Topic: Education and Child Policy

Pope’s Visit Good Time to Contemplate Educational Freedom

The nation is abuzz with the visit of Pope Francis. There is, of course, a lot that could be discussed with the coming of the Pope, but for education it is a good time to remember the crucial importance of freedom. After all, for much of our history the biggest fights in education were over the public schools’ inability to accommodate Roman Catholics.

From the earliest advocacy of public schooling, arguably the primary goal has been to unite diverse people. As Founding Father Benjamin Rush put it in his Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, “Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”

Of course, there is a fundamental problem with this: diverse people will almost certainly want diverse things out of education, so conflict – and suppressing of politically weak minorities to end it – is inevitable.

For much of American history, there was no bigger flashpoint than religion.

Notably, the first religious disputes over “common schools” were not between Catholics and Protestants, but among Protestants. In the Massachusetts of common schools “father” Horace Mann, many orthodox Protestants took issue with the public schools that were to teach “nonsectarian” Christianity, a lowest-common-denominator Protestantism that, among many things, appeared to be Unitarian – Mann’s denomination. It is likely that Mann just wanted to avoid doctrines that would spur theological disputes, but even that proved impossible, with the absence of such doctrines also appearing sectarian.

“Holistic” Review of College Applicants = Using Race in an Arbitrary, Unaccountable Way

Two years ago, the Supreme Court’s 7-1 ruling in Fisher v. UT-Austin (Fisher I) made clear that race-conscious college admissions programs must be subject to strict judicial scrutiny, requiring universities to prove that their consideration of race is precisely tailored to serve a compelling government interest. Because Fisher I came to the justices without a developed factual record, the Court remanded the case for further development.

After the lower court essentially rubber-stamped its previous ruling, Abigail Fisher—the applicant who claims that she was denied admission because she’s white—got a second trip to the Supreme Court, which will finally have to determine whether the University’s “holistic” review process passes constitutional muster. Cato has again filed an amicus brief supporting Fisher.

Texas’s program allows application readers to take race into account when assigning applicants a “personal achievement score.” But there’s no oversight of readers’ use of race in assigning these scores, with the result that the university can’t explain how (or how often) race plays a role in admissions decisions. All we’re left with is an opaque, arbitrary, and unaccountable program supported only by the talismanic use of the word “holistic” to evade scrutiny.

But invoking that word should not be the end of judicial review. The Court’s equal-protection precedents establish four distinct requirements that a university employing a race-conscious admissions process must satisfy to demonstrate that its plan is narrowly tailored. The University of Texas has satisfied none of them.

First, the university can’t show that its program is necessary to achieve diversity because it can’t show how or when race affects application decisions. (Moreover, about 80 percent of its freshman class is admitted under the race-neutral Top Ten Percent Law—the top 10 percent of students from each Texas public high school are automatically admitted—which the university hasn’t shown to be insufficient to produce the desired diversity.)

Second, Texas can’t show that its chosen means properly “fit” its ends because it hasn’t offered any evidence that would enable a court to evaluate whether the use of race is narrowly tailored to achieve its purported “qualitative diversity” goal.

Third, the university can’t show that the program provides individualized consideration to every applicant—which the Supreme Court demanded in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision. This requirement ensures that colleges don’t make race the “defining feature” of the application process, but the black-box nature of Texas’s admissions policy makes it impossible to ascertain whether race amounts to a thumb or a brick on the scale.

Finally, UT-Austin’s program frustrates accountability and transparency because the school wields “holistic review” as a shield to obscure the role of race in admissions and frustrate scrutiny, judicial or otherwise. This opaqueness may create more racial hostility than it remedies. Further, holistic review can serve as a cover for the illegitimate or unnecessary use of race, as statistics from a variety of American universities indicate. Even the Harvard Plan that Justice Powell in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) assumed would withstand strict scrutiny has a less-than-illustrious history, beginning with its origin as a less-controversial alternative to explicitly capping the number of Jewish students admitted. More recently, evidence suggests that Harvard’s holistic review has facilitated forbidden racial balancing with regard to lowering the number of Asian admittees.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court should review the holistic review regime at the University of Texas with an eye toward curtailing the improper use of race in university admissions nationwide.

