Tag: South Carolina

The Year of Educational Choice: Update IV

This is the fifth post in a series covering the advance of educational choice legislation across the country this year. As of my last update in mid-June, there were 13 new or expanded choice programs in 10 states. Since then, South Carolina has adopted a new school choice program and three states–Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin–have expanded existing programs, bringing the total to 17. That’s considerably more than the 13 new and expanded programs that led the Wall Street Journal to dub 2011 the “Year of School Choice.”

South Carolina Should Move the Confederate Flag

The South Carolina Senate has voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol. The House still has to vote, and Gov. Nikki Haley has already urged that the flag be moved. The flag was moved from its position atop the capitol dome back in 2000. Now it’s time to move it entirely off the capitol grounds.

In 2001, 64 percent of Mississippi voters chose to keep the Confederate battle cross in their official state flag. At the time I wrote:

It seems that I have every reason to side with the defenders of the flag: I grew up in the South during the centennial of the Civil War—or, as we called it, the War Between the States, or in particularly defiant moments, the War of Northern Aggression. My great-grandfather was a Confederate sympathizer whose movements were limited by the occupying Union army. I’ve campaigned against political correctness and the federal leviathan. I think there’s a good case for secession in the government of a free people. I even wrote a college paper on the ways in which the Confederate Constitution was superior to the U.S. Constitution.

Much as I’d like to join this latest crusade for Southern heritage and defiance of the federal government, though, I keep coming back to one question: What does the flag mean?

I noted that defenders of the 1894 flag and other public displays of Confederate flags

say that the Civil War was about states’ rights, or taxes, or tariffs or the meaning of the Constitution. Indeed, it was about all those things. But at bottom the South seceded, not over some abstract notion of states’ rights, but over the right of the Southern states to practice human slavery. As Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia put it in his proclamation commemorating the Civil War, “Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war.” Mississippi didn’t go to war for lower tariffs or for constitutional theory; it went to war to protect white Mississippians’ right to buy and sell black Mississippians.

We still hear those claims: the Confederate flag stands for history, states’ rights, resistance to an overbearing federal government, Southern pride. For some people it probably does. But those who seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America were pretty clear about what they were seeking.

2013: Yet Another ‘Year of School Choice’

In 1980, frustrated by the attention given to Paul Ehrlich’s Malthusian doomsaying, economist Julian Simon challenged Ehrlich to a wager. They agreed on a basket of five commodity metals that Simon predicted would fall in price over 10 years (indicating growing supply relative to demand, contrary to the Malthusian worldview) and Ehrlich predicted would rise. In 1990, all five metals had decreased relative to their 1980 prices and Ehrlich cut Simon a check.

In 2011, two education policy analysts made a similar wager. After Jay Mathews of the Washington Post predicted that voters would “continue to resist” private school choice programs, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice challenged Matthews to a wager, which Mathews accepted: Forster would win if at least seven new or expanded private school choice programs (i.e., vouchers or scholarship tax credits, but not including charter schools) were signed into law by the end of the year. That July, the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 to be the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted 19 new or expanded private school choice programs, nearly triple the number Forster needed to win the bet.

Undeterred, the following year Mathews proclaimed that school choice programs “have no chance of ever expanding very far,” prompting another challenge from Forster. Mathews did not take the bet, which was fortunate for him because in 2012 10 states enacted 12 new or expanded private school choice programs.

Now, for the third year in a row, Forster’s prediction has proved true, with 10 states enacting 14 new or expanded private school choice programs, including:

Most of these laws are overly limited and several carry unnecessary and even counterproductive regulations like mandatory standardized testing. Nevertheless, they are a step in the right direction, away from a government monopoly and toward a true system of education choice.

Of course, that’s why defenders of the status quo have made 2013 the Year of the Anti-School Choice Lawsuit.

South Carolina Adopts School Choice

When South Carolina’s legislature narrowly rejected a school choice proposal last month, it seemed that the education reform movement would have to wait another year to make any progress in the Palmetto State. That changed yeseterday when both legislative chambers approved the conference committee’s state budget, which includes a scholarship tax credit (STC) program for students with special needs.

South Carolina’s legislation is only the latest sign of the increasing popularity of school choice. Last week, Arizona’s legislature voted to expand the types of corporate donors that could participate in its STC program. Earlier this year, Iowa and Georgia expanded their STC programs so that more students could receive scholarships and Alabama enacted a new STC program.

As with Alabama’s STC program, South Carolina’s program is very limited in scope relative to STC programs in other states, particularly New Hampshire. According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice:

Under the proposal, taxpayers can receive a credit worth no more than 60 percent of their state tax liability when donating to nonprofits that distribute private school scholarships to children with special needs. Scholarships cannot exceed $10,000 per pupil. The statewide limit on tax credits distributed is $8 million. According to 2011-12 data, more than 12 percent of South Carolina students are identified as having a disability that would qualify them for the program.

A cap on donations makes fundraising more difficult for scholarship organizations while a cap on the total amount of tax credits limits the number of students who can participate. And while it is understandable that policymakers would prioritize students with special needs, they are far from the only students who would benefit from expanded educational options. Despite these limitations, South Carolina’s decision yesterday is a great step toward an education system that meets the individual needs of every child.

Which State Will Expand School Choice Next?

With over 150,000 participating students in 12 states, scholarship tax credit (STC) programs constitute the largest and most popular form of private school choice. STC programs have expanded rapidly in recent years with six states adopting them since 2011, including Alabama this year. So which state will be next? After yesterday’s disappointing defeat in South Carolina, the answer may lie on the opposite side of the continent.

