Topic: Education and Child Policy

ACLU Sues Pigs for Failing to Fly

After successfully outlawing flight by birds in Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against pigs for their failure to take to the skies.

Okay, not exactly. But what they’re doing amounts to the same thing. In January of 2006, the ACLU convinced Florida’s Supreme Court to strike down a voucher program that was letting kids escape from failing public schools. This week, they filed suit against the Palm Beach County public school system for providing no escape from its failing schools.

After killing a program that was already achieving their goal, they are now suing a public school system that cannot possibly achieve their goal.

Dear ACLU,

Before committing years of your time and hundreds of thousands of dollars to this lawsuit, please take a moment and reflect. Public school monopolies don’t fail by choice, they fail by design. Having a court order them to stop failing is like ordering a pig to fly.

When, in the history of the world, have monopolies delivered the relentlessly improving quality, flexibility, innovation, and efficiency that we all want from our education system? Why – given the perennial disappointments of public schooling – do you imagine education monopolies are any different?

Privately, in your own offices and homes, reflect on the kinds of responsive and efficient services you have come to expect in every other field, and ask yourselves: why not harness in education the same free enterprise system that has driven miraculous progress in the rest of our economy? Market forces work just as well in education as in every other field, and your fears about the social effects of real parental choice are not justified by the evidence.

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Last week I observed that existing hobbled “school choice” programs have yet to transform American education because they fall far short of free markets. NRO’s Carol Iannone responds:

Well, of course! And necessarily so…. public education could never be completely open to a fully free market…. [And even if it were,] the results would not be pretty, because the market cannot ensure quality.

She endeavors to back up these assertions with an analogy to cable television (which apparently includes programming she finds lacking in culture). But, Ms. Iannone, it ain’t necessarily so, and we needn’t resort to analogy to find that out. Free education markets actually exist today, and have existed at various times and places throughout history, all the way back to the classical Athenians (whose cultural contributions were so enduring that they can still be found on cable television, 2,500 years later).

Rather than imagining what we think a free education marketplace might look like; rather than dreaming about how wonderful an idealized set of government standards could be; I suggest that we actually compare real education markets to real government-run and intrusively regulated schools. That is what I have spent the past decade-and-a-half doing. Based on my own and others’ findings, I recommend unfettered markets, coupled with financial assistance to ensure universal access, as the best way of fulfilling the ideals of public education. There are many possible ways of getting there, from the continued gradual expansion of certain existing programs to the passage of stronger ones such as Cato’s own Public Education Tax Credit.

I recently summarized and linked to the huge preponderance of econometric research favoring market over monopoly schooling, so let me just add a further detail here: the evidence does not support the view that government-mandated standards improve upon the operation of true free education markets. On the contrary, it shows that government licensing of teachers has little effect other than to eliminate from the teaching pool many of the most capable applicants and to drive up wages. And in those countries where real market schools can be compared to government schools, the curricula demanded by parents in the education marketplace are generally more in tune with the labor market, and more effectively and efficiently taught, than the curricula handed down by government appointed experts. This echoes the historical pattern I documented in my book Market Education: The Unknown History.

I invite government standards advocates, who claim that support for market education is based on “faith,” to actually look at the research and then to look at themselves in the mirror. Which of us has the better empirical case?

Taking It to the Teachers Unions

The Center for Union Facts just rolled out a national campaign yesterday highlighting one of the primary functions of teachers unions; protecting bad teachers and keeping good ones down. From the AP:

Critics who say unions block education reforms and make it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers will offer 10 instructors it deems the nation’s worst $10,000 to quit their careers.

The Center for Union Facts, a Washington-based nonprofit, will launch a campaign Tuesday spending $1 million on ads and a billboard in New York’s Times Square. It also says it’s starting a Web site with data documenting how far unions go to protect bad teachers.

It’s also inviting nominations for a contest to determine the nation’s worst unionized teachers. The “winners” will be offered $10,000 each if they permanently resign or retire from any career in education — if they sign a release agreeing to have their name and the reasons for their selection published by the group.

Enjoy watching the teachers union official // [at]">sweat on local news.

