Topic: Education and Child Policy

Ohio Governor Seeks to Kill Voucher Program

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Ohio governor Ted Strickland called for the elimination of the statewide voucher program aimed at students in public schools deemed to be failing. He is also seeking to prevent the creation of any new charter schools and to outlaw for-profit firms from managing charter schools.

He went on to say that no new grocery stores should be opened in Ohio, that grocery stores should not be permitted to operate for profit, and that the state would be withdrawing from the federal foodstamps program.

Okay, I made that last paragraph up. But the only reason you knew that is because we are all familiar with the advantages of a competitive market for grocery stores, and with the fact that government can subsidize access to food without actually running its own supermarkets.

Researchers who study school governance structures in an international and historical perspective know that the same things that are true of the grocery business are also true of the education sector. Members of the public who frequent Cato’s website or read our publications know this as well.

Tragically, at least one very influential man from Ohio is wholly ignorant of these facts.

This is yet another argument for federalism and against national standards in education. If Ohioans choose to elect leaders who will unravel the progress they have made toward parental choice and competition between schools, their state will lose a competitive advantage it currently enjoys in attracting businesses and families. Other states that pursue greater freedom in education will attract more businesses and families. Eventually, states will have to stop operating education as a monopoly jobs program and start letting families decide – or gradually become economic and cultural backwaters.

But if we nationalize education – as so many Republicans and Democrats currently wish to do – a single backward administration or Congress could ruin education for the entire nation.

Folks who still support national standards after thinking about that should re-read the part of Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that deals with medieval Chinese naval capacity and technology, and the reasons these fell behind achievements in the West.

Burning Down the Horse

Matthew Yglesias has sparked an interesting debate over the No Child Left Behind act. It’s an internecine argument among the left-of-heart as to whether NCLB is:

a)     A Trojan Horse intended to destroy public education
2)     A well-intentioned mistake, or
iii)     The inevitably disappointing result of politics as usual

Matthew takes the second of those views, citing Cato scholars’ opposition to the law as evidence that we are… opposed to it. Seems a commendably straightforward line of reasoning to me, but one of his commenters, “Neil,” disagrees:

No, the libertarian think tanks are waiting quietly inside the horse; they will come pouring out waving their policy whitepapers only when the horse is safely within the gates and American schools are deemed to have failed.

Sorry, Neil, but Matthew’s right. Libertarian and free market scholars were loudly attacking government-imposed education standards long before the NCLB was passed, and have continued to do so thereafter. See, for instance, the section in my 1999 book Market Education titled “Government Imposed Curricula: Double-Edged Cookie Cutters.” And far from “waiting quietly inside the horse,” we had a forum at Cato last week at which I argued that the law is ineffective, harmful, inimical to the policies that can achieve its goals, and unconstitutional.

Anyone who checks out the videos or pod-casts of that event will see that at least the second and third explanations for the NCLB listed above are valid. Listen to Dick Armey telling the audience that Congress voted against national standards under Clinton and for them under Bush for partisan political reasons. Listen to Susan Neuman, who helped design the law, explain how good intentions went awry under political pressure.

Yglesias is mistaken, however, when he says that Cato wants to destroy public education. The opposite is true. My colleagues and I are deeply committed to the ideals of public education – that all children should have access to good schools; that they should be prepared not only for success in private life but participation in public life; that schools should foster harmonious social relations.

It is precisely because we are committed to those ideals that we recommend the adoption of a free education marketplace coupled with financial assistance to ensure universal access. Such a system is not an alternative to public education, it is a far better implementation of public education (to borrow terminology from my software past) than the creaking, calcified monopoly we languish under today.

Our current state-run school system is only a tool, not an end in itself. And it just happens to be the wrong tool for pursuing our shared ideals of public education.

Private Education in China — You Read It Here First

Bloomberg’s Singapore-based columnist Andy Mukherjee writes about the private-education boom in China:

At the end of 2005, some 15 million students were enrolled in 77,000 non-state schools. That’s 8 percent of the 197 million Chinese children aged 5 to 14 years. Privately funded schools in India have twice as large a share of the total market.

Expect the gap to close quickly.

Nine years ago, Ma Lei of Fudan University wrote about the growth of private schools in China for Cato Policy Report:

In Wenzhou, more than half of the 600 million RMB spent on education comes from the private sector. That’s a claim that few, if any, communities in the United States can make. …There are more than 2,300 privately run kindergarten classes in Wenzhou, in which more than 90 percent of all children of kindergarten age are enrolled. In addition, there are 21 private high schools, which educate about a quarter of the total high school student population.

