Topic: Education and Child Policy

Let Parents Choose

One of the most frequent objections I hear to market education reforms is that poor and minimally educated parents won’t be able to choose wisely; that they would be bad education consumers.

There is overwhelming evidence that even the world’s poorest, least educated families make better educational choices for their own children than “expert” bureaucrats make on their behalf.

I once offered this evidence to a Democratic state legislator who shocked me with the racism of his response. He basically said that such successes in the slums of, among other places, Africa, were not relevant to the U.S. context. “Our poor blacks” he told me, are less well equiped to choose their children’s schools than Africa’s poor blacks. This particular state legislator is, by the way, African American.

To him and those who share his pernicious misconception, there is now yet more evidence that families of all races, at all income levels, at all education levels, can choose wisely for their children — even if they are American. A newly released study by Georgetown University scholars finds that families (overwhelmingly low-income and African-American) participating in D.C.’s school voucher program are making rational, informed choices and are becoming more astute consumers the longer they participate in the program.

What most opponents of market education fail to grasp is that the reason so many parents are so detached from their children’s education in the current monopoly school system is that the system itself has marginalized them. Most parents have virtually no direct say in any important aspect of their children’s public schooling. There is thus no point for them to become informed and active. When given a choice and a chance, they know what they want and they learn to be savvier consumers the more they exercise that choice.

The Washington Post vs. Milton Friedman

Actually, it’s the Post’s education columnist Jay Mathews vs. the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation’s executive director, Robert Enlow, in a school choice debate being held at Edspresso.com. Robert gets the best of this exchange.

Jay is generally a reasonable guy, and so, naturally, supports school choice programs that allow families to easily choose the public or private school that best serves their kids. His two failings in this debate are: not grasping the transformative nature of a large scale market reform, and allowing his own sense of futility about the prospects for change to color the school choice movement’s real potential.

As do most journalists, Mathews confuses the existing niche of non-profit private schools, and existing tiny voucher programs, with the kind of vibrant, large-scale, significantly for-profit market that could arise under a well-designed statewide school choice program. I explained the difference in this blog post.

It’s also easy to sympathize with how tired Mathews sounds when talking about the futility of real reform in k-12 government schooling. He’s been writing this beat for a long time, and change has been miniscule thus far. But what Mathews seems not to have noticed is that the school choice movement has been steadily growing, and steadily introducing and passing more programs over the past twenty years. For every battle-hardened veteran of the movement that is beginning to tire, there are several sharp new researchers, analysts, and campaigners coming forward to carry on the standard. Not just in the United States, but everywhere from England to India.

Utah may be the first U.S. state to implement a universal school choice program, but even if its program is reversed, another will follow. It’s inevitable. The status quo system will continue to consume more and more money without showing improvement, as it has done for generations now, and eventually people in one of our fifty states will decide they’ve had enough. Once one state tastes educational freedom, and reaps its benefits, the others will fall like dominos to the exigencies of economic and demographic competition.

Perhaps not tomorrow, or next year, but probably within the next ten or twenty, chunks of government school district headquarters will be sold for their historical value on eBay – like relics of the Berlin Wall. And public education will finally be delivered through a market system that can live up to its ideals, rather than by the moribund monopoly we’ve been saddled with for the last century-and-a-half.

No Matter What, NCLB is Great!

This morning the results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics and U.S. history assessments came out, and the results were, well, a bit blah. But that didn’t get the Bush administration off message. Like almost everything that happens in American education, they declared the results proof that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is working!

Let’s look briefly at the results, and then get to the spin.

First, U.S. history, which had scores for 1994, 2001 and 2006. In 4th grade, the proportion of students hitting the desired performance level – proficient – was a mere 18 percent, and that was only a one percentage point increase over 1994, the first year reported, and no change from 2001. The increase in students demonstrating at least “basic” knowledge was a little bigger, rising six percentage points from 1994 and four from 2001.