It’s Hard, Let’s Give Up

Now’s no time to go wobbly on school choice. As I point out, again, in my earlier post, school choice programs have proliferated in the last ten years. And, as Andrew Coulson (among many others) points out, they work.

This is a time for hope, not for preemptive surrender.

In the 1990’s, a structured movement for choice was built and some foundational battles were won, for vouchers in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and for tax credits and deductions in Arizona and Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. In the last seven years, we’ve seen the majority of current choice programs passed. In addition, the policies have been getting better; more expansive and powerful.

Daniel Casse repeats another unwarranted conclusion made by Sol Stern in his poorly argued City Journal essay:

His article “School Choice Isn’t Enough” makes the case that after more than a decade of conservative and libertarian agitating, the school choice and voucher movements have been a colossal failure.

Who ever said that breaking the stranglehold of the largest and most powerful government monopoly in American history was going to be quick and easy?

Ten years, and out? How can anyone justify giving up on a policy movement that has been more successful in the last ten years than in the first ten, that has been most successful in the last five years?

I guess we should kick Social Security reform to the curb, too. And tax reform; ha, what a pipe dream! Spending control? Pah, don’t make me laugh.

While we’re giving up preemptively, why not throw in the towel and just support government-controlled universal health-care. Sure seems hard to stop that one, and we already have that big, popular SCHIP thing anyway.

And people seem pretty cool with the government expanding its education monopoly back to age 3 in pre-K. No sense fighting a losing battle.

Let’s roll up the whole conservative movement … what a colossal failure that’s been!

I can’t for the life of me understand why Reagan didn’t just yell, “Uncle!” instead of “Tear down this wall.” I mean, how long did the Cold War take, and how much did we spend on that whole freedom vs. Soviet Empire waste of time …

Handicapped Kids Don’t Count

Following up on Andrew’s comments

I wish Sol Stern would have the professional integrity to finally correct himself in writing, because others seem to trust him and keep repeating his confusions and inaccuracies.

The latest is from Daniel Casse, who writes a review of Sol Stern’s badly researched and poorly argued City Journal article, “School Choice Isn’t Enough.” In fact, the essay is not about the effectiveness of school choice in improving education, but about a few voucher programs that didn’t measure up to Stern’s wildly unrealistic expectations of how they would transform public schools.

Unfortunately, Casse repeats an erroneous implication from the piece that Stern refuses to correct; “[Stern] points out that today there are only three tiny voucher programs supported by public funds, one in Cleveland, one in Milwaukee, and another in Washington, D.C…” (emphasis added).

In fact, there are twenty-one choice programs in 13 states that allow students to choose private schools with the support of vouchers or tax incentives. Most of these were passed in the last ten years. Just counting recently passed state programs, close to $700,000,000 is used to help more than 700,000 children attend a school of choice.

Eleven of these programs, in eight states, use vouchers. Not three … eleven voucher programs. Most of the ones he missed help 20,000 disabled children attend a school that meets their needs when the public school fails them.

But apparently, handicapped children don’t count for Stern.

Counting only modern state programs, vouchers help around 47,000 children attend schools of their choice with over $275 million.

Across seven states, there are ten education tax credits or deductions, and Stern ignores them entirely. These benefit more than 650,000 children with more than $400 million; five of those programs target low-income families and help 93,000 children attend schools of their choice.

It’s easy to see how someone like Casse, who isn’t in the thick of school choice policy would be misled by Stern’s article; the essay is misleading, in addition to confusing, feather-light on research and evidence, and poorly argued.

It would be nice to have an official correction in print by Stern. But the least he should do is directly address the most important evidence and critiques levied against his argument. Stern’s imprecise and irresponsible article is misleading readers.

Weekly Standard Argues, Weakly, for Standards

In the current issue of the Weekly Standard, speech-writer Daniel Casse opines on the school choice debate sparked last month by Sol Stern. Casse begins by uncritically repeating Stern’s claim that the American school choice movement has stagnated for over a decade. In attempting to defend that claim, Stern failed to mention that five new education tax credit programs have been created over that time, harnessing hundreds of millions of dollars and serving a hundred thousand or so children. These programs have grown significantly since their inception and will likely continue to do so. Stern’s omission had already been corrected by several different scholars weeks ago, and for Casse not to mention this shows either poor judgement or poor research on his part.