James Tooley has also written at length about private education for the poor in Africa and India. His work, and its exciting new directions, are discussed in this Atlantic article.

Mandatory HPV Vaccines: Who Benefits?

The lure of government mandates has turned Merck, if it wasn’t already, into an unethical company.  In principle, I have nothing against Merck publicizing its products and their benefits.  But Merck has exaggerated the benefits of its Gardasil vaccine and has shamelessly lobbied lawmakers to make a vaccine of questionable benefit mandatory.

At $360, the Gardasil vaccine against four types of human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most expensive vaccines on the market. On June 8th of last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil for use in girls age nine to 26.

It is important to mention that technically “mandatory vaccination laws” are not “mandatory” because they all contain constitutionally required opt-out provisions.  Nevertheless when lawmakers, Merck, the press and everyone else call’s such laws “mandatory,” they in effect become so because the public perception is that they are.

Factual Errors.

Merck has misrepresented the facts, or is at least standing by dumb while others misrepresented them.  It is misleading to say the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer.  Not all HPV viruses cause cervical cancer and, while HPV is prevalent, those types (types 16 and 18) that cause cervical cancer are not nearly as prevalent. There are 37 or more types of genital HPV.  The rate of all 37 types together is high – 34% among women ages 14 to 24, but the rate for the types 16 and 18 that are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer cases in the U.S. – is only 1.5% and 0.8% respectively.  See the Journal Watch article published today.

Parts of the “Patient Product Information” link for Gardasil on the Merck website are vague at best and confusing and misleading at worst.   In light of the information above consider these two paragraphs:

What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is a common virus. In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 20 million people in the United States had this virus. There are many different types of HPV; some cause no harm. Others can cause diseases of the genital area. For most people the virus goes away on its own. When the virus does not go away it can develop into cervical cancer, precancerous lesions, or genital warts, depending on the HPV type. See “What other key information about GARDASIL should I know?”

Who is at risk for Human Papillomavirus?

In 2005, the CDC estimated that at least 50% of sexually active people catch HPV during their lifetime. A male or female of any age who takes part in any kind of sexual activity that involves genital contact is at risk. The U.S., unlike some other countries, has been very successful at reducing cervical cancer rates.  Both the actual number of cases of cervical cancer and the number of deaths from cervical cancer has been declining steadily for the past ten years.  (seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/cervix.html).  Furthermore, the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of both HPV and HIV is well documented, as is the value of routine pap smears in preventing death from cervical cancer.

Policy Errors.

Merck is also clearly taking advantage of some very fallacious policy analysis.  It is very difficult to do a cost benefit analysis in public health because there are so many factors, known and unknown, that come into play, but to have the debate ignore considerations that are blatantly obvious is suspect.  While it is horrible that anyone should die of cervical cancer, it probably does not make sense to advocate mandatory vaccination for approximately 30,000,000 school aged girls with a brand new vaccine in order to prevent fewer than two percent of those girls from getting cervical cancer in the future.

Risk assessment is not easy, particularly when, as is the case with Gardasil, the long term effects of a vaccine are totally unknown.  Women who participated in the drug trials were followed for an average of less than three years.  Consider this totally hypothetical example: what if 90% of all school age girls are vaccinated within the next five years and then ten or twenty years from now it is discovered that the vaccine made them sterile or actually caused them to get a different type of cancer than what they were vaccinated against?  Or worse yet, because of the difference in sample size, once millions of  9 and 10-year olds were vaccinated instead of just a couple of hundred, one percent of the girls had side effects severe enough to cause brain damage or death?

The principle of unintended consequences suggests that, in all but the clearest cases, health risk assessments should be left up to individual families, not only because making such determinations rightly rests with families, but also because it simply does not make sense from a public policy standpoint to experiment on such a large portion of our population all at once.  Let parents choose for their girls, then there will be portions of the population that does and that doesn’t get the vaccine and others that received it later or earlier, or yet others that receive it while younger or older.  Allowing parents to make their own risk assessments is a natural way to protect the population from some negative unintended consequence of the vaccine affecting a whole demographic all at once.

To add insult to injury, not only has Merck left policy makers in the dark as to the myriad of possible downsides to mandatory vaccination for HPV, it has actively lobbied and paid large campaign contributions to politicians willing to support mandatory vaccination policies.  According to documents obtained by The Associated Press last month, Merck donated $5000 to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) on the same day Perry’s chief of staff met with the governor’s budget director and others for a “HPV vaccine for Children Briefing.”

Similar scenarios played out in at least seven other states.  This seems quite a bit like bribing politicians to do something for Merck, something that will bring Merck huge profits, very possibly at the expense of the general population – or at least at the expense of little girls.

