Topic: Education and Child Policy

Conflicted on 529s

If you like feeling conflicted, you’ll love being a libertarian thinking about President Obama’s recent proposal – and even more recent rescinding of that proposal – to essentially end 529 college savings plans. The President proposed killing the ability to use funds saved under a 529 plan tax free to pay for college, which would have gutted the program’s real value.

On one side, a libertarian should be aggravated by such a proposal. The goal certainly seemed to be income redistribution, generating new revenues from relatively well-to-do Americans and giving it to (presumably) less well-to-do Americans with free community college and expanded “refundable” tax credits. It also seemed intended to support a divisive, rhetorical war of the “middle class” vs. “the rich” (though certainly many people who use 529s consider themselves middle class). And unlike federal grants, loans, and those refundable credits that are often essentially grants for people who don’t owe much in taxes, 529s are about people saving their own money to pay for college, not taking it from taxpayers.

On the other side, libertarians – heck, everyone – should want a simple tax code that isn’t riven with special breaks, loopholes, and encouragements to do things politicians decide are worthy but which have massive negative, unintended consequences. And when it comes to higher education, those consequences are huge, including rampant tuition inflation, awful completion rates, major underemployment, serious credential inflation, and a burgeoning academic water park industry. And where does the federal government get the authority to incentivize saving for college in the first place? Not in the Constitution.

So how should libertarians feel about the demise of the President’s 529 plan? I guess a little sad, because the Feds simply shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging college consumption. Even more, though, they should feel angry, because we are so deep in a federally driven, college-funding quagmire.

Learning in the Live Free or Die State

In 2012, New Hampshire launched a bold initiative to advance educational freedom: scholarship tax credits.

The New Hampshire Opportunity Scholarship Act grants business tax credits worth 85 percent of those businesses’ contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that fund low- and middle-income students to attend private or home schools. More than 100 students received scholarships in the first year and the results were remarkable.

In a survey of scholarship recipients, nearly 97 percent of families reported being satisfied with their chosen school, including 89.5 percent who were very satisfied. Just a few months into the school year, more than two-thirds reported seeing measurable improvement in their child’s academic achievement. This is especially impressive because the scholarship recipients were among the most disadvantaged in the state. More than nine out of ten scholarship recipients were from families that had a household income low enough to qualify for the federal “free and reduced-price lunch” program, about $43,568 for a family of four.

Yet despite all that, the scholarship tax credit law faced both a repeal effort in the legislature and a bitter lawsuit that went to the state’s highest court. The law survived both—much to the relief of the scholarship recipients—but not without doing great harm. During the period of uncertainty that the repeal effort and lawsuit created, donations to the Network for Educational Opportunity, the state’s sole scholarship organization, fell from about $130,000 to just over $50,000. The reduction in funds meant a significant reduction in the number of scholarship recipients, a drop from 103 to just 40.

In the second year’s scholarship recipient survey, 80 percent reported seeing measurable academic improvement in their child since participating in the scholarship program. It’s a shame that so few students had access to those scholarships. Opponents of the scholarships have vowed to bring another lawsuit and eight legislators are once again sponsoring legislation to repeal the law. The struggle for greater educational freedom continues.

Tonight at 8 p.m. EST, in celebration of National School Choice Week, the Cato Institute will present Live Free and Learn: Scholarship Tax Credits in New Hampshire, a short film detailing the struggle over New Hampshire’s scholarship law and some of the families it has touched. After the film, please join us live online and on Twitter at #CatoConnects for a discussion the politics, policy, and constitutionality of scholarship tax credit laws with former NH state senator Jim Forsythe, Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dick Komer, and yours truly.

Families participating in New Hampshire’s pioneering scholarship tax credit program report near-universal levels of satisfaction because it enables them to choose the best educational fit for their children. Whatever parents are seeking for their children—improved academic performance, more engaged teachers, social acceptance, freedom from bullying, special needs programming, and so on—they are more likely to find it when they have more than one choice. Policymakers across the country who are seeking to expand the educational choices available in their state should look to New Hampshire as a model—then perhaps students from all states will have the opportunity to live free and learn.

Parents and Taxpayers Want More Educational Choice

Ever since Georgia enacted a scholarship tax credit law in 2008, individual and corporate taxpayers in the Peach State could receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations—at least until the $58 million cap is reached.

Donors are eligible to receive credits starting on January 1st of each year. In 2012, the last of the credits were claimed in mid-August. The following year, donors hit the cap in May. Last year, they hit it in just three weeks. This year, all the credits were claimed within hours of becoming available on January 1st. In fact, taxpayers applied for more than $95 million in credits, $37 million more than the cap.

Scholarship families are highly satisfied. In a 2013 survey of families receiving scholarships from Georgia GOAL, 98.6% of respondents reported being “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their chosen school.

Clearly, both the demand for scholarships and the willingness of taxpayers to support scholarship students have grown far beyond what the law currently allows. It’s time to raise the cap. Georgia legislators considering pending legislation to raise the cap to $250 million should be encouraged by two additional facts. First, the best evidence suggests that the tax credit law saves money by reducing expenses by more than it reduces tax revenue. Second, two-thirds of Georgians support the scholarship tax credit law. In other words, it’s good policy and good politics.

