Topic: Education and Child Policy

Supreme Court to Consider Ending Forced Public-Sector Union Dues

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which asks the court to consider whether compulsory public-sector union dues violate the First Amendment right to free speech–which includes the right to be free from compulsory speech. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief supporting the petitioners’ request that SCOTUS hear the case.

In 26 states, public-sector unions can force non-members to pay dues anyway. As I noted last year: 

The unions contend that these compulsory dues are necessary to overcome the free rider problem (non-union members may benefit from the collectively-bargained wages and benefits without contributing to the union), but plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association point out that numerous organizations engage in activities (e.g. – lobbying) that benefit members and non-members alike without giving such organizations the right to coerce non-members to pay. That’s especially true when the individuals who supposedly benefit actually disagree with the position of the organization. 

Colorado Supreme Court Strikes Down School Vouchers

Earlier today, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Douglas County’s school voucher program violates the state constitution. 

The Douglas County Board of Education unanimously voted to enact the Choice Scholarship Pilot (CSP) Program in 2011, making it the first district-level school voucher program in the nation. The program granted 500 school vouchers worth up to 75 percent of the district schools’ per-pupil revenue, which was approximately $6,100 in the last academic year. Students could use the $4,575 vouchers at the private school of their choice and the district retained the remaining 25 percent of the funding ($1,525 per voucher student).

However, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several local organizations that wanted to protect district schools from competition filed a legal challenge almost immediately. Although they won an injunction from a trial court, it was later overturned on appeal in 2013. Plaintiffs then appealed to the state supreme court.

In a narrow 4-3 decision*, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the voucher law ran afoul of the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which says:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…

The court held that “aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP does.” Even though “CSP does not explicitly funnel money directly religious schools, instead providing financial aid to student,” the court ruled that the Blaine Amendment’s prohibitions “are not limited to direct funding.”

Charter School Growth, Reality vs. Prediction

A fun thing about making predictions is ultimately finding out how wrong you were, and why. The chart below depicts the actual growth in charter school enrollment from 2000 to 2011, presented in Richard Buddin’s paper “The Impact of Charter Schools on Public and Private School Enrollments.” Now, as the old investment ads exhorted “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But such a definitive pattern cried out for a regression fit. The dashed blue line in the chart below represents the “predicted” growth of Charter schools since 2011 (which I calculated three years ago from the 2000-to-2011 data). But how good was the prediction? As a test, I have plotted the actual data for 2012 to 2015 as red dots, using this and this as sources.

Well. Not bad. The accelerating growth in charter school enrollment could be excellent news for children and families–expanding the breadth of their educational options. Or (in the long term) it might reduce the variety of educational choices if charters become re-regulated (and thus homogenized) after having “eaten” a substantial number of diverse and much freer private schools. As Richard Buddin showed, charter schools are drawing students away from the freer independent school sector. And as the news routinely informs us, there are regular efforts to pile regulations onto charters to make them behave more like conventional state-run schools. In 2011, I raised the concern that this cycle could reduce educational liberty.

Two things are likely to happen over time: more private schools will be forced by economic expediency to convert to charter status as the number of competing charter schools grows, and the charter law is very likely to accrete regulation as charters enroll a larger share of the total student population. After all, the conventional U.S. public schools of the mid-to-late 1800s generally had more parental power and more autonomy than do typical charter schools today, but they have succumb to ever more extensive and more centralized regulation. If charter public schools follow the pattern set by conventional public schools, and if private schools continue to convert to charter status, what will be the end result? We could well see a heavily regulated state education monopoly that enjoys not a 90 percent market share, as it does now, but a 95 or even 99 percent market share. The end point would be worse than the situation we have today. While it is possible that charter schools will not accrete regulation like other public schools have as they begin to enroll a larger share of students, there is no reason to be hopeful in that regard.

With attempts to regulate charter schools more like state-run district schools continuing to this day, reasons for hopefulness remain scarce.

