Topic: Education and Child Policy

It’s a New York Sunny Day

Thanks to an editorial this morning championing school choice, the New York Sun has become the first major paper in the country to simultaneously recognize that a) education markets work, and 2) education policy — including market-based reform — is a matter for the states and the people, not the federal government.

Having spent a lot of time banging away on these messages, I’ve gotta say this makes my week.

Here’s hoping that the Sun’s illumination shines on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and the rest of the presidential contenders.

‘God Created Man on Friday’

The title quote is from a language textbook soon to be used in a bilingual Hebrew-English charter school in Florida. Many other religiously themed passages also appear in the book, though they are to be used for translation rather than devotional purposes. Is this constitutional?

Probably, but it’s hard to say. What can be said for sure is that it already has been and will continue to be a source of controversy in the community. This is yet another reason why charter schools do not go far enough on the path to educational freedom.

 So long as all taxpayers are compelled to fund a school, that school must dilute its curriculum to a lowest common denominator: it must contain nothing truly objectionable to any organized interest group, or it will be the subject of contention and quite often litigation. For a full discussion of the social conflicts caused by conventional public schools, please Neal McCluskey’s fascinating paper “Why We Fight.”

Fortunately, there is a simple alternative to charter schools that provides freedom of choice not just to parents but to taxpayers as well: education tax credits. As I’ve previously discussed here and here, non-refundable education tax credits do not constitute public funding and can allow universal access to the educational marketplace without forcing people to subsidize education that they find morally objectionable.

So for anyone who is truly concerned with separation of church and state, and with minimizing social conflict, education tax credits are the answer. To claim that these religious and social concerns are one’s reasons for objecting to school choice while ignoring the tax credit solution is either lazy or disingenuous.

The Futility of Government Education Standards

Parents want to know how well prepared their children are academically. Employers want to know what job applicants know. Educational standards and testing are thus useful tools. Leaping from that fact to the belief that state or federal government should impose a single set of standards or tests on all students is utterly unjustified.

When the government imposes, for instance, a high-school leaving test that students must pass in order to graduate, one of two things happens: the test is watered down to the point of meaninglessness to ensure that virtually every student receives a diploma, or the test is deferred or eliminated to ensure that every student receives a diploma.

The latter course was adopted by Washington state several months ago, and by Texas two days ago. Once a government gets into the business of handing out diplomas, it is compelled by political expediency to ensure that virtually all students are awarded diplomas. You can’t get re-elected if voters think that you’ve ruined their children’s career prospects by denying them a government diploma.

Most people want to know how well students are actually performing, especially at the end of high school, but government diplomas cannot tell us that because they must be easy enough for virtually everyone to obtain.

There is an obvious solution to this dilemma: get the government out of the diploma business. While it is important for diplomas to be meaningful, to connote some specific set of skills and body of knowledge, it is not necessary for every student to earn precisely the same diploma, or for diplomas to be awarded by the government. The private sector handles knowledge certification all the time. In the computer industry, for instance, database and networking companies certify workers as competent to use their products. These certifications are meaningful, but different from one another.

Diplomas that connote more advanced skills in a wider range of subjects would be more difficult to obtain, but would have more value in the eyes of employers and institutions of higher education. Every student could seek to obtain the most advanced diploma he or she is capable of attaining, and hence diplomas would become a useful source of information about a student’s competencies. Diplomas could be awarded by individual schools or by educational certification agencies. There is no need for the government to get involved. In fact, government involvement, as noted above, would muck up the process.

Government intervention in any industry is fraught with unintended consequences, and this is true most of all in education, the field into which governments have intruded most aggressively.

Takeover Accomplished!

Yesterday, Democrats made good on their promise to transform the U.S. House of Representatives from what they said had been a wholly-owned subsidiary of student lending companies under Republicans, into a wholly owned subsidiary of middle- and upper-middle-class freeloaders under them.

By a 273 to 149 vote, the House passed the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007. Its good side is that it would cut several subsidies to lenders in federal loan programs, supposedly saving about $19 billion. The bad part is how it would use those savings. If enacted, the bill would modestly increase Pell Grants – which is not good news if you dislike taxpayer-dollar giveaways, though at least Pell is somewhat geared toward the truly needy – but would focus most benefits on loan programs utilized much more by the financially able. (See table 5 of this report to see loan utilization by family income.)