In 8th grade the proficiency increases were better, but final totals worse. The chunk of students hitting proficiency rose from 14 percent in 1994, to 16 percent in 2001, to 17 percent in 2006. Students hitting at least basic rose from 61 percent in 1994, to 62 percent in 2001, to 65 percent in 2006.

For 12th graders – our schools’ final products – a measly 13 percent were proficient in U.S. history, though that was up from only 11 percent in 1994 and 2001. The percentage hitting at least basic was also up, but only to 47 percent from 43 percent in the previous years.

Now to civics, where the scores were for 1998 and 2006.

In 4th grade, the proportion of students hitting proficiency rose from 23 to 24 percent, and at-or-above basic improved from 69 to 73 percent. In 8th grade there was stagnation, with the percent proficient stuck at 22, and at-least basic at 70. Finally, in 12th grade the percentage hitting proficiency rose from 26 to 27 percent, and at least basic from 65 to 66 percent.

So, on the whole, scores didn’t get any worse than in previous years but they also didn’t get much better, results I’d summarize as ho-hum. To read U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ reaction, however, you’d think we’d seen totally different reports – literally:

For the past five years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has focused attention and support on helping students become stronger readers. The release today by The Nation’s Report Card on U.S. History and Civics proves NCLB is working and preparing our children to succeed.

Wait a minute.

Reading? What the… Oh, right. Reading “counts” under NCLB’s accountability regime, but U.S. history and civics don’t. The secretary is therefore “bridging” – leaving the subject at hand in order to make an off-topic point, one intended to provide the standard Bush administration education message: NCLB is working!

The reports offer further indication that our nation’s achievement gap continues to narrow: our lowest-performing students are making the greatest gains, particularly in the early grades…. These results are a testament to what works. As students’ skills in reading fluency and comprehension strengthen, so does their ability to do well in other subject areas. While critics may argue that NCLB leads educators to narrow their curriculum focus, the fact is, when students know how to read and comprehend, they apply these skills to other subjects like history and civics. The result is greater academic gains.

Oh, politics! In what other realm could someone so deftly turn mediocre news about one thing into a declaration of victory in something else? But it’s all sleight of hand, a trick to take our eyes off the humdrum civics and history results and put them on reading “success.” But don’t be fooled.

The most recent NAEP reading assessment – you know, the one that actually assesses reading – provided results from 2002 and 2005, a period fully covered by NCLB, and showed that reading scores either stagnated or dropped in that time. For instance, the average 4th grade reading score was stuck at 219 (out of 500) in both 2002 and 2005, and 8th grade scores dropped from 264 to 262. And how were scores for those “lowest performing students” whose improvements Spellings touted? The average mark for students in the lowest ten percent of 4th grade performers rose from 170 to just 171 between 2002 and 2005, and was stuck at 196 for the lowest quarter. In 8th grade the average score of the lowest 10 percent dropped from 220 to 216, and of the lowest quarter dropped from 244 to 240.

So much for the assertion that NCLB-driven reading improvements have led to rising scores in civics and U.S. history – they haven’t even led to rising scores in reading!

Which brings us to the biggest civic lesson we can learn from the new NAEP results: Politicians are concerned first and foremost with making themselves and their programs look as good as they possibly can, not with being honest with the American people. It’s exactly why, both in education and many other things, government truly is best that governs least.

Another Advantage of Education Tax Credits

Sara Mead’s latest post over at the Quick and the Ed offers yet another opportunity to point out yet another advantage of tax credits over such alternatives as school vouchers or government monopoly schooling.

Before describing that advantage, though, I can’t resist addressing the logical fallacies at the heart of her post. Mead originally argued that tax credits are public money. When that was proven false, she fell back to the claim that tax credits are equivalent to public money in non-legal respects. That, in turn, was proven false in my last post, which contrasted the programs’ categorically different levels of taxpayer compulsion and linked to an exposition of further differences. Mead nevertheless continues to assert that tax credits are equivalent to government money because, she says, they have the same net effect on state budgets and have “a distorting impact on individual incentives.” This is a hybrid of the fallacy of composition and false analogy. The fact that two things share one or more particular traits in common does not make them equivalent. They may, as in this case they do, differ in other material respects. Mead thus remains mistaken in her persistent belief that tax credits are equivalent to government money.

