Topic: Education and Child Policy

Who’s Un-American?

Kevin Carey over at The Quick and the Ed has been in a bit of a spat with Andrew Coulson about education tax credits and school choice, and Andrew has been doing just fine dealing with Carey’s substantive arguments. I just want to quickly hit one of his non-substantive attacks, an all-too-typical smear against people who dare question delivering education through government schools: Preferring a system of private provision of education is “un-American.”

That is utter, utter bunk, and the history of American education makes this abundantly clear. I’m on the road right now on borrowed computer battery time so I offer only one tiny timeline to illustrate this. There are lots of good histories, though, that Carey and others can–and should–read for more in-depth discussion. Anyway, the tiny timeline: The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. Horace Mann began his common schools crusade in 1837. That means that the nation was founded almost five decades before the basic seed of the modern, government-dominated, public-school system was planted. And, of course, the basic building block of the nation wasn’t government schooling, but quite the opposite: individual liberty. The Declaration of Independence–written more than six decades before Mann went to work–explains that.

So what seems “un-American” now?

The “Fundamental” Problem

Goldwater Institute VP Matt Ladner offered his thoughts today on an exchange between the Ed Sector’s Kevin Carey and myself. In the process of defending Cato, Matt suggested that: “The Cato Institute can be accused of being fundamentally opposed to public schooling. I’d guess that they would happily plead guilty to that….”

As I explained in my reply to Kevin, Cato doesn’t take positions, only its scholars do. So, am I “fundamentally opposed to public schooling” as Matt imagines? No.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to, or in favor of, any policy. I do my best to rationally derive policy recommendations by examining the best and broadest possible array of relevant evidence. That means studying school systems from ancient times to the present, from all over the world, and determining if some systems consistently work well or poorly regardless of variations in cultural and economic circumstances. I recommend a free market approach to education, coupled with need based financial assistance to ensure universal access, because that is the pattern that emerges from the evidence. 

Policy scholars who find these conclusions inconsistent with their beliefs might wish to familiarize themselves with the historical and international evidence so that they can form conclusions of their own and offer informed commentary on mine. I’m sure we would all benefit from that process, as would American children.

I Knew We should Have Used the Cone of Silence!

Kevin Carey of Ed Sector blogged yesterday that he has intercepted a communication revealing “what extremist libertarians say when they think they’re talking to one another.”  He is referring to this month’s issue of the highly classified Cato newsletter. I knew we should have used the Cone of Silence instead of 3rd class mail!

The title of Carey’s post proclaims: ”Cato Renounces School Vouchers.” This would be difficult, since Cato has never advocated vouchers, or, for that matter, anything else. The Cato Institute does not take policy positions, its scholars do.

Carey also suggests that I am personally “abandoning vouchers,” citing an interview in our newsletter in which I explain one of the advantages education tax credits enjoy over vouchers. As it happens, I have been pointing to that and other advantages of tax credits for the last decade: in my 1999 book Market Education: The Unknown History, in the 2001 Cato paper  “Toward Market Education: Are Vouchers or Tax Credits the Better Path,” in the 2002 Independent Review essay “Giving Credit Where It’s Due: Why Tax Credits are Better than Vouchers,” and more recently.

Vouchers have many redeeming qualities when compared to both conventional government-run schools and charter schools, but since I concluded, while researching Market Education, that tax credits have important advantages over vouchers, I have recommended credits. 

The most puzzling part of Carey’s post is its conspicuous self-contradiction. On the one hand, Carey claims that tax credits ”only help people who make enough money to pay taxes.” On the other, he quotes my advocacy of tax credits for donations to non-profit scholarship funds serving low-income families. Since such programs already exist and are growing in several states, and are serving people who pay little or nothing in taxes, Carey’s post disproves itself.

Hmm. Is this some devious strategy to undermine “extremist libertarians” by doing our jobs for us, thereby putting us out of work?

AZ Court Kills School Vouchers for Disabled, Foster Kids

An Arizona appellate court struck down two school voucher programs yesterday, finding that they violate a state constitutional prohibition against using public money to aid private or religious schools. The programs, serving disabled children and those in foster care, were unanimously ruled unconstitutional by a three-judge panel of Arizona’s Division Two Court of Appeals.

The ruling and the motivations behind the suit have been attacked by school choice groups, with the Alliance for School Choice calling it “shameful.” Praising the court’s decision, but doing little to allay concerns about the quality of public school instruction, John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, tautologically declared that “Arizonans understand that public schools are our pathway to great public schools.…”

What are the legal merits of this decision, and what does it mean for the affected kids and the school choice movement as a whole?

The ruling hinged on whether the vouchers in question can be considered aid to private and religious schools, because Article IX, paragraph 10 of the Arizona Constitution forbids the use of public money for that purpose. Choice advocates argued that the aid is being given to families and that the schools only benefit indirectly. The court found that while families are indeed aided, so too are the schools. However much I want all children to have access to a choice of independent schools competing to serve them, I find it hard to disagree with the court’s conclusion.

