Topic: Education and Child Policy

Handicapped Kids Don’t Count

Following up on Andrew’s comments

I wish Sol Stern would have the professional integrity to finally correct himself in writing, because others seem to trust him and keep repeating his confusions and inaccuracies.

The latest is from Daniel Casse, who writes a review of Sol Stern’s badly researched and poorly argued City Journal article, “School Choice Isn’t Enough.” In fact, the essay is not about the effectiveness of school choice in improving education, but about a few voucher programs that didn’t measure up to Stern’s wildly unrealistic expectations of how they would transform public schools.

Unfortunately, Casse repeats an erroneous implication from the piece that Stern refuses to correct; “[Stern] points out that today there are only three tiny voucher programs supported by public funds, one in Cleveland, one in Milwaukee, and another in Washington, D.C…” (emphasis added).

In fact, there are twenty-one choice programs in 13 states that allow students to choose private schools with the support of vouchers or tax incentives. Most of these were passed in the last ten years. Just counting recently passed state programs, close to $700,000,000 is used to help more than 700,000 children attend a school of choice.

Eleven of these programs, in eight states, use vouchers. Not three … eleven voucher programs. Most of the ones he missed help 20,000 disabled children attend a school that meets their needs when the public school fails them.

But apparently, handicapped children don’t count for Stern.

Counting only modern state programs, vouchers help around 47,000 children attend schools of their choice with over $275 million.

Across seven states, there are ten education tax credits or deductions, and Stern ignores them entirely. These benefit more than 650,000 children with more than $400 million; five of those programs target low-income families and help 93,000 children attend schools of their choice.

It’s easy to see how someone like Casse, who isn’t in the thick of school choice policy would be misled by Stern’s article; the essay is misleading, in addition to confusing, feather-light on research and evidence, and poorly argued.

It would be nice to have an official correction in print by Stern. But the least he should do is directly address the most important evidence and critiques levied against his argument. Stern’s imprecise and irresponsible article is misleading readers.

Weekly Standard Argues, Weakly, for Standards

In the current issue of the Weekly Standard, speech-writer Daniel Casse opines on the school choice debate sparked last month by Sol Stern. Casse begins by uncritically repeating Stern’s claim that the American school choice movement has stagnated for over a decade. In attempting to defend that claim, Stern failed to mention that five new education tax credit programs have been created over that time, harnessing hundreds of millions of dollars and serving a hundred thousand or so children. These programs have grown significantly since their inception and will likely continue to do so. Stern’s omission had already been corrected by several different scholars weeks ago, and for Casse not to mention this shows either poor judgement or poor research on his part.

Casse goes on to dismiss responses to Stern by Robert Enlow, Neal McCluskey and myself as “doctrinaire” in our support for education markets over government school monopolies. But to be doctrinaire is to be impractical and inflexible. I am neither. There are education policies already enacted in several states that, if simply allowed to grow over time, will eventually have very good prospects for creating market forces in education. One example is Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit, which allows businesses to make donations to private scholarship funds that serve low income children, and get a 90% tax credit in return. There are certainly ways to accelerate the advent of real market forces, Cato’s own Public Education Tax Credit model legislation is one, but even the expansion of existing programs could eventually do the trick. That is a practical solution.

And as for flexibility, I would be quite ready to change my position favoring real market reform over central planning in education if the preponderance of evidence changed accordingly. No such change seems iminent. I maintain a spreadsheet of the international research comparing public and private provision of education across 7 or 8 different outcomes (mostly academic achievement and efficiency). These studies span the past 25 years, and of the 91 statistically significant findings I’ve collected, 82 favor private schooling. If these studies are winnowed down so that we look only at those comparing government schools to markets of minimally regulated private schools paid for at least in part by parents, there are 34 statistically significant findings, 32 of which favor market provision. The less intrusive the state is, and the more market-like the schools are, the better private schools work. The latest version of this literature review has yet to be published, but the detailed original 2004 version is available on-line, as is a brief updated discussion at the end of a paper released last year on the No Child Left Behind act.

If anyone is doctrinaire in this debate, it is the advocates of government mandated curricula and educational standards who seldom present any sort of empirical evidence in support of their views, with the exception of an occasional anecdotal reference to some place that has standards they like.

As I pointed out in the Washington Post on-line last year, it is not government standards that produce excellence, but the competitive pursuit of excellence that drives up standards.

‘Wise’ Isn’t the Right Word

NRO’s Carol Iannone calls Checker Finn “wise” because his confidence in free market education has been chastened by his observation of charter schools in Ohio. To draw conclusions about free markets from a system that does not resemble them isn’t wisdom; it’s a non sequitur. As I have written elsewhere over the past month, U.S. charter schools and voucher programs deviate from free markets in crucial ways, and so tell us very little about the merits of real market reform.

The recent spate of neo-conservatives expressing disappointment that tiny, hobbled “school choice” programs haven’t produced free market results calls to mind the Cargo Cultists of the South Pacific. When American military forces left the Melanesian Islands after WW II taking their supplies and equipment with them, some islanders came to believe they could summon forth their own precious “cargo” by mimicking what U.S. forces had done — complete with air traffic control towers and radio headsets made of bamboo. Not surprisingly, this superficial mimicry failed to deliver the goods. To date, U.S. “school choice” programs are to free market education as bamboo headsets are to radio communication — insubstantial imitations of the real thing. They may well be improved in the future, but should not be expected to act like markets until they are.

