Topic: Education and Child Policy

AZ Court Kills School Vouchers for Disabled, Foster Kids

An Arizona appellate court struck down two school voucher programs yesterday, finding that they violate a state constitutional prohibition against using public money to aid private or religious schools. The programs, serving disabled children and those in foster care, were unanimously ruled unconstitutional by a three-judge panel of Arizona’s Division Two Court of Appeals.

The ruling and the motivations behind the suit have been attacked by school choice groups, with the Alliance for School Choice calling it “shameful.” Praising the court’s decision, but doing little to allay concerns about the quality of public school instruction, John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, tautologically declared that “Arizonans understand that public schools are our pathway to great public schools.…”

What are the legal merits of this decision, and what does it mean for the affected kids and the school choice movement as a whole?

The ruling hinged on whether the vouchers in question can be considered aid to private and religious schools, because Article IX, paragraph 10 of the Arizona Constitution forbids the use of public money for that purpose. Choice advocates argued that the aid is being given to families and that the schools only benefit indirectly. The court found that while families are indeed aided, so too are the schools. However much I want all children to have access to a choice of independent schools competing to serve them, I find it hard to disagree with the court’s conclusion.

That doesn’t mean that the appellate court’s word is final. Choice advocates will no doubt appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, which could agree with the narrower interpretation of the aid’s beneficiaries.

Even if it does not, yesterday’s ruling leaves open two paths for recreating the stricken programs in constitutionally acceptable fashion. The justices pointed explicitly to one obvious, if difficult, approach: seek an amendment to the state’s constitution that would strike or revise the “Aid Clause” ( Article IX, paragraph 10).

More helpfully, they also note that Arizona’s Supreme Court has already upheld the state’s education tax credit program in the face of an “Aid Clause” challenge (the Kotterman v. Killian ruling of 1999). As the appellate justices wrote yesterday:

Although Jordan and Kotterman… considered constitutional challenges based on this clause that to some extent foreshadowed the arguments presented here, the conclusions in both of those cases turned on facts clearly distinguishable from the facts of this case. In Kotterman, the court disposed of the Aid Clause challenge in a single paragraph, finding the tax credit there was neither an appropriation of public money nor the laying of a tax.

This is one of the reasons that Cato Institute scholars favor tax credit programs over voucher programs, as outlined in our Public Education Tax Credit model legislation and policy analysis. Reviving the two stricken voucher programs could thus be as simple as incorporating them into Arizona’s existing education tax credit program or reconstituting them as separate tax credit programs.

There will, however, be a temporary hitch to even that solution. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will soon be handing down a ruling that will likely strike down Arizona’s tax credit program under a clever, inventive, but thoroughly misguided interpretation of case law. This ruling, which could come down in the next several months, will almost certainly be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, as are so many of the 9th Circuit’s rulings.

Arizona’s disabled and foster children will ultimately enjoy meaningful educational freedom and choice, but they will sadly have to wait another year or two for a few remaining legal clouds to part. In the end, the sun will shine once more.

Educational Freedom Advances in South-East

Having so recently blogged about the expansion of Florida’s k-12 scholarship tax credit program, I’m delighted to be able to add that Georgia governor Sonny Perdue yesterday signed a similar program into law in his own state. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, a modest New Orleans voucher program was passed out of the House yesterday by a nearly 3 to 2 majority (a corresponding bill has already passed out of Senate committee and awaits a floor vote).

While none of these programs is yet big enough to create significant market forces, the growth of the Florida program and the bi-partisan support that it and the New Orleans program are enjoying are promising signs.

Hard Work, Culture, and Private Education

When it comes to international academic assessments, especially in math and science, a few Asian countries regularly kick world posterior. Many observers chalk this up to these countries having national curricula, but this seems a specious conclusion given that most of the countries that do worse than Asian nations—and sometimes even worse than the U.S.—have national curricula, too.

A couple of additional—and quite likely more accurate—potential secrets of Asian success are touched on in a Saturday Washington Post article about South Korea:

South Koreans are working up a lather over working too much.

They put in far more time on the job than citizens of any other free-market democracy. Compared to Americans, they average 560 more hours at work a year – the equivalent of 70 more eight-hour days. And that is down significantly from the go-go 1990s.

In the OECD, they rank second to last in leisure spending, first in suicide and last in bearing children.

Despite the dearth of children, South Korea leads the OECD in per capita spending on private education, which often includes home tutors, after-school cram sessions and intensive English-language courses.

