Topic: Education and Child Policy

Where Are Our Gold Medals?

One of the most revolting things that a politician can do is accept a hero’s accolades for passing a law that generously spends other people’s money. So I ask Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the other politicians honored for giving D.C. students taxpayer dollars, and the officials who run the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, where’s my gold medal, and the gold medals for all the other federal taxpayers who actually fund the generous tuition grants for which politicians are being given such great adulation?

Bidding Adieu to No Child Left Behind?

Over the last few days there’s been a rash of stories about state legislators pushing to get out from under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In Arizona, the state’s House of Representatives yesterday approved by a voice vote a measure that would take the state out of NCLB’s standards-and-testing regime. A formal vote is expected as early as next week.

In Minnesota a day earlier, the state’s House K-12 Finance Committee passed an amendment to a supplemental budget bill that would pull the North Star State out of NCLB.

Finally, at the beginning of the month, the Virginia legislature passed a bill requiring the State Board of Education to recommend whether Virginia should withdraw from NCLB. It was a loud enough signal of revolt that yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings paid the Old Dominion State a visit and warned it not to drop out of her favorite law.

Unfortunately, though it might be uncomfortable to watch efforts to get states out of NCLB repeatedly percolating, the Secretary needn’t worry that too many states will actually break away. They just can’t seem to turn down the federal (read: taxpayer) money.

Few people in Virginia expect the State Board of Education to recommend turning down the roughly $364 million in federal education funds that the legislature itself didn’t have the courage to reject. In Minnesota, there’s good reason to believe the get-out-of-NCLB amendment won’t make it into law, lest roughly $200 million be sacrificed. Finally in Arizona, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne warned that “the problem is, we would lose over a half-billion dollars a year. And it would go to the schools that need it the most: the low-income schools.” Considering that Arizona’s amendment would only pull the state out if it reimbursed local districts for lost federal dollars, Horne is probably right.

There’s little question that many, if not most, states want to get free of the No Child Left Behind Act. Regrettably, there’s also little question that they’re unwilling to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

Newt: Schools Are a ‘National Security Issue.’

Newt Gingrich gave a luncheon talk about education at the American Enterprise Institute today.  Among other things, he said he’d “argue with any conservative” about the role of the federal government with respect to education.  It’s a matter of national security, he said.  He called on the secretary of defense to give a speech every year on the state of our schools. 

Just the latest indication of the drift on the right.  Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education.  In 1996, after the GOP captured the Congress, Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander urged Congress to abolish the Department of Education.  Within a few years, the GOP was supporting Bill Clinton’s proposal to hire 100,000 teachers.  Then Bush came along with his “Leave No Child Behind” law, which expanded the role of the federal government further.  Now this. 

Will the GOP ticket be McCain-Gingrich? 

Teachers: “All Your Money Are Belong to Us”

The Georgia legislature is currently considering a scholarship donation tax credit program that would allow individuals and businesses to give money to non-profit scholarship granting organizations that make it easier for parents to afford independent schooling for their kids.

In arguing against the bill, the head of the state’s public school employee organization, Jeff Hubbard, had this to say: “Our opposition is [to] taking state funds, taxpayer income, and giving it over to private schools.”

Umm…. The thing is, state funds and taxpayer income are not interchangeable terms, however much public school employee organizations might wish them to be. You see, you aren’t entitled to all taxpayer income – or even to all state funds – but just to those funds appropriated by the state in taxes and then allocated to the business of running public schools. When taxpayers claim a tax credit for a donation to help low income kids, no money ever enters the state’s coffers. So you see, these are in fact private funds.

For a good discussion of all this, see the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling in Kotterman v. Killian (.pdf), upholding that state’s scholarship donation tax credit program, in part, on the grounds that the donated funds are not state money.