Earlier this week, Rep. Liz Pike introduced an STC bill to the Washington state legislature. The bill would provide tax credits to corporations donating to state-approved scholarship organizations that fund children from low-income families and children with disabilities attending the schools of their choice.

Like the STC program that New Hampshire enacted last year, the WA legislation follows the best practices from STC programs around the nation and avoids the flaws of the recent bills in Virginia and Alabama. Washington’s proposed STC program would be capped at $100 million in the first year and includes an “escalator” so that the program will grow over time to meet demand and it eschews unnecessary new regulations. The $5,000 cap on scholarships is high enough to benefit low-income families but low enough that the state still has the potential to save money, as shown in this chart from the Freedom Foundation comparing the maximum scholarship size to Washington state’s total public school spending per pupil: 

How Tax Credits Result in Savings. Image courtesy of the Freedom Foundation.

The bill could go farther still by expanding the use of the scholarships to include educational expenses beyond just private school tuition. For example, under New Hampshire’s STC program, scholarships can cover expenses such as tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, and online learning. Adding a similar provision would move the bill from school choice to educational choice, which would foster greater customization and innovation in the delivery of education.

But even without such provisions, school choice programs have been proven effective at improving student outcomes and adopting one would be a great leap forward for Washington’s education system.

Lobbyist Writes Fact & Evidence-Free Op-ed, Analyst Not Shocked At All

I recently gave testimony on the merits of an education tax credit bill that’s being considered in South Carolina. Molly Spearman, executive director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, a public school lobbying group, denounces both the bill and my testimony today in The State newspaper.

Ms. Spearman’s comments reveal either a complete disregard for the basic facts and research findings, or an ignorance of those facts, resulting in errors big and small.

On the small side, she refers to me as a “paid consultant from the Virginia-based Cato Institute” when in reality I’m a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, which is based in Washington D.C. And while I am, unsurprisingly, paid a salary by my employer, I received no compensation of any kind in return for my testimony in the South Carolina legislature.

More concerning, Ms. Spearman claims that an education tax credit program like the one proposed in SC “has no research-based support that is works.” Her review of the research on credit programs appears to have consisted of calling someone in the Florida Department of [Public] Education to ask them why they thought academic achievement in Florida has increased.

Ms. Spearman apparently missed the official government study, conducted by academic researcher David Figlio at Northwestern University, which found the credit program significantly improved the academic achievement of public school students. That’s not surprising, since it’s consistent with the seventeen other studies that find private school choice programs improve public school performance.

Ms. Spearman also dismisses the state savings expected from the program based on a shocking misunderstanding of education funding. State savings are based on the amount of the credit and the amount of state funding that changes when a student leaves public school; fixed classroom costs have nothing to do with it. The state will save about $500 per student under this program.

The school districts will save much more; about $5,500 in additional funds for every student who leaves even after subtracting fixed costs. Ms. Spearman acts as if almost no money is saved when a student leaves. Here’s a question; then why do public school demand full funding for each additional new student? It works both ways … if one fewer student saved little money, then one more would add little cost. In fact, an academic study has found that only about 20 percent of student funding in South Carolina is fixed in the short term. In the long-term, there are no fixed costs at all.

Again, this is no surprise; an official government analysis found Florida’s credit saved about $1.50 for ever dollar in credits while improving the academic achievement of public school students. Numerous studies demonstrate large actual and potential savings from private choice programs.

There are more errors in other areas, which is remarkable for a piece under 700 words, but I’ll close with Ms. Spearman’s final thought; “We are falling behind our neighbors in North Carolina and Georgia. We cannot gamble on this legislation.”

How ironic … Georgia adopted  a relatively large education tax credit program in 2008, while North Carolina is seriously considering a tax credit proposal of it’s own this year. South Carolina can’t afford not to adopt education tax credit reform.

Had Ms. Spearman done her due diligence on this education issue, or had she called me and asked, she could have avoided these embarrassing errors.

Ms. Spearman’s article is all the more concerning because she is a former schoolteacher and now leads the S.C. Association of School Administrators. South Carolina’s children and taxpayers deserve far better from their leaders in public education

What if We Ran a Public School System… and No-One Came?

The New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, which estimates the budgetary impact of proposed laws, has just released its analysis of a private school choice bill called the “Opportunity Scholarship Act.” The most remarkable thing about its report is the amount of money it assumes that districts would save for each student they no longer have to teach: $0.

On that assumption, if every student were to leave for the private sector tomorrow, districts would keep right on spending exactly the same amount they spend today. Inefficient though it is, not even state-run monopoly schooling is that bad.

The OLS report does not explain why it assumes that the per pupil savings for students leaving public schools (the “marginal cost”) would be $0. It states that this figure is “indeterminate,” but by not counting it at all is effectively treating it as zero.

In fact, the marginal cost of public schooling is not “indeterminate” at all. Economists “determine” it all the time, and it’s quite easy to do. You simply observe how district spending actually rises and falls with enrollment, using a time-series regression, as I did in 2009 to calculate the marginal cost of public schooling in Nevada (see Appendix A).

Even if the NJ OLS does not conduct a marginal cost estimate specific to New Jersey, they could have done–and should still do–the next best thing: take the marginal cost estimates for other states as a rough guide and estimate the NJ district savings from them. I estimated that Nevada district spending falls by 85% of average per-pupil spending when a student leaves, and Grecu and Lindsay, a couple of years earlier, estimated the figure at 80% for South Carolina.

If they want to be conservative, the NJ OLS could use the lower of these figures, and perhaps also run the numbers for estimates 10% higher and 10% lower.

Any of the above options is preferable to the logical impossibility of their current analysis, which effectively treats the marginal cost of public schooling as $0.

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