Topic: Education and Child Policy

Self-Driving School Choice

Over at Education Next today, I discuss how self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically expand educational options. Here’s a taste:

Self-driving cars will be able to respond to surroundings much faster than human reflexes, allowing for greater safety at much greater speeds. That will cut down on commute times, or allow people to work—or send their kids to school—further from home with the same commute time. Moreover, freed from the need to focus on the road, time spent commuting could be much more productive.

With commutes shorter and more productive, the distance that parents will consider logistically feasible will significantly increase. That could exponentially expand the number of educational options that parents consider within driving distance. Using Private School Review’s search feature, I found 12 private schools within three miles of my Arizona home, 34 schools within five miles, 69 schools within ten miles, 234 schools within 25 miles, and 304 schools within 50 miles. Now that’s choice!

School Bureaucracy and the Death of Common Sense

If you needed more proof that bureaucracy induces the sacrifice of common sense to rigid rules, there’s this forehead-slapping story from the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak:

Avery Gagliano is a commanding young pianist who attacks Chopin with the focused diligence of a master craftsman and the grace of a ballet dancer.

The prodigy, who just turned 13, was one of 12 musicians selected from across the globe to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year and has won competitions and headlined with orchestras nationwide.

One would expect that she’d be the pride of her school. Unfortunately, little Miss Avery attended a government-run school in Washington D.C.

But to the D.C. public school system, the eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant is also a truant. Yes, you read that right. Avery’s amazing talent and straight-A grades at Alice Deal Middle School earned her no slack from school officials, despite her parents begging and pleading for an exception.

“As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.

Although administrators at Deal were supportive of Avery’s budding career and her new role as an ambassador for an international music foundation, the question of whether her absences violated the District’s truancy rules and law had to be kicked up to the main office. And despite requests, no one from the school system wanted to go on the record explaining its refusal to consider her performance-related absences as excused instead of unexcused.

Anti-School Choice Activists Demand Judge’s Recusal Because She’s Catholic

It’s bad enough that a Florida teachers union, the Florida School Boards Association, and the PTA filed a lawsuit to deprive low-income students of scholarships citing the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic, Know-Nothing inspired “Blaine amendment.” But now anti-school choice activists are demanding that a judge recuse herself from another lawsuit against the state’s choice laws because she’s Catholic.

Kathleen Oropeza, president of the ironically-named Fund Education Now (given that they want to deny tax-credit scholarship funds to low-income students), filed a motion demanding that the circuit court judge recuse herself for the following reasons:

2. On August 26 and 27, 2014, I discovered facts concerning Judge Angela C. Dempsey that cause me to believe that she is biased against the Plaintiff’s position that the Florida Tax Credit Program and the McKay Scholarship Programs are violations of Article IX of the Florida Constitution.

3. The facts are as follows:

a. Judge Dempsey is a member of the Board of Directors of Catholic Charities, and a contributor to same.

b. Judge Dempsey has been a speaker at Trinity Catholic School in Leon County, which is a recipient of funds from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the McKay Scholarship Program as well as Step Up for Students which provides vouchers to Trinity Catholic School. (See Ex. A.)

c. The Florida Catholic Conference was an amicus curiae in Bush v. Holmes, 919 So. 2d 392, 404 (Fla. 2006), and supported Opportunity Scholarship vouchers which were struck down by the Florida Supreme Court.

d. Plaintiff’s research has led her to discover a Catholic strategy for saving Catholic education through Florida-style Opportunity Scholarships. A 2011 report, From Aspirations to Action, provides the strategy for this Catholic position complete with “Opportunity Scholarship” model legislation and with getting rid of the Blaine/No Child language through-out the nation, which Plaintiff believes has made Judge Dempsey unable to be impartial in this case. Also, Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, is listed as a Council Member of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, the organization which produced the position statement. (Ex. B, at 77.)

e. On April 20, 2014, Face the Nation reported that Cardinals and Bishops of the Catholic Church are pushing vouchers as a solution to a public school report. […]

4. These facts make me believe there is a continuing association between Judge Dempsey and the interests in my case through her relationship with the Catholic doctrine and position on vouchers for Catholic schools; Catholic Charities; Trinity Catholic School; and as a contributor to Catholic causes. Had I been aware of this relationship, I would have moved to disqualify her before she ruled in my case.

The judge belongs to a Catholic charity and has spoken at a Catholic school, the local Catholic Conference took a position in the original lawsuit, and a cardinal in another state said nice things about school choice on TV, therefore the anti-school choice activists want her to recuse herself. In other words, they want her to recuse herself because she’s Catholic.

The defendants’ response to the motion of recusal firmly rejects Oropeza’s arguments as “legally insufficient” and not “objectively reasonable”: 

10. Plaintiffs’ claim, as articulated in Ms. Oropeza’s affidavit, is legally insufficient. Of the five reasons articulated by Ms. Oropeza, only two—Judge Dempsey’s membership in and board service for Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, and her role as a speaker at a Leon County parochial school—actually relate to the judge’s own activities. But neither of these affiliations indicate that Judge Dempsey is biased on the question of so-called voucher programs. According to its website, Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida focuses its charitable efforts on immigration, crisis pregnancy and adoption, and emergency assistance—not vouchers or other education issues. And a speaking engagement by Judge Dempsey at a parochial school that receives voucher funds—at an unspecified time, on an unspecified topic and in an unspecified capacity—provides no basis to impute any bias to Judge Dempsey on the question of vouchers or any other topic at issue in this lawsuit.

