Topic: Education and Child Policy

From the Why We Fight File

In Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, I explained that our public schooling system causes constant political and social battles because everyone, no matter what their values or educational goals, is forced to pay for the schools, but only the most politically powerful can control them. I also explained that the only viable way to defuse the situation is to give all parents school choice, so that they can take their children and the money intended to educate them to schools that share their values. Well, a story in this morning’s Chicago Tribune about a Windy City school engulfed in a battle over a required 7th grade reading book makes my point – and then some. Not only does it show the need to let parents choose their children’s schools because their values may differ, it also displays the arrogance that can come from school administrators who know that they have all the power:

Several dozen parents at a Southwest Side Chicago public school are calling for school officials to ban a controversial book they say is filled with references to sex and violence.

The book, “The Chocolate War,” which is required reading for 7th grade students, was blasted by parents at a Local School Council meeting Tuesday evening at the John H. Kinzie Elementary School in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood.

Nick Cortesi, who has a 2nd grader and a kindergartner at Kinzie, said school officials should remove the book because of its inappropriate content and adult themes.

“I’ll be dammed if they are going to be reading this filth,” Cortes said. “The issue is over whether it’s age-appropriate. What about the parents who are tax payers? Have we no say?”

At the meeting, Kinzie Principal Sean Egan told about 50 parents who showed up in the school’s cafeteria that he had informed public school administrators about their concerns and was told that officials thought the book was appropriate reading material.

“I don’t tell you how to run your family,” Egan told parents. “I support my teachers.”

After hearing from the district’s lawyers, the principal sent a letter to parents Monday informing them that the book would remain on the required reading list. He warned parents that if they directed their children not to read the book, it could “have a significant negative effect on the final course grade.”

“This book was selected for the very important, complex themes it covers, including conformity and the ethical implications of choices we make,” Egan wrote. “I want to assure you that the school has fully vetted this book. … A few parents have objected to the contents of the book, which addresses mature themes and contains some swearing. Decisions regarding the content of a school’s curriculum, however, lie with its educators and administrators.”

What Could Possibly Be Better than “Public Policy Values?”

Last week, the New America Foundation’s Sara Mead took issue with a blog entry I wrote wondering how her group could tout student loan auctions because they use “market forces” while simultaneously advocating for “the gargantuan market distortion that is the overall student aid system.” Mead replied with a “there you libertarians go again” argument, writing that Cato:

holds that unrestrained markets always produce the best possible outcomes. But McCluskey is confusing means and ends here. Harnessing market forces is often the most efficient way of getting to a particular end. But we believe that public policy should use market forces to achieve desirable ends based on public policy values.

Now, let’s not get bogged down in some very important questions like who defines “desirable ends,” or what, exactly, “public policy values” are. No, let’s get right to a bottom line with which it seems Mead and I might be able to agree.

Toward the end of her argument, Mead says that it is important to “increase college affordability and access…because among other reasons, a better educated population produces broader social benefits—more civic engagement, innovation, economic growth, etc.” I agree with at least part of this. Economic growth is a good goal to shoot for, because it tends to reflect both the innovation Mead values, and an increasingly efficient and effective allocation of societal resources.

So it turns out a funny thing happens when the market is subverted to spend more money on higher education: It actually hinders economic growth. As economist Richard Vedder found in Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, controlling for other factors impacting economic growth, the more states invest in higher education, the lower their rates of economic growth. That’s right: letting “public policy values” force money out of taxpayers’ pockets and into colleges and universities actually has a dampening effect on economic growth.

Why is this? Because if left alone, individual taxpayers will produce better results in the aggregate than government can. Individuals know what they want and need better than any government, and even more importantly, in a truly free market they have to balance their needs and desires against those of all the other people in society, resulting in the fairest, most efficient, aggregate outcome. Not so with government, where politicians can’t possibly divine and balance the needs of everyone in our impossibly complex society, and the people with the most lobbying power often get what they want specifically because they don’t have to balance their needs against everyone else’s.