In other states that cap the amount of scholarship tax credits available—such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—donors consistently hit the cap each year. Two recent exceptions—New Hampshire and Alabama—highlight the adverse effects of lawsuits on fundraising. After anti–school choice activists sued to block New Hampshire’s Opportunity Scholarship law, donations dropped off precipitously because of the uncertainty about the law’s future. Fortunately, the state supreme court unanimously rejected the challenge last summer, so we should expect a significant increase in donations this year.

In Alabama, scholarship organizations raised only half as much in 2014 as they did in 2013 because of the uncertainty created by government education establishment’s legal challenge. The lawsuit is likely to meet the same end as similar lawsuits in Arizona and New Hampshire, but the plaintiffs are harming thousands of children while the case is being litigated.

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.

Community College Courtesy of the Federal Taxpayer? No Thanks

Word came out last night that in a speech in Tennessee today President Obama will propose that two years of community college be made free to all “responsible” students, primarily funded by federal taxpayers. But one look at either community college outcomes or labor market outlooks reveals this to be educational folly.

The fact of the matter, according to the federal government’s own data, is that community college completion rates are atrocious. The federal Digest of Education Statistics reports that a mere 19.5 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete their programs within 150 percent of the time they are supposed to take. So less than 20 percent finish a two-year degree within three years, or a 10-month certificate program within 15 months. And that rate has been dropping almost every year since the cohort of students that started in 2000, which saw 23.6 percent complete. Moreover, as I itemize in a post at SeeThruEDU.com, even when you add transfers to four-year schools, the numbers don’t improve very much. Meanwhile, interestingly, the for-profit sector that has been so heavily demonized by the administration has an almost 63 percent completion rate at two-year institutions, and that has been rising steadily since the 2000 cohort.

The other huge problem is that the large majority of job categories expected to grow the most in the coming years do not require postsecondary training. Of the 30 occupations that the U.S. Department of Labor projects to see the greatest total growth by 2022, only 10 typically need some sort of postsecondary education, and several of those require less than an associate’s degree. Most of the new jobs will require a high school diploma or less.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in higher ed is that for so much of it, someone other than the student is paying the bill, tamping down students’ incentives to seriously consider whether they should go to college and what they should study if they do. This proposal would only exacerbate that problem, essentially encouraging people to spend two years in community college fully on the taxpayer dime while they dabble in things they may or may not want to do—and as they maintain a pretty low 2.5 GPA—then maybe focusing a little more when the two years is up and they have to pay something themselves.

Unfortunately, there is no way to look at this proposal (at least as it has been spelled out so far), investigate the reality of community college, and conclude anything other than it is a terrible idea.

How to Design an Education Savings Account

State legislatures across the nation are considering an innovative new education reform: education savings accounts. Hailed as “School Choice 2.0,” ESAs empower parents to customize their child’s education beyond the school walls—a development that could substantially alter the way students are educated. There is “no reason to expect that the future market will have the shape or form that our present market has,” observed Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman in a 2003 interview, “How do we know how education will develop? Why is it sensible for a child to get all his or her schooling in one brick building?”

Two states have already enacted ESA laws. In Arizona, parents of eligible students that opt out of their assigned district school can access 90% of what the state of Arizona would have spent on those students. The Arizona Department of Education deposits the funds directly into a privately managed bank account that parents can access through a restricted-use debit card. The parents can then spend the ESA funds on any qualifying education-related service or provider they choose. In the first year, eligibility was restricted to students with special needs. Since then, Arizona has expanded eligibility to include children in foster care, children of military personnel, and children assigned to low-performing district schools. Last year, Florida adopted a special-needs ESA law similar to Arizona’s except that it is privately managed.

Today, National Affairs published an essay I coauthored with Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation. Our essay explores the administrative, regulatory, and constitutional issues that policymakers will have to address when designing an ESA law. Policymakers should consider crafting a privately managed and privately funded ESA law that offers tax credits in return for donations to scholarship organizations that manage the ESAs. Florida’s privately managed model is already proving to be more operationally efficient and effective than Arizona’s government-run model. A privately managed ESA would be less susceptible to capture by hostile parties than a government agency, more likely to generate and retain best practices, and more likely to have the ability and incentives to be responsive to the needs of families. Privately funded ESAs also have several advantages over government-funded ESA laws. In particular, they are more likely to pass constitutional muster in states with restrictive “Blaine amendments” and less likely to include burdensome regulations that undermine the effectiveness of the program.

We conclude:

Most school choice programs offer significant but not revolutionary changes to the traditional educational model. But true educational choice, and the educational market it could help foster, promise to radically improve education for many children. As Milton Friedman observed, “not all ‘schooling’ is ‘education’ and not all ‘education’ is ‘schooling.’” Charter schools and voucher programs still conflate the two, but education savings accounts embody a more expansive understanding of education.

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent in a manner similar to spending their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs. […] These laws hold great potential to expand educational opportunity and remake the entire education system in ways that better and more efficiently meet the needs of children.

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.