11. The remaining three “facts” alleged in Ms. Oropeza’s affidavit show nothing more than some individuals and organizations, with some degree of affiliation to the Catholic Church, support the enrollment of students at parochial schools through voucher programs. Unless Plaintiffs were to assert that all Catholics, by reason of their faith, support voucher programs to such a degree that they are unable to render an unbiased opinion on the issue—a position that Ms. Oropeza expressly disclaims—there is nothing about these third party positions that could shed any light on Judge Dempsey’s own ability to fairly and impartially preside over this case.

The defendants also note that there “are no judges in this state who have no involvement with the schools of this state,” since they “either have or had children in school, studied in Florida schools themselves, or have close relatives involved in Florida’s schools,” yet it would be ludicrous to demand that a judge recuse herself for such reasons. It would be equally absurd to demand that female judges not preside over cases involving abortion or sexual harassment or that black judges recuse themselves from cases involving racial discrimination.

Hilariously, Oropeza claimed in her motion, “I do not base this motion on Judge Dempsey’s religious beliefs, but rather on the positions of the organizations with which she is affiliated.” Yes of course, organizations like… the Catholic church and affiliated Catholic charities. But this has nothing to do with the judge’s religious beliefs, she claims, it’s just an attempt to protect citizens from the nefarious “Catholic strategy” that she “discovered” in her “research.” That sounds awfully familiar…

Thomas Nast's anti-Catholic "American River Ganges" cartoon, 1875 

Image: Thomas Nast’s infamous 1875 “American River Ganges” cartoon depicts a noble white Protestant male protecting his family from the bishops’ “Catholic strategy.”

Last year, plaintiffs demanded that a federal judge recuse himself from a case involving the Catholic church because he is Catholic. Sadly, the demand that Catholic judges recuse themselves from certain cases is increasingly common, even from seemingly respectable sources. The imposition of a religious test for judges should be vigorously resisted.

Why Tax Credits Survive Legal Challenges But Vouchers Often Don’t

Yesterday, on the same day that the New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the state’s scholarship tax credit law, a district court judge struck down Oklahoma’s special-needs voucher law.

Both vouchers and scholarship tax credit laws are constitutional under the U.S. Constitution, but vouchers laws have often run afoul of states’ historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments, which prohibit public funds from being expended at religiously affiliated schools. By contrast, scholarship tax credit laws have a perfect record at both the federal and state courts because they rely on voluntary, private donations. Donors to nonprofit scholarship organizations receive tax credits worth 50 percent to 100 percent of their donation, depending on the state. In ACSTO v. Winn, the U.S. Supreme Court held tax credit funds did not constitute public money because they had not “come into the tax collector’s hands.” These credits are constitutionally no different than tax deductions for charitable donations to nonprofits (including religious organizations) or the 100 percent property tax exemption granted to houses of worship. In none of those cases do we say that the nonprofit or religious institution is “publicly funded.” 

Yesterday’s decision is heartbreaking for the hundreds of Okie children with special needs who use the vouchers to attend the schools of their parents’ choice. If Oklahoma policymakers want to help those children, they will follow the legal advice of the Institute for Justice and enact a special-needs scholarship tax credit or expand their existing tax credit law.

For more on the the New Hampshire decision, listen to this Cato Daily Podcast with the Institute for Justice’s Dick Komer, who argued the case before the state Supreme Court.

Another “Winn” for Educational Freedom in New Hampshire

In ACSTO v. Winn (2011), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program on the grounds that plaintiffs did not have standing to sue in the first place, because they could not show any specific injury to themselves caused by the voluntary program. Today, the New Hampshire Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in a case involving that state’s new scholarship program. Importantly, this preserves the perfect legal record of modern education tax credit school choice programs.

Under these programs, individuals or businesses can donate money to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization that then uses the money to make private education affordable to lower income families. The donor’s taxes are cut in proportion to the size of the donation they make (100% in AZ, 85% in NH). No one is compelled to make a donation, and those who do not donate have their taxes collected as they always were. Those who choose to make donations can pick the organization that receives their money, just as they would pick any other charitable organization.

To have standing to sue over the constitutionality of a law, it is generally required to show that the law has personally and concretely harmed you in some way. Though this may seem arbitrary, it has a very important purpose, which the NH ruling explains in detail: without the harm requirement, courts would have sweeping power to override the will of voters and their elected representatives. If anyone could sue to overturn any law for any reason, innumerable cases would be filed and courts could simply agree to hear the ones pertaining to whatever laws they happened not to like.

But there is another reason why it is important that both the U.S. and NH Supreme Courts rejected challenges to education tax credits due to lack of standing: freedom of conscience. The plaintiffs lacked standing in these cases because the programs are voluntary. No one has to donate to a scholarship organization. Those who do not donate see their taxes collected as they’d always been. As a result, no one is compelled to pay for religious instruction, which would violate many state constitutions.