That doesn’t mean that the appellate court’s word is final. Choice advocates will no doubt appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, which could agree with the narrower interpretation of the aid’s beneficiaries.

Even if it does not, yesterday’s ruling leaves open two paths for recreating the stricken programs in constitutionally acceptable fashion. The justices pointed explicitly to one obvious, if difficult, approach: seek an amendment to the state’s constitution that would strike or revise the “Aid Clause” ( Article IX, paragraph 10).

More helpfully, they also note that Arizona’s Supreme Court has already upheld the state’s education tax credit program in the face of an “Aid Clause” challenge (the Kotterman v. Killian ruling of 1999). As the appellate justices wrote yesterday:

Although Jordan and Kotterman… considered constitutional challenges based on this clause that to some extent foreshadowed the arguments presented here, the conclusions in both of those cases turned on facts clearly distinguishable from the facts of this case. In Kotterman, the court disposed of the Aid Clause challenge in a single paragraph, finding the tax credit there was neither an appropriation of public money nor the laying of a tax.

This is one of the reasons that Cato Institute scholars favor tax credit programs over voucher programs, as outlined in our Public Education Tax Credit model legislation and policy analysis. Reviving the two stricken voucher programs could thus be as simple as incorporating them into Arizona’s existing education tax credit program or reconstituting them as separate tax credit programs.

There will, however, be a temporary hitch to even that solution. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will soon be handing down a ruling that will likely strike down Arizona’s tax credit program under a clever, inventive, but thoroughly misguided interpretation of case law. This ruling, which could come down in the next several months, will almost certainly be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, as are so many of the 9th Circuit’s rulings.

Arizona’s disabled and foster children will ultimately enjoy meaningful educational freedom and choice, but they will sadly have to wait another year or two for a few remaining legal clouds to part. In the end, the sun will shine once more.

Educational Freedom Advances in South-East

Having so recently blogged about the expansion of Florida’s k-12 scholarship tax credit program, I’m delighted to be able to add that Georgia governor Sonny Perdue yesterday signed a similar program into law in his own state. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, a modest New Orleans voucher program was passed out of the House yesterday by a nearly 3 to 2 majority (a corresponding bill has already passed out of Senate committee and awaits a floor vote).

While none of these programs is yet big enough to create significant market forces, the growth of the Florida program and the bi-partisan support that it and the New Orleans program are enjoying are promising signs.

Hard Work, Culture, and Private Education

When it comes to international academic assessments, especially in math and science, a few Asian countries regularly kick world posterior. Many observers chalk this up to these countries having national curricula, but this seems a specious conclusion given that most of the countries that do worse than Asian nations—and sometimes even worse than the U.S.—have national curricula, too.

A couple of additional—and quite likely more accurate—potential secrets of Asian success are touched on in a Saturday Washington Post article about South Korea:

South Koreans are working up a lather over working too much.

They put in far more time on the job than citizens of any other free-market democracy. Compared to Americans, they average 560 more hours at work a year – the equivalent of 70 more eight-hour days. And that is down significantly from the go-go 1990s.

In the OECD, they rank second to last in leisure spending, first in suicide and last in bearing children.

Despite the dearth of children, South Korea leads the OECD in per capita spending on private education, which often includes home tutors, after-school cram sessions and intensive English-language courses.

South Koreans, it seems, rely not primarily on government schooling as we do, but abundant private options, including tutoring companies that appear to be almost ubiquitous in many Asian nations. Indeed, in 2002 Education Week reported that in Japan “more than 50,000 private cram schools are taking in some $12 billion a year by some estimates.”

The massive consumption of private education is not the only likely explanation for outstanding Asian academic performance. So too is the culture that drives that consumption: As the Post highlights, Koreans put more emphasis on work than the citizens of any other industrialized nation. Of course, that appears to be a double-edged sword, probably yielding great testing outcomes but, as the suicide and income data in the article hint, not necessarily outsized success in life—or happiness. And while national academic standards and tests don’t likely create academic success, they could very well exacerbate the ugly side of Korean culture, taking an already work-obsessed mindset and forcing it on those students and families who might find happiness—and long-term success—in other ways.

Democrats for Educational Freedom

A piece by Ron Matus in today’s St. Petersburg Times is the latest media acknowledgement of growing Democratic support for educational freedom. The expansion of Florida’s k-12 scholarship donation tax credit program, which I blogged about last week, was not a narrow party-line affair. The bill was approved by 82 to 34 in the House and by 30 to 9 in the Senate.

One of the reasons for this shift is growing personal experience among Democratic lawmakers with the programs and the families who use them.

[Democrat Bill] Heller voted against the bill in committee. But then he visited the Yvonne C. Reed Christian School in St. Petersburg and talked to parents who use tax-credit vouchers. He said they changed his mind.

Think about that. The more personal experience legislators have with market education reforms, the more likely they are to support their expansion. The more these programs expand, the more personal experience legislators will have with them…. Get the picture?

Just another reason I expect to see real educational freedom in America in my lifetime.