Tag: vouchers

American Mathematical Society: Hurdles to U.S. Tech. Improvement

Allow me to liberally paraphrase a piece from the current issue of the AMS’s publication “Notices.” Thereafter, I’ll contrast my version with the original.

The US presents particular obstacles to achieving technological improvement at a national scale, deriving from its social and economic diversity and also from an entrenched tradition of entrepreneurship and private industry which precludes a federal role in any primary initiatives. Yet to achieve real improvement at scale requires some national coherence.

The laws of physics are the same in Florida and Montana; it makes little sense in a highly mobile population for more than one cell phone technology to exist within our borders. It would be like building a national railway system with different gauge tracks in each state.

Readers will no doubt realize that this argument is undermined by the substantial advances Americans have witnessed in Cell phone technology over the years, despite—perhaps even because of—the existence of alternative suppliers developing different hardware and operating systems. All the while, we are somehow still able to call/text one another without worrying whether our interlocutor is an Apple addict or an aficionado of Android. And scale hasn’t proven to be a problem. Apple and Google have managed to serve very, very large numbers of people indeed.

Texas Pastors Are Wrong about School Choice

Today, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published my op-ed addressing the claims of a group called Pastors for Texas Children. For the last month, the pastors have been flooding the pages of Texas newspapers with op-eds opposing school choice. Although they raise some legitimate concerns about school vouchers, their charges against scholarship tax credits—and school choice laws generally—range from lacking substance to being demonstrably false. 

There wasn’t enough space to address all of their claims in a single op-ed, but fortunately, here at Cato@Liberty we buy megapixels by the barrel (or whatever they come in). 

The claims made by six Fort Worth pastors in this op-ed were typical. I’ll address their major claims point by point:

The Texas Senate recently passed Senate Bill 4, providing tuition tax credits to donors giving scholarships to private schools. These are plainly private school vouchers.

Actually, the scholarships plainly are not vouchers. Voucher programs are government-funded and administered. Tax-credit scholarships are privately funded and administered by nonprofit scholarship organizations. As I wrote in the Star-Telegram, it’s like the difference between government-issued food stamps and nonprofit food banks. Donors to both scholarship organizations and food banks have their tax burden lowered as a result, but in neither case do the donated funds transmogrify into government property.

Our state Legislature has repeatedly rejected private school vouchers because they divert public money to religious schools in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any establishment of religion.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that school vouchers are constitutional because they serve a secular purpose, are neutral with respect to religion, and the funds are given to parents who can choose among religious or secular options. This is no more offensive to the First Amendment than holding a Bible study in a Section-8 subsidized apartment or using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and chaplains on the payroll.

Second, as noted previously, tax-credit scholarships are private funds. In ACSTO v. Winn, SCOTUS held that private funds do not become government property until they “come into the tax collector’s hands.”

Disagreement over Chile’s National School Choice Program

A week ago, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an on-line op-ed critiquing Chile’s nationwide public-and-private school choice program. In a letter to the editor, I objected to several of the op-ed’s central claims. The authors responded, and the AJC has now published the entire exchange. A follow-up is warranted, which I offer here:

Comment on the Gaete, Jones response to my critique:

Their response consists chiefly of “moving the goalposts”—changing the issue under debate rather than responding to the critique of the original point. The first claim in their original op-ed to which I objected was that “there is no clear evidence that [Chilean] students have significantly improved their performance on standardized tests.” In contradiction of this claim I cited the study “Achievement Growth” by top education economists and political scientists from Harvard and Stanford Universities. That study discovered that Chile is one of the fastest-improving nations in the world on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS—which were specifically designed to allow the observation of national trends over time. It is hard to conceive of clearer evidence that Chilean students “have significantly improved their performance”, contrary to the claim of Gaete and Jones.

Public Schooling’s Pluralism Problem and the School Choice Solution

Last month, the Orthodox Union, a prominent Jewish organization, launched a campaign advocating for private school choice policies. That raised hackles from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which condemned the chutzpah of the Orthodox Union to work for equal funding for children in their community:

“It [the campaign] will require us to stop being timid,” [Orthodox Union executive vice president Allen Fagin] said. “We pay our taxes, and our kids are also entitled not to be left behind.”