This, admittedly is a long-run concern. And as Keynes observed, “In the long-run, we’re all dead.” While that is literally true of any given generation, policy must be made with a view to functioning well not simply for us, now, but also for subsequent generations, decades hence. Having spent years studying the history of education systems, it’s hard not to be concerned with the long-run.

Educational Choice: Getting It Right

Over the last couple weeks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been holding its second annual Wonk-a-thon. In the wake of Nevada enacting a groundbreaking, nearly universal education savings account (ESA) law, Fordham asked practitioners, scholars, and policy analysts what Nevada must “get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers.”

Readers can vote for the wonk who offered the wisest analysis here. For a summary of the various recommendations, see here.

ESAs have the potential to radically remake the education landscape. Rather than choose just a single school, parents can use ESA funds for a variety of educational goods and services. Students may spend part of a day in a classroom, part on a computer, and part with personal tutors. Someday, students may even learn in “education malls” where they will choose from among numerous education providers for each subject, each with a different approach or focus. Or perhaps there will be explosive growth in full or partial homeschooling or blended learning. Frankly, we cannot predict with any certainty how education will change over the next few decades in a robust market.

Texas Will No Longer Imprison Kids for Missing School

The AP reports some good news out of Texas over the weekend: 

A long-standing Texas law that has sent about 100,000 students a year to criminal court - and some to jail - for missing school is off the books, though a Justice Department investigation into one county’s truancy courts continues.

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law a measure to decriminalize unexcused absences and require school districts to implement preventive measures. It will take effect Sept. 1.

Reform advocates say the threat of a heavy fine - up to $500 plus court costs - and a criminal record wasn’t keeping children in school and was sending those who couldn’t pay into a criminal justice system spiral. Under the old law, students as young as 12 could be ordered to court for three unexcused absences in four weeks. Schools were required to file a misdemeanor failure to attend school charge against students with more than 10 unexcused absences in six months. And unpaid fines landed some students behind bars when they turned 17.

Unsurprisingly, the truancy law had negatively impacted low-income and minority students the most. 

In the wake of the arrest of a Georgia mother whose honor role student accumulated three unexcused absences more than the law allowed, Walter Olson noted that several states still have compulsory school attendance laws that carry criminal penalties:

Texas not only criminalized truancy but has provided for young offenders to be tried in adult courts, leading to extraordinarily harsh results especially for poorer families.  But truancy-law horror stories now come in regularly from all over the country, from Virginia to California. In Pennsylvania a woman died in jail after failing to pay truancy fines; “More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone—where Reading is the county seat—over truancy fines since 2000.”)

The criminal penalties, combined with the serious consequences that can follow non-payment of civil penalties, are now an important component of what has been called carceral liberalism: we’re finding ever more ways to menace you with imprisonment, but don’t worry, it’s for your own good. Yet jailing parents hardly seems a promising way to stabilize the lives of wavering students. And as Colorado state Sen. Chris Holbert, sponsor of a decriminalization billhas said, “Sending kids to jail—juvenile detention—for nothing more than truancy just didn’t make sense. When a student is referred to juvenile detention, he or she is co-mingling with criminals—juveniles who’ve committed theft or assault or drug dealing.”

It’s encouraging to see movement away from criminalized truancy, but it’s not enough. As Neal McCluskey has noted, compulsory government schooling is as American as Bavarian cream pie. We shouldn’t be surprised when the one-size-fits-some district schools don’t work out for some of the students assigned to them. Instead, states should empower parents to choose the education that meets their child’s individual needs.

Shaping Young Minds vs. Laying Asphalt

Education historian Diane Ravitch, in a recent Huffington Post piece, came out in support of school choice, but only choice in which you pay once for public schools, and a second time if you want or need something different than what those schools provide. In a familiar refrain, Ravitch argued that we pay through taxes for highways, police, firefighters, public beaches, and libraries even if we don’t use them, and schools should be no different. They are public goods.