Finn’s belief that the risible hand of the state is necessary to make markets drive up standards is conspicuously detached from reality. As I pointed out in a piece last year, standards advocates mistakenly assume that high government standards produce excellence, but in fact it is the competitive pursuit of excellence that raises standards:

We didn’t progress from four-inch black-and-white cathode ray tubes to four-foot flat panels because the federal government raised television standards. Apple did not increase the capacity of its iPod from 5 to 80 gigabytes in five years because of some bureaucratic mandate. And the Soviet Union did not collapse because the targets for its five-year plans were insufficiently ambitious.

Progress and innovation in these and almost all other human endeavors have been driven by market incentives: consumer choice, competition among providers, the profit motive. The absence of these incentives — as in the Soviet Union — has led to economic decline and collapse.

Charter schools haven’t produced market-like results because they aren’t markets. We will enjoy market-like results in education when we have real education markets, not before. The dirigisme now so in vogue among neo-cons will produce the same results for them that it did for the central planners who came before them.

‘Loyalty to the State’

The California court decision that essentially bans homeschooling has sparked a lot of concern, and rightly so. The decision quotes this revealing and chilling statement from a California court case in 1961:

A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.

Seldom do the defenders of the government education monopoly reveal in such forthright language the true purpose of their position; they are training children to be loyal subjects of the state, not free citizens of a republic. The logic behind support for a government education monopoly and opposition to school choice is chilling and clear. 

These fundamentals are too often obscured or lost in a forest of concerns regarding standards and curriculum, even in the case of those, such as Sol Stern and Diane Ravitch, who profess a desire to promote American values.

To all who feel a twinge of sympathy at the mentioning of civic education and patriotism, just remember the patriotism and attachment to American civic traditions that fueled the American Revolution grew from a diverse population without a government education system. 

And remember that our private schools do a better job teaching the principles and structure of American government and American history, the knowledge of which most often leads to a natural, uncoerced, organic patriotism that is the strength of this country. 

Freedom, not state indoctrination, creates good American citizens.

How Dare a Minority Get in the Way?

For years, a battle has been raging in Montgomery County, Md., over the school district’s sex education curriculum. Yesterday, the curriculum’s main opponents, while promising to keep fighting, announced that they would no longer do so in court. In celebratory response to the news, Brian Edwards, chief of staff for district superintendent Jerry Weast, declared that “a small group of opponents have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend this, so obviously we’re very pleased that it’s over.”

It certainly is regrettable that Montgomery County taxpayers have had to shell out big bucks to fight this battle, but Mr. Edwards seems to be suggesting that the main injustice is that the curriculum’s opponents are but a “small group.” The small group is itself composed largely of taxpayers, and one of the basic principles of American government is supposed to be respect for people’s rights no matter how few are having them trampled. We are supposed to hate tyranny of the majority.

The problem in Montgomery County — and districts all over the country — is not that a few troublemakers keep thwarting majority rule. It’s that public schooling, which forces taxpayers with diverse values to support monolithic school systems, makes such conflict, and often repression of minorities, unavoidable.

Thankfully, there is a solution to this problem that will benefit both majorities and minorities: Let parents, not government, decide to which schools their children and tax dollars will go. Let all people freely seek the education they want and you immediately vanquish the cause of war.

Certifiably Wrong

Last week, a California appeals court dealt a tough blow to liberty in the oft-freedom-challenged Golden State, ruling that parents may not home-school their children without first obtaining a state teaching license.

This is a regrettable ruling for at least two reasons: First, it appears to violate U.S. Supreme Court precedent rooted in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), in which the Court struck down an Oregon law requiring all children to attend public schools. The California ruling doesn’t force a child to attend a public institution, but in requiring that the child be taught by a state-approved teacher, it appears to conflict with Pierce’s most basic principle:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

The second major flaw in the decision is the underlying assumption that state certification somehow assures teacher quality. Research has found that certification promises nothing of the sort, and, in fact, often keeps people out of teaching who might be great at it but don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on education school. Indeed, an exhaustive review of teacher-quality research by the Abell Foundation determined:

There is a scientifically sound body of research, conducted primarily by economists and social scientists, revealing the attributes of an effective teacher, defined as a teacher who has a positive impact on student achievement. This research does not show that certified teachers are more effective teachers than uncertified teachers. In fact, the backgrounds and attributes characterizing effective teachers are more likely to be found outside the domain of schools of education.

Both basic freedom and educational quality are damaged by this anti-homeschooling ruling, and Californians can only hope that higher courts see this clearly.

NCLB Wobegon

The No Child Left Behind Act hoodwinks parents and the public, allowing politicians to take credit for expanding student “proficiency” no matter how little kids actually know. What’s the trick?  Let’s go to South Carolina, where yesterday the state’s House of Representatives passed a bill that in two years would change the state’s testing system and produce “dramatic” proficiency increases.

Sound suspicious? Don’t worry, no standards will be harmed in the making of this miracle:

The state is not lowering its standards, [Rep. Bob] Walker said.

The change is in wording, such as the meaning of “proficient.”

“Our ‘proficient’ is above grade level,” he said, while No Child Left Behind defines proficient as being at the appropriate grade level.

“You will see a dramatic increase in your level of proficiency,” Walker said.

Of course you will. It just it won’t mean anything.