Tag: vouchers

Public Right on Choice, Wrong on Standards, But Always Well Intentioned

Today the good folks at the journal Education Next released their annual survey of education opinion. What follows is a quick summary of many of the things the pollsters found, followed by a little commentary about the national-standards results.  (Adam Schaeffer, I have it on good authority, will be flogging the tax credit and voucher findings in an upcoming post.) Bottom line: The public usually has the right inclinations, but gets some answers wrong as a result.

One note: As is always the case with polls – but I won’t go into great detail with Education Next’s questions – remember that question wording can have a sizable impact on results.

So what did Education Next find?

  • Almost everybody reports paying at least some attention to education issues
  • 79 percent of Americans would grade the nation’s public schools no better than a “C”
  • 54 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of parents, would grade their communities’ public schools no better than a “C”
  • Even when told how much their district spends per pupil, 46 percent of respondents think funding should increase. But that’s down from 59 percent when the current expenditure isn’t given
  • Pluralities of Americans favor charter schooling and government-funded private-school choice (without mention of the sometimes toxic word “voucher”), and a close majority supports tax-credit-based choice   
  • A huge majority, even after having been given the average teacher salary, thinks teachers should get paid more or about the same as they currently do
  • A plurality thinks teachers should pay 20 percent of the cost of their health-care and pension benefits
  • Large pluralities – and for one question a majority – support judging and rewarding teachers based on performance, as well as easing credentialing and tenure rules
  • The public is about evenly split on whether teachers’ unions are good or bad for their districts
  • Big majorities support federal testing demands (without mention of the often-toxic No Child Left Behind Act) as well as states adopting the “same set” of standards and tests (without mention of federal incentives to do so)
  • A plurality of Americans oppose taking income into account when assigning students to schools
  • Only 16 percent of respondents think local taxes for their district should decrease

All of these results demonstrate good reflexes by the public. They know, for instance, that overall the public schools are performing poorly, but they are a little happier with the districts they often chose when selecting homes. They want to spend more money on schooling because education is generally a good thing, but that drops when they are told how much is actually being spent (a slippery figure few hard-working Americans have time to pin down themselves). They recognize the need for choice, something they benefit from in almost every other facet of their lives. They believe in judging and rewarding people based on their performance. They oppose forcing physical integration – in this case based on income – on students and communities. And they even, reasonably, want all states to have the same academic standards.

About that last point: Intuitively, it seems to make sense. Why should kids in Mississippi be asked to learn less than those in Massachusetts? If I didn’t get paid to analyze education policy – if I had to do other work for 40-plus hours a week – I, too, would probably support national standards because I wouldn’t have time to look at the evidence, or cogitate over the politics behind such a fair sounding proposal. But I do analyze education policy full time, and I know that (1) there is little evidence supporting calls for national standards; (2) many states have adopted national standards mainly in pursuit of federal money; (3) even if you can get initially high standards, they’ll be dumbed-down by politics; and (4) states can perhaps be standardized, but unique, individual students never can be.

Of course, the good-intentions problem is not unique to education. The huge opportunity costs – among other disincentives – that keep members of the public from being able to sufficiently analyze complicated political issues is a major problem in all public policy matters. That’s why good intentions – which the public demonstrates in spades in this poll – can often lead to bad outcomes. But we cannot blame the public for that. We must, instead, inform the public as best we can.

Are Unions Really Good for Democrats?

Charles Krauthammer’s latest column is titled “The Union-Owned Democrats.” In it, he recounts a litany of economically ruinous actions being pursued by unions around the country, from blocking free trade agreements to hobbling Boeing’s efforts to compete with Airbus. He writes that “unions need Democrats — who deliver quite faithfully,” and that “Democrats need unions.”

Like a hole in the head.

Yes, it’s been a politically and financially symbiotic relationship for many decades. Unions get rents, Democrats get elected. But, as I argue in a cover story for The American Spectator this month (now on-line: “A Less Perfect Union”), it can’t last.

The biggest unions of all are the public school employee unions—the AFT and the NEA—with well over 4 million members between them. As I point out in my Spectator piece, these unions have become too successful for their own good—and for the good of the Democratic party.

