard narratives.

Business Week’s piece isn’t much better than the Times’, though at least reporter John Tozzi had the decency not to start off with an emotionally manipulative anecdote of supposed human suffering. His third paragraph, however, centers around “analysis” from the student-centric Project on Student Debt, and he rolls out the ol’ Tale of Woe right after:

“It’s just so frustrating,” says Susan D. Strayer, director of talent acquisition for Ritz-Carlton in Washington. “They tell you to be self-made. They tell you get yourself a good education and you can get yourself into a pretty big hole.” Strayer, 33, has $90,000 in student loan debt from her bachelor’s at Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Washington University. She also has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which she earned on a full scholarship—but skipped two years of earnings to acquire. Strayer says her monthly loan payments of $600 barely budge the principal on her debt. She doesn’t regret her educational decisions, although she says the debt load has made her put off plans to pursue a consulting side business full-time.

So Ms. Strayer chose one of the most expensive schools in the country —George Washington — for a Master’s (in what we do not know); we have no information about why she chose to finance her education through loans (she and her parents bought new cars, clothes, and stereos instead of saving for college, perhaps?); but we are supposed to feel it is a terrible thing that at 33 she hasn’t been able to start a full-time consulting business. Why is that, exactly?

Thankfully, though he frontloads anecdotes and pity parties, Tozzi ends his piece with a clear, if far too rare, voice of reason:

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh, I have all this student loan debt,’ but I chose to take it and I have to deal with the consequences of that choice,” [24-year-old] Patricia Hudak says. “So many people in my generation think of everything as a short-term investment with immediate return.”

Finally, someone I can truly feel sorry for! Why? Because with journalists cheering it on, Ms. Hudak is exactly the kind of person that our political system will punish, making her pay not only for her own choices, but those of the Gays, Ms. Strayer, and countless other student debtors who really do think that everything, and everybody, should give them an immediate — and huge — payoff.

A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 4

A tax credit bill was recently proposed in South Carolina to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. Our closing comments appear below, and the previous installments are here and here and here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

Closing Comment

Thanks for the research and references, Andrew, but I don’t live in Milwaukee, Africa or India - I live and grew up in South Carolina, and I remember when my state resisted desegregation. I remember the news reports, white protests and rhetoric about new private schools, where white children would be "safe." Attorney Tom Turnipseed, a repentant racist in Columbia, SC, fought to create those schools and now willingly admits his prejudiced motivation for doing so. That legacy needs to be acknowledged and those schools need to demonstrate that they’ve changed before many citizens will be comfortable with them.

Many white parents who didn’t send their children to private schools in those days simply couldn’t afford to do so without governmental assistance. An irony of American racism is that poor whites have also suffered, but have been culturally conditioned to not collaborate with or trust those of other colors who have common interests.

Having said that, let me keep my promise from my last installment of our dialogue. You noted that some private school parents of modest means have found ways to augment government funding for things like transportation and uniforms. I said that I wasn’t surprised, because good parents will go to great lengths for their children’s well being - and have done so for years without public funding of private schools. My wife and I did so when we were young, struggling parents.

Our sons attended V.V. Reid Kindergarten and Day Care in Columbia, SC - a 54 year old private facility sponsored by Reid Chapel AME Church. That predominately black school has a reputation for excellence and a long waiting list, and now includes an elementary school. The tuition was - and still is - considerable, but we paid it as a matter of parental choice. They also attended and graduated from public elementary, middle and high schools - now labeled as "failing" - and are now very successful men. They attended V.V. Reid with the children of physicians and attorneys and the children of janitors and cooks, but all of those children had one thing in common - their parents paid - and still pay - the full tuition. V.V. Reid does not accept any government funds and the current pastor, Rev. Norvell Goff, says that they aren’t seeking governmental funding and don’t support tuition tax credits and scholarships. As Rev. Goff said, "Parents who care will pay the price."

