Topic: Education and Child Policy

All Are Welcome Aboard!

When I started reading AEI director of education policy studies Rick Hess’s latest article, I feared a Stern-esque public defection. “Oh no,” I thought. “He’s about to denounce school choice as a failure without any consideration for what it needs to work.” Then came the pleasant surprise: Hess makes clear that school choice hasn’t produced transformative competition and innovation because, so far, almost no competition or innovation has been allowed to occur.

Pointing to everything from enrollment caps, to profit prohibitions, to suffocating bureaucracy in choice vehicles ranging from charter schools to voucher programs, Hess concludes that “the lessons are increasingly clear. If school choice is to enjoy a brighter future than wave upon wave of supposed school reforms, it is time for reformers to fight not just for choice but for good choices.”

I couldn’t agree more, and want to be the first to welcome Hess aboard the good ship Free-Market Education! We here at Cato have been sailing it for some time now, and offer all kinds of guides for anyone who wants to cruise with us, including the Cato Education Market Index; Dismal Science: The Shortcomings of U.S. School Choice Research and How to Address Them; and Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence. We’d especially like to invite choice equalitarians to join us, those folks who want options for the poor but don’t see that choice’s real power can only be unleashed when schools are unfettered and choice widespread. Low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, price change, the ability to make a profit, unsubsidized competition—all these things are critical to thriving industries that give us everything from iPods to dress shirts, but as scarce as Ecuadorean polar bears in moribund k-12 education. That’s not a coincidence.

Free markets work, Hess understands, but not when they’re in name only.

School Choice Talk

Thought people might be interested in a conversation I had yesterday with Norm Leahy of Tertium Quids, a free market issue-advocacy organization in Virginia, about school choice in that state and across the country.

More states are waking up to tax credits as the best bet for school choice; an education reform that saves kids, saves money, and has increasingly bipartisan support.

School Choice Q & A

This year’s SPN K-12 Education Reform Summit delivered yet another line-up of great information and hard questions. I’d like to follow up, belatedly, on one of the most important questions raised during the conference; are education tax credits more viable than vouchers?

If we hope to succeed against the power of the teachers unions and entrenched political interests, we need to approach this issue in the most careful, systematic, productive way we can. With that in mind, I’d like to pose a few questions that might shed some light on the debate …

How many voucher and credit programs serving at least low-income children have passed since 1995?

  • Since 1995, seven state-wide tax credit programs have been passed and all are still in operation. Two of these programs, in Arizona and Georgia, are universal-in-principle, and none are limited to special-needs. In 2008, Georgia passed a $50 million dollar program with no family income cap on student eligibility. Not included in the tally is a universal education tax deduction program passed in Louisiana in 2008.
  • Since 1995, four state-wide voucher programs serving (at least) low-income children have passed and only one survives. Only one universal-in-principle program passed, in Utah, and it was overturned. Not included in the tally is a Louisiana voucher program passed in 2008 for poor students in failing schools in New Orleans.

How many since 2005?

  • Since 2005, no state-wide voucher programs have passed that serve at least low-income children.
  • Since 2005, four tax credit programs have passed that serve at least low-income children.
  • Only one modern statewide voucher program – Ohio’s – serves students other than those with special needs or in foster care. Three additional modern programs – in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and New Orleans – serve students in those cities. Three statewide programs – in Florida, Colorado and Utah – were overturned by the courts or referendum.

How bipartisan is the support for vouchers and tax credits?

  • When Florida’s donation tax credit program was passed seven years ago, only one Democratic legislator voted for the measure. Last month, a third of state house Democrats, half the black caucus and the entire Hispanic caucus voted to expand that program.
  • Arizona, Rhode Island, and Iowa all passed education tax-credit initiatives in 2006, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing program. The Arizona, Iowa, and Pennsylvania bills became law under Democratic governors, and the Rhode Island business-tax credit was born in a legislature controlled by Democrats.
  • A government fully controlled by Democrats in Iowa—governor and both legislative houses—actually expanded the tax-credit dollar cap by 50 percent in 2007.
  • In contrast, Democratic governors have recently made serious attempts to de-fund voucher programs in Milwaukee and Ohio.

The Constant Bailer

Over the last couple of weeks, the nation has been understandably preoccupied with faltering financial houses and federal promises to save them. Save them, of course, for the public good, to the tune of roughly 700 billion taxpayer dollars. (Or is it 1 trillion taxpayer dollars? Oh, what’s a few hundred billion among friends?)