Casse goes on to dismiss responses to Stern by Robert Enlow, Neal McCluskey and myself as “doctrinaire” in our support for education markets over government school monopolies. But to be doctrinaire is to be impractical and inflexible. I am neither. There are education policies already enacted in several states that, if simply allowed to grow over time, will eventually have very good prospects for creating market forces in education. One example is Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit, which allows businesses to make donations to private scholarship funds that serve low income children, and get a 90% tax credit in return. There are certainly ways to accelerate the advent of real market forces, Cato’s own Public Education Tax Credit model legislation is one, but even the expansion of existing programs could eventually do the trick. That is a practical solution.

And as for flexibility, I would be quite ready to change my position favoring real market reform over central planning in education if the preponderance of evidence changed accordingly. No such change seems iminent. I maintain a spreadsheet of the international research comparing public and private provision of education across 7 or 8 different outcomes (mostly academic achievement and efficiency). These studies span the past 25 years, and of the 91 statistically significant findings I’ve collected, 82 favor private schooling. If these studies are winnowed down so that we look only at those comparing government schools to markets of minimally regulated private schools paid for at least in part by parents, there are 34 statistically significant findings, 32 of which favor market provision. The less intrusive the state is, and the more market-like the schools are, the better private schools work. The latest version of this literature review has yet to be published, but the detailed original 2004 version is available on-line, as is a brief updated discussion at the end of a paper released last year on the No Child Left Behind act.

If anyone is doctrinaire in this debate, it is the advocates of government mandated curricula and educational standards who seldom present any sort of empirical evidence in support of their views, with the exception of an occasional anecdotal reference to some place that has standards they like.

As I pointed out in the Washington Post on-line last year, it is not government standards that produce excellence, but the competitive pursuit of excellence that drives up standards.

‘Wise’ Isn’t the Right Word

NRO’s Carol Iannone calls Checker Finn “wise” because his confidence in free market education has been chastened by his observation of charter schools in Ohio. To draw conclusions about free markets from a system that does not resemble them isn’t wisdom; it’s a non sequitur. As I have written elsewhere over the past month, U.S. charter schools and voucher programs deviate from free markets in crucial ways, and so tell us very little about the merits of real market reform.

The recent spate of neo-conservatives expressing disappointment that tiny, hobbled “school choice” programs haven’t produced free market results calls to mind the Cargo Cultists of the South Pacific. When American military forces left the Melanesian Islands after WW II taking their supplies and equipment with them, some islanders came to believe they could summon forth their own precious “cargo” by mimicking what U.S. forces had done — complete with air traffic control towers and radio headsets made of bamboo. Not surprisingly, this superficial mimicry failed to deliver the goods. To date, U.S. “school choice” programs are to free market education as bamboo headsets are to radio communication — insubstantial imitations of the real thing. They may well be improved in the future, but should not be expected to act like markets until they are.

Finn’s belief that the risible hand of the state is necessary to make markets drive up standards is conspicuously detached from reality. As I pointed out in a piece last year, standards advocates mistakenly assume that high government standards produce excellence, but in fact it is the competitive pursuit of excellence that raises standards:

We didn’t progress from four-inch black-and-white cathode ray tubes to four-foot flat panels because the federal government raised television standards. Apple did not increase the capacity of its iPod from 5 to 80 gigabytes in five years because of some bureaucratic mandate. And the Soviet Union did not collapse because the targets for its five-year plans were insufficiently ambitious.

Progress and innovation in these and almost all other human endeavors have been driven by market incentives: consumer choice, competition among providers, the profit motive. The absence of these incentives — as in the Soviet Union — has led to economic decline and collapse.

Charter schools haven’t produced market-like results because they aren’t markets. We will enjoy market-like results in education when we have real education markets, not before. The dirigisme now so in vogue among neo-cons will produce the same results for them that it did for the central planners who came before them.