Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Freedom’s the Thing

We are in the midst of National School Choice Week, and much of the talk is about test scores, helping poor children access better schools, getting more bang for our bucks, and lots of other, very worthy, important things. But something often seems to get lost in the shuffle not just of School Choice Week, but the overall choice and education debate: freedom. The most fundamental American value is liberty – individual freedom – and not only is an education system rooted in free choice the only system consistent with a free society, it is key to peaceful coexistence among the nations’ hugely diverse people.

That only an education system rooted in free choice is consistent with a free society should be self-evident. Should be, but isn’t, with “social reproduction” – shaping the young to conform with and perpetuate present society – thought by many to be a primary purpose of education, and one which must be controlled by government. As long as a “democratic” process is employed – often poorly defined as some sort of vague, deliberative/majoritarian system – then all is well.

New SOTU Education Promises Just Like the Old SOTU Education Promises

What should President Obama have said about education policy in this year’s State of the Union address? In a more perfect world, he would have announced his plan to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education in order to restore control of education policy to the state and local governments where it constitutionally belongs.

In that imaginary world, the President also would have called for an expansion of the Washington D.C. school choice program, where the federal government actually has legitimate constitutional authority, and used his bully pulpit to promote state-level educational choice programs across the country as a means of reducing inequality and expanding opportunity. And he would have announced that his administration would no longer seek to keep low-income black kids in failing government schools in Louisiana.

Alas, what President Obama proposed instead were mostly the same tired themes we’ve already heard in previous SOTU addresses. 

Once again, the president called for Congress to enact universal preschool (and threatened to go around them if they did not), claiming that “research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.” The research to which he alludes concerned a very small and high-quality program for disadvantaged children. (It’s notable that the president dramatically scaled down the audacity of his claims since last year’s SOTU.) There’s absolutely no evidence that the government could scale up the program for all children nationwide with the same level of quality.

Indeed, when the federal government has tried to do so, it has failed. The federal government’s own study of Head Start was so negative that the Obama administration released it on the Friday before Christmas, practically guaranteeing that almost no one would ever hear about it. Nearly fifty years and $200 billion later, Head Start produces no measurable, lasting benefits. To argue that “this time will be different” is magical thinking.

And once again, the president claimed that he “[wants] to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.” If so, he should propose phasing out federal student loans and Pell Grants, which are spurring the rapid increases in tuition.

Fortunately, outside the administration’s push for Common Core, few of the administration’s SOTU-promoted education initiatives ever get off the ground.

Cato Scholars Respond to the 2014 State of the Union

Cato Institute scholars Alex Nowrasteh, Aaron Ross Powell, Trevor Burrus, Benjamin H. Friedman, Simon Lester, Neal McCluskey, Mark Calabria, Dan Mitchell, Justin Logan, Patrick J. Michaels, Walter Olson and Jim Harper respond to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address.

Video produced by Caleb O. Brown, Austin Bragg and Lester Romero.

Are Federal School Vouchers a Good Idea?

Today, Senators Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott have proposed taking federal education funding and voucherizing it, allowing it to follow students to the schools of their choice, public or private. The goal of these plans is to expand families’ educational options and raise quality through competition and choice. Surely a worthy goal. But equally surely, federal education programs generally fail to achieve their goals. So it is essential to evaluate every proposal on its merits, using the best evidence available.

Senator Alexander’s plan is by far the larger of the two federal voucher proposals. It would serve up to 11 million low-income students—one out of every 5 public school students in the country. Do we have any examples of what happens when national governments start paying for private schooling? Indeed we do. There are numerous such cases in the 2,500 year history of formal schooling, and there are several programs around the world currently operating in this way. The lesson of those programs is very clear: government funding brings government control and cartellization, undermining the very independence and competition that gives private sector education its advantage.

What is especially pernicious about this effect at the national level is that every regulation affects every school in the country—there is nowhere for families to turn to escape an encroaching regulatory tide.

I wrote about the Dutch experience eight years ago, when then-President G.W. Bush proposed a similar voucherization of federal education spending. Nothing much has changed since. No experienced federal politician or observer of federal politics can doubt that, in the U.S. as in the Netherlands and elsewhere, federal funding would ultimately bring with it stifling regulation of private education.

Perhaps if there were no viable alternative policy, some would consider that an acceptable degree of collateral damage. But there are alternatives. Already, eleven states have education tax credit programs that improve achievement for both private and public school students, lower the net tax burden, avoid excessive regulation, and compel no one to support types of education they find objectionable.

Not only is this alternative policy superior on the merits, it also has the pleasant, if not entirely fashionable, advantage of comporting with the U.S. Constitution, which delegates to Congress no national powers in the area of education.

That is not to say that there is nothing federal lawmakers can do to improve education. The Constitution carves out certain special cases (e.g., the District of Columbia, the military) over which Congress can arguably make law relating to education. And by virtue of their limited scope, any regulations attached to such federal programs cannot suffocate the freedom of the entire education sector. Sen. Scott’s proposal does in fact single out military families, and to that extent is worthy of serious consideration.

Another federal initiative that deserves serious consideration is the LEARN act proposed by Rep. Garrett (NJ). This bill would simply cut taxes on the citizens of any state that decides to opt-out of federal education programs. And since existing federal programs haven’t been achieving their goals, opting out of them seems a wise course of action.

So, yes, let’s all celebrate school choice this week and every other week. But let’s be very, very leery about getting behind measues with as dangerous a set of precedents as national school vouchers.

Is School Choice Worth Celebrating? A Look at the Evidence

In honor of School Choice Week, I’ll be answering questions on Facebook tomorrow (4:00pm, Eastern) about the evidence regarding free education markets. When I began studying education policy back in the early 1990s, parent-driven education markets were generally thought of as a new, radical and speculative adventure—uncharted waters where, heaven help us, “thar be monstars.” That was a mistaken view then, and it’s positively absurd now.