That points to what most puzzles me about the fight to give private schools public money, allegedly to educate needy children. The idea’s most consistently strident uncompensated supporters in South Carolina are not those of modest means or progressive political mind set, but conservative legislators and interest groups who usually tell the needy to pull themselves up by their "bootstraps" and consistently oppose what they call "handouts" or "pork" for struggling communities. From health care to infrastructure to housing, they condemn governmental involvement in the private sector, but they make a remarkable exception for education. Could they have had a miraculous social epiphany on education, or could they possibly see a financial and social benefit for their constituents and neighbors that wouldn’t be rhetorically prudent in "selling" privatization to struggling families?

I’ll conclude our dialogue with that question, with thanksgiving that a bipartisan, biracial majority of our Senators killed South Carolina’s current privatization legislation last week, and with the wise and true words of SC Education Secretary Jim Rex - when businesses consider locating in South Carolina, they never ask, "How are your private schools." Public education does matter. I’m also sure the issue isn’t entirely dead, so be blessed, take care, and we’ll chat next year.

***

The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

Closing Comment

You wrote that "dangerous buildings can… be expeditiously made excellent and secure while occupied and before they catch fire…. The chronic inequities in public education can be expeditiously addressed with will and commitment."

"Before they catch fire"? Nearly half of all children in South Carolina drop out before finishing high school. Nearly HALF! Public schooling is burning NOW. It’s been ablaze for decades, reducing countless children’s dreams to ashes. Having another meeting to discuss fire codes would be madness. We need to get a ladder to these kids today.

And "fixed expeditiously with will and commitment"? Spending per pupil has more than doubled in real terms over the past forty years. Two generations of would-be reformers have worked feverishly to improve the system, passing one education bill after another at the state and federal levels, and introducing countless revisions to the curriculum and teacher training policies. Class sizes have been reduced, teachers’ salaries have been raised. Short of ritual sacrifices, there is nothing that has not already been tried, repeatedly, to fix the public schools.
You wrote that "studies on the success of privatization… are a ‘wash’ – each of us can find support for our positions." This is simply not true. As I’ve noted, the research findings comparing market to monopoly schooling all over the world favor markets by a margin of 15 to 1. That’s based on the most comprehensive literature review to date. Social science, while imperfect, is science. And on this point, it is unambiguous.

As for your statement that South Carolina significantly and systematically underfunds rural black districts along the I-95 corridor, I decided to check it out. Using this year’s data from South Carolina’s General Appropriations spending bill, I calculated the average expenditure per pupil: $11,815. For rural districts along the I-95 corridor, it comes to $11,743 – a difference of $72.

You’ve said that, in the wake of the civil war, some middle-class blacks excluded lower-class blacks from their private schools. If that’s true, I would certainly join you in lamenting their behavior. But who is guilty of this cruelty today? Who is currently trying to keep poor young blacks from getting easier access to private schools? The NAACP supports scholarships for low-income students to attend private colleges, but fiercely opposes the same practice at the elementary and high school levels. Who’s blocking the schoolhouse door now?

Fortunately, school choice is advancing despite such misguided opposition. There are dozens of choice programs around the nation, and the best among them are growing rapidly and with bi-partisan support. Some black leaders of your own generation, such as South Carolina Senator Robert Ford, have gotten on board. Even more of the next generation of black leaders, from Corey Booker in New Jersey to Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, are on board as well. And some of the most eloquent voices in support of educational freedom are beneficiaries of school choice.

Perhaps, if you talk with some of the tens of thousands of families benefitting from school choice around the country, you’ll be convinced to join them aboard the educational freedom train. It’s pulling out of the station regardless.

In closing, I’d like to thank you for participating in this exchange. I hope people on all sides of the debate have found it useful.

***

Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

Support for Private School Choice Officially “Mainstream”

The USA Today editorializes this morning in support of the DC voucher program and school choice in general. That’s a shift from last year when Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation had to respond to their dismissal of vouchers. From the enlightened board:

As an Education Department spokesman says, “The unions are not happy.” But 20 million low-income school kids need a chance to succeed. School choice is the most effective way to give it to them.