It’s Almost Like You Can’t Have One-Size-Fits-All Day

Apparently, Florida’s Hillsborough County School District has tried to take religion off the calendar, resulting in almost everyone—religious or not—taking Good Friday off. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times on Monday:

After most Hills­borough students skipped classes on Good Friday, superintendent MaryEllen Elia initially used religion to explain the huge disparities in absentee rates between schools.

“Schools reflect their particular community. You may have in a community a particular religious affiliation that is strong,” Elia said.

This morning, the Times’ editors saw things differently:

The Hillsborough County School District should be embarrassed by the mess it made of classes on Good Friday. This was a regular school day, included on the calendar. Yet rather than function as normal, the district made clear to religious conservatives and overindulgent parents that students and staff could blow off the school day.

This issue should have been settled. Hillsborough spent two years wrangling in the national limelight over the calendar before agreeing to a secular schedule that recognized no religious holidays. Yet rather than hold fast to a decision already made and vetted by a committee of school officials and parents, the district gave a wink and a nod to treat Good Friday as an unofficial holiday.

The massive confusion over whether Good Friday was really a holiday led not only to many kids missing school for religious activities, but lots heading to the malls and beaches for more secular observances. It’s a somewhat extreme example of what regularly happens with one-size-fits-all public schooling: When you try to legislate away the values held by one group, you often end up creating havoc for everyone, whether with school calendars, textbook adoptions, freedom of speech, and the list goes on.

But how can we avoid these constant clashes and crashes? Oh, right: Instead of forcing everyone to support a single system, we could let parents use their public education dollars to choose their children’s schools. Then religious folks could pick schools with acceptable calendars, mathematical traditionalists could get the “old” math, conservative parents could choose which penguins their children read about, and so on.

But, of course, all that freedom would never work, right? It would just lead to chaos…

Union May Sue if Too Many Floridians Demand School Choice

According to a report by Tallahassee’s News Channel 7, the Florida Education Association may sue to shut down that state’s scholarship tax credit program. Under this program, businesses can donate to non-profit scholarship funds that subsidize tuition for low-income kids at the private schools of their families’ choosing. In return, the businesses can claim dollar for dollar tax credits up to a certain limit.

Public school employee unions have left this program alone since its enactment in 2001, despite having successfully sued to kill a much smaller school voucher program two years ago. So why the sudden talk about filing suit? Let’s go to the Chanel 7 report by Mike Vasilinda:

The teachers [i.e., the Florida Education Association, ed.] successfully challenged the voucher program that was centered around failing schools. They’ve turned a blind eye to the corporate voucher [i.e., scholarship tax credit, ed.] program, but they [through FEA attorney Ron Myer] say if it’s to triple over the next five years, they may go to court.

Keep in mind that scholarship organizations must allocate all donations to scholarships as they receive them, they can’t carry over more than 25% of donations from one year to the next, and the maximum scholarship value is fixed at $3,750 (far below per pupil spending in the public schools). So the only way the total value of scholarship donations could triple would be for triple the number of low-income families to ask for them.

So the Florida Education Association is saying that if too many poor parents want to escape the public schools and get their kids into independent schools, it will shut them and this whole program down.

That is evil.

Standards and Choice, Going Head-to-Head

Two months ago, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern ignited an educational firestorm when he declared that, contrary to his past hopes, school choice cannot save American education. Only a focus on classrooms and curricula can do that, he argued, going so far as to laud a “thought experiment” that found a dictatorship with a “rich curriculum” preferable to universal school choice.

Even before Stern’s article went online the responses came fast and furious, especially from people at Cato. Afterward, it generated even more heat, pulling folks from all sides into the debate. For the most part, though, the dispute has been fought long-distance, with combatants hurling op-eds and blog entries at each other. But that is about to change…

On April 16, Cato will be hosting a policy forum putting Mr. Stern, Cato’s Andrew Coulson, Gary Huggins of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, and University of Texas at San Antonio economics professor John Merrifield on the same stage to debate the big question: Is school choice enough to fix American education, or are government standards the key?

On April 16, the big debate comes to Cato. Sign up here to attend!