In their game of Monopoly with American kids and taxpayers they have created staggering bloat in public school employment (which has grown 10 times faster than student enrollment over the past 40 years), and they have wheedled total compensation packages worth $17,000 more per year than those of their private sector counterparts (who, according to most of the research, outperform them in the classroom).

But the union-led public school spending spree has nearly bankrupted states all over the country. If California’s public schools had just maintained the same level of efficiency they’d had in 1970 (not gotten better, as other fields have, just stagnated), it would turn the state’s $26 billion deficit hole into a surplus.

Americans are rapidly running out of money to pay for their states’ school monopolies, and they are rapidly introducing school choice bills (42 states have done so this year), to give families alternatives. But as families escape the highly unionized monopoly and send their kids to school in the largely non-unionized private sector, teachers union power will implode. And resentment at having been gored for so long by the now bankrupt and discredited system will focus on the party that fought to preserve it until the bitter end… Democrats.

In my Spectator piece, I explain why that would be a bad thing, and what Democrats could do to avoid that fate. “Public schooling” is just a tool, and an ineffective, unaffordable one at that. Public education is a set of goals and ideals that can be advanced much more effectively by other policy mechanisms. The sooner Democrats realize that, the less likely they are to be dragged to the bottom of the political sea by the sinking union-helmed school monopoly.

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.

Family Friendly DISCO Moves

I like the nightlife, and I’ve got to boogie, so I’m pleased to hear of a new organization called DISCO: Democrats Impatient for School Choice Organization.

There are many ways to shake, shake, shake that education policy booty, however, and if DISCO really wants to be family friendly, they would be better off skipping the voucher element of their choreography.

The organization’s goal is to extend real school choice to low income families. A crucial element in achieving that goal is to ensure that parents, not influential lobby groups or entrenched interests, get to decide the kinds of education they can choose.  Based on both my review of the historical evidence and my recent regression study of modern school choice programs, vouchers are prone to regulatory proliferation. They centralize authority over what a voucher can buy, so that parents who need financial assistance cannot escape whatever limits the politically powerful wish to impose on them.

Tax credits are different. Scholarship donation tax credit programs, such as the one that already exists in Pennsylvania (and which the state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand) create a proliferation of different sources of financial assistance for low-income families. So if one of those sources decides to impose a particular set of rules on how the money is used, it doesn’t affect any of the others. Parents can choose to seek financial assistance from whichever scholarship granting organization most closely matches their own values and preferences, thereby preventing them from being forced into a particular set of choices.

I made this argument in a little more detail in Cato’s amicus brief in the ACSTO v. Winn case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program.

Medicare Reform: Throwing Wasserman-Schultz ‘to the Wolves’

On CBS’s Face the Nation, Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL) said this of the House Republicans’ Medicare reform plan:

Republicans have a plan to end Medicare as we know it. What they would do is they would take the people who are younger than 55 years old today and tell them ‘You know what? You’re on your own. Go and find private health insurance in the healthcare insurance market, we’re going to throw you to the wolves and allow insurance companies to deny you coverage and drop you for pre-existing conditions. We’re going to give you X amount of dollars and you figure it out.

That ‘s the version of Wasserman-Shultz’s quote that the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler sent me.  Kessler also told me that the DNC cited me as a source for Wasserman-Shultz’s claims:

Michael Cannon: The Ryan Plan Would Provide More Subsidies To Seniors With Pre-Existing Conditions But Wouldn’t Guarantee Coverage. Michael Cannon, the Director of Health Policy Studies at Cato said during congressional testimony on the Ryan plan, “Thank you for the opportunity, Congressman. I think that lots of – all seniors under the chairman’s proposal, as I understand it, will be able to obtain health insurance coverage. And that’s the – that is because the payment they receive from the federal government to purchase that coverage will be adjusted for income so that lower-income people will get larger vouchers if you will. He doesn’t call them that, I’ll use the V word. And they’ll also be risk-adjusted so that people with severe illnesses will get larger vouchers and be able to purchase insurance coverage that will cover a lot of people who have a pre-existing condition. [HEARING OF THE HEALTH CARE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, CENSUS AND THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE, 4/5/11]

The Actual Amount More Seniors With Pre-Existing Conditions Would Receive Had Not Been Set Out In The Ryan Budget. Michael Cannon, the Director of Health Policy Studies at Cato said during congressional testimony on the Ryan plan, “That would be a result of the rules, the specific risk-adjustment rule that haven’t been spelled out in his budget. But you would have sick people getting a lot more money.” [HEARING OF THE HEALTH CARE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, CENSUS AND THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE, 4/5/11]

Empasis in original.