Indeed, the bill would cut in half – to a tiny 3.4 percent in five years – interest rates on subsidized student loans, and offer $5,000 in loan forgiveness to public servants ranging from police all the way to – get this – prosecutors! That is, it would offer $5,000 until those people had been in their jobs for ten years, at which point the entire remainder of their loans would go bye-bye, eaten by taxpayers who themselves get, approximately, nothing out of this bill.

Needless to say, professional advocates for college kids with huge senses of entitlement – like these guys, these folks, and this gal – are ecstatic about this transfer from one group of thieves to another. As for me, I’m just sorry that it’s too late for poor, common-good-obsessed prosecutors like this guy to have his loans forgiven. Oh, and this famous public servant, too.

How Schooling Affects Culture

Cato’s Brink Lindsey has a good essay in today’s WSJ on how cultural differences between communities (from child-rearing to views and expectations on education) widen America’s socioeconomic gap. The one point where I diverge from Brink is that I am far more sanguine about the feasibility of reducing the cultural gaps that exacerbate the socioeconomic gap. The key is to understand that our educational institutions actually shape our culture.

Our monopoly school system has gradually marginalized parents, removing from them any significant responsibility for deciding where, what, how, when, and by whom their children are taught. This usurpation of traditional parental responsibilities has not only facilitated but fomented an unprecedented level of disengagement from their children’s education. Responsibilities breed responsibility. Powerlessness breeds apathy and disengagement.

When parents are actively involved in choosing their children’s schools, and when they have some measure of financial responsibility for their children’s education, they take a more active role, they are more satisfied with their children’s education, and their children’s achievement and attainment goes up. The most dramatic findings come from the areas most in need of improvement: our inner cities. University of Chicago economist Derek Neal has shown that urban black students attending Catholic schools are far more likely to graduate from high-school, be accepted to college, and graduate from college than similar students who attend government schools. That and other relevant research is digested and linked to here.

Replacing our dependency-producing school monopoly with a free education market that requires all parents to choose their children’s schools, and requires all parents to contribute something to the cost of their own children’s education (in kind rather than cash, where necessary), would not simply minimize the damage done by America’s culture gap. It would significantly shrink that gap, because it would compel parents to once again take a more active role in their children’s education. “Free” monopoly schooling isn’t merely inefficient, it is socially destructive.

Good Whippin’, Lost Teaching Opportunity

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has a great piece today on the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Democratic Party-line on education. Here’s a taste:

The litany of more and more when it comes to money often has little to do with what, in the military, are called facts on the ground: kids and parents. It does have a lot to do with teachers unions, which are strong supporters of the Democratic Party. Not a single candidate offered anything remotely close to a call for real reform. Instead, a member of the audience could reasonably conclude that if only more money was allocated to these woe-is-me school systems, things would right themselves overnight.

He rightly lambastes them for offering more money as their only solution … if $16,000 in DC is not enough, what is? 

And he is correct to focus on the important role that parents play in a child’s education. 

But it’s disappointing that Cohen neglects to mention the one and only solution that actually allows parents to take charge of their child’s education: school choice. 

The education-industrial complex, Big Ed, controls the system and places a brick wall of government-school bureaucracy in the way of parents who want to be involved. Cohen’s and Obama’s call for more parental involvement ring just a wee bit hollow when the government education system is specifically designed to exclude the voices of parents and taxpayers and to dance only to Big Ed’s tune. 

School choice empowers parents, encouraging their involvement in education and making certain that their voices will be heard.   

Cohen would do well to follow his great criticism of the absence of real solutions among the Democratic presidential nominees with an explanation of the only real solution left.

Compulsion: The Only Tool for the Job?

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on race-based student assignment programs is pretty clear: public school districts cannot simply use racial balance targets to determine where children will go to school.

A key point in the ruling is that districts must exhaust racially neutral means of achieving their diversity and minority achievement goals before race-based student assignment can even be contemplated. In both cases before the court, the districts failed to do that.

This central point of the ruling apparently escaped CNN judicial analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who made the following statement in a live interview: “the school districts were told they couldn’t integrate their schools.”

Live TV is an unforgiving medium, especially when covering breaking news, so it’s not entirely clear that this is what Toobin meant to say. What is clear is that it is 100% nonsense.

Integration is a goal. There are many possible ways of achieving it besides government compulsion. As I pointed out in a blog post on Thursday afternoon, it can in fact be much better achieved through voluntary school choice programs that make both public and private schools financially viable options for all families. Summaries of some of the relevant studies, along with links to the full text in several cases, can be found here.