Topic: Education and Child Policy

Maryland Seizes Kids (Again) For Walking Home From Park

On Sunday afternoon Montgomery County, Maryland police and Child Protective Services seized the free-range Meitiv children, 10 year old Rafi and 6 year old Dvora, after their parents, Danielle and her husband Sasha, had again let them play by themselves at a park in Silver Spring, just outside D.C. The Meitiv family became the center of a national cause célèbre in January when the county charged the parents with child neglect for letting the two kids walk home from a park. In March, CPS found the neglect charge “unsubstantiated” but puzzlingly deemed the parents “responsible” for it anyway. This time, according to news reports, the kids were again walking back from the park and had gotten to within 1/3 mile of home when police intercepted and picked them up pursuant to a 911 call from “a neighbor” who had spotted them walking alone. The kids were supposed to return home by 6; the police held them for hours in the back of a squad car and did not call the by-then-frantic parents until 8 p.m. 

The Meitivs were reunited with their kids after agreeing to “sign a temporary safety plan to take them home, which means they are not allowed to leave the children unattended at all. …Police say after a thorough investigation, a decision about whether or not the Meitivs will face charges will be made.” 

I’m familiar with downtown Silver Spring, but even if I weren’t I could assure you: this is an outrage, and a big enough one that even in the Washington suburbs, where government often gets the benefit of the doubt, there is widespread outrage. One who’s been writing eloquently on the issue is Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak (“Our rapid march toward police-state parenting has got to end,” she writes today) who emphasizes what is obvious to older readers – that kids used to walk on the street as a routine part of childhood – by quoting a checklist from a 1979 book on six-year-olds, on first-grade readiness: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”

State Spending vs. College Prices

Professor Paul Campos, something of an antagonist of our higher education system, caused a bit of ruckus last week when he wrote in the New York Times that skyrocketing college prices cannot be blamed on falling state appropriations to schools. The reality, of course, is that declining public support could explain some of the increase in prices (though not much at private colleges) but it seems unlikely it would explain all of the increases.

Let’s look at the trends.

First, note that overall state and local support, at least for general operations at public institutions, is indeed down over the last several years. Using data from the latest State Higher Education Finance report – released just yesterday – total state and local support for general operations at public colleges, adjusted for inflation using a higher education-specific index, fell from a peak of $83 billion in 2008 to $73 billion in 2014, a pretty big drop. That said, in 1989 total spending was only $64 billion, which means it has risen since then.

Alabama’s School Choice Law Needs Improvement

Educational choice laws have the potential to expand educational opportunity and improve quality. However, design matters. Ideally, educational choice laws allow very wide participation and eschew technocratic regulations that can impede or even undermine their success.

Unfortunately, Alabama’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law is far from ideal.

Last week, the Alabama State Senate passed legislation making numerous changes to the state’s STC law. Yet while the legislation includes several improvements, the changes fail to address the law’s most serious flaws, and would further constrain what is already among the most limited private school choice laws in the nation.

Eligibility

Under the Alabama Accountability Act, low- and middle-income students who are zoned to attend a district school designated as “failing” are eligible to receive tax-credit scholarships from a nonprofit scholarship-granting organization (SGO). Sadly, while other states are seeking to expand eligibility, the Alabama Senate is seeking to further restrict it.

The legislation would lower the income eligibility level from 150 percent of Alabama’s median household income (about $65,000 for a family of four in 2014–15) to that of the federal free-and-reduced lunch program, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $44,000 for a family of four). It also eliminates the provision that allowed students to continue receiving scholarships if their parents’ income outgrew the eligibility guidelines, which could contribute to the poverty trap.

Even worse, rather than eliminate the problematic “failing schools” provision, the legislation would narrow the scope of what constitutes a “failing” school. The legislation would restrict tax-credit scholarships to students zoned to district schools scoring in the lowest 6 percent on the state standardized assessment in reading and math, down from 10 percent (among other provisions). However, even schools that perform higher on average might not meet the particular needs of particular students. Educational choice laws should provide opportunities to all students, no matter where they live or how well or poorly their local district school performs on average.