As I wrote in Market Education, The Unknown History, the education market of classical Athens, in the 5th century BC, was the first time and place on Earth in which education reached beyond a tiny ruling elite. There was no government participation in education. Teachers competed in the town square to attract paying customers, families called the shots, and the city ended up building a thriving economy and the highest literacy rate in the ancient world. During their heyday, the Athenians invented democracy, most forms of Western literature, and some pretty enduring art and philosophy. Simultaneously, 100 miles away, Sparta established a highly organized system of public boarding schools. It’s legacy? One decent action movie and a name for high school football teams.

Over the next 2,500 years, markets continued to outshine state-run school systems in their ability to serve the needs of families, and they also reduced the social tensions created by state schooling. Near-universal literacy and elementary enrollment among the free population were achieved in the United States by the mid-19th century—before the rise of state school systems—chiefly through private and home schools financed by a combination of parent fees and philanthropy. Even the semi-public “district” schools of the early 19th century charged most parents fees, reserving free and subsidized places for the poor.

Granted, historical evidence is subject to interpretation and charges of selectivity, and so it might not be universally persuasive. But, since 1990, scores of within-country scientific studies have compared education systems ranging from state-run monopolies such as our public schools, to state-funded and regulated private schools, to truly market-like systems in which regulation is minimal and parents choose their schools, as well as paying at least some of the cost directly themselves. I reviewed that body of research a few years ago for the Journal of School Choice and found that it shows private schools tend to outperform state-run schools. More specifically, it shows that the freest and most market-like education systems have the most consistent advantage over state schooling.

There is no credible case against this body of research. I could not find a single study that found a public school system to be more efficient than a market system in terms of student achievement per dollar spent. There weren’t even any insignificant findings for this comparison. Every single study that looked at the efficiency question found statistically significant results favoring education markets over state schooling. It’s rare to see such clear results in the social sciences, but perhaps that’s because there are few areas of life that are still under the thrall of state-run monopolies.

Education markets, when coupled with a mechanism to ensure universal access (such as education tax credits) are a better way to serve our individual needs and to advance our shared ideals. Compulsion and state provision are not only unnecessary, they are counterproductive to our most cherished educational ideals.

School Choice Enrollment Reaches Record High

Just in time for National School Choice Week, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has released its annual ABCs of School Choice report, detailing every private school choice program in the nation. The number of students participating in school choice programs has reached a record high of more than 301,000 students nationwide, up from about 260,000 in 2012-13. More than half of those students are participating in scholarship tax credit programs.

The Friedman Foundation’s report is an invaluable resource for understanding the dozens of school choice programs and their various rules and regulations. A new feature in this year’s report is an infographic ranking every school choice program along two criteria: eligible population and purchasing power. The Friedman Foundation’s view is that choice programs should have universal eligibility and that the purchasing power of the vouchers or scholarships should be on par with the per student spending at government schools.

Universal access to a variety of schooling options is certainly a noble goal, essential to fostering equality of opportunity. However, it should be noted that wealthier families can already afford school choice. Universal access to school choice does not require universal access to school choice programs. Targeting support to low- and middle-income families is a more efficient way to ensure universal school choice as it directs scarce resources to those who need them most. Of course, measuring access is a lot more difficult than measuring program eligibility, so this is not a deficiency of the Friedman report.

There are other important criteria by which we should judge school choice programs, particularly the amount of regulatory interference imposed on private schools (e.g. - mandating state tests) and the amount of freedom granted to parents to tailor their child’s education (e.g. - New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarships for homeschoolers). Perhaps the Friedman Foundation will consider these and other criteria for future reports.

Can Litigation Save American Education?

Next week, the case of Vergara v. California goes to trial. The question being litigated is whether or not the state’s laws on teacher tenure (“permanent employment”), dismissals, and last-in-first-out layoffs disproportionately harm poor minority kids, thereby violating California’s constitution.

Plaintiffs in the case feel they have the evidence to prove this point (see the links above), and so far the courts have acknowledged that their view is at least plausible. Certainly these laws are incompatible with efforts to maximize the quality of the teaching workforce. And it does seem as though they do the most damage in districts and schools serving the most disadvantaged kids. But will a victory by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit do substantial and lasting good?

That’s less obvious. For one thing, these employment practices can be found in many places where they are not codified in state statutes.They are employment guarantees and benefits of the sort that are often sought and obtained by teachers’ unions in collective bargaining with districts. So getting rid of the laws won’t necessarily get rid of the practices.

More broadly, over a dozen states have explicit constitutional provisions demanding that they create “uniform” education systems—a more stringent equality requirement than is contained in California’s constitution—and it’s not at all obvious that this seemingly strict legal guarantee has made any difference in the quality of educational opportunity in those states.

It’s easy to empathize with the desire to see state legal precedents enforced, and bad laws overturned. But neither state constitutions nor legal precedents have been able to secure either the uniformity or the quality of American education systems, and there is no reason to expect that to change no matter how the Vergara case is decided. More than half a century after the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, poor African-American kids are  still disproportionately likely to be assigned to lousy schools. I wrote about this 11 years ago, and little has changed since then. Lawsuits can redress specific legal wrongs, like compelled segregation, but they can’t produce educational outcomes that require the coordination and relentless dedication of thousands or even millions of people, year after year.

For those who really want to maximize the quality of education offered to disadvantaged and minority students—indeed to all students—the best hope is to study the different sorts of education systems that have been tried around the world and across history, and then ensure universal access to the best among them: a free educational marketplace.