Topic: Education and Child Policy

How Congress Should — and Shouldn’t — Bolster School Choice

This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “Expanding Education Opportunity through School Choice.” As I’ve written before, there are lots of great reasons to support school choice policies, but Congress should not create a national voucher program:

It is very likely that a federal voucher program would lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. Once private schools become dependent on federal money, the vast majority is likely to accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

Are Almost All NYC Public Schools Actually Voucher Schools?

A popular knock against vouchers and other school choice programs is that private schools do not serve many students with disabilities, whereas public schools serve everyone. If that’s true, then the vast majority of public schools in New York City must actually be private.

According to a federal investigation just rejected by the de Blasio administration, the large majority of New York City elementary schools – 83 percent – are not “fully accessible” to students with disabilities. That forces many disabled students to travel far afield from their local public schools, which are supposed to serve every zoned child. The U.S. Department of Justice’s letter to the city laying all this out contains this anecdote:

In the course of our investigation, we spoke to one family who went to extreme measures to keep their child enrolled in their zoned local school, rather than subject the child to a lengthy commute to the closest “accessible” school. A parent of this elementary school child was forced to travel to the school multiple times a day, every school day, in order to carry her child up and down stairs to her classroom, to the cafeteria, and to other areas of the school in which classes and programs were held.

Ultimately, “School Choice” Must Be about Freedom

It is National School Choice Week, and this ever-growing event-of-events will feature discussions throughout the country tackling test scores, competition, empowering the poor, efficient use of taxpayer dollars, monopoly breaking, and numerous other, very important topics. But ultimately just one goal must be paramount: maximizing freedom. In the end, it is defending liberty – the true, bedrock American value – that school choice must be about.

This is first and foremost a normative conviction. Freedom must have primacy because society is ultimately composed of individuals, and leaving individuals the right and ability to control their own lives is fundamentally more just than having the state – be it through a single dictator, or majority of voters – control our thoughts, words, or actions.

Of course, children are subject to someone’s control no matter what. But a corollary to free individuals, especially when no one is omniscient and there is no unanimous agreement on what is the “right” way to live, or think, or believe, must be free association – free, authentic communities. We must allow people and communities marked by hugely diverse religious, philosophical, or moral views, and rich ethnic and cultural identities and backgrounds, to teach their children those things. Short of stopping incitement of violence or clear parental abuse, the state should have no authority to declare that “your culture is acceptable,” or “yours must go.” Indeed, crush the freedom of communities and you inevitably cripple individual liberty, taking away one’s choices of how and with whom to live.

Of course, the reasons to demand educational freedom are not just normative. They are also about effective education, and it is not hard to understand, at a very basic level, why.

If there are things on which all agree, choice is moot – all will teach and respect those things. But if we do not all agree, forcing diverse people to support a single system of “common” schools yields but three outcomes: first, divisive conflict; then, either inequality under the law – oppression – when one side wins and the other loses, or lowest-common-denominator curricula to keep the peace. Forced conflict and curricular mush no one should want. And inequality under the law we should all loathe and fear, even if we do not care about the rights of others and think we will come out the victors today. Tomorrow, we may not.

School choice is something for which all Americans should fight. But ultimately, it is too limiting. What we need is freedom for all.

National School Choice Week Roundup

This week is National School Choice Week, the annual celebration of policies that empower families to choose the education that best meets the individual needs of their children. There have already been several important school choice developments this year, not all of them positive. Below is a roundup of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Florida expands its education savings account program

It will be hard to top 2015 (the Year of Educational Choice), but 2016 has already seen a flurry of legislative activity. Last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed legislation expanding the number of students with special needs who can receive education savings accounts. The bill also renamed the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts to honor their legislative champion, Senator Andy Gardiner. 

Cruz Introduces Education Savings Accounts Legislation

Yesterday, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced legislation to create an education savings account (ESA) program for students in Washington, D.C. In a press release, Cruz’s office stated that the legislation was modeled after Nevada’s ESA, and Cruz called educational choice “the civil rights issue of our era.”

“Each and every child has the right to access a quality education,” Sen. Cruz said. “Not only does school choice give low-income children the same choices and opportunities that children from wealthy families have always had, it also improves the public schools, making them stronger and more effective. This legislation ensures that every child in Washington, D.C., regardless of race, ethnicity, or zip code, has the same opportunity to choose the school that best fits their needs and will help them achieve their very best.”

Last September, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and I explained why it’s imperative to break the link between housing and education in D.C. and how an ESA could do just that:

Sadly, access to a quality education is too often dependent on a family’s ability to purchase a home in an expensive area. As The Washington Post reported recently, the median price of a three-bedroom home in a D.C. neighborhood zoned to a public school where reading proficiency rates exceed 80 percent is about $800,000. The median price of similar homes near Eaton Elementary, where the Hills enrolled their children, is north of $1 million. Where the Hills resided in Maryland the median home prices ranged from a much more affordable $330,000 to $460,000.

There is a strong correlation between these housing prices and school performance. In nearly all D.C. neighborhoods where the median three-bedroom home costs $460,000 or less, the percentage of students at the zoned public school scoring proficient or advanced in reading was less than 45 percent. Children from families that could only afford homes under $300,000 are almost entirely assigned to the worst-performing schools in the District, in which math and reading proficiency rates are in the teens.

