Tag: vouchers

GOP Senators Playing With Federal Education Fire

It’s easy to understand why several prominent GOP Senators, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, are sponsoring federal school voucher legislation. State-level voucher programs have raised student achievement, increased high school graduation rates, and boosted college matriculation. School choice programs are also market-based initiatives that aid and appeal to low-income voters. As Senator Paul argued:

“School choice for low-income parents and students across America is a way out of the poverty cycle,” Mr. Paul said in a statement. “Allowing Title 1 funds to follow the student creates an opportunity for students to get the most out of their education in the best environment possible.”

Moreover, a recent survey from Harvard University’s Program on Education and Governance found a high level of support for expanded school choice programs. All that said, the GOP should resist the temptation of a federal voucher system.

Even setting aside the question of constitutionality (education is not listed in the Constitution as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers), there are practical reasons for being skeptical about increased federal involvement in America’s education system. It is very likely that a federal voucher program will lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. While there’s no law of the cosmos that states that federal dollars must come with strings attached, they most often do. And while the GOP legislators proposing the vouchers will likely keep regulations light at the outset, when the political pendulum swings—as it inevitably will—opponents of vouchers might find that it’s politically easier to add regulations to the program than to kill it outright. Once private schools become dependent on the federal money that their students bring with them, the vast majority will accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

Instead of playing with federal fire, the GOP should embrace federalism. As David Boaz wrote in the Cato Handbook for Congress a decade ago, the case against federal involvement in education:

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

School choice programs have been expanding rapidly among the states in recent years (albeit not as rapidly as I would like). Supporters of school choice should be encouraging that trend, working hard at the state level to expand educational opportunities. Expanding choice all across the fruited plain in one swoop may be tempting in its immediacy, but it’s not worth the price.

By Grapthar’s Hammer… What a Savings

Researchers Patrick Wolf and Michael McShane write in the National Review Online today that the DC Opportunity Scholarships Program saves money. They estimate that the ultimate net savings from the private school choice program’s initial 5 year trial period will amount to $113 million ($183 million in savings set against a cost of $70 million). That’s good news, but I, like Alan Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest, am somewhat ambivalent about this savings figure.

The trouble is that the real savings are substantially greater, because the above estimate doesn’t seem to take into account not having to pay for these students to attend DC public schools (which would have been necessary, without the private school scholarship program). And as readers of this blog may remember, DC spends a whole lotta money on its public schools. Just shy of $30,000 per student, per year in fact. Assuming that the average program enrollment during the trial period was 1,500 students, it saved taxpayers an additional… $225 million. Added to the Wolf/McShane figure, the total savings is $338 million—for just a tiny program.

By Grapthar’s Hammer, that IS a savings!

The Real Problem with Highly Regulated “School Choice”

A Fordham Institute paper released today seeks to answer the question: do private schools really refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs? Its authors tell us that “many proponents of private school choice… take [this] for granted,” citing two examples—one of them being the Cato Institute, whose Center for Educational Freedom I direct. The authors even cite a relevant commentary by former Cato policy analyst Adam Schaeffer.

The only problem is that the cited commentary says precisely the opposite. Describing Indiana’s voucher program, Schaeffer writes: “Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated [non-participating] schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate.” This captures Schaeffer’s concern as well as my own (which I expressed over a decade ago in the political economy journal Independent Review): We do not fear that private schools will refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. We know that they ultimately will participate, or be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts.

We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished. The Dutch enacted a heavily regulated nationwide voucher program nearly a century ago. Unsubsidized private schooling remains legal, but has been reduced to a statistical asterisk—now making up less than one percent of enrollment, compared to roughly 70 percent for subsidized private schools.

Our reason for concern over this pattern is also grounded in empirical evidence: it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. That is the consensus of the worldwide within-country research, which I reviewed and tabulated for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. The Fordham paper does not discuss this evidence.

Despite imputing to Cato scholars the exact opposite of the view we hold, the paper does include some interesting data. In particular, it offers a new corroboration that voucher programs are more heavily regulated than tax credit programs (a difference whose magnitude and statistical significance was previously established here). This will make it even harder for objective observers to cling to the notion that vouchers and credits are functionally equivalent.

Public Prefers Education Tax Credits to Charters, Vouchers

In a recent public opinion study conducted by Harvard University researchers, education tax credits were found to attract more public support (72%) than either charter schools (62%) or vouchers (50%).

