Topic: Education and Child Policy

All Your Money Is Belong to Us (not)

The Ed Sector’s Sara Mead made a passing comment recently that, “yes, vouchers or tax expenditures in the form of tax credits are public funding.” The problem with this statement is not just that it’s wrong in general, or even that it has repeatedly been found to be wrong with specific regard to education tax credit programs, but that its wrongness has been a matter of court record for long enough that anyone working in education policy can reasonably be expected to be aware of it.

The most notable relevant case is Kotterman v. Killian, in which opponents of Arizona’s education tax credit program challenged it on the grounds that public money was being used to pay for religious instruction. Writing for the majority, Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas A. Zlaket observed that

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “public money” is “[r]evenue received from federal, state, and local governments from taxes, fees, fines, etc.” …. As respondents note, however, no money ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. Nothing is deposited in the state treasury or other accounts under the management or possession of governmental agencies or public officials. Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with “public money.”

There’s much more. The AZ Supreme Court utterly gutted the plaintiff’s arguments on this matter. In their decision, the justices also cited numerous precedents from other states reaching the same conclusion, and subsequent rulings from Illinois regarding that state’s education tax credit program have further cemented this view.

When I see obviously counterfactual, readily falsified claims such as Mead’s, by people who should know better, I’m always deeply puzzled as to how and why they occur. Somebody throw me a bone here.

“Dopey” Triumphant?

Over at The Quick and the Ed, Sara Mead objects to a post I put up Monday illustrating that a recent college graduate with an average student loan burden who became a public school teacher could afford to make his monthly loan payments, take care of his essentials, and still have a fair amount of money left over on his first-year salary. I wrote the post in response to something Mead’s colleague Kevin Carey seemed to be saying last Saturday on Washington Journal: that student debt is so high many graduates can’t afford to go into teaching. 

So what are Mead’s objections to what I wrote? The first is that my post featured “dopey back-of-the-envelope calculations.” And the second? Well, you’d think she’d go on to explain why my calculations were dopey. But she doesn’t. In fact, dopey or not, while she mainly avoids the question at hand, she also more-or-less concedes that I was right:

I’m also not sure that starting teachers are the best place to focus in thinking about this issue. When my sister started her first teaching job out of college, she made more than I or most of our liberal-artsy friends did in our first jobs.

Ah, to be dopey. Apparently it works like a charm!

It’s All About the Benjamins …

The Friedman Foundation is out with a great new report detailing the fiscal impact of all school choice programs from 1990 to 2006. They all save a bundle of money, despite their small size and other limitations. School choice saved $444 million, according to their calculations. And that is literal small change compared to the massive amounts a truly free educational system could save state and local governments.

The school choice movement has one large hurdle to clear before the barriers to educational freedom fall: Convince the broad middle class that educational choice is good for the broad middle class.

It is, of course…  school choice saves money and children. And programs that provide for universal educational freedom would save mountains of money while giving middle-class parents the direct benefit of school choice.

But people think that school choice programs will increase the cost of education (and they have no idea how much money government schools actually eat up already). Constantly pounding the educational inequity drum will simply reinforce that perception and offer the middle class nothing in return.

The typical voter wants to help poor kids … but what have all the government programs meant to address inequities gotten us? Mo money, mo problems. Most government programs meant to address inequities end up soaking the taxpayer and changing little, if anything, for the better.

The school choice movement needs to do a much better job at convincing the middle class that school choice, and the fiscal argument for school choice is a great one that advertises benefits for taxpayers with and without children.

With property tax burdens at a high point and rates rising across the country, now’s a great time to highlight the fiscal recklessness of the education-industrial complex and how school choice can fix it.

Do You Hear the Footsteps? School Choice is Coming …

Politicians are risk-averse – so risk-averse that they often create risk for themselves by not getting ahead of issues that are building to the tipping point.

Education tax credits are supported by overwhelming majorities, and some recent polls add to the evidence. Politicians should take note before it’s too late for them.

A poll by the Show-Me Institute reveals that in Missouri, support outweighs opposition by almost 2.5 to 1 for both personal-use and business donation tax credits. A poll by the Bluegrass Institute shows that in Kentucky, support for donation tax credits outweighs opposition by 3 to 1.

These numbers are not new, and they are not going away. Critics of these polls have legitimate concerns regarding question order and wording. But tax credits are very popular with the general public no matter how you frame the question.

Even the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls on education, which are notoriously pro-government education, show this kind of lopsided support for education tax credits. PDK mysteriously dropped the tax credit question after their 1998 and 1999 polls showed 2 to 1 support for education tax credits.

My own polling research shows support ranging from 2.5 to 1 up to 4 to 1 depending on the specific proposal. And that dominant support holds across party ID – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Education tax credits are popular because people want control over their child’s education and control over how their education dollars are spent.

The school choice movement needs to start talking to and mobilizing the broad middle class that so overwhelmingly supports school choice. Politicians beware … the support is there.