In fact, education tax credits offer a meaningful improvement for freedom of conscience over the public schooling status quo. Under the current system, everyone is forced to pay for a single official system of education that cannot possibly reflect the values of such a diverse nation. The result, as my colleague Neal McCluskey has shown, is an endless battle over the content of public schooling. Education tax credits avoid that compulsion, allowing people to choose the organization that receives their education donations. In a mature program like the one in Pennsylvania, there are over a hundred different scholarship organizations to choose from. It is thus possible to ensure funding to a diverse range of educational choices without forcing any taxpayer to support a particular sort of instruction that might violate his or her most deeply held convictions.

As I wrote three years ago, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, education tax credits are A “Winn” for Education and Freedom of Conscience.

Live Free and Learn: NH Supreme Court Upholds School Choice

Low- and middle-income children in New Hampshire will now be able to use tax-credit scholarships at any school they choose, whether secular or religious.

This morning, the New Hampshire Supreme Court (NHSC) followed the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court in unanimously ruling that the petitioners challenging the “Live Free or Die” state’s scholarship tax credit law lack standing because they could not demonstrate any harm. The law grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low- and middle-income parents send their children to the schools of their choice.

When two anti-school choice organizations challenged the law, the Institute for Justice intervened, representing several low-income families who had applied for the scholarships. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief defending the law’s constitutionality.

The NHSC overturned a lower court’s flawed and unprecedented decision, which had forbidden scholarship recipients from using the funds at religiously-affiliated private schools. The lower court held that the scholarship funds constituted “money raised by taxation” and therefore violated the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states:

[No] money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination. (New Hampshire Constitution, Part II, Article 83)

The NHSC did not address the merits of the lower court’s decision because it held the petitioners were unable to demonstrate that “their personal rights have been impaired or prejudiced.” Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court, in rejecting the petitioners’ standing in ACSTO v. Winn, held that the tax-credit funds did not constitute public money because they had not “come into the tax collector’s hands.”

This is great news for the tens of thousands of students who qualify for tax-credit scholarships—parents like Melissa Cogan, who used the program to cover homeschooling expenses for her two children, Hope and Hunter.

“Without the scholarship from (the Network for Educational Opportunity), homeschool would not have been an option for us,” Melissa said. “We are a large family with very limited resources for supplies, books, workbooks, and electronic technology. The generosity of the Network for Educational Opportunity has made it possible for us to purchase everything we needed to become a successful homeschooling family.”

Such stories should make it unsurprising then that, last year, nearly 97 percent of scholarship families reported being satisfied with the learning environments they chose for their children.

NH tax-credit scholarship, parental satisfaction.

The decision’s import reaches far beyond New Hampshire’s borders. The NHSC’s ruling today takes some wind out of the sails of the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA), which is inexplicably suing the Sunshine State over its more-than-decade-old scholarship tax credit law, in a complaint that mirrors the legal reasoning of the NH petitioners.  It is likely that the Florida Supreme Court’s reasoning will mirror that of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court.

Certainly there are families in Florida, and elsewhere nationwide, similar to the Cogans who are craving an educational environment that works best for them. Today, the New Hampshire Supreme Court handed them a much-needed victory and, thus, the ability to live free and learn.

New Front Opening in Core War

Reports are out this morning that Louisiana will be challenging in court federal coercion behind the Common Core standards. If so, it will open a new front in the war against the Core, a standardization effort that has been listing badly in public opinion, but nonetheless survives in the vast majority of states. That could very well change should the force of Race to the Top funding or, more importantly today, waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, be eliminated by the courts, as Core supporters likely knew when they asked for federal pressure.

Does this suit have a chance of success? I’m not a lawyer – though I’ll be consulting a few! – so this is not the best-informed legal analysis. From what I do know, though, the chances of prevailing are middling, at best. The courts in the past have been pretty lenient in cases in which Washington gets states to do its bidding in exchange for funding when the feds don’t have authority in the Constitution to do something. And the Louisiana suit hinges largely on federal action that seems very intentionally to push the Core – standards “common to a majority of states” under RTTT, and only one other standards option to get a waiver – but that doesn’t state outright that the Core must be adopted. That way the feds can say they aren’t prescribing a specific “program of instruction,” which would clearly violate the letter of several education laws, while in reality very much requiring such a program.

Sadly, one major diversion likely to be employed by Core opponents to battle this suit is impugning Governor Bobby Jindal’s motives. Since Jindal first reversed course on the Core, supporters of the standards have said his stance is all about presidential aspirations and not about what’s best for kids. Those may well be his motives, I don’t know. But as with all aspects of the Core debate, we should focus on the merits of the arguments being employed, not the motives for offering them. (This goes for opponents who attack people like Bill Gates, too.) We should look at the merits of the lawsuit, which requires an honest assessment of both the Constitution and federal education statutes, just as we should look at the research on national standards, the content of the Core, and the reality of how so many states adopted standards that are now heavily disliked.

Do those things, and I think the Core loses hands down. Ignore them completely, and everyone loses.