In the case of higher education, this plays itself out with relatively well-off students often getting aid; students spending large amounts of time partying rather than focusing on graduation; professors devoting much of their time to esoteric, often government-funded research instead of teaching; and universities using resources very inefficiently. Meanwhile, taxpayers are doing without money they might have used to buy food, or invest in innovative young companies, or any number of other uses that would have been much more beneficial to society, but which politicians ignore because – unlike kids taking subsidized loans or bigger Pell Grants – their absence is invisible.

Thankfully, sometimes there are crystal-clear signs of government failure. Case in point: all those lenders – especially the federally created Sallie Mae  – that Mead and others despise for making billions of dollars off of student loans. How’d they do it? Not through “unrestrained markets,” but government-subsidized loan programs designed to circumvent market forces in pursuit of – you guessed it – “public policy values.”

More than a Glancing Blow

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has just released its “Education at a Glance” report for 2007, but before glancing at it Americans might want to sit down.

We already know, from a variety of international testing programs (e.g. TIMSS, PISA), that U.S. students fall further behind their international peers the longer they stay in school (.pdf). We’re close to average among wealthy nations in the 4th grade, below that average by the 8th grade, and near the bottom of the heap by the end of high school. Apologists for the status quo sometimes claim that this is because many other nations track their students into vocational and academic programs, and supposedly do not test those in the vocational tracks. “Education at a Glance 2007” shows that isn’t so. Test data for vocational students are available, and show that vocational track students in other wealthy nations actually outperform the overall U.S. average.

Nor do any of the other common excuses for our poor performance hold up. At the elementary and secondary level, the United States spends more than all but two countries (Luxembourg and Switzerland – tax havens, both). Though the United States was once a world leader in the fraction of our student population that completes college, we have been caught and surpassed in that regard. With 34% of our students going on to graduate from college in 2005, we now fall below the average of the OECD, and in 13th place overall.

The reason we now lag in this area is not hard to fathom: We are tied for the highest college dropout rate in the whole of the OECD, 46 percent. The problem is not that our colleges are inaccessible, it is that our elementary and high schools have failed to prepare students for college. They can get in. They just can’t cut it once they’re there.

At the college level, we have consumer choice and competition between public and private providers, and our college system is still the envy of the world, according to the OECD’s “At a Glance” report. At the K-12 level, we have a monopoly in which most students are automatically assigned to government-run schools. The first works, the second doesn’t. The policy ramifications should be pretty obvious to anyone who actually cares about educational outcomes.

Why I Love Michael Kinsley

Though he often disagrees with libertarians and other free-marketeers, Kinsley is one of the few critics who appears to understand the argument for free markets and who acknowledges that there’s something to it:

Student loans are the clearest example of the common Republican confusion between free-market capitalism and business. Capitalism is an economic system that is held, with some justification, to be the best guarantor of prosperity. Business can be capitalism in action, or it can be something entirely different. There is very little about the student loan program that has anything to do with free-market capitalism. Yet whenever the student loan system comes under criticism, lobbyists, “industry” leaders and supportive politicians haul out the same old cliches, as if they were defending Adam Smith’s famous pin factory itself.

I would add, however, that many on the Left likewise confuse government activism with “power to the people.”  Typically, government activism just ends up giving power to business. 

Either way, business wins!

The Problem with Betting on Every Horse

Dick Komer of the Institute for Justice takes issue today with a recent series of NRO op-eds by Cato’s Adam Schaeffer. I’m sure Adam will want to address some of the legal niceties he raised, so I’m going to restrict myself to explaining why Dick and I see the big picture on school choice policy very differently.

Dick’s position, which is the norm in the school choice movement, is captured by the title of his piece: “Educational Freedom by Every Means Available.” Dick argues that it is “unnecessary” and “premature” to favor some school choice policies over others. I disagree, and here’s why:

Like parents saving for their kids’ college years, advocates of educational freedom have limited resources. And like those parents, we have many different investment options — with different returns and different levels of security. What the “any choice is a good choice” mantra implies is that we should be indiscriminate in the way we invest — that we simply don’t know enough to prefer one school choice policy over another.

