Topic: Education and Child Policy

Do We All Support Market Education Now?

Alan Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice, has an interesting op-ed in the OC Register today arguing that the only folks still defending the government school monopoly are those who have a financial stake in its perpetuation.

I’m not quite convinced – I could name quite a few advocates of centrally controlled state schooling outside the government school employee unions – but he makes some thought provoking observations.

The Risible Hand to Meddle further in NY Higher Ed?

Newsday reports that the visible – and clumsy – hand of government is poised to interfere in NY’s burgeoning for-profit higher ed. market. But the Board of Regents’ impending move to impose strict new regulations on for-profit colleges is the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

If students at these colleges were paying their own way, the state would have no compelling interest in regulating them. The only reason the state presumes to interfere is that funding from New York’s Tuition Assistance Program goes to these schools, and it wants more oversight over how that money is spent. Rather than impeding market forces and freedoms by trying to inject central planning into a promising and dynamic part of the higher education sector, New York should replace its current Tuition Assistance program with a system known as “human capital contracts” or “equity loans,” in which the amount paid back by students subsequent to graduation is contingent on their earnings. These loans allow students to finance their own higher education, eliminating the need for the state to intrude in the market process. It’s a better, cleaner solution.

Don’t Know Much about Friedman

It took a little more than a fortnight for someone to appropriate the legacy of Milton Friedman in support of something that the Nobel Laureate probably would have opposed. 

In an article for National Review Online, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his associate David Merritt call on the nation to “Renew Milton Friedman’s Conservatism.”  Whether chosen by the authors or the editors, that title betrays that someone missed Friedman’s point entirely.  In 1975, an interviewer asked Friedman whether it was fair to describe him as a “conservative economist.”  Here was Friedman’s response:

I never characterize myself as a conservative economist. As I understand the English language, conservative means conserving, keeping things as they are. I don’t want to keep things as they are. The true conservatives today are the people who are in favor of ever bigger government. The people who call themselves liberals today – the New Dealers – they are the true conservatives, because they want to keep going on the same path we’re going on. I would like to dismantle that. I call myself a liberal in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means (inaudible) and pertaining to freedom.

Even more jarring is a policy proposal that the authors seem to associate with Friedman.  Gingrich and Merritt write:

We can transform health and health care to deliver more choices of greater quality at lower costs to every American. And government has a role to play. It can and should build an electronic infrastructure, much like government builds public school buildings.

I see two problems here.  First, Friedman often argued that it would be far preferable were government to stop providing education and instead just finance it.  That suggests he saw no need for government to build the schools.  Second, if Friedman ever took a stand on government provision of health information technologies such as electronic medical records, the lack of which is often regarded as a market failure, I’m not aware of it.  However, I have to suspect that left-leaning economist Brad DeLong more closely captured Friedman’s views on the subject when he wrote:

[Friedman] believed…that where markets failed there were almost always enormous profit opportunities from entrepreneurial redesign of institutions; and that the market system would create new opportunities for trade that would route around market failures.

That view is hardly supportive of having the feds provide health information technologies.

Gingrich and Merritt do not completely misappropriate Friedman’s legacy.  They do argue for a few free-market health care and education proposals. 

Should Public Schools Be Racist?

Can public schools make student assignment decisions based solely on race? That’s just one of the questions before the Supreme Court today in pair of school integration cases (Parents Involved V. Seattle School District No. 1, and Meredith V. Jefferson County Board Of Education).

My one sentence opinion on these policies:  Trying to promote meaningful integration through race-based school assignment policies is like trying to promote love through arranged marriages.

Put less briefly, these cases raise four important questions about race-based assignment:

- Is it legal (the only question the Court will address)?
- Does it do any good?
- Does it do any harm? And,
- Is there a better way to achieve the same goals?

I’ll leave a thorough analysis of the first question to the Justices and to Cato’s legal scholars, though it’s hard for me to fathom how anyone could find purely race-based student assignment decisions consistent with “equal protection of the laws.”