The authors seem to find this puzzling, in part due to their belief that “most economists think the difference between vouchers and tax credits more a matter of style than substance.” I have no idea whether this is an accurate assessment of economists’ opinions, but it is certainly a mistaken view, for several reasons.

First, based on a set of regression studies I reported last year in the Journal of School Choice, vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a large and highly significant extra burden of regulation on participating private schools (the link is to an essentially identical pre-publication version). In that study, I offer a suggested explanation for why this pattern may exist.

Second, tax credit programs confer freedom of choice and conscience not just on families but also on taxpayer/donors. As I argued in U.S. Supreme Court amicus briefs in ACSTO v. Winn, and a subsequent op-ed on the Winn verdict, this avoids the compulsion that has plagued state-funded school systems since their inception and has precipitated our endless “school wars.” Vouchers, by compelling all taxpayers to support every type of schooling, perpetuate that compulsion and so perpetuate the conflicts that flow from it.

To my knowledge, in the whole history of the world there hasn’t been a system of government funding for the education of children that has long avoided extensive regulatory constraints. Those constraints defeat the purpose of “school choice” programs, by homogenizing the schools from which parents are permitted to “choose.” There is evidence that tax credits, which make use of only private funds, avoid that fate. Perhaps many economists have not yet become aware of this distinction, but it is one they should take a keen interest in.

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

Would You Let a Quack Treat Your Child?

Cases in which parents deny their children modern medical treatment are increasingly rare. In medicine, the days of snake-oil selling quacks are mostly behind us. Sadly, the same isn’t true in education policy.

Medical researchers precisely define and test their proposed treatments. Compare that to a recent bit of education policy “analysis” in which the writer purports to assess Milton Friedman’s market-inspired proposal (minimally regulated school vouchers) by reviewing the outcomes of charter schooling. This is like testing insulin by administering Flintstones Chewables. Charter schools are opened and closed at the discretion of government authorities, lack market-determined prices, and cannot be operated for-profit or offer religious instruction. In many states, they cannot hire teachers who lack government credentials. Friedman’s voucher proposal shared none of these characteristics, and so to treat the two interchangeably is a sign of ignorance or intentional equivocation.

Even when relevant evidence is presented, the presentation is frequently inaccurate and unsystematic. To see just how serious this problem is, it helps to look at an example in detail. Consider a recent discussion of voucherizing U.S. federal education spending that drew lessons from Chile’s voucher program. Many of its facts are wrong, others are misrepresented, and key pieces of information are omitted.

The author claims that Chilean education spending as a share of GDP shrank between 1980 and today. But, according to the United Nations, it rose from 4.4 percent to 4.5 percent. And, due to the sustained growth of Chile’s economy since the mid-1980s, inflation-adjusted per pupil spending has more than doubled.

The author acknowledges that Chilean students are now the highest-performing in Latin America, but claims that his fabricated “budget cuts have led to overall decline in quality.” In fact, Chile is one of the fastest-improving nations in the entire world on international tests of academic achievement. He goes on to claim, without support, that vouchers have led to growing inequality, benefiting only upper-middle-income families, yet a Yale University study reports that the voucher program has reduced inequality in educational attainment and raised earnings equally for both the poor and the non-poor.

Finally, the author notes that lower-income students are more likely to attend public rather than private schools in Chile, but neglects to mention that public schools serving the poor receive a varying amount of additional funding that is not given to private schools serving similar students. Chilean economists Sapelli and Vial report that public schools receiving vastly higher funding per pupil outperform private schools (which explains their appeal), but in the rare cases in which the public sector’s funding advantage is 25 percent or less, it is private schools that perform better.

This is not an exhaustive list of the commentary’s errors, omissions, and misrepresentations, but it should suffice to show the level of quackery being doled out to the public by purportedly serious publications (it was published in the Washington Post’s education blog). We’re not exactly talking House or Doc Martin here.

Few parents would administer the medical equivalent of this claptrap to their children–they are generally protected from such errors by the health-care field’s comparatively careful, systematic research practices. But in education, they still suffer under the ministrations of charlatans. The result can be seen in the virtually unique productivity collapse that has beset American education for generations.

So what can we do about it? A first step would be for well-intentioned education policy analysts to make more systematic use of the high quality research that is available, and to add to that literature. But it is harder to conduct experiments on the impact of state or national policies than on the impact of drugs. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem–one that we also owe, incidentally, to the medical field. I’ll be writing about that soon, and will update this post with a link when it’s available.

Update: My article in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

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.