These happenings have inspired a lot of folks to declare truly free enterprise a failure and conclude that government must do more to “manage the economy.” But before we accept all that, let’s put the supposed failure of freedom—and magnificence of government—in a little context by considering something government has managed for a long time: public schooling.

In the 2004-05 school year (the latest with available data), the nation spent about $520 billion, adjusted for inflation, on public schooling, a figure that in two years would surpass the utterly atrocious $1 trillion some people fear taxpayers are about to eat saving investment bankers. And, of course, we’ve been paying through the nose for public schools for decades. But what do we have to show for it? Flat achievement, sinking international academic standing, and a lot more teachers and school employees living off the taxpayers.

Without question, from taxpayer and simple justice perspectives, the proposed rescue of private companies that took big chances and lost is unconscionable. It’s hardly, however, a sign that free markets don’t work. Indeed, considered alongside the perpetual bailout that is public schooling, it just highlights once again that government—the constant bailer—is the real problem, not a free market that would punish both bad bankers, and bad schools, if only it were allowed.

It Depends on Whom You Ask

Over at NCLB Act II, David Hoff wonders why the No Child Left Behind Act is treated likes it’s radioactive, while yesterday he heard “no talk of trying to slay NCLB—or even make major changes to it” at the inaugural meeting of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Technical Advisory Council.

David, I think I have an answer: The administration that championed NCLB put the commission together. There’s probably a pretty good chance they purposely brought in people who are comfortable with Washington hamfistedly imposing “accountability” on K-12 education. At the very least, that explains what happened to my invitation to join the council.

Bow Down Before the One You Serve

Last week, I wrote about the presidential candidates’ September 11 confab on state-subsidized “service.” Today, in the Wall Street Journal, Shika Dahlmia makes the case that even though both candidates hector us ceaselessly about national service, Obama has more detailed, and more troubling, plans:

Mr. Obama would create several new corps of his own: a Classroom Corps to help teachers and students in underperforming schools; a Health Corps for underserved areas; a Clean Energy Corps to weatherize homes and promote energy independence. The last is separate from his Global Energy Corps, to promote low-carbon energy solutions in developing countries.

Mr. Obama calls all this his “Plan for Universal and Voluntary Citizen Service.” It might live up to its “universal” billing, given that it would prod Americans of all age groups – from preteens to retirees – to sign up. But as to its voluntariness, the plan will make generous use of Uncle Sam’s money – and muscle.

By Mr. Obama’s account, he will make federal education aid conditional on schools requiring that high-school and even middle-school students perform 50 hours of service each year. He will also offer college students $4,000 every year for doing 100 hours of public service. That works out to $40 an hour – a deal that only the very wealthy could refuse. (The Obama campaign puts the price tag for this alone at $10 billion.) He promises to provide older Americans who perform civic service with “additional income security, including assistance with retirement and family-related costs, and continuation of health-care coverage.” But a government that links benefits to service can take away benefits for nonservice.

Neither candidate explicitly endorses mandatory national service. But of course, if you can’t graduate high school without a stint in Obama’s Power Rangers, that’s hardly voluntary.

School Choice Pioneer Rooney Dies

J. Patrick Rooney, a pioneer of the modern school choice movement, has died. Rooney, who was 80, founded a trend-setting private scholarship fund in 1991. The Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust provides financial assistance to low income families in Indianapolis who want to send their children to private schools. The year after it was created, similar programs began to crop up all over the country, from San Antonio to Milwaukee.

This model, in which donors give money to a k-12 scholarship organization, which then distributes it to the families who need it, became the framework for some of the school choice movement’s greatest successes. Today, school choice programs in six states offer tax credits to businesses or individuals who donate to such scholarship organizations (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island).

For every dollar donated, the donor’s tax bill is reduced by anywhere from 80 cents to a full dollar. Scholarship donation tax credit programs have grown faster than other kinds of private school choice programs, and have garnered more bi-partisan support. In Florida, the newly appointed director of the state’s largest scholarship program is a former public school teacher and union leader. A recent expansion of that state’s education tax credit program garnered the support of half of the black Democratic caucus. Two leading advocates of creating such a program in New Jersey are Newark Mayor Corey Booker and state senator Ray Lesniak, both Democrats.

Milton Friedman laid the theoretical groundwork for the modern school choice movement, and J. Patrick Rooney was one of the leading social entrepreneurs who helped bring that theory to life. His contribution will continue to be felt by many future generations of children.