The real reason that her post is worth responding to, however, has nothing to do with its interesting logical fallacies. Rather, it is because she mentions the “distorting impact” of education tax credits on “individual incentives.” In this premise at least, Mead is correct. Education tax credits do affect both parents’ and taxpayers’ behavior, but they do so less perniciously than is the case with either school vouchers or government schooling.

Under scholarship donation tax credits, taxpayers choose the scholarship granting organization that receives their money. If they are not happy with the quality or efficiency of their current choice, they can redirect their next donation elsewhere. Under vouchers or the status quo, taxpayers dissatisfied with the state system who decided to redirect their tax liability to a private scholarship organization of their choosing would eventually find themselves in jail. Their behavior is thus rather more profoundly circumscribed under government-funded programs.

The incentives for parents who claim personal use tax credits are also superior to those faced by parents under vouchers or the status quo. Under the sort of tax credit policy my colleagues and I advocate, the eligibility criterion for the personal use credit would simply be that parents take financial responsibility for their own children’s education (i.e., that the kids not be enrolled in government schools). They could allocate some of the money they saved for home instructional materials and some for tuition, for instance, weighing the value of each according to their own preferences. This ability to weigh alternative educational expenditures against one another produces an incentive for thrift and parental involvement. Such parental budgetary discretion is impossible under the status quo, and more problematic under vouchers (which tend to be limited exclusively to tuition because of the more intrusive regulatory restrictions usually applied to government subsidy programs).

As for Mead’s conspiracy theory about the “real” reason why my colleagues and I support education tax credits, it’s only worth a brief mention: Education tax credits are the best policy option under current conditions, both legally and practically. If conditions change, and I wake up some morning to find that a state has so drastically cut taxes that such a program would not be viable, I will happily suggest alternatives that would still fulfill the public’s unwavering desire for universal access to a good education. That’s provided I’m not struck by a flying pig on the way to work, of course.

Another Crack in Democracy’s “Bedrock”

It’s often argued that by letting parents select private schools for their children that teach curricula and values not vetted by government, school choice would destroy American democracy. In contrast, government-controlled schooling takes children from diverse backgrounds and forges them into unified, informed, tolerant Americans, making public schools the “bedrock” of American democracy.

Phooey.

In Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, I attempted to debunk those notions, pointing out how government schooling regularly forces divisive social battles and does little to foster meaningful unity. In a new Education Next article, University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf digs deeply into a critical component of the debate, zeroing in on what civic values and knowledge schools actually teach, and what children actually learn.  His analysis offers powerful evidence that the “bedrock of democracy,” compared to private education, is more like loose sand:

Findings from existing studies suggest that the effect of private schooling or school choice on civic values is most often neutral or positive. Among the group of more-rigorous studies, 12 findings indicate statistically significant positive effects of school choice or private schooling on civic values and 10 suggest neutral results. Only one finding from the rigorous evaluations indicates that traditional public schooling arrangements enhance a civic value.

Recommended reading.

Comfortably Affordable

On Wednesday, Ed Muir over at the AFT’s NCLBlog took issue with some calculations I made about the ability of a notional first-year teacher in Indianapolis to pay back his student loans and still take care of his other needs. Muir made some decent points, so I thought I’d respond to them, as well as some raised by an astute Cato@Liberty reader.

For starters, Mr. Muir said that placing my recent graduate in Indianapolis “colors” my “interpretation a little bit.” His reason:

[Indianapolis] has a somewhat below average ratio of beginning teacher salary to rent.  And, yes you can get an apartment for $600, but the median rent in 2005 was a bit higher.

As I wrote in my original post, Indianapolis probably isn’t representative of every place in America, so there’s nothing wrong with pointing out in what ways this might be the case. In addition, I acknowledged that Indianapolis has somewhat low rent levels compared to other cities. I didn’t, though, calculate rent at $600 a month, but $650, which is exactly “a bit higher” than the $600 Muir suggests I used.

