Topic: Education and Child Policy

Utah Vote Won’t Slow the March of Educational Freedom

With 90% of precincts reporting, the Utah voucher referendum has been defeated by a 3 to 2 margin. It’s a sad thing that most Utah families won’t be enjoying any new educational choices in the near future, but the defeat of the voucher referendum will not slow the march of educational freedom. School choice programs have proliferated in the last decade, growing in both size and number, and they have done so despite earlier referendum setbacks in the more populous states of Michigan and California.

The reason educational freedom will continue to spread is that the pressures that drive its growth are continuing to build. Our district-based, 19th century school system is simply not living up to the ideals of public education or the expectations of the American people. Our schools are supposed to promote social cohesion; they foment culture wars instead. They are supposed to impart knowledge and skills, but we trail the industrialized world in academic performance by the end of high school. And given our limited resources, we want our schools to make every dollar count, but public schooling has undergone a staggering decline in cost-effectiveness over the past several generations. Our high-school seniors score no higher than those of three or four decades ago, but we spend twice as much per pupil in real dollars.

As these problems continue to build, Americans will continue to look for alternatives, and the more carefully they look, the more they will be drawn to educational freedom.

What the Utah Vote Is About: Public Education by Other Means

Utah voters are going to the polls on Tuesday to accept or reject what would be the nation’s first state-wide school voucher program. According to Utah’s biggest media outlets and the nation’s largest public school employee union, this program would undermine public education. That view, while understandable coming from an organization that lives off the current system, is mistaken.

The purpose of public education is not to perpetuate a particular management structure, or employ a certain set of bureaucrats or union officials. The purpose of public education is to see that every child has access to good schools, and is prepared both for success in private life and participation in public life. Anyone who genuinely believes in those ideals of public education should support whatever system best fulfills them.

Correctly understood, school choice programs are not a threat to public education, they are simply public education by other means. They ensure that every family has access to the schools they deem best for their kids, whether operated by public officials or independent educators.

Some people worry that  a system of unfettered parental choice would fail to promote social cohesion – something that our public schools are widely believed to do. That view is precisely backward. There are numerous studies comparing the tolerance and civic engagement of public and private school students and graduates, and this research either favors the private schools or finds no significant differences between the sectors.

And as for Balkanizing communities, that is sadly something that our traditional district-based public schools have been doing since their inception. In fact, my Cato associate Neal McCluskey has documented nearly 150 battles over the content of public schooling from all over the country – in the 2005-2006 school year alone. From sex education to the singing of Christmas carols, our single official system of schools forces us into unnecessary conflict. A true system of school choice would eliminate these conflicts, allowing parents to get the sort of education they value for their own children without compelling them to force their preferences on their neighbors, as our existing school system has done for more than a century.

The voucher program before Utah’s voters may not be without its imperfections, but to portray it as a threat to public education completely misses the point. School choice is simply public education by other means, and, in many ways, a better means than the district-based system we inherited from the 19th century.

Ivory Tower Can’t Blame State Taxpayers

In a House Education and Labor Committee hearing yesterday, higher education experts asserted that schools have had to constantly raise tuition well in excess of inflation because states keep short-changing them on funds. Indeed, Cal State Long Branch President F. King Alexander suggested that in order to rein in costs, Washington should cut higher ed funding to states that cut their own funding. In other words, he said that the feds should only lavish more taxpayer money on universities in states that themselves lavish more taxpayer money on them.

The problem with the “states are cheap” argument is that it’s utterly false. Public college prices have risen at the same time that state and local funding has grown.

Let’s look at absolute state and local funding. Using the latest available federal data and adjusting for inflation, state and local spending rose from $40.1 billion in the 1980-81 academic year to $69.9 billion in 2000-01, a 74 percent increase. According to data from the College Board (figure 6 in the linked report), during that same period the inflation-adjusted published cost of tuition, fees, room and board (TFRB) at four-year public institutions rose from roughly $7,000 to about $10,000, a 43 percent increase. So prices at public institutions rose at the same time state and local appropriations were increasing.

Perhaps, though, funding is a problem of reductions in spending per-pupil. Perhaps state and local support has risen, but not kept up with increasing enrollment. Using data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers (figure 3 in the linked report) we see that there is a little more support for the ivory tower’s complaint that schools just don’t get enough public funding — but not much more. State and local appropriations are clearly cyclical, rising as a result of good economic times and decreasing in response to bad. But it is also clear that there has not been a general decline in state and local funding per-pupil. Indeed, in the 1980-81 to 2001-01 period we explored earlier, the SHEEO data show that inflation-adjusted public funding per full-time equivalent student rose from $6,517 to about $7,371, a 13 percent increase.

