Topic: Education and Child Policy

Florida Education Tax Credit Cap Raised

Florida lawmakers struck a deal (.pdf) to raise the cap on the state’s scholarship donation tax credit program by $30 million dollars last Friday, the last day of the legislative session. Under the program, businesses that donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations for poor children can claim a tax credit for the value of the donation. For the past seven years, these scholarships have been bringing private schooling within reach of families that couldn’t otherwise afford it.

But while the legislature has raised the cap on donations, that doesn’t meant the program will expand automatically. In order for the program to grow, more low income parents have to ask for the scholarships, and more businesses have to choose to make donations. The program is completely voluntary. So far, the interest definitely seems to be there: the program doubled in size over the past three years, to nearly 20,000 children.

Scholarship tax credits are a tremendous boon to low income families, businesses, and taxpayers all over the state. They broaden educational options for poor kids, let businesses directly help their communities, and for every student who chooses a private instead of a public school, they save taxpayers thousands of dollars. The maximum scholarship size allowed under the program will now be $3,950 (up from $3,750) – less than one third of total per pupil spending in Florida public schools (which was $12,263 in 2006-07, according to Richard Harbin of the Florida Dept. of Ed. – hat tip to my research assistant, Elizabeth Li).

The fact that parents are clamoring for a $4,000 scholarship to help their children escape from public schools that spend over $12,000 per year says a lot about the need for expanded educational options. No single system of schools can ever serve all children well. In education, as in so many other things, one size does not fit all.

Let’s hope governor Crist signs the new bill into law.

Bureaucracy at Work

Have you ever wondered why people marvel at the stupidity of bureaucracy? Read this if you have, and then ask yourself, is there no rainy-day fund from which the 4th largest school district in the country could pull a single dollar? Or couldn’t the district just budget the money and save it for the next year if it goes unused? Aren’t either of these almost-no-cost options worth the chance of saving $119,999?

Expected by Whom?

A new report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute finds that DC public schools did not respond to rising competition from charter schools “as expected”?

Expected by whom?

No one who has studied the behavior of monopolies, or simply stood in line at the DMV, would expect the public school bureaucracy to react with vigor and dispatch to the loss of its customers. It gets paid anyway.

The Census Bureau recently reported (.xls) that DC public schools spent $1.079 billion for 59,616 students in 2005-2006. As I reported earlier this month in the Washington Post (and in greater detail in this blog), the District is spending $1.216 billion for 49,422 students during the current 2007-2008 school year. The District lost one fifth of its students but its budget grew by 13 percent.

Where is the incentive for it to improve?

And, even if it had a strong systemic incentive to improve, how on earth could it do so? Because of the system’s design, it must hire teachers who have pedagogically worthless degrees in education; the curriculum is centrally planned district-wide, denying teachers any real professional autonomy; students are rigidly grouped by their age instead of by what they know and can do, making it much harder to teach them, etc. Even if this system had all the incentives in the world, it likely could only muster modest improvements.

Want a system that is truly responsive, efficient, diverse and constantly seeking to better serve families? Look at what sorts of school systems – and more broadly, what sorts of economic systems – already behave that way: free markets. It wouldn’t be hard to give all families access to a free educational marketplace.

How Free are America’s Private Schools?

The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation has a useful new report out that assesses regulation of private schools in all fifty states, assigning letter grades according to market freedom.

Many of the criteria used are similar to those considered in the private schools section of the Cato Education Market Index (an overall ranking of educational freedom and incentives across all school types in the 50 states and 2 nations), but they’ve added a few extras (e.g., regulations on class sizes and libraries) and lent additional detail to others (e.g., a breakdown of different types of curriculum regulation). Kudos to the Foundation and author Christopher Hammons for an illuminating report.

Maybe a Less Checkered Future?

Yesterday, Andrew Coulson wrote a detailed response to an attack on libertarian education reformers by Chester E. “Checker” Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Finn declared, among other things, that libertarian support of universal school choice, unfettered by government-imposed standards, typified how libertarians “never let their vision of how the world ought to work be distorted by any realities about how it actually works.”

As Andrew made clear, we have often explained, based on empirical research and political reality, why universal school choice is the key to powerful standards and accountability—not to mention efficiency and innovation—while government-controlled education is routinely corrupted by accountability-loathing special interests like teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats. We’ve shown, using historical and political analyses, how increasingly centralized control over education has frozen out parents and good pedagogy, and have explained why proposals for national standards, including Fordham’s, would be educational suicide. Yet we have been dismissed by Fordham folks as naïve and heartless.

Fortunately, not everyone at Fordham seems to have tuned us out. Today, after reading a Washington Post article on how good education research fails to translate into good policy, Coby Loup, a Fordham policy analyst, declares that government education is essentially doomed to failure. Why? Because of the very political realities that we at Cato have been lamenting for years:

What’s surprising is that so many people continue to believe that these embarrassments stem from a failure of political will, rather than the inherent obstacles posed by, as the Post puts it, the “turbulent forces of politics, policy and public opinion.” We always think we’ll do better next time around, when our guys or gals are in office.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

New Study: Public School Students Benefit from Vouchers

Jay Greene and Marcus Winters have just authored a new Manhattan Institute study on Florida’s McKay voucher program for disabled students. According to Greene and Winters, the academic performance of mildly disabled students (the vast majority of all special needs students) who remain in public schools was positively affected by the proximity of their schools to private schools participating in the McKay program.

Haven’t had a chance to read it all yet, but looks interesting.