Unfortunately, 20 states or more are currently considering mandatory HPV vaccination laws.

Education Tax Credits Keep Going and Going and …

Yes folks, education tax credits keep rolling right through all of the court challenges that the anti-educational choice crowd can come up with.

On Wednesday, the Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona dismissed another frivolous lawsuit against an Arizona tax credit programArizona’s individual tax credit was upheld by the state supreme court in 1999 with a wide-ranging decision, and the new corporate tax credit is different in no substantive way.

This is the latest in a long line of education tax credit victories, and opponents of educational freedom are running out of options – even frivolous options – for attacking them.

Although voucher laws have been overturned in two states, tax credits have survived every challenge to date (the Florida Supreme Court handed down an absurd and transparently political decision, and Colorado’s law went down over a “local control” provision).

Certainly, out-of-control judges can make law at will.  But education tax credits have serious legal advantages that should prompt more consideration from school choice supporters.  The fundamental difference is that vouchers are considered government funds and tax credits are not.

In many states with unsympathetic courts and strict “Blaine” or “compelled support” language prohibiting government funds from being use at sectarian institutions, vouchers are a moot point for legislators.  Who wants to stick their neck out on a controversial issue only to have the law tossed out?

Even when a voucher law does survive a challenge – which many have – the legal obstacles are typically higher and more difficult to clear.  For instance, the challenge to Arizona’s business tax credit was dismissed in short order (decision appealed of course) while the voucher case still awaits judgment.

The education industrial complex makes getting school choice hard enough … we should go with the more legally viable education tax credits when we can.

The IBD Calls for More Central Planning

The Investors’ Business Daily newspaper is viewed as “exceptionally pro-economic individualism” with an editorial page that is “especially pro-capitalist.” But there is at least one issue on which the paper’s stance would be more at home in a politburo meeting than a capitalist publication: the federal No Child Left Behind law.

An editorial in yesterday’s edition opens with the assertion that the law is “far from perfect,” but that its “no-excuses approach to school accountability is worth keeping.” The NCLB’s ”most fundamental flaw”, according to the IBD, is “the lack of credible national benchmarks for school performance. Without these, no reform has much of a chance.”

When I regained consciousness after reading that, I had to double-check that I was indeed reading the IBD and not the IBRP.

The editors of Investors’ Business Daily are telling us that Washington must set output targets for the education industry and that, without them, no reform can succeed. They would not make that recommendation for any other industry.

It seems that the IBD’s editors have bought into the myth that education is somehow different from all other human endeavors, and therefore not able to benefit from the market forces that have been responsible for the economic miracle of the last 200 years. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I summarized in my talk at our NCLB forum yesterday, there is overwhelming evidence that choice and financial responsibility for families, coupled with freedom, competition, and the profit motive for schools, produce by far the best educational outcomes on both an individual and a social level.

The research shows that markets are not only better at raising achievement overall, but also at diminishing the racial and socio-economic achievement gaps that have been created, to a significant degree, by the existing top-down monopoly system.

The IBD is right that accountability is crucially important in education as in every other human exchange. But simulated bureaucratic “accountability” has proven grossly inferior to real market accountability. Being able to leave bad schools and move to good ones at will is the only kind of accountability that produces real and sustained results.

The IBD’s editors not only should know this, they already do know this with respect to the rest of the economy. They need only recognize the fact that education and educators are part of the same reality that is discussed on the news pages of their own publication.

NCLB: The Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly

Want to know how the No Child Left Behind Act has actually affected overall student achievement and the gaps between students of different races and socio-economic backgrounds? Want a guided insider tour of the political sausage factory that produced it and the political calculus that allowed it to pass in the first place? Look no further than the podcasts that are available here.

They’re enough to make H.L. Mencken look like a political optimist.

Just one highlight, uttered by former House majority leader Dick Armey, who voted against national education standards under President Clinton but for the NCLB under President Bush: “My NCLB vote, perhaps more than any other one thing, was the reason I left Congress…. If I couldn’t be myself and vote my conscience, why stay?”

According to Armey, opposition to national education standards under Clinton and support for them under Bush were driven overwhelmingly by political considerations that had nothing to do with the evidence of what works. That’s not surprising, of course, but it’s one thing for pundits to opine about it and quite another to have a key player openly acknowledge it.

There are a lot of other interesting bits throughout the podcasts, including an appearance by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) pre-announcing legislation that he will formally reveal next week that would give control over federal education spending to the states. Perhaps not an ideal solution (the feds should not be involved in the first place, according to the Constitution), but it would be better than any other serious legislative proposal I’ve seen.