Topic: Education and Child Policy

“Ideologues” Strike Back—with Evidence!

It’s an all-too-common tactic employed by opponents of educational freedom to demonize school-choice advocates as hell-bent ideologues rather than actually tackling their arguments and evidence. One suspects that this occurs for two primary reasons: (1) smearing is easier than debating, and (2) too many choice opponents don’t have the evidentiary ammunition they need to defend their arguments.

Well, on Jay Greene’s blog today, at least one ardent supporter of school choice — the Friedman Foundation’s Greg Forster — fires a huge shot across the bow of choice detractors especially on the right, letting them know that he’s had it with their ignoring empirical evidence and resorting to playground name-calling. (In fairness to the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, Forster’s primary target, he did come to Cato to debate his recent critique of choice — more than others on his side seem willing to do — though that doesn’t mean he isn’t still dodging inconvenient evidence).

With a little luck, Forster’s essay will help ignite a rational debate on market education reform that’s long overdue, and this time conservative choice detractors won’t just hide behind “ideological” smoke.

Politics Corrupts Everything

The president of West Virginia University, Michael Garrison, is hanging on after the school’s faculty voted 77 to 19 to demand his resignation. Faculty members are outraged that Garrison retroactively awarded an MBA to a friend, who is the daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin III. The Washington Post reports:

Garrison’s critics note that he is a former classmate of Bresch’s. He once worked as a lobbyist for Mylan Inc., where Bresch is an executive and whose chairman is one of WVU’s biggest donors. They also note that Garrison was chief of staff for former West Virginia governor Bob Wise (D).

The Post failed to add the detail that Garrison served on Manchin’s transition team when he succeeded Wise. So yes, when you hire a lobbyist and political operator to run a university, you can expect some favors for politically connected friends.

I Thought the Schools Were Starving?

Everyone knows that our public schools are underfunded, right? So why do they keep blowing easy money?

You might recall that last week the Miami-Dade School District turned down a principal’s offer to work for a single dollar on the grounds that the district would have to put his salary in the budget anyway. Good bye, $119,999! Today, The Seattle Times reports that the state of Washington is forfeiting a $13.2 million grant for Advanced Placement teachers because the people running the grant program want to pay teachers directly for participating in their training. The problem? “Washington’s collective-bargaining laws require that teacher pay be negotiated between unions and school districts.”

Our public schools, no matter what bureaucrats and unions tell us, are not underfunded. If they were, though, the whiners would largely have themselves to blame.

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.