Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Year of Educational Choice: Update II

Educational choice is on the march.

As I noted back in February, the stars appeared to be aligned for a “Year of Educational Choice.” By late April, state legislatures were halfway toward beating the record of 13 states adopting new or expanded school choice laws in 2011, which the Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Year of School Choice.” The major difference in the types of legislative proposals under consideration this year is that more than a dozen states considered education savings account (ESA) laws that allow parents to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services and save for future education expenses, including college.

On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Individualized Education Act, an ESA program for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Mississippi enacted the nation’s third ESA law, behind Arizona and Florida. Lawmakers in Montana also passed an ESA, but Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed it earlier this month.

Nevertheless, Gov. Bullock allowed a universal tax-credit scholarship bill to become law without his signature. The law is an important step toward educational freedom, albeit a very modest one. Taxpayers can only receive tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations up to $150, meaning that a single $4,500 scholarship will require 30 donors. No other state has such a restrictive per-donor credit cap. Unless the legislature raises or eliminates the cap, Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program is likely to help very few students.

Florida Judge Dismisses Lawsuit against School Choice

This morning, a Florida circuit court judge dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit by the members of the education establishment against the 13-year old Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship law, which grants tax credits to corporations that make donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. About 70,000 low-income students in Florida currently receive tax-credit scholarships to attend the schools of their choice. Travis Pillow of RedefinEd (a blog connected to the scholarship organization Step Up for Students) has the story:

The statewide teachers union, the Florida PTA, the Florida School Boards Association and other groups filed the lawsuit in August, arguing the tax credit scholarship program unconstitutionally created a “parallel” system of publicly supported schools and violated a state constitutional provision barring state aid for religious institutions.

Judge George Reynolds, however, dismissed the case this morning. The plaintiffs, he ruled, could not show the scholarships harmed public schools, and could not challenge the program as taxpayers because it was not funded through the state budget.

Claims the lawsuit would harm public schools were purely “speculative,” Reynolds wrote, siding with arguments made by the state and parents who had intervened in the case. The plaintiffs could not show the program would hurt school districts’ per-pupil funding, or result in “any adverse impact on the quality of education” in public schools.

In dismissing the lawsuit on these grounds, the judge is following the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court and the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

In ACSTO v. Winn (2011), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the standing of plaintiffs against Arizona’s tax-credit scholarship law because the scholarships constitute private funds, not government expenditures. Private funds, the Court ruled, do not become government property until they have “come into the tax collector’s hands.” Moreover, any impact on other taxes or spending is purely speculative, so the plaintiffs could not demonstrate any harm:

The costs of education may be a significant portion of Arizona’s annual budget, but the tax credit, by facilitating the operation of both religious and secular private schools, could relieve the burden on public schools and provide cost savings to the State. Even if the tax credit had an adverse effect on Arizona’s budget, problems would remain. To find a particular injury in fact would require speculation that Arizona lawmakers react to revenue shortfalls by increasing respondents’ tax liability.

Last year, in Duncan v. New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a lawsuit against the Granite State’s tax-credit scholarship law for the same reasons:

The personal injuries alleged by the petitioners in this case […] are insufficient to establish standing. The petitioners’ claim that the program will result in “net fiscal losses” to local governments does not articulate a personal injury. […] Moreover, the purported injury asserted here – the loss of money to local school districts – is necessarily speculative. […] Even if the tax credits result in a decrease in the number of students attending local public schools, it is unclear whether, as the petitioners allege, local governments will experience “net fiscal losses.” The prospect that this will occur requires speculation about whether a decrease in students will reduce public school costs and about how the legislature will respond to the decrease in students attending public schools, assuming that occurs.

This morning, the Florida judge reached the same, logical conclusion. The plaintiffs are not challenging “a program funded by legislative appropriations” so they lack standing to sue. Moreover, citing both of the above opinions, the judge concluded that any “injury” they allege is purely speculative:

Plaintiff’s Complaint also does not allege special injury sufficient to confer standing on Plaintiffs to challenge the constitutionality of the Tax Credit Program. […] [W]hether any diminution of public school resources resulting from the Tax Credit Program will actually take place is speculative, as is any claim that any such diminution would result in reduced per-pupil spending or in any adverse impact on the quality of education.

The plaintiffs are likely to appeal. And they are likely to lose that appeal. Last September, another circuit court judge dismissed a separate teachers union lawsuit alleging that the legislation expanding the tax-credit scholarship law was passed improperly. That judge also held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not demonstrate any harm.

Perhaps the education establishment should spend less time trying to prevent students from leaving their schools and more time trying to improve their schools so families will choose them.

A Happy Birthday for Head Start?

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson announced the launch of Project Head Start, a federal program that would deliver health, nutritional, academic, and other services to low-income, preschool children, hopefully giving them an early boost in life. It was certainly well intentioned, but as the federal government’s own research has shown, pure intentions don’t make something work, nor do hundreds-of-billions of taxpayer dollars:

In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.

Unfortunately, the expansion of government pre-K programs generally seems to be based much more on good intentions than evidence. As George Mason University professor David Armor concluded in a recent examination of the research not just on Head Start, but numerous state-level preschool programs, “the evidence as it currently exists demonstrates only short-term skill gains that fade after a few years.”

It’s Head Start’s birthday. How happy should we be?

Do Racial Disparities Explain Flat Student Performance?