Is The Economist Right about Vouchers?

The latest issue of The Economist notes that a mounting body of empirical evidence now favors school voucher programs over government school monopolies. This is eminently true, and it’s delightful to see some of the existing school choice evidence getting a hearing in a mainstream publication. So: jolly good show, wot.

That said, a magazine called The Economist should be held to a very high standard for accuracy, incisiveness, and perspective when it weighs in on the subject of market effects in education – to a higher standard than if the subject were taken up by, say, Vogue, Cat Fancy, or the New York Times.

With that in mind, a few corrections and clarifications are in order. Though Milton Friedman can justly be credited with kindling the modern, U.S. interest in vouchers, the idea was not “first suggested” by him in the mid 1950s. Perhaps the earliest explicit description of the idea is in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and it figured in the writings of other notable economists and liberal (in the classical sense) philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Vouchers have, in fact, been in nationwide use in the Netherlands since 1917. This is a useful point to note because it shows that vouchers are not a recent concoction, or exclusively the brainchild of a libertarian economist.

Next, the Economist states that voucher programs “are running in several different countries without ill-effects for social cohesion.” It does seem that vouchers are more conducive to social cohesion than state monopoly schooling. Under vouchers, families can pursue both their common educational goals and their unique cultural and religious traditions, all without having to foist their preferences on their neighbors. This is quite different from the endless “school wars” that result whenever there is only one official school system (viz., U.S. battles over sex ed., school prayer, the teaching of history or reading or math, and the current favorite of pedagogical pugilists: the teaching of evolution vs. “intelligent design”).

But to say that voucher programs have no social ill-effects whatsoever is, perhaps, an overstatement. After the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in the fall of 2004 at the hands of a militant Islamist, one Dutch Muslim voucher school was bombed and another set ablaze. This is only the most violent and extreme manifestation of a broader unease among some Dutch citizens with the government funding of conservative Islamic schools. Over the past decade, there have been periodic efforts to either cap the number of such schools that can be opened, or to craft regulations so as to make their creation unlikely. This, of course, is a zero-sum game. Either law abiding Dutch Muslims can enjoy the benefits of their country’s voucher program, or they cannot. If they can, taxpayers who object to their teachings but are forced to pay for them anyway become frustrated and social tension results. If they cannot, the Muslim minority suffers second-class status and social tension results.

The reason for this lose-lose situation is that while vouchers lessen the amount of compulsion in education (as compared to government monopoly school systems) they do not eliminate compulsion altogether. Taxpayers can still be compelled to support schooling that violates their convictions. It is possible to promote universal access to the education marketplace with even less compulsion than is associated with vouchers, by means of a universal education tax credit program. I describe such a system here.

The Economist’s portrayal of the Swedish voucher program is also overly kind. “The only real restrictions imposed on private schools,” the magazine claims, “were that they must run their admissions on a first-come-first-served basis and promise not to charge top-up fees.” In reality, the regulations are much more onerous. Most notably, voucher schools must follow a state curriculum and are forbidden to charge tuition fees larger than the voucher amount (this is also true of the Dutch program). These restrictions all but destroy the prospects for specialization and the division of labor, and prevent free floating, market-determined prices from arising. These, as The Economist’s editors must well know, are essential components of free markets. Without them, no genuine market can exist.

Late last year, the Cato Institute published an Education Market Index, which measures roughly 100 characteristics of education systems (or education policies) and rates them on the extent to which a free market currently exists (or on the compatibility of a policy with the rise of a free education market). While the Swedish voucher policy does indeed outscore the Dutch one on this metric, as The Economist’s editors would have predicted, it does so by scoring 40 out of 100 as compared to the Netherlands’ score of 31 out of 100. As currently designed, neither program is conducive to the rise of a genuine education market.

Popularizing the theory and evidence on education markets is an area in which The Economist could well lead the way. If true to its name, the magazine could hold scholars’ and pundits’ feet to the fire when they mischaracterize existing weak school choice programs as markets. The magazine could also continue to draw attention to regions and niches where true free markets in education already thrive – India’s private schools serving the poor, for instance, or the growing worldwide, for-profit, largely unregulated market for after-school tutoring services. Such a rigorous approach to the subject in a mainstream magazine would be a unique and welcome contribution to the debate, and no-one is better equipped to tackle it.

What’s So Special About a Steel Cage Match?

I don’t know how many people reading this are professional wrestling fans – I’m not one – but I would imagine even people who hate wrestling are familiar with the vaunted “steel cage match,” in which the combatants are not only put in the ring together, but the ring is encased in a cage of steel. Wrestling fans love these things. Why?

This description from WWE Bloodbath: Wrestling’s Most Incredible Steel Cage Matches might make it clear:

The steel cage: It’s used as a barrier and as a weapon. It keeps the competitors inside and the interference outside. The Steel Cage Match is the most brutal form of confrontation.