Kessler judged Wasserman-Shultz’s claim to be “bogus.”  FactCheck.org said it was “simply wrong.”

Kessler quoted me in his fact-check, but I think he left out the most important parts.  So here’s my entire email response to Kessler:

This is some high-octane idiocy.

Ryan’s plan says that insurance companies could not turn away seniors.  I’m not sure whether that means only (A) that insurers must issue a policy to all applicants (i.e., guaranteed issue) or whether Ryan’s plan would go further and (B) prevent insurers from charging sick enrollees more (i.e., price controls).  I hope Ryan would not include such price controls, but I see hints that that’s where he’s leaning.  If so, then the Ryan plan would include the very government guarantee that the DNC is complaining isn’t there.   It’d be a lousy guarantee, but it’d be there.

Regardless, the DNC’s attacks are still bunk.

If insurers can charge sick Medicare enrollees whatever they want, and Medicare gives sick enrollees enough money to cover those higher premiums, who needs price controls?  High premiums aren’t scary if you have the money to pay them.  A fair question would be whether the vouchers would be large enough.  The best evidence available (from the Dartmouth Atlas) suggests that one third of spending in traditional Medicare is pure waste.  That is a huge margin of safety: it means that the vouchers could be one-third less than what a Medicare enrollee would otherwise spend without reducing access to necessary care.  The quotes they took from me completely undercut their attacks on the Ryan plan.  I hope they keep quoting me.

Experts widely acknowledge that traditional Medicare exposes seniors to unnecessary and even harmful services.  And Medicare is rapidly consuming more and more of every American’s paycheck.  I can’t imagine anything more irresponsible than defending Medicare as we know it.

Don’t Let the Aphorism Be the Enemy of Thought

I am often told that pointing out the serious shortcomings of government-funded school vouchers and the relative superiority of education tax credits is a case of “making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

It’s isn’t.

That is a misapplication of Voltaire’s famous aphorism. What the aphorism exhorts is that we not pursue an unattainable perfection when a good alternative is within reach. Education tax credits are not only attainable, they are usually easier to obtain than vouchers. Consider a recent example: Pennsylvania’s state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand its existing EITC tax credit program while the state Senate has been deadlocked for weeks looking for the bare minimum of votes to pass a voucher bill.

On top of that, it is dubious to cast vouchers as “the good” when they will expand the scope of compulsion of taxpayers to funding many new types of schooling to which they might well object, impose heavy new regulations on private schools (homogenizing the available “choices”), and more pervasively curtail direct payment by consumers in favor of third party government payment.

Even those who may not be fully convinced that vouchers are inferior should pause before trying to enact them in states that already have education tax credit programs with good growth prospects. Why make the dubious the enemy of the pretty darned good?

Educational Freedom in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania state House has just passed an expansion of its existing k-12 scholarship-donation tax credit program. The vote was a deafening 190 to 7 in a state that has voted Democratic in every one of the last five presidential elections.

Nevertheless, there is serious opposition to this expansion of education tax credits in the Senate, where several prominent lawmakers prefer a voucher bill. It’s not clear which path the legislature will ultimately take, but there seems to be considerable agreement on the goal: giving parents true freedom of choice in education.

A key point to consider, then, is which type of program is most likely to preserve the freedom and diversity of the education marketplace, thereby giving families a meaningful range of alternatives to choose from. I ran a regression study on precisely this question last fall (now forthcoming in the peer-reviewed Journal of School Choice). What I found is that vouchers impose a large and statistically highly significant burden of additional regulation on private schools while tax credits do not.

This is not the only advantage of the tax credit program, but it is a compelling one.