Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Nevada Enacts First Nearly Universal Education Savings Account

On Tuesday, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law the nation’s fifth education savings account (ESA) program, and the first to offer ESAs to all students who previously attended a public school. Earlier this year, Sandoval signed the state’s first educational choice law, a very limited scholarship tax credit. Despite their limitations, both programs greatly expand educational freedom, and will serve as much-needed pressure-release valves for the state’s overcrowding challenge.

When Nevada parents remove their child from her assigned district school, the state takes 90 percent of the statewide average basic support per pupil (about $5,100) and instead deposits it into a private, restricted-use bank account. The family can then use those funds to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services, such as textbooks, tutoring, educational therapy, online courses, and homeschool curricula, as well as private school tuition. Low-income students and students with special needs receive 100 percent of the statewide average basic support per pupil (about $5,700). Unspent funds roll over from year to year.

The eligibility requirements for ESA programs in other states are more restrictive. In Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, ESAs are limited to students with special needs. Arizona initially restricted ESA eligibility to students with special needs, though lawmakers have since expanded eligibility to include foster children, children of active-duty military personnel, students assigned to district schools rated D or F, gifted students, and children living in Native American reservations.

How School Choice Improves Public Schools

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that district school bureaucrats are “proceeding with an ambitious plan to offer a wider range of education options.”

Superintendent Robert Avossa is leaving the 96,000-student district for the larger Palm Beach County system in Florida. Ken Zeff, who takes over as interim superintendent next week, shares Avossa’s view that parents want and deserve choices.

An array of choices may lessen the exodus of by parents who want a non-traditional setting for their children. More than 15 percent of Fulton families opted for private schools this school year.

While Fulton has increased its number of district-approved charter schools, the AJC reports more than 1,600 families are on charter school wait lists for next fall, largely in south Fulton where school performance is not as high as north Fulton. 

(North Fulton is one of the state’s most affluent areas and boasts some of the highest achieving high schools in Georgia. Its schools are a major draw for new families moving to the metro region.)

Not every student learns in the same way so Fulton is expanding school design options.

“This is not an attempt to dismantle traditional public schools,” said Zeff in an AJC news story by Fulton Schools reporter Rose French. “Traditional-model schools are performing great for a lot of kids. But some parents want and some students would do better in a different environment.”

In other words, when parents chose schools other than their child’s assigned district school–perhaps using Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships–the government school system responded by being more responsive to parental demands. 

Texas Pastors Are Wrong about School Choice

Today, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published my op-ed addressing the claims of a group called Pastors for Texas Children. For the last month, the pastors have been flooding the pages of Texas newspapers with op-eds opposing school choice. Although they raise some legitimate concerns about school vouchers, their charges against scholarship tax credits—and school choice laws generally—range from lacking substance to being demonstrably false. 

There wasn’t enough space to address all of their claims in a single op-ed, but fortunately, here at Cato@Liberty we buy megapixels by the barrel (or whatever they come in). 

The claims made by six Fort Worth pastors in this op-ed were typical. I’ll address their major claims point by point:

The Texas Senate recently passed Senate Bill 4, providing tuition tax credits to donors giving scholarships to private schools. These are plainly private school vouchers.

Actually, the scholarships plainly are not vouchers. Voucher programs are government-funded and administered. Tax-credit scholarships are privately funded and administered by nonprofit scholarship organizations. As I wrote in the Star-Telegram, it’s like the difference between government-issued food stamps and nonprofit food banks. Donors to both scholarship organizations and food banks have their tax burden lowered as a result, but in neither case do the donated funds transmogrify into government property.

Our state Legislature has repeatedly rejected private school vouchers because they divert public money to religious schools in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any establishment of religion.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that school vouchers are constitutional because they serve a secular purpose, are neutral with respect to religion, and the funds are given to parents who can choose among religious or secular options. This is no more offensive to the First Amendment than holding a Bible study in a Section-8 subsidized apartment or using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and chaplains on the payroll.

Second, as noted previously, tax-credit scholarships are private funds. In ACSTO v. Winn, SCOTUS held that private funds do not become government property until they “come into the tax collector’s hands.”