That is not the case. In modern times, international experiences with various forms of school choice date back nearly a century. Other relevant precedents in comparative school governance reach back millennia. There is enough evidence – both qualitative and quantitative – to compare our policy options and determine which are most likely to yield real, lasting dividends, and which have serious and as yet unresolved problems. Because that evidence exists, I see it as my duty as a policy scholar to study it and to make recommendations based on it; just as it is the duty of investment advisors to counsel parents on the most suitable investment options for their own children’s futures. If I did anything less I would consider myself guilty of professional malpractice.

Dick is right that states differ and that the legal impediments to vouchers vary among them. In some states, the legal barriers to enacting vouchers appear to be no higher than those to enacting tax credits. But legal barriers to passage are only one of the many respects in which vouchers are more problematic than education tax credits. The central difference between the policies – that vouchers are public funds while non-refundable tax credits are not – leads to a host of substantive differences in their desirability.

As I have already argued at length, and as Adam will argue in a forthcoming policy analysis, the use of government funding has caused existing voucher programs to begin their lives with much more intrusive regulations on participating schools. Direct parent funding is also associated, in the econometric literature, with greater school efficiency and responsiveness to the demands of families. The compulsion of all taxpayers to fund every kind of government approved voucher school also creates social tension over which sorts of schools will be approved, and adds an incentive for interest groups to lobby to exclude types of schooling they find objectionable. Tax credits provide taxpayers with the freedom to direct their educational funding as they see fit, alleviating this problem. Adam has also pointed to polling data and developed political arguments and evidence suggesting that tax credits are more popular with voters and more likely to mobilize constituencies for their long term preservation and expansion.

Finally, Dick is mistaken if he believes that Adam or I want to permanently and universally foreclose on the voucher option. We wouldn’t even if we could. We respect individual freedom, the marketplace of ideas and the laboratory of federalism. States will pursue different school choice policies and will learn from each others’ experiences. But, given the wealth of existing evidence comparing alternative school governance and funding arrangements, we feel it is counterproductive for the school choice movement not to focus its resources where they can best be invested. Betting on every horse, including the ones that you can see limping around the paddock before the start, is no way to invest for the future of American children.

Charter Trade-offs … Is Public Choice Killing Private Schools?

Typically, charter schools are lumped together with the movement for private school choice, but there is increasing evidence that charter schools hurt private schools and may close off the path to educational freedom.

The Washington Post reported this weekend that Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl is proposing to convert 8 of the 12 inner-city Catholic schools known as the Center City Consortium into secular charter schools:

Soon after he arrived in the District in June 2006, Wuerl said he heard from Catholic education officials that the inner-city schools were no longer financially viable. Part of the reason was that many poor families were choosing charter schools, which are free.

“One by one, families left to go to charters … and it was a kind of steady drifting away,” said Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, whose parish school, which dates to the 1920s, would be converted to a charter.

The charter school drain on private school enrollment is not limited to DC. A 2006 report from the National Charter School Research Project, for instance, finds that 20 percent of Michigan charter school students came from private schools.

These results should come as no surprise. Private schools struggle under a massive disadvantage compared with government schools; they have about half the public sector’s per pupil revenue and parents have to pay tuition on top of taxes for the government system. That’s a high hurdle to clear to attract customers.

The big advantages they have are diversity in curriculum and mission and freedom from the counter-productive regulations that often bog down government schools. And because they operate at such a financial disadvantage to government schools, private schools need to make sure they offer something parents can’t get from their state-run counterparts.

Charter schools add significantly to the disadvantages of private schools; charters get most of the higher funding that regular government schools do, but for now, at least, more autonomy and freedom to diversify. In the long term, there is no reason to believe that charter schools will not succumb to the same regulatory ratchet effect that has hamstrung the public schools. The local public schools of the late 1800s had more autonomy than charter schools do today – and look what happened to them….

Supporters of educational freedom – the freedom to choose the best option, whether public, independent, or religious – need to carefully consider the serious trade-offs involved when supporting charter school policies. If they don’t, they may be looking at a 99% government school monopoly in 20 years time, instead of the 90% monopoly that exists today.