The latest results of the Nation’s Report Card for history, geography, and civics are out, and as usual they are depressing. The exam, formally known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is administered to a representative sample of U.S. students to give a snapshot of student performance in a variety of subjects nationwide. Education Week reports:

The nation’s eighth graders have made no academic progress in U.S. history, geography or civics since 2010, according to the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Fewer than one-third of students scored proficient or better on any of the tests and only 3 percent or fewer scored at the advanced level in any of the three subjects.

No significant changes since 2010

However, Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners argues that saying students “have made no academic progress” is “the wrong way to look at it” because of something called Simpson’s Paradox (which has nothing to do with the voice of Principal Skinner and Mr. Burns turing down a $14 million contract):

Mr. President, Don’t Scapegoat Private Schools

It is not often I get a chance to latch on to someone as high profile as the President of the United States saying that public schools “draw us together.” But in his appearance at Georgetown University a couple of days ago, President Obama blamed, among other things, people sending their children to private schools for breaking down social cohesion and reducing opportunities for other children.

First, let’s get our facts straight: Private schools are not the main way better-off people, or people with high social capital, isolate themselves from poor families. Only 9 percent of school children attend private schools, and as Matt Ladner points out in a great response to the President, that percentage has been dropping over the years. No, the main way the better-off congregate amongst themselves is buying houses in nice places, which translates into access to good school districts. Even the large majority of the mega-rich appear to send their children to public schools, but rather than paying school tuition, their tuition is the far-steeper, far more exclusive price of a house. And let’s not pretend – as the President hinted – that we’ve seen anything close to long-term decreased funding for public schools. Even with a slight dip during the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in public schools has well more than doubled since 1970.

On the deeper point, do we really know that public schools “draw us together,” and more importantly, do so better than private schooling? No, we don’t. That’s the accepted wisdom, but basic history doesn’t necessarily bear it out. Roman Catholics ended up starting their own school system – which at its peak in 1965 enrolled about 12 percent of all students – because the de facto Protestant public schools could not accommodate them. African-Americans, of course, were long legally excluded from public schools, especially white public schools. Similar situations existed for Asians and Mexican-Americans in some parts of the country. And, of course, public schools reflected the communities they served, which were often small and homogeneous. Finally, public schooling forces diverse people into a single system, which has led to seemingly incessant, cohesion-tearing clashes over values, personal identities, and much more.

Opt Out Tests If Child’s a “Mere Creature of the State”

The Common Core War, over the last few months, has been fought on a largely new front: whether students can be forced to take state tests – in the vast majority of cases, Core-aligned tests – or whether parents and students can refuse. It is perhaps an even more fundamental question than whether the federal government may constitutionally coerce standardization and testing generally, and with Common Core, specific standards and tests. The testing battle is to a large extent about whether a child, in seeming opposition to the seminal Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, is indeed a “mere creature of the State.”

The opt-out numbers are hard to pin down, though there is little question that some districts have seen very large percentages while others – probably the large majority nationwide – have seen few. It is also probably reasonable to conclude that the leader of the opt-out crusade has been New York State, where animosity toward the Core has been high since the state first rushed implementation and state officials, in an effort to calm things, actually inflamed them with a condescending approach to public engagement that launched weeks of recriminations. Last year the state saw an estimated 60,000 students opt out, which leapt to nearly 200,000 this year.

The root question, of course, is should students and parents be able to opt out without fear of punishment? And since punishment would be coming from a government institution – yes, that is what a public school is – that means without fear of punishment by the state. If children are, in part, creatures of the state – and Pierce did not say there is no legitimate state role in education – than punishment is legitimate. If, however, the public schools exist to serve fully free citizens, then punishment cannot be meted out for refusing the test; it is up to parents to freely decide whether or not their children are subjected to the tests.

The Common Core Conundrum

Common Core is either meaningless or antithetical to a free and pluralistic society.

That’s the key conundrum that Professor Jay P. Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, identified yesterday during his testimony before the Arkansas Council on Common Core Review, which is currently considering whether to keep, modify, or scrap the standards:

Because standards are about values, their content is not merely a technical issue that can be determined by scientific methods. There is no technically correct set of standards, just as there is no technically correct political party or religion. Reasonable people have legitimate differences of opinion about what they want their children taught. A fundamental problem with national standards efforts, like Common Core, is that they are attempting to impose a single vision of a proper education on a large and diverse country with differing views.

National standards can try to produce uniformity out of diversity with some combination of two approaches. They can promote standards that are so bland and ambiguous as to be inoffensive to almost everyone. Or they can force their particular vision on those who believe differently. Either way, national standards, like Common Core, are inappropriate and likely to be ineffective. If national standards embrace a vague consensus, then they make no difference since almost everyone already believes them and is already working toward them. If, on the other hand, national standards attempt to impose their particular vision of a proper education on those with differing visions, then national standards are oppressive and likely to face high levels of resistance and non-compliance. So, national standards are doomed to be either unnecessary or illiberal. Either way, they are wrong. [emphasis added]

Supporters of Common Core clearly hope it does bend educators to their will induce “instructional shifts” in our nation’s classrooms, but as Greene points out, for Common Core to be more than “just a bunch of words in a document,” it needs some sort of mechanism to coerce schools and educators into changing their practice to align with the Core. Prominent backers of Common Core have long promoted a “tripod” of standards, tests, and “accountability” measures – i.e. rewards or (more likely) punishments tied to performance on those tests.