Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

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.

Misinformed on Common Core? This Won’t Set You Straight

Whenever someone declares opponents of the Common Core “misinformed,” get ready: there’s probably a lot more misinformation coming your way. Case in point, a new offering from Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin attacking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) over his Common Core stance in a recent Des Moines Register op-ed. Her post is chock-full of misinformation, ironically intended to make Core opponents seem confused.

Start with this, in which Rubin asserts that Walker tried to conflate overall federal education funding with the Common Core:

As virtually all GOP contenders but Jeb Bush do, he then takes a swing at Common Core. “Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core. Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.” This is confusing since Common Core per se does not affect how and where money is coming from.

This isn’t actually confusing when you read Walker’s piece, at least the online version (which I assume is like the print version, and is also likely the version Rubin read.) Why? Because Walker separated his ideas into paragraphs, which Rubin eliminated in the quote above, and the placement of the paragraphs makes clear that Walker’s Common Core thought and his federal funding thought were separate ideas. Directly from Walker’s piece:

Now, more than ever, we need to push big, bold reforms to improve our schools. If we can do it in Wisconsin, there is no reason we can’t push positive education reforms across the country.

Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core.

Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.

And every student in the our [sic] nation’s capital should have access to a great education. Therefore, we should expand the options for families in the District of Columbia to choose the school that is best for their children.

Rubin proceeds to make the funding befuddlement worse by writing, “It is Race to the Top that affords states money if they can show either through Common Core or other standards that they are setting high expectations for students.” First, the Race to the Top that provided the primary impetus for states to adopt the Core de facto only allowed the Core – not “other standards” – saying that only states that were part of a standards-and-assessment consortium including “a majority of the States in the country” (p. 59689) could get maximum points in the funding contest. Only the Core met that criterion, and it was clearly the intent of many Core supporters and the Obama administration to have RTT push the Core specifically. That first Race to the Top, however, was basically a very powerful one-shot deal, not one that continuously “affords states money.” It was subsequent waivers out of No Child Left Behind requirements – which let states either use the Core or have a state university system certify state standards as “college- and career-ready” – that are currently in effect and offer two standards options.

Sorry Taxpayers, Paying You Back Is Bad for My Bliss

If I had more time I’d write at greater length about this already infamous New York Times op-ed on student loans – which conspicuously fails to mention that the writer apparently got all of his degrees from pricey Columbia University – but the piece largely condemns itself. What I think is worth contemplating is how far out of mainstream thinking its sentiments are. Alas, maybe not that far.

No doubt most of the public wouldn’t support people not repaying their student loans just because they don’t like them, but the idea that freely chosen debt should be forgiven or curtailed is getting lots of play, from President Obama’s push for programs that would lead to forgiveness for big borrowers, to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s private debt buy-up proposal. And calls for free college are roughly the equivalent of calls for loan forgiveness. No, they aren’t saying that borrowers should renege on commitments they’ve already made, but they are saying that the college cost burden should be dropped even more squarely on the shoulder of taxpayers going forward.

Of course the ultimate problem, beyond the immediate, crushing cost, is that the more you have other people pay for students’ decisions, the more wasteful those decisions will tend to be. And even at current subsidy levels, those decisions are very, very wasteful. But that’s what happens when politicians decide taxpayers should never get in the way of a student’s bliss.

Truancy Laws: What Libertarians Knew

My new piece at Reason begins:

We’ve seen it happen again and again: libertarians are derided over some supposedly crazy or esoteric position, years pass, and eventually others start to see why our position made sense. It’s happened with asset forfeiture, with occupational licensure, with the Drug War, and soon, perhaps, with libertarians’ once-lonely critique of school truancy laws.

In his 1980 book Free To Choose, economist Milton Friedman argued that compulsory school attendance laws do more harm than good, a prescient view considering what’s come since: both Democratic and Republican lawmakers around the country, prodded by the education lobby, have toughened truancy laws with serious civil and even criminal penalties for both students and parents. Now the horror stories pile up: the mom arrested and shackled because her honor-roll son had a few unexcused sick days too many, the teenagers managing chaotic home lives who are threatened with juvenile detention for their pains, the mother who died in jail after being imprisoned for truancy fines. It’s been called carceral liberalism: we’re jailing you, your child, or both, but don’t worry because it’s for your own good. Not getting enough classroom time could really ruin a kid’s life.

My article also mentions that a bill to reform Texas’s super-punitive truancy laws has reached Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, following the reported success of an experiment in San Antonio and pressure from a Marshall Project report. Finally, truancy-law reform is looking to become an issue across the political spectrum — but libertarians were there first.