South Koreans, it seems, rely not primarily on government schooling as we do, but abundant private options, including tutoring companies that appear to be almost ubiquitous in many Asian nations. Indeed, in 2002 Education Week reported that in Japan “more than 50,000 private cram schools are taking in some $12 billion a year by some estimates.”

The massive consumption of private education is not the only likely explanation for outstanding Asian academic performance. So too is the culture that drives that consumption: As the Post highlights, Koreans put more emphasis on work than the citizens of any other industrialized nation. Of course, that appears to be a double-edged sword, probably yielding great testing outcomes but, as the suicide and income data in the article hint, not necessarily outsized success in life—or happiness. And while national academic standards and tests don’t likely create academic success, they could very well exacerbate the ugly side of Korean culture, taking an already work-obsessed mindset and forcing it on those students and families who might find happiness—and long-term success—in other ways.

Democrats for Educational Freedom

A piece by Ron Matus in today’s St. Petersburg Times is the latest media acknowledgement of growing Democratic support for educational freedom. The expansion of Florida’s k-12 scholarship donation tax credit program, which I blogged about last week, was not a narrow party-line affair. The bill was approved by 82 to 34 in the House and by 30 to 9 in the Senate.

One of the reasons for this shift is growing personal experience among Democratic lawmakers with the programs and the families who use them.

[Democrat Bill] Heller voted against the bill in committee. But then he visited the Yvonne C. Reed Christian School in St. Petersburg and talked to parents who use tax-credit vouchers. He said they changed his mind.

Think about that. The more personal experience legislators have with market education reforms, the more likely they are to support their expansion. The more these programs expand, the more personal experience legislators will have with them…. Get the picture?

Just another reason I expect to see real educational freedom in America in my lifetime.

Will They Vandalize Pepsi Machines This Time, Too?

In an encouraging step for New Jersey children, the state’s Senate Economic Growth Committee has approved a K-12 scholarship donation tax credit bill like the ones already operating in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Iowa, and Rhode Island. It would allow businesses to make donations to nonprofit scholarship funds that would in turn bring the option of private schooling within reach of low-income families.

Needless to say, the bill has earned the “intense opposition” of New Jersey’s large and powerful public school employees union. The last time somebody offered Jersey’s poor kids an escape from the union-dominated public schools, the union made that somebody an offer that was difficult to refuse.

The “somebody” in question was PepsiCo. As I wrote in Market Education:

In late October of 1995, officials of the Pepsi company announced at Jersey City Hall that their corporation would donate thousands of dollars in scholarships to help low-income children attend the private school of their choice. The immediate response of the local public school teachers’ union was to threaten that a statewide boycott of all Pepsi products could not be ruled out. Pepsi vending machines around the city were vandalized and jammed. Three weeks later, company officials regretfully withdrew their offer.

And you thought the Sopranos were nice.

“Ideologues” Strike Back—with Evidence!

It’s an all-too-common tactic employed by opponents of educational freedom to demonize school-choice advocates as hell-bent ideologues rather than actually tackling their arguments and evidence. One suspects that this occurs for two primary reasons: (1) smearing is easier than debating, and (2) too many choice opponents don’t have the evidentiary ammunition they need to defend their arguments.

Well, on Jay Greene’s blog today, at least one ardent supporter of school choice — the Friedman Foundation’s Greg Forster — fires a huge shot across the bow of choice detractors especially on the right, letting them know that he’s had it with their ignoring empirical evidence and resorting to playground name-calling. (In fairness to the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, Forster’s primary target, he did come to Cato to debate his recent critique of choice — more than others on his side seem willing to do — though that doesn’t mean he isn’t still dodging inconvenient evidence).

With a little luck, Forster’s essay will help ignite a rational debate on market education reform that’s long overdue, and this time conservative choice detractors won’t just hide behind “ideological” smoke.

Politics Corrupts Everything

The president of West Virginia University, Michael Garrison, is hanging on after the school’s faculty voted 77 to 19 to demand his resignation. Faculty members are outraged that Garrison retroactively awarded an MBA to a friend, who is the daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin III. The Washington Post reports:

Garrison’s critics note that he is a former classmate of Bresch’s. He once worked as a lobbyist for Mylan Inc., where Bresch is an executive and whose chairman is one of WVU’s biggest donors. They also note that Garrison was chief of staff for former West Virginia governor Bob Wise (D).

The Post failed to add the detail that Garrison served on Manchin’s transition team when he succeeded Wise. So yes, when you hire a lobbyist and political operator to run a university, you can expect some favors for politically connected friends.