The shift of center-left elite opinion on school choice is a hugely important development, as I noted with the first wave of mainstream media attention to the DC voucher program’s death-sentence:

When elites unite on mainstream issues, the public’s response is relatively nonideological and lopsided. School choice is progressively mainstreaming, slowly but surely moving from a polarized elite debate to one where the intensity and support is weighted in favor of school choice.

When an issue that used to be considered free-market fringe is embraced as a moral litmus test for politicians by liberal editorial boards, the issue-argument has been won. That’s certainly not to say the policy war has been won, but an important battle toward realizing that goal has been.

The opposition’s intensity and moral certitude is bleeding out one program at a time. School choice is no longer an abstract proposition; faces and lives are attached to the 24 private school-choice programs in 14 states and the District of Columbia. In the past four years, four education tax-credit programs have passed that serve at least low-income children…

School-choice opponents might have won the battle over vouchers in the District, but they are losing the larger war. They have inadvertently revealed what’s truly at stake; not funding issues or public school ideology, but our promise to all children of a fair shot at success in life.

Choice opponents are on the wrong side of right and the wrong side of history.

A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 3

A tax credit bill was recently proposed in South Carolina to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. The previous installments are here and here. The final installment is here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

Second Response

We agree on something, Andrew – you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire. Dangerous buildings can, however, be expeditiously made excellent and secure while occupied and before they catch fire, as was the case with the first church I pastored - all it took was will and commitment. The chronic inequities in public education can be expeditiously addressed with will and commitment. The most shameful thing about my state’s five year fight for scholarships and tax credits is that our legislators have spent time, energy and resources debating privatization, but haven’t taken a single step toward improving public education. They’ve simply chosen to argue over the merits of a new house while the old, still occupied house deteriorates.

I commend your zeal in gathering and noting studies, but like Biblical Scriptures, scholarly studies can be carefully chosen, subjectively interpreted and tactically presented to gain one’s desired result. At the end of the day, studies on the success of privatization and its impact on public schools are a “wash” – each of us can find support for our positions.

I remain convinced that privatization in South Carolina would not benefit low income families. Struggling parents who could claim tax credits would still have to pay tuition “up front,” and those tax credits would not cover the tuition for most quality private schools in South Carolina. Scholarships might help, but they aren’t guaranteed. I recently learned, however, of another troubling alternative beyond the proposed law from a parent in a state where privatization is a reality. She wrote me a letter telling how she received mailings touting private schools, noting that only bad parents leave their children in public schools, and offering to put her in touch with helpful tuition lenders. She took the bait, and is now in greater debt because of predatory lenders who preyed on a mother who simply wanted the best for her child.

You also said, based on expenditures in Charleston, that we’re already adequately funding our public schools – although Charleston is now facing a $10 million shortfall for the coming school year. Look beyond Charleston, Andrew, for South Carolina’s public schools are funded with a mix of state and local revenue. We have excellent schools along our state’s urban, businesses rich, predominately white and politically conservative I-85 corridor. The I-95 corridor, however, is rural, has a limited tax base, is predominately African-American, is politically progressive to liberal, and is bordered by some of the most underfunded and needy schools in our nation.

The I-95 corridor, however, was the site of a recent blessing. A mid-western businessman was so touched by the story of the J.V. Martin School in Dillon, SC, that he donated new desks and equipment to the school and paid for their installation and for campus painting. His voluntary and genuine generosity is a reminder that businesses with conscience and good motives don’t have to wait for statutory privatization to make a difference – they can make a difference in the public schools right now.

You also noted that resourceful parents have found ways to augment government funds for their children in private schools for things like providing transportation and buying uniforms. I’m not surprised by that, because good parents will go to great lengths for their children’s well being. They’ve been doing so for years – without public funds going to private schools. I can testify to that, because my wife and I did so when our sons were young and we were struggling parents, but I’ll save that story for my last installment in our dialogue.