Rule by ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter: The Department of Education’s Stealth Regulation

We’ve noted repeatedly how the U.S. Department of Education, using authority it claims under Title IX and other federal laws, has arm-twisted the nation’s colleges and universities into stripping away procedural protections for faculty and students facing charges of sexual misconduct, sought to regulate speech as “verbal conduct,” and urged colleges to record microaggressive behaviors that do not rise to the level of harassment or assault but might add up in time to some future pattern. The resulting federal pressure has done much to generate a campus atmosphere in which administrators like those at the University of Virginia react even to unsubstantiated and soon-refuted assault claims with harsh crackdowns directed at whole groups of students against whom no misconduct whatsoever has been charged.

The substance of what the feds have been doing in this area has rightly stirred outrage, but another side of it also deserves scrutiny: it’s based on sheer fiat, on a series of “because we say so” edicts. A few recent items:

  • Early this year, the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee released “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” the lengthy report of a group called the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education with assistance from the American Council on Education. The federal government, according to the report, has entangled colleges in a continually expanding “jungle of red tape” (the Department of Education now “issues official guidance to amend or clarify its rules at a rate of more than one document per work day”). Not only does the department’s regulatory process (see pp. 32 et seq.) generate new rulemakings that are not well grounded in statutory authority, but it regularly takes the form of “Dear Colleague” letters, informal field advisories, and other “subregulatory guidance” that dodges the important legal safeguards of actual rulemaking, such as notice and comment to the public and the generating of a decisionmaking record well suited to judicial review (pp. 35–37). The crackdown on college discipline famously has taken the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter and associated guidance, not a formal regulation.
  • Both the task force report and our friend Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute show how the Department now routinely uses these free-floating processes to extend regulatory burdens across a whole range of issues, not just Title IX: rules on for-profit college performance, Clery-law crime reporting, disability-based harassment (on which more, and note the push for school authority over students’ off-campus social media use), race-conscious K–12 discipline, information collection, and on and on.
  • Boston College Prof. R. Shep Melnick, an expert on regulatory procedure, casts a critical eye on the enforcement practices of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in this Liberty Law Forum podcast (and don’t miss Michael Greve’s eloquent reactions here and here, focusing on OCR’s interpretation of “disparate impact” theory to devise new guidance on what it calls “resource comparability” between schools). Relatedly, a symposium in the Federalist Society’s Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy last year examined possible remedies to stealth or back-door regulation [see John Graham and James Broughel’s summary]

All that brings us to the big question: were someone to challenge OCR’s kangaroo-court regulations on college discipline, would they stand up in court? David Bernstein at Volokh Conspiracy in November offered three reasons why they might not. It may be difficult to persuade a college to serve as a test case, given the annihilating possibility of a federal funds cutoff as the penalty of its presumption. But given the spectacular collapse of the University of Virginia allegations, might this not be a good time to try?

Fed Ed, by Every Other Name, Still Smells Rank

With yesterday’s release of a new, Senate, No Child Left Behind revision, there certainly seems to be a serious effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, due since 2007. Perhaps the first thing they should do, though, is keep the name simply “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” so I don’t always have to explain that the ESEA is the same as NCLB.  But no: this is the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, in keeping with the political need to have names no one could possibly oppose. (You want to leave kids behind? You want some kids not to achieve?) That said, while the bill seems to be a step in the right direction, it would still keep us miles from our necessary destination: no federal education control.