If policymakers truly believe in equality of opportunity, they must do more to sever the link between education and housing. The District has taken some important steps in the right direction — allowing parents to apply to charter schools and out-of-boundary district schools — but long waiting lists at the best schools have limited their usefulness for most families. […]

ESAs are restricted-use savings accounts parents can use to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services using a portion of the public funding that would have been spent on their child at their assigned district school.

ESAs are an improvement on the traditional voucher model because they empower families to completely customize their child’s educational experience. In addition to private school tuition, parents can spend ESA funds on tutors, textbooks, online courses, special education services and therapies, home-school curricula, and individual public school courses. ESAs even enable families to roll over unused funds from year to year.

These features also make ESAs more economically efficient than vouchers. Whereas traditional vouchers must be spent in their entirety at a single school each year, thereby creating a price floor, there is no minimum amount that ESA holders must spend in one place. The ability to spend ESA funds at multiple vendors or save them for future educational expenditures also gives parents a stronger incentive to economize, which should mitigate tuition inflation. […]

Because the District is under federal jurisdiction, Congress has a rare opportunity to advance a robust school choice option that is both constitutionally appropriate and would make a real difference in the lives of its young citizens by making every child in D.C. eligible for an ESA.

Taking (Tax) Credit for Education

One of the most promising recent developments in education policy has been the widespread interest in education savings accounts (ESAs). Five states have already enacted ESA laws, and several states are considering ESA legislation this year. Whereas traditional school vouchers empower families to choose among numerous private schools, ESAs give parents the flexibility to customize their child’s education using a variety of educational expenditures, including private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, educational therapies, and more.

Today the Cato Institute released a new report, “Taking Credit for Education: How to Fund Education Savings Accounts through Tax Credits.” The report, which I coauthored with Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute and Clint Bolick (then of Goldwater, now an Arizona Supreme Court justice), draws from the experiences of educational choice policies in three states and offers suggestions to policymakers for how to design a tax-credit-funded ESA. Tax-credit ESAs combine the best aspects of existing ESA policies with the best aspects of scholarship tax credit (STC) policies. Like other ESA policies, tax-credit ESAs empower families to customize their child’s education. And like STC policies, tax-credit ESAs rely on voluntary, private contributions for funding, making them more resistant to legal challenges and expanding liberty for donors.

Here’s how it would work: individuals and corporations would receive tax credits in return for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that would set up, fund, and oversee the education savings accounts. There’s already precedent for this sort of arrangement. In Florida, the very same nonprofit organizations that grant scholarships under the state’s STC law also administer the state’s publicly funded ESA. Moreover, New Hampshire’s STC law allows scholarship organizations to help homeschoolers cover a variety of educational expenses, similar to ESA policies in other states. 

For more details on how to design tax-credit ESAs, how they would work, and the constitutional issues involved, you can read the full report here. You can also find a summary of the report at Education Next.

Supreme Court Poised to Free Public-Sector Workers from Compelled Union Fees

The conventional wisdom is that Justice Scalia is the swing vote in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but he gave no indication at this morning’s argument that he was anywhere but on the plaintiffs’ side. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy – other potential defectors from the pro-workers, anti-compelled-speech side – were similarly solid. With Justice Alito having written the two recent labor-related opinions, the most likely fifth vote for the unions (supported by California and the United States) becomes Justice Thomas, but only because he said nothing, as is his wont.

Not surprisingly, the biggest issue for the more conservative justices was the matter of compulsion: why should non-unionmembers in the public sector be forced to pay “agency fees” for so-called collective bargaining when (a) all issues that are collectively bargained by public-sector unions are matters of public policy (not simply wages and conditions of labor as in the private sector), and (b) those workers disagree with the supposed “benefits” that the unions want them to pay for (e.g., tenure protections versus merit pay). “Is it even okay to force someone to contribute to a cause you do believe in?”, asked Justice Scalia. “We’re not talking about free riders, but compelled riders,” posited Justice Kennedy.

“Since public employment contracts are submitted for public comment, that suggests this is different than private-sector collective bargaining,” explained Chief Justice Roberts, who was silent during the plaintiffs’ half of the argument and an active questioner of the union and governments (typically a sign of agreement with the former and disagreement with the latter). 

While the progressive justices focused on the importance of stare decisis – respecting precedent and the reliance interests built up around it – that didn’t appear to be a major concern for anyone else, regardless of the age of the ruling that’s now under attack (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education from 1977). “Everything that’s collectively bargained [in the public sector] is necessarily a political question,” thundered Justice Scalia in describing why a ruling to strike down agency fees would even comport with Abood’s statement that states can’t force workers “to contribute to the support of an ideological cause [they] may oppose as a condition of holding a job.”

In other words, to the extent we can predict anything based solely on oral argument – take this with a mine of salt – I’d much rather be us (those who support the teachers) than them (those who support the teachers’ union and state and federal governments). If that’s how the case goes, it would be a huge victory for workers’ rights, the First Amendment, and educational freedom – and probably the most important ruling this term. 

We’ll find out by the end of June.

For background and commentary about the case, see this two-minute primerCato’s brief, my two recent op-eds, and this podcast.

Pages