Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Good News on Cultural Decay — You Read It Here First

In Friday’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson hails “a groundbreaking essay by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin in Commentary magazine, which notes that most “social indicators” have improved:

“Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker,” the authors argue, “but almost every other social indicator has improved.” Crime rates have plunged, teen drug use and pregnancy have declined, educational scores are improving, welfare caseloads have fallen 60 percent, and the number of abortions has dropped.

That is indeed important news, often lost in conservative jeremiads about the state of the culture. But I’m not sure it’s actually “groundbreaking,” considering that you could have read it more than a year ago in Cato Policy Report or indeed right here at Cato@Liberty. As Radley Balko wrote in the September/October issue of Cato Policy Report,

Nearly every social indicator is trending in a direction most of us would consider positive.

Here are just a few examples, culled from government agencies and advocacy groups: Teen pregnancy is at its lowest point since government researchers have been keeping statistics. Juvenile crime has been falling for 20 years (though there was, admittedly, a slight uptick last year). Crimes against children are down. The number of reported rapes has dropped dramatically over the last two decades, even as social stigma against rape victims has subsided. Despite a negligible increase last year, overall crime in the United States has also been in decline for 15 years.

There’s more: Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropout rates are down. Unemployment remains low. And over the past decade, the overall abortion rate has dropped significantly.

If Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Internet porn, and violent video games are indeed inducing a nationwide slouch toward Gomorrah, as conservative icon Robert Bork once put it, it’s difficult to discern from those statistics.

Or indeed you could have learned it earlier from former Cato fellow Stephen Moore, who noted in the Los Angeles Times in 1999 that:

  • Teen sexual activity in the U.S. fell by 11% from 1991 to 1997.
  • Cocaine and marijuana use have fallen by almost half since 1980.
  • Welfare caseloads have dropped by nearly 40% since 1993.
  • The crime rate has fallen by one-third since the mid-1980s and burglaries are down by half in many inner cities.
  • The abortion rate is down nearly 20% since 1990.
  • The divorce rate dropped 19% from 1981 to 1996.

Conservatives know that there is nothing new under the sun and that most great ideas are old ideas. So as long as the information celebrated by Wehner, Levin, and Gerson is true, it’s of little moment that it isn’t actually groundbreaking.

USA Today is Confused on Vouchers: It’s demand in a free market that drives supply.

USA Today knocks vouchers today on the basis of an unbelievably maddening canard about school choice in general and vouchers in particular:

Vouchers, which give students public dollars that can be used to pay tuition at private schools, are supposed to promote competition and improve schools. But they have never flourished as a national school reform because their logic contains a flaw. Vouchers don’t create new, high quality schools.

Economics 101 would be helpful for the folks at USA Today. Vouchers aren’t meant to create new schools. They are meant to moderate the ills created by a government-run monopoly by marginally reducing the penalty parents pay for choosing private education.

It is difficult to get new businesses to enter the kind of market that characterizes existing school choice programs: entry barriers are huge, the potential customer base is small, profit is small or non-existent (most private schools are non-profit), and the very existence of the market in question is subject to frequent elections and political whims.

That’s not a recipe for entrepreneurship and skyrocketing supply. But supply has increased substantially in Milwaukee and elsewhere despite the severe handicaps of that education market.

And Utah’s law would have created the largest education market to date, although still restricted and at a massive disadvantage to public schools that receive much more funding per-pupil.

John Stossel on Utah, Vouchers, and Education Tax Credits

John Stossel has some sober thoughts today on school choice in the aftermath of the Utah voucher law’s defeat. He considers the dangers that vouchers might pose to private schools because government funding typically brings government control, and asks:

If vouchers contain this potential danger, what can be done to help get kids out of dismal government schools? A better alternative is a tax credit for any parent who pays for private schooling or anyone else who helps put child through non-government schools.

All of us who work for educational freedom need to be wary of the risks of regulatory encroachment, and should be on the lookout for policies that can deliver parental choice while minimizing those risks.

Education tax credits not only provide an extra layer of protection from government control, they provide an additional level of freedom by allowing taxpayers to direct their own dollars to the kind of education they support – relying on private rather than government funding

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.