The new bill, like the Student Success Act in the House (yup, another loaded name) gets rid of NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate and the cascade of punishments for schools that fail to meet it, and tries to curb the U.S. Secretary of Education’s ability to coerce states to use specific standards and tests such as the Common Core and related exams. But it would still require states to have uniform standards and tests – sorry, local control – and state accountability plans would have to be approved by the secretary. This approval provision is especially concerning because, despite NCLB giving the secretary no authority to attach conditions to waivers out of its requirements, the Obama administration attached conditions anyway. In other words, we already have concrete experience with an education secretary blatantly exceeding the authority given to him by law. To think a future administration wouldn’t do so again is wishful thinking. Yes, there is a “peer review” process for state plans, and some rules on what a secretary may not require a state to do, but never underestimate the power of regulation-writing to fill in gaps with unexpected power, or future administrations to interpret imprecise wording as expansively as possible.  And the bill calls for states to have “challenging” standards, which certainly seems to require that the feds define what, exactly, “challenging” means. So maybe the worst parts of NCLB are gone, but the biggest danger – rule by executive fiat – remains.

Victories for Educational Choice in the Southwest

It’s looking more and more like the Year of Educational Choice each week.

Yesterday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill expanding eligibility for the state’s pioneering education savings account (ESA) law to all students living on Native American tribal lands. The ESAs were originally limited to students with special needs, but the state subsquently expanded eligibility to include students in adoptive care, students with an active-duty military parent, siblings of an ESA recipient, and students zoned to a district school rated D or F.

On the same day, Nevada became the third state this year to adopt a new educational choice law in both legislative chambers, behind Mississippi and Arkansas. In addition, the Montana Senate recently voted to create a new scholarship tax credit (STC) law, and Alabama Senate voted last week to expand the state’s existing STC law.

Nevada’s Assembly Bill 165 creates a STC law. Corporate donors will be able to receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid low- and middle-income students attend the school of their family’s choice. The scholarships can be worth up to $7,755 in the first year, which is significantly less than the average $9,650 cost per pupil in Nevada’s district schools.

Do Housing Vouchers Help Poor Children?

Why do poor parents have children who also grow up to be poor? One possible reason is that poor families do not have access to credit that would allow parents to invest more in the improvement of the human capital of their children. The conventional policy recommendation for this diagnosis is to increase transfers to poor families in order to remove their credit constraints.

The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—which uses the tax system to transfer money to low-income households—has been shown to increase standardized test scores. But critics of this research argue that factors unobservable to researchers but correlated with EITC receipt are responsible for children’s success, not the EITC transfers themselves.

Increasingly, economists use clever research designs that involve an element of random assignment, much like clinical trials of new pharmaceuticals, to provide more conclusive evidence of a program’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Recently, three researchers used a policy change in Chicago to test the effects of a change in housing subsidies.

Unlike many other welfare programs, housing subsidies are not given to everyone who qualifies for them, but are handed out on the basis of availability. In 1997, for the first time in 12 years, Chicago accepted applications for housing vouchers. About 82,000 people applied out of 300,000 poverty households in Chicago at the time. The applicants were randomly assigned a position in the waiting list. The first 35,000 on the list were told their number and that they would be offered a voucher within three years. The rest were told that they would not receive vouchers.

By 2003, 18,000 of the first 35,000 applicants had received vouchers. The Chicago Housing Authority had issued as many vouchers as it could fund, and stopped offering any new vouchers.

In a study I review in my “Working Papers” column in the current Regulation, Brian Jacob, Max Kapustin, and Jens Ludwig examine the outcomes 14 years later for children whose families “won” the Chicago housing vouchers versus the children of families that were told they would not receive a voucher. Families that won the lottery received a very large positive income shock—the equivalent of $12,000 a year—relative to the average income in the sample ($19,000 a year). If income alone allows families to improve the human capital in their children, we should see results from this experiment. 

The authors find very few effects on schooling, crime, or health outcomes—and none were significant. “Our estimates imply that extra cash transfers beyond the current level provided in the United States are likely to have a smaller impact per dollar than the best-practice educational interventions explicitly designed to improve children’s human capital,” they write. Their results are consistent with the findings of sociologist Susan Mayer, who concluded in her 1997 book What Money Can’t Buy (Harvard University Press) that there is “little reason to expect that policies to increase the income of poor families alone will substantially improve their children’s life chances.”