So why’s a steel cage match such a big deal? Because without the cage the Hulkster or Rowdy Roddy might choose not to fight. With it, they have no choice.

OK, so what does any of this have to do with public policy, you ask?

Well, yesterday Sara Mead over at The Quick and the Ed wrote about the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school focusing on Arabic language and culture that the New York City Department of Education is trying to put in the same building as P.S. 282, a traditional public school. Opposition to the plan has been fierce, with objections ranging from concerns by P.S. 282 parents about losing space and services if they’re forced to share room with Khalil Gibran, to accusations that the academy will be a madrassa.

Here’s the passage in Mead’s post that really troubled me:

The most radical and evangelistic school choice supporters like to argue that choice will reduce social conflict around education because people who want schools to serve different social purposes can send their kids to different schools. But this ignores the fact that the mere existence of certain types of schools is offensive to some people, all the more so if those schools get public funding (and, yes, vouchers or tax expenditures in the form of tax credits are public funding). To the extent that greater choice leads to a greater diversity of educational options, we’re going to be seeing more controversy and conflict over these issues–at least in the near term–not less.

Mead’s conclusion makes little sense. For one thing, the history of education, which I lay out in the paper to which Mead links, makes clear that when choice has been allowed to work, it has helped to cool conflict where it has existed, and avoid it where it hasn’t. Government schooling, in contrast, has forced - and continues to force - regular confrontation. Moreover, logic suggests that defusing conflict would be by far the most likely outcome of choice, because with it no one has to fight. Sure, with choice people might fight more about specific schools because there will be a much greater variety of schools in existence, but the overall conflict will greatly decrease. Making this latter point clear is where wrestling comes in.

You see, the difference between education with choice and education without it is like the difference between a regular wrestling ring and a steel cage. With the former, people who have different values, educational goals, etc., might grapple over their differences – in a free society we are, after all, allowed to tell people that we don’t like them or what they are doing – but groups that are at odds with each other can get out of the ring. With the latter, in contrast, there’s no escape. People have to fight.

Of course, how choice is delivered will dictate how high or inflexible the ropes are on the non-cage ring. For instance, a voucher would still force one person to pay for part of another’s educational choices, making it hard for the two to get completely away from each other. A tax credit letting people choose whose education they’d support, however, would offer much more separation.

Unfortunately, Mead uses a situation that involves almost no choice to tar even the freest choice forms, which might explain her irrational conclusion that choice will, at least in the short run, create more conflict than the status quo. The Khalil Gibran Academy is, after all, a public school established by the New York City Department of Education, not a private school. Moreover, the department is trying to jam the academy into the same building as a pre-existing public elementary school. Clearly the problem here is the absence of choice for taxpayers and parents, not too much freedom.

Which brings us back to wrestling. Whenever you find your thinking getting fuzzy about whether school choice will produce less conflict than uniform government schooling, remember the difference between a regular professional wrestling ring and one in a steel cage. With the former, one can always avoid a fight. With the latter, there’s nowhere you can run.

The Real “Reading First” Scandal

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will testify before a House Education Committee hearing tomorrow, and the hottest topic for her appearance on the hot-seat will be the federal “Reading First” program. A centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind act, Reading First is a billion-dollar-a-year initiative to improve language instruction in the early grades. The idea behind the program was to encourage districts to adopt scientifically proven teaching methods, but it seems to have netted roughly a million bucks for people on the Dept. of Ed.’s payroll in the process. The Department’s inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., has made several criminal investigation referrals to the Justice Department as a result.

As government scandals go, this is tepid stuff. A million dollars? Individual states and school districts around the country have often mismanaged or defrauded taxpayers of comparable or larger sums.

The real Reading First scandal is that anyone would imagine that a bureaucratic school system bereft of competitors and immune to market incentives could be made to adopt and consistently implement effective educational practices on a vast scale, let alone sustain them over time or improve upon them.

Anyone familiar with the research on so-called systemic reform is aware that implementation quality matters as much or more than program selection. If teachers are not committed to and well trained in the selected methods, they will not effectively implement them and will not persevere with them over time.

A case in point is the federal ”Follow Through” experiment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which put a score of different pedagogical methods in head-to-head competition. The number one method, by far, was called Direct Instruction, or Distar. As soon as “Follow Through” officially ended, most of the schools that had been using Distar abandoned it, and their test scores eventually fell back to pre-follow-through levels.

So the real question is, how do you simultaneously achieve all of the following:

  • Encourage the consistent identification and/or development of effective methods
  • Hire, train, and maintain a staff of teachers capable of properly implementing those methods
  • Ensure that, once adopted, effective methods are not displaced by the latest pedagogical fad

The only way to do that is to create powerful incentives that pressure school administrators and teachers to do these things. The only system that consistently creates these incentives is a competitive education marketplace. Until we have a market, dreams of the pervasive use of effective pedagogical methods in American education will remain just that: dreams.