Aside from the feel of circularity in Ravitch’s argument – these things are public goods, therefore you must pay taxes for them; because you pay taxes for them they are public goods – the crucial problem with Ravitch’s argument is the monumental difference between education and, say, building highways. Education is about shaping young people’s minds, something so intimately connected to values, identities, and basic freedom that it could never be tantamount to deciding whether to resurface roads or maintain a company to put out fires. And policing, most basically, is about ensuring one person doesn’t impose himself on another through force or fraud. That doesn’t come close to saying “we will require all people to pay for the inculcation of government-approved facts, ideas, and values in children.”

There is simply no meaningful equivalence between education and building roads or putting out fires. Except, perhaps, that when we force all people to support a single system of schools we ignite constant social conflagrations, fires that are often only put out when one side loses, or as Ravitch herself has documented, seemingly anything potentially flammable – but also often valuable – is removed.

The Year of Educational Choice: Update III

This is the fourth post in a series covering the advance of educational choice legislation across the country this year. As I noted in my last entry in May:

[At the beginning of the year,] the stars appeared to be aligned for a “Year of Educational Choice.” By late April, state legislatures were halfway toward beating the record of 13 states adopting new or expanded school choice laws in 2011, which the Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Year of School Choice.” The major difference in the types of legislative proposals under consideration this year is that more than a dozen states considered education savings account (ESA) laws that allow parents to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services and save for future education expenses, including college.

Since the end of May, five more states enacted new or expanded educational choice programs, bringing the total to 13 new or expanded programs in 10 states so far this year. Of these, the most exciting new choice program is Nevada’s education savings account, the fifth ESA in the nation and the first to offer nearly universal eligibility.

In addition, at least eight states are still seriously deliberating educational choice legislation. Here’s the tally so far:

New Educational Choice Programs

  • Arkansas: vouchers for students with special needs.
  • Mississippi: ESAs for students with special needs.
  • Montana: universal tax-credit scholarship law.
  • Nevada: tax-credit scholarships for low- and middle-income students.
  • Nevada: nearly universal ESA for students who previously attended a public school.
  • Tennessee: ESAs for students with special needs.

Expanded Educational Choice Programs

  • Alabama: Raised the annual scholarship tax credit cap from $25 million to $30 million and raised the contribution cap from $7,500 to $50,000. However, the expansion came at a price: the legislation lowered income eligibility threshold from 275 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent (from about $67,000 to about $45,000 for a family of four). Current scholarship recipients are grandfathered in.
  • Arizona: Expanded ESA eligibility to include students living in Native American tribal lands.
  • Arizona: Expanded the types of businesses that can receive tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations.
  • Indiana: Increased amount of tax credits available for donations to scholarship organizations ($2 million over two years).
  • Indiana: Eliminated cap on the number of vouchers available for elementary school students.
  • Louisiana: Expanded school voucher program (funding roughly 600 additional vouchers).
  • Oklahoma: Expanded eligibility for its special-needs tax-credit scholarships and raised the tax credit value from 50 percent–tied with Indiana for the lowest in the nation–to 75 percent. 

Pending Legislation 

  • Delaware: Considering ESA legislation.
  • Florida: Earlier this year, both the FL House and FL Senate unanimously passed slightly different versions of legislation to expand the state’s ESA program. However, due to a legislative standoff over unrelated matters, the legislature failed to reach an agreement before adjourning for the summer and the legislation appeared to be dead. Nevertheless, on Monday legislative leaders reached an agreement to include a significant expansion of the ESA program in the budget, more than doubling the funding and expanding the eligibility requirements to additional categories of students with special needs. 
  • North Carolina: Both the NC House and NC Senate passed budgets that expanded funding for the state’s voucher program and increased the size of vouchers for students with special needs.
  • Ohio: Considering an expansion to the state’s school voucher program.
  • Pennsylvania: Considering an expansion to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit.
  • Rhode Island: Considering ESA legislation.
  • South Carolina: The legislature is considering a new “refundable” scholarship tax credit that blurs the line between tax credits and vouchers. A wiser path would be expanding the state’s existing scholarship tax credit to include all students and provide enough tax credits to meet demand for scholarships.
  • Wisconsin: The WI Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved an expansion to the statewide school voucher program that eliminates the restrictive and arbitrary 1,000-student enrollment cap. The proposal would also make students with special needs eligible.

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