***

The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

Second Response

You’ve cited two historical examples to suggest that school choice might hurt kids who remain in public schools. But as I noted last time, the evidence from actual choice programs shows that doesn’t happen.

Still, let’s take a closer look at the historical record. Public schools discriminated against and segregated black children for more than a century. Worse yet, an 1850 Massachusetts supreme court ruling upholding segregation in public schools was a key precedent cited by the U.S. Supreme Court to establish the “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Jim Crow laws rested, in part, on a legacy of racist public schools.

It was common in the 19th century for public schools to require reading of the Protestant King James version of the Bible, and Catholic children who refused were sometimes whipped or beaten for the offense. Such punishments were upheld by the Maine supreme court.

And while it is true that some racist whites tried to use private schools to flee integration, their more common tactic was to move to areas where the public schools remained overwhelmingly white. As I wrote in Market Education, “during the height of white flight… total private school enrollment actually decreased by 17 percent (public enrollment also decreased, but only by 3 percent).”

Public schools today may be somewhat more racially integrated than private schools in the earliest grades, but private schools are more integrated at the end of high school – no doubt in part because public school dropout rates for black students are astronomical. Private schools have repeatedly been shown to significantly raise graduation rates over those found in public schools, even after controlling for other factors, especially for minority children. And when it comes to truly meaningful, voluntary integration – the peers kids choose to sit with in school lunchrooms – private schools are significantly more integrated than public schools.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was seeking support for school choice among community leaders in the rural south. At one home, the man asked my friend: “So, black kids would be able to attend private schools like the one my kids go to?” My friend answered yes. “And they’d be prepared for the same kinds of jobs as my kids?” Again, my friend said yes. “Well now, I don’t think I can support that,” was the man’s reply.

That was an uncommon reaction, but it offers a glimpse into the mind of the modern racist. They see the upward mobility offered by school choice as a threat.

And there’s no need to make dubious analogies to the banking industry to understand how markets work in education. We can simply look at real education markets in action. Consider the new book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves. From the shanty towns and fishing villages of Africa, to the slums of India, to the rural farming villages of China, the poor are already abandoning public schools that have failed them and setting up their own private schools. These entrepreneurial schools outperform the local public schools at a tiny fraction of the cost, and the parents love them.

The higher labor costs in this country put private schooling out of reach of many poor families, but an education tax credit bill would change that.

You asked why we can’t fix the public schools before offering parents such a choice. The answer is simple: the way you “fix” a monopoly like public schooling is to inject consumer choice and competition. In other words, school choice IS the solution. We can’t fix public education without it.

 ***

Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

Two Terrible Tastes That Taste Even Worse Together

Few things irk me more than human-interest anecdotes parading as objective journalism, or college students/graduates complaining about how much money they owe – and think someone else should pay – for their educations.

Perhaps in a bid to break some sort of irritation record, yesterday the USA Today combined these two odious phenomena into one wretch-inducing article about how just cruelly difficult it can be to rid oneself of the student debt one freely entered into.

I won’t go into a detailed dismantling of the piece. Read it for yourself and you’ll see that it really is nothing but a long series of anecdotes delivered with way too little information to have any idea why the debtors shouldn’t, you know, take responsibility for debt they freely incurred. I’m just going to highlight one vignette that sickly typifies just how rationally and morally bankrupt (pardon the pun) both the sentiments of some debtors, and the article, are:

Lenders often fail to offer relief to the neediest borrowers, says a report issued last month by the National Consumer Law Center.

“I feel like it’s a real shame that people like me are coming out of college, weighed down by all this debt,” says Austin Light, 24, a journalist for The Mecklenburg Times in Charlotte. He and his wife have $100,000 in student loans. “My dream is to be a full-time children’s book author and illustrator, and if I wasn’t shackled with this debt, I would be pursuing that.”

In how many ways is this galling?