Muir’s better point was that I didn’t include taxes in my notional teacher’s expenses, something I acknowledged in my original post. I noted too, though, that I’d left out some important likely sources of income for my teacher, like money from a temporary job he might get during the summer. (I also didn’t mention how much my teacher would make if I calculated his salary on an hourly basis because I know what kind of tizzy that can send teachers and AFT reps into!)

Anyway, taking Mr. Muir’s taxation point as a good one, let’s see what will happen to young Mr. Chips’ wallet after taxes.

Recall that our boy was making $34,638 as a first-year teacher. We’ll assume that he pays full federal and state taxes on that, though he probably wouldn’t. (For instance, he would likely be eligible for
Indiana’s renter’s tax deduction and the federal tax deduction for student loan interest payments.) What would the damage be?

Indiana has an individual tax rate on adjusted gross income of 3.4 percent. Assuming our teacher pays that tax on his entire salary, he would owe $1,178 to the State of Indiana. And what if he paid federal taxes based on his entire salary? Those would come out to $5,217. Add the state and federal taxes together and his total tax burden would be $6,395, or $533 per month.

With that monthly burden, what will Chips, Jr.’s new monthly expenses be? We add $1,480 — his other expenses — to his monthly tax burden, and get a total monthly outlay of $2,013.

Ouch! Darn taxes. They’ll get you every time. Someone really ought to downsize government! But I digress….

So what does our teacher have left after the tax man has cometh? To find out, we subtract Mr. Chips’ total monthly expenses from his monthly earnings — $2,887 — and find that the young man will still have $874 left each month.

Unfortunately, the omitted expenses on my original post didn’t end with taxes. An astute reader informed me yesterday that I’d also failed to include utilities and some modern necessities in the young man’s expense. I’d better put those in.

We’ll assume that the teacher pays for both a landline and cell phone (though increasingly people just have the latter). Let’s also assume that he has an Internet hookup, cable television, and pays for electricity but not water. What’s the damage?

Landline: $25 (I found Vonage offering unlimited local and long distance for this price.)

Cell: $40 (This is for Verizon Wireless’s America’s Choice Basic 450 plan. It’s pretty bare-bones but, hey, our guy does also have a landline.)

Internet: $20 (AT&T Express DSL.)

Cable: $48 (This is standard full cable. He could have gotten basic cable for just $13, but he needs his Turner Classic Movies.)

Electricity: $50 (This is a bit of a guess, but I found a listing for a house in Indiana that said the average electric bill was about $100, so I estimated that an apartment might be about half of that.)

Finally, the reader thought it impossible for someone to actually eat meat and vegetables on only $200 a month. But it is possible. Using local D.C. prices, I found that a person could eat three normal meals a day on that amount, and those meals would include daily intake of such things as raisin bran, broccoli, cookies, milk, orange juice, cheese, ice cream, and even steak (though not exactly filet mignon). Moreover, after eating all those things, one would still have money left over for snacks. In order to appease concerned readers, though — and give our boy a few restaurant meals — we’ll add $100 to his monthly food budget.

Now what’s he got left? All the new expenses plus the boost in his food budget combine for $283. Adding that to his old expense total of $2,013 yields a final total of $2,296. And what does that leave our boy once we subtract the expenses from his monthly salary? $591, or slightly more than 20 percent of his monthly salary, about double the proportion of his salary that it is recommended he save! And don’t forget, with the budget we gave him, young Chips isn’t scrimping on much: He’s paying average — not low — rent for an apartment he has all to himself, paying for gas and auto insurance when he could be taking public transportation, maintaining both a landline and a cell phone, spending more on food than he has to, and enjoying a pretty wide selection of television channels — all right out of college.

So what have I gotten from all my budgeting pains? Very strong evidence that one can have average — actually, I calculated above average — student loan burdens and still live very well on a first-year teacher’s salary, contrary to popular mythology. Heck, you could actually more than double my guy’s monthly debt payment and he’d still be living comfortably.

