Topic: Education and Child Policy

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!

ACLU Sues Pigs for Failing to Fly

After successfully outlawing flight by birds in Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against pigs for their failure to take to the skies.

Okay, not exactly. But what they’re doing amounts to the same thing. In January of 2006, the ACLU convinced Florida’s Supreme Court to strike down a voucher program that was letting kids escape from failing public schools. This week, they filed suit against the Palm Beach County public school system for providing no escape from its failing schools.

After killing a program that was already achieving their goal, they are now suing a public school system that cannot possibly achieve their goal.

Dear ACLU,

Before committing years of your time and hundreds of thousands of dollars to this lawsuit, please take a moment and reflect. Public school monopolies don’t fail by choice, they fail by design. Having a court order them to stop failing is like ordering a pig to fly.

When, in the history of the world, have monopolies delivered the relentlessly improving quality, flexibility, innovation, and efficiency that we all want from our education system? Why – given the perennial disappointments of public schooling – do you imagine education monopolies are any different?

Privately, in your own offices and homes, reflect on the kinds of responsive and efficient services you have come to expect in every other field, and ask yourselves: why not harness in education the same free enterprise system that has driven miraculous progress in the rest of our economy? Market forces work just as well in education as in every other field, and your fears about the social effects of real parental choice are not justified by the evidence.

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Last week I observed that existing hobbled “school choice” programs have yet to transform American education because they fall far short of free markets. NRO’s Carol Iannone responds:

Well, of course! And necessarily so…. public education could never be completely open to a fully free market…. [And even if it were,] the results would not be pretty, because the market cannot ensure quality.

She endeavors to back up these assertions with an analogy to cable television (which apparently includes programming she finds lacking in culture). But, Ms. Iannone, it ain’t necessarily so, and we needn’t resort to analogy to find that out. Free education markets actually exist today, and have existed at various times and places throughout history, all the way back to the classical Athenians (whose cultural contributions were so enduring that they can still be found on cable television, 2,500 years later).

Rather than imagining what we think a free education marketplace might look like; rather than dreaming about how wonderful an idealized set of government standards could be; I suggest that we actually compare real education markets to real government-run and intrusively regulated schools. That is what I have spent the past decade-and-a-half doing. Based on my own and others’ findings, I recommend unfettered markets, coupled with financial assistance to ensure universal access, as the best way of fulfilling the ideals of public education. There are many possible ways of getting there, from the continued gradual expansion of certain existing programs to the passage of stronger ones such as Cato’s own Public Education Tax Credit.

I recently summarized and linked to the huge preponderance of econometric research favoring market over monopoly schooling, so let me just add a further detail here: the evidence does not support the view that government-mandated standards improve upon the operation of true free education markets. On the contrary, it shows that government licensing of teachers has little effect other than to eliminate from the teaching pool many of the most capable applicants and to drive up wages. And in those countries where real market schools can be compared to government schools, the curricula demanded by parents in the education marketplace are generally more in tune with the labor market, and more effectively and efficiently taught, than the curricula handed down by government appointed experts. This echoes the historical pattern I documented in my book Market Education: The Unknown History.

I invite government standards advocates, who claim that support for market education is based on “faith,” to actually look at the research and then to look at themselves in the mirror. Which of us has the better empirical case?