  • We don’t know anything about why Mr. and Mrs. Light have $100,000 in student debt, but we are supposed to become morally indignant just because they feel “weighed down” by it? Did they go to very expensive schools? Did it take them each seven beer-soaked years to graduate? Who knows, but since average student debt for graduates who have any debt is only about $20,000, the rational conclusion must be that they did nothing to control their costs.
  • We don’t know what these two studied, but we do know that Mr. Light really wants to be a children’s book author and illustrator. Well, you don’t need to go to college for that, especially one so expensive you incur a debt that even Stephen King – much less a neophyte kiddie lit author – might have trouble paying back.
  • Given the overall context of the article, readers are presumably supposed to feel that it should be easier for the Lights to discharge their debts in bankruptcy. But why should people who lent them the money, especially taxpayers who have no choice but to back federal loans, have to take losses on loans that these two freely agreed to pay back when they took them? Isn’t the word for that “stealing”?

Unfortunately, this seems all-too representative of the growing sense of entitlement exuded by many student interest groups. Students should get all the benefits of an education, but someone else should pay for it! And their will is being done in Washington, with several pieces of aid-enhancing, loan-forgiving legislation (which I sketch out here) having been passed in the last couple of years; the Serve America Act – which includes taxpayer-funded education stipends for qualifying “volunteers” – enacted in April; and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), according to the USA Today article, planning to re-introduce legislation that would allow private student loans to be discharged under bankruptcy.

And we wonder why higher ed costs, among other things, seem to be out of control…

A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 2

The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. Our initial comments were posted Tuesday. The next installment is here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

First Response

Since this is a “dialogue,” let me focus on something that Andrew said in his first installment – that public education “…has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field.” I take that as a defense of the “free market,” where competition allegedly leads to quality and success. I don’t think that the “free market” is the best model for education. To quote African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop John Hurst Adams, one of my mentors, “the free market has limitations when it comes to the human condition, because it’s an amoral concept that ‘lets the market decide’ who swims and who gets swept away.” That’s applicable to the standard argument that private school choice would improve public schools through “competition.”

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Public funds going to private schools would revive that tradition, for every tax dollar that “follows” a child to private schools in tough economic times will lead to understaffed and under-equipped public schools. Public school funding is set by legislators who are well aware that their constituents without children in the schools are loathe to fund them, and who’ve catered to those constituents by cutting funding for public education. There can be no true “competition” between public schools that only receive public funds and private schools that would have public and private funds at their disposal, for the free market turns on available capital.

The economic crisis now rocking markets in our nation and the world is also instructive. That crisis was, at least in part, created by policies that deregulated the free market and promoted not only innovation, but sheer greed which crafted a shaky, “house of cards” economy that has collapsed and taken people down with it. The lesson now, as it was during the Great Depression, is that unregulated free market activity can have disastrous results. I believe that the current financial crisis is also an element in the push for Private School Tuition Tax Credits. Many private schools are hurting because parents who can no longer afford high tuition are considering public school alternatives – private schools are hungry for the “bailout” that the pending South Carolina legislation would provide.

America makes the lofty claim in our Pledge of Allegiance to be “one nation under God.” If we’re serious about that, then we should heed the words of the Jesus who is seen as the Messiah by Christians and as God’s prophet by Jews and Muslims. He said that the Creator’s standard for right behavior includes equitable treatment for all people. That equity is at the heart of public education but is not a factor in free market competition, where the vagaries of the market decide outcomes and impact success in life. I said so six years ago in one of my conversations with my friend Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina. He laid out his argument for private school choice over more funding for public schools in familiar, logical and compellingly Libertarian free market terms, but he never answered one question that I asked – why can’t we provide good public schools because it’s simply the right thing to do?

***

The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

First Response

Glad you brought up the objective studies, Joe, but you only mentioned one of them. I recently collected every scientific study I could find comparing outcomes between public and private schools (Journal of School Choice, vol. 3, no. 1). I came up with 65 studies that compare student achievement, cost-effectiveness, parental satisfaction and other measures. The results overwhelmingly favor private schooling. What’s more, the least regulated, most-market-like school systems stand out as the best of all (here’s an earlier version of the paper).