For more on our arguments, see this SCOTUSblog essay.

Hotel California: Teachers Union Edition

If a teacher opts out of her union, but the union refuses to hear it, did she really opt out?

Even where state lawmakers have passed “right-to-work” laws legally enabling teachers to opt out of paying union dues, the practical ability to opt out is far from guaranteed. In Michigan, for example–where dues can cost up to $640 a year–the teachers union surreptitiously created new bureaucratic hoops for teachers attempting to opt out.

In an apparent effort to make it even more difficult or even stop school employees from exercising their right under right-to-work to not pay union dues or fees, the state’s largest teachers union has quietly set up an obscure post office box address to which members must send the required opt-out paperwork. It’s P.O. Box 51 East Lansing, MI 48826.

Based on a letter the Michigan Education Association sent to members who had tried to get out, and discussions with some of them, resignation requests sent to the regular union headquarters address will not be honored.

An extensive search of the union’s websites found references to the post office box address on just one page of MEA’s main website, and on one affiliate union’s website. There is no record of this post office box address existing before this month. In the past, union members who wanted to opt out just had to send notification to the address of the MEA’s headquarters in East Lansing.

The MEA had previously restricted the union dues opt-out period to the month of August until a judge ruled that the restriction was illegal. As reported in Michigan Capitol Confidential, about 5,000 teachers left the MEA last year despite the obstacles.

ACLU v. Nevada Children

The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it is filing a legal challenge against Nevada’s new education savings account program. The ACLU argues that using the ESA funds at religious institutions would violate the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states “No public funds of any kind or character whatever…shall be used for sectarian purposes.”  

What “for sectarian purposes” actually means (beyond thinly veiled code for “Catholic schools”) is a matter of dispute. Would that prohibit holding Bible studies at one’s publicly subsidized apartment? Using food stamps to purchase Passover matzah? Using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and priests on the payroll? Would it prohibit the state from issuing college vouchers akin to the Pell Grant? Or pre-school vouchers? If not, why are K-12 subsidies different?

While the legal eagles mull those questions over, let’s consider what’s at stake. Children in Nevada–particularly Las Vegas–are trapped in overcrowded and underperforming schools. Nevada’s ESA offers families much greater freedom to customize their children’s education–a freedom they appear to appreciate. Here is how Arizona ESA parents responded when asked about their level of satisfaction with the ESA program:

 Parental satisfaction with Arizona's ESA program

And here’s how those same parents rated their level of satisfaction with the public schools that their children previously attended:

Parental satisfaction among AZ ESA families with their previous public schools 

Note that the lowest-income families were the least satisfied with their previous public school and most satisfied with the providers they chose with their ESA funds.

Similar results are not guaranteed in Nevada and there are important differences between the programs–when the survey was administered, eligibility for Arizona’s ESA was limited only to families of students with special needs who received significantly more funding than the average student (though still less than the state would have spent on them at a public school). By contrast, Nevada’s ESA program is open to all public school students, but payments to low-income families are capped at the average state funding per pupil ($5,700). Nevertheless, it is the low-income students who have the most to gain from the ESA–and therefore the most to lose from the ACLU’s ill-considered lawsuit.

Another Poll: Core Getting Clobbered, Keep the Feds out, and More

Last week I dissected the annual Education Next poll a bit, and today the newest Phil Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on the state of education is out. Let’s take a look at several of the same topics we examined in the EdNext poll, shall we?

Common Core

Last week’s survey featured questions with several different wordings about Core backing, and while they all showed the Core hemorrhaging support over the last few years, percentages approving ranged from 49 percent to 39 percent. PDK/Gallup asked just one question about Core support, and it had very different wording from any used by EdNext, focusing not on the intention of the Core – “accountability” – or describing the Core as “standards for reading and math that are the same across states,” but asking if respondents approve of “having the teachers in your community use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach.” In response, 54 percent appeared to oppose the Core and only 24 percent supported it. It’s an odd way to ask about Core support – how about just ask if people “support or oppose the Common Core” – but it is unquestionably true both that an intended effect of the Core is to guide what is taught, and that this is more bad news for the Core.