That statement, of course, is only half-true: Fagin’s constituents do pay their taxes, and their children are indeed entitled to an education. But that’s exactly what public schools are for. OU’s campaign relies on the same faulty logic we’ve seen from advocates of voucher programs: Because parents pay taxes, they should be able to ask every other taxpayer in the state to subsidize their child’s religious education. It’s a clear constitutional violation. […]

It’s unconscionable (and exceptionally brazen) for OU to demand that further funds be siphoned away from public schools intended to serve entire communities in order to promote their private religious agenda. If Orthodox parents want to place their children in religious schools, that’s their right. And it’s their responsibility to pay for it.

In reality though, it’s the idea that so-called “public” schools are actually “public” that is only half-true. District schools are technically open to any student whose parents can afford to live in the district, but they are certainly not “intended to serve entire communities.” For example, they are not intended to serve Orthodox Jews or others like them who have a different vision of education. When everyone is forced to pay for one school system and decisions about education are made via a political process, there will be winners and losers.

Newspaper Doubles Down on Anti-School Choice Errors

Give Rolling Stone credit: when their story on sexual assault at the University of Virginia completely unraveled, they at least had the decency to admit their errors and apologize to their readers. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Florida’s Sun-Sentinel.

A few weeks ago, the Sun-Sentinel ran an error-filled editorial against educational choice. Since then, it has refused to run a retraction or even a correction of its numerous errors, including:

  • Falsely claiming that the legislature enacted a “massive expansion” of the scholarship tax credit law this year;
  • Mistakenly relying on the moot fiscal analysis of a dead bill;
  • Misreading that analysis to report a “deficit” when it actually reports savings;
  • Falsely claiming that a separate fiscal analysis by the legislature’s budget office relied on “information provided by [private] schools.”

That list does not include several additional misleading comparisons and crucial omissions that were also brought to their attention.

Last week, they ran a rebuttal by Doug Tuthill, president of the Step Up for Students scholarship organization. However, they subsequently published a bellicose letter from Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, which attempts to rebut Tuthill… by repeating the same errors as the Sun-Sentinel editorial.

Blanton opened his letter by accusing Tuthill of “attempting to deceive the public,” but not a single one of Blanton’s accusations has any merit. Indeed, Blanton’s accusation better describes his own letter. Let us address his claims in order.

How School Choice Saves Money

School choice programs expand educational opportunity, but at what cost?

Opponents of school choice frequently claim that vouchers and scholarship tax creditssiphon” money from public schools and increase the overall cost of education to the taxpayers. However, these critics generally fail to consider the reduction in expenses associated with students switching out of the district school system, wrongly assuming that all or most school costs are fixed. When students leave, they claim, a school cannot significantly reduce its costs because it cannot cut back on its major expenses, like buildings, utilities, and labor. But if that were true, then schools would require little to no additional funds to teach additional students. A proper fiscal analysis considers both the diverted or decreased revenue as well as the reduction in expenses related to variable costs.

A new study by Jeff Spalding, Director of Fiscal Policy at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, does exactly that. The study examines the fiscal impact of 10 of the 21 school voucher programs nationwide, finding a cumulative savings to states of at least $1.7 billion over two decades. Spalding, the former comptroller/CFO for the city of Indianapolis, is cautious, methodical, and transparent in his analysis. He walks readers through the complex process of determining the fiscal impact of each program, identifying the impact of each variable and explaining equation along the way. He also makes relatively conservative assumptions, such as counting food service and interscholastic athletics as fixed costs even though they are variable with enrollment. Critically, Spalding accounts for those students who would have attended private school anyway, explaining:

One common complicating factor is student eligibility. If a voucher program allows students already enrolled in a private school to qualify, then those students do not directly relieve the public school system of any costs. Thus, there is a new public cost incurred for the vouchers provided to those students, but no corresponding savings for the public school system. Anytime voucher eligibility extends to students not currently enrolled in a public school, the net savings calculation must include that complicating factor.

States save money when the variable cost of each student to the district schools is greater than the cost of the voucher, accounting for the students who would have attended private school anyway. After wading through each state’s byzantine school funding formula, Spalding calculated that the voucher programs reduced expenditures across all 10 programs by $4.5 billion over two decades while costing states $2.8 billion, producing $1.7 billion in savings.

In the last 40 years, government spending on K-12 education has nearly tripled while results have been flat. Moreover, the Census Bureau projects that the elderly will make up an increasingly larger share of the population in the coming decades, straining state budgets with spending on health care and retirement benefits. Schools will have to compete with hospitals and nursing homes for scarce resources.

In other words, our education system needs to become more effective and financially efficient, fast. Large-scale school choice programs promise to do both.

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students’ falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday’s Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don’t support that narrative. Here’s the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

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