So what does all this tell us? Pretty simply, the same thing former Harvard University President Derek Bok wrote in his book Universities in the Marketplace: “Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.” Including, especially, taxpayer money.

In Utah, You Work for the UEA

On November 6, Utahns will vote on a referendum to decide the fate of a statewide voucher program passed by the Utah legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year. As anyone who knows anything about public schooling would have predicted, the major force fighting against choice has been teacher unions, with the National Education Association (NEA) having donated at least $1.5 million to date to the anti-choice cause. And, as this article in yesterday’s Salt Lake Tribune makes clear, defeating choice is an obsession for the state’s NEA affiliate, the Utah Education Association (UEA). Of course it is, because monopolists will stop at nothing to protect their monopoly. But this begs a question to which almost everyone must already know the answer, but many just won’t admit it: Who really works for whom? Do public school teachers work for the public, or does the public really work—and pay taxes—for the teachers?

The answer is all too clear, and that alone ought to make people in Utah, and around the country, support as much school choice as they can get.

Slaughterhouse of Dreams

More than one in ten public high schools in America is a “dropout factory” according to an analysis by education researcher Bob Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University. At these schools, dropping out is the norm, not the exception, and their record of sky high dropout rates is consistent over time.

What can be done about it? The most obvious solution, to anyone familiar with school choice research, is to stop assigning students to these slaughterhouses of dreams, and stop sending tax dollars to them so that they can continue apace with their grizzly work. Instead, make it possible for all families to afford the schools of their choice, public or private.

Economist Derek Neal has shown that in urban areas, where most “dropout factories” are located, Catholic schools do a far better job keeping kids in school. African American students benefit the most. After controlling for differences in student background between the sectors, minority Catholic students had an 88 percent high school graduation rate, compared to just 62 percent for similar students in public schools. In other words, black students attending Catholic schools are almost one-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate as their public school peers. Still more impressive, these gains persisted through to college. Catholic school students were two-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate from college as similar public school students.

Jay Greene has found similarly favorable results for private schools (.pdf) in Milwaukee’s school choice program.

So let’s stop herding children into failing schools. Let’s give them a choice and a far better shot at educational success.

Get Middle-Class Mediocrity for Record-High Prices!

Expensive homes mean an expensive, but not necessarily a good education.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a great new book from the Pacific Research Institute, Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle-Class Needs School Choice. It’s packed with great statistics on under-performing, over-priced schools in some of the wealthiest California districts and case studies on fiscal mismanagement normally associated with big city schools. The findings are eye-opening, as the WSJ reports:

At Dos Pueblos High School in ritzy Santa Barbara, only 28% of high school juniors tested college-ready for English in 2006, slightly better than the 23% of students who did so at San Marin High School in Marin County, where the median home price recently hit $1 million.

That’s just a taste of the dirt they dug up with widely available information. And other state think-tanks can get a lot of mileage with the same model.

Kudos to PRI for advancing the argument for school choice with the middle class and up … that’s where the battle for educational freedom will be won or lost, and the school choice movement has largely failed to speak to middle-class concerns like the rising tide of mediocrity and skyrocketing property taxes that support over-funded and horribly inefficient and under-performing suburban school districts.

PRI’s not-much-bang-per-buck argument is particularly likely to resonate with the crucial two-thirds of the electorate that doesn’t have school-aged children but gets slammed in taxes for the schools. This constituency is typically left out of parent-centric arguments for school choice, but non-parents are the key to expanding school choice.

Mitt: Educational Marxist?

According to MSNBC, yesterday GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Hillary Clinton a Marxist, remarking that “she said we’ve always been an on-your-own society…we should be a we’re-all-in-it-together society, a shared responsibility society. So it’s out with Adam Smith and in with Karl Marx.”

Romney might be right about Hillary Clinton, but based on several things he’s said recently about education, one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a fair bit of Big Brother in him, too.

At the same event where Romney attacked collectivist Hillary, for instance, he lauded the intrusive, federal No Child Left Behind Act. He likes the testing, he said, apparently not caring that it’s mandated by the central government. Even scarier, he endorsed a national program requiring that “before a parent can send a child to school for the first time, they’ve got to go to a weekend where they learn about being prepared to support their child in school.”

To top all this off, yesterday the Associated Press reported that Romney has floated the idea of rewarding college aid based on what careers recipients choose. “I like the idea of linking the level of support that we’re able to provide to young people going to college to the contributions they’re going to make to our society.” So not only is Romney going to keep NCLB and force moms and dads into government parenting academies, he’s going to engineer who gets what based, apparently, on how much government decides different jobs contribute to society?

Maybe Hillary isn’t the only closet Marxist in the 2008 race.