Interestingly, there’s one study I couldn’t include because it wasn’t released ‘til a few weeks ago. It’s the 3rd year DC voucher study (the successor to the one you mentioned), and it shows that students who’d been attending private schools for the full 3 years are 2 school-years ahead of their public school peers in reading! Even including the kids who’ve only been in the program for 1 year, the vouchers are now producing significant gains.

And there’s no evidence that school choice weakens the public schools. Professor Jay Greene looks at this question in his book Education Myths. He finds that public schools either improve under school choice programs, or are unaffected. So even the families that don’t choose to attend private schools will likely be better off, and certainly no worse off, than they are now.

Who would be the biggest beneficiaries of the SC education tax credit bill? Low-income kids. As noted in the preamble at the top of this column, only low-income families would be eligible for tuition aid from Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The amount of aid each family could receive from an SGO is not capped, so that assistance can be allocated based on individual need. Pennsylvania already has such a tuition-assistance program, serving over 40,000 students with bi-partisan support.

Parents who earn enough to owe state taxes would be eligible for direct tax credits to offset their own kids’ education costs, but those credits are explicitly capped (at around $2,800, if their kids are not zoned to attend a “failing” public school – more if they are).

It’s certainly reasonable to wonder how poor families would cope with transportation and any non-tuition costs, but we can just look at how scholarship tax credit programs are working in states like Pennsylvania and Florida: some schools provide transportation, some are within walking distance, some families form carpools, and others use public transportation. Tens of thousands of poor children manage to get to their private schools under these programs every day, and to obtain uniforms for the schools that require them. Many others do so even without scholarships.

As for wanting to start by fully funding public schools… we’re already there. The 2007-08 budget for Charleston public schools lists total expenditures at over $548 million (p. 21) for 40,202 students (p. 4). That’s $13,650 per pupil – more than the state and national averages, which are both about $12,000. These numbers are vastly higher than the median U.S. private school tuition, which the Department of Education reported as $3,500 in 2003-04 [the most recent year available]. And only about a fifth of private school revenue comes from sources other than tuition. Even if tuitions have doubled since then, they’d still be barely half of Charleston’s per pupil spending.

I’ll have to wait ‘til next time to address your concern about the history of school choice, since I’ve run out of word count. In the meantime, here’s a thought:

There’s nothing wrong with trying to fix the public schools. But you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire.

***

Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

School Choice Going, Going, Gone Bipartisan (In Some States)

The USA Today takes note of the fact that support for school choice is growing among Democratic, often black, politicians:

While vouchers will likely never be the clarion call of Democrats, they’re beginning to make inroads among a group of young black lawmakers, mayors and school officials who have split with party and teachers union orthodoxy on school reform. The group includes Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams.

I’d only add that this broadening support is hardly limited to black Democrats, and that support for education tax credits is spreading even more quickly among Democrats. And while choice might never become a Democratic “clarion call,” it just might become the new consensus among serious education reformers in both parties.

For instance, a Democrat-controlled and, I assume, mostly white legislature in Rhode Island passed a donation tax credit. And Democratic governor and legislature in Iowa raised their tax credit dollar cap by 50 percent in 2007. The paper mentions black mayor Corey Booker’s support for school choice in New Jersey, but the white, former Democratic state party chair, and current state Senator Ray Lesniak is also pushing for a donation tax credit bill.

The model case is Florida. When the Florida legislature passed its education tax credit program to fund private school choice in 2001, only one Democrat supported the measure. Last year, the state legislature expanded the program with the votes of one third of statehouse Democrats, half the black caucus and the entire Hispanic caucus.

In the past few weeks, nearly a third of Senate Democrats and half of House Democrats voted to significantly expand the program’s revenue base. Virtually all Republicans did the same, and Republican Governor Crist is expected to sign the bill soon. In all, 43 percent of state Democratic legislators in Florida voted in favor of education tax credits.

The toothpaste is out, and the teachers unions can’t put it back in with all the dues money in the world.