Federal Role

EdNext found what I thought was unexpectedly (and discouragingly) high support for having Washington in charge of “setting educational standards for what children should know,” but still very low approval of federal direction over labeling schools as “failing” and dictating how to fix such schools. PDK/Gallup did not ask directly about setting standards, but did ask which level of government should be “holding schools accountable” and “determining the right amount of testing.” What they found was in line with what EdNext found: Only about 1 in 5 respondents want Washington in charge, with most wanting states and districts in control. Maybe the Constitution does still count.

Evidence Shortage for Teacher Shortage

According to a report circulating this week “Indiana is not the only state facing a teacher shortage. It is a national and global issue.” This is said to be proven by a Google search returning blog posts and news stories in which some people claim there is a teacher shortage. But is that true? The claimants could be uninformed, misinformed, or could even have incentives to cry “shortage!” when there isn’t one. For instance, consider this U.S. government program for cancelling teachers’ loans:

34 CFR 674.53(c) enables Federal Perkins Loan borrowers who are full-time teachers of mathematics, science, foreign languages, bilingual education or any other field of expertise where the State educational agency determined there is a shortage of qualified teachers to qualify for cancellation of up to 100 percent of their loan repayment.

Hmm. But let’s not speculate. The federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics compiles data on public school enrollment and teacher employment. To verify the claims of teacher shortages in Indiana and nationally, I charted those data in the figure below.

For the United States as a whole, we see that there are fewer pupils per teacher today than at almost any time in the past 50 years. Put the other way, we currently have more teachers per pupil that we’ve had in the past—with the exception of a brief period last decade.

The Reigning School Choice Champion

On Monday, Education Next released the results of its 2015 survey on education policy. Neal McCluskey already summarized the key findings, but I want to highlight one finding in particular: scholarship tax credits (STCs) are the most popular form of private educational choice. 

STCs received the support of 55 percent of respondents compared to somewhere between 47 percent and 51 percent for charter schools (depending on whether the survey first explained what charter schools are), 27 percent to 46 percent for universal school vouchers (again, depending on the wording of the question), and 34 percent to 41 percent for low-income vouchers. Unfortunately, the survey did not ask about education savings accounts.

2015 Education Next survey: types of choice

Support for STCs was even higher among parents (57 percent), African-Americans (60 percent), and Hispanics (62 percent). This is not surprising since minorities are more likely to be low-income and therefore choice deprived. Those voicing support for STCs more than doubled those opposed in the general public (26 percent) and more than tripled the opposition among African-Americans (16 percent) and Hispanics (18 percent).

Previous Education Next surveys–as well as the Friedman Foundation’s survey last year–also found the most support for STCs among school choice policies. 

"A proposal has been made to offer a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools. Would you favor or oppose such a proposal?"

Support for STCs dipped slightly from a high of 60 percent last year, but it is still higher than any other year since Education Next first started asking the question in 2009. (They did not ask about STCs in 2013.) However, the poll also revealed the second highest level of opposition since 2009.

In the Friedman Foundation’s 2015 survey, released in July, scholarship tax credits, school vouchers, and education savings accounts all received high levels of support that were within the margin of error of each other when the question was prefaced with an explanation of how the policy worked:

  • Scholarship tax credits: 60 percent support, 29 percent opposition;
  • Education savings accounts: 62 percent support, 28 percent opposition;
  • School vouchers: 61 percent support, 33 percent opposition.

However, when not preceded by a prompt, only 39 percent of respondents supported school vouchers while 26 percent were opposed. (The other questions were only asked with an explanatory prompt because few Americans are familiar with STCs or ESAs.) Charter schools were the least popular with 53 percent in support and 27 percent opposed.

Encouragingly, support for STCs and ESAs in the Friedman poll was highest among Americans aged 18-34 with 72 percent and 75 percent support respectively. These results may well indicate a coming school choice tidal wave.