This is not, by the way, to say whether or not my teacher should get a higher salary, or whether debt burdens should be higher or lower. Those things should be decided by a free market. However, in the absence of such a market, it is important to point out the inaccuracies in many of the myths propagated to put more taxpayer money into teacher salaries and student aid, and expand the scope of government.

Unfortunately, I can point out the difference between scary rhetoric and happy reality until I’m blue in the face but still never get people from the AFT, or student advocates at the state PIRGs, to stop crying poverty for teachers and college students. Why? Because once I do that, they change the issue, saying what’s important is not really whether or not a new teacher actually makes more than enough money to live a decent life, but whether or not they’ll be “comfortable.” Writes Muir:

Can one afford it? Strictly speaking, teachers take these jobs and they pay their debts. So yes. But … that doesn’t make it comfortable for them or good policy for us. Our goal should be to make people want to come into teaching, not to make new teachers feel bitter and even more stressed. 

You just can’t beat this with concrete evidence, because now it’s all about feelings, and you can never demonstrate conclusively how one person — much less millions of people — will feel about anything. I mean, who knows what amount of money will make different people feel comfortable, bitter or stressed? We can show pretty conclusively why they should feel comfortable, but we can’t prove it. But then, that’s why Muir and others resort to these arguments: in the face of reality, they have nothing left to stand on but things that cannot be proven.

And so, in that spirit, let me end this very long post by asserting something that can never actually be proven, but unlike student debt and teacher salary myths is almost certainly true: No matter what teachers are getting paid, we will never hear someone from the AFT say “Woah, that’s enough money and benefits! We teachers are feeling really comfortable, unstressed, and appreciated. Please, don’t pay us any more!”

Knowing that should be reason enough to stick with the facts.

Loose Language Sinks Syllogisms

Responding to my explanation yesterday that non-refundable education tax credits are not public money (as she had wrongly claimed), the Ed Sector’s Sara Mead seeks refuge, perhaps unintentionally, in equivocation. She links to an old Cato op-ed in which the ethanol blending tax credit is referred to as a subsidy. Perhaps Mead is unaware of this, but the 51 cent per gallon ethanol blending credit is refundable — it can result in government money going to ethanol blenders, not simply in the reduction of the taxes they owe.

Refundable tax credits — or at least the portion of them that involves a disbursement from government coffers — are subsidies. They are public money. I have never suggested otherwise. And this fact is entirely irrelevant to a discussion of non-refundable credits.

Mead also seeks to defend her earlier misstatement of fact by arguing that the earlier statement doesn’t actually matter. What really matters, she now says, is that non-refundable credits are, for all non-legal purposes, equivalent to government funding. She is just as mistaken for believing this as she was for believing they were government money in the first place.

The most obvious material distinction is one to which I drew attention in my previous blog post today. Under a scholarship donation tax credit, it is far easier for taxpayers to avoid being compelled to fund instruction that violates their convictions. Not only is making a donation under a tax credit program optional, but in the case where a taxpayer does decide to make a donation, the taxpayer chooses the scholarship granting organization that will receive the money. Because many different SGOs arise under well designed scholarship tax credit programs, it is easy for both low income families AND taxpayers to associate with ones that comport with their own values. This element of taxpayer/donor choice does not exist under either voucher or government monopoly school programs.

Non-refundable scholarship donation tax credit programs do not eliminate compulsion entirely — anyone who chooses not to participate is still taxed to pay for the status quo monopoly system — but it dramatically reduces the likelihood that anyone will be forced to pay for schooling he or she finds morally objectionable.

There are other substantive differences between education tax credit programs and vouchers/government monopolies. I describe them at length here.

One final note: Mead ends by wondering why Cato education policy scholars have a habit of commenting on her blog posts. The reason is prosaic: her misstatements give us a “news peg” on which to hang an empirically supported exposition of the issue in question. It is a very efficient and productive way for us to do our jobs, which is to inform the public about superior policy alternatives to the educational status quo.

So while Mead seems to think that her posts are not related to her work, they are an excellent help to us in doing ours.