Do forced public school integration policies do any good? It is fair to say that the answer is no, since they have not even achieved the immediate result of integrating schools. After half a century of compulsory integration policies, public schools are little more racially integrated today than they were before such policies were introduced in the early 1970s. It is not even clear that racial balance at the school level is the right goal, since it does not necessarily produce meaningful integration. It is common for students to sort themselves into cliques along racial or ethnic lines, and to have comparatively little interaction with those outside their own group. Schools that seem “integrated” on paper do not always have meaningfully integrated hallways, lunchrooms, or even classrooms.

Do they do any harm? In numerous ways, yes. Attempting to force racial balance in schools through busing not only failed to achieve the immediate goal of public school integration, it dramatically increased residential segregation by driving the (predominantly white) middle class to the suburbs (middle class blacks fled, too, but were fewer in number). Denying students their first choice of public school based solely on race is likely to drive still more families to suburban districts that do not use such assignment policies (or to the private sector), hence further aggravating residential segregation. And clearly, denying children their first choice of school is harmful in and of itself.

Is there a better way? Of course! And better in every respect! The right solution is to introduce a system of financial assistance to ensure that all families have access to the public or private school of their choice. First of all, such programs lead to greater school-level integration and reduced residential segregation. Second, integration in the private sector tends to be more meaningful (children are more likely to choose to sit with peers of different races in private school lunchrooms than is the case in public schools). Third, the most significant educational benefits to private schooling tend to be enjoyed by African Americans, both in achievement and graduation rates.

An overwhelming body of evidence points to parental choice and market incentives as a better way of achieving meaningful integration and improved educational opportunities for minority children. Those truly concerned with advancing the cause of civil rights have to realize that race-based student assignment within a government school monopoly has been and continues to be both ineffective and counter-productive.

The Unbearable Meaninglessness of “School Choice”

The National Center for Education Statistics has just released a report titled “Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2003.” One of the highlights in the news release is the statistic that only 17 percent of students “attended a school other than their parent’s first-choice school.”

Wow! Isn’t that great!?! 83 percent of American kids are attending the schools their parents most want them to attend! School choice is here! We can declare victory and go home! (I’m out of a job!)

Er. Not so fast. Let’s say you’re approached by a stranger who wants to offer you a holiday greeting, and the two greeting choices are: a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, and a kick in the shin. Almost everyone would presumably chose the kick, and if 83 percent of them got it, they’d have their first choice. Hurray! Not.

Obviously, most people would rather be greeted by, “happy holidays,” “season’s greetings,” or any of a variety of religious holiday wishes. But if those options are not available to them, they’ll make a choice from among the options that are.

The moral of the story is that it is senseless to speak of someone’s “first choice” of school in the context of a roughly 90 percent government monopoly. In the absence of that monopoly, the range of options would be vastly greater, and it is likely that many parents would find schools that appealed to them more, and served them better, than any of the existing options.

This is yet another reason why it is preferable, when possible, to speak of free education markets rather than “school choice” – the latter term being vague to the point of meaninglessness.

SCOTUS Rebuffs Maine School Voucher Case

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case seeking to overturn the exclusion of religious schools from Maine’s school voucher (a.k.a., “tuitioning”) program.

Maine’s tuitioning program was created in 1873, and until 1980 it allowed families whose towns did not operate their own public high schools to choose any public or private school, using funds allocated for their education by the local taxing authority.

In 1980, then-Attoney General Joseph Brennan (D), ruled that the inclusion of religious schools violated the First Amendment of the federal Constitution, and religious schools were subsequently expelled from the program. That prohibition has persisted to this day, even in the wake of the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, that found vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional.

The case was filed by 8 families whose children are not eligible for tuition assistance solely because their children attend religious schools. They were represented by the Institute for Justice which would have argued that the exclusion of religious schools was itself an unconstitutional act of discrimination against religion by the state.

There is certainly something to be said for this argument. Under the federal constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, governments must strive to remain neutral with respect to religion, and clearly parents who chose religious schooling in this case are being denied an opportunity afforded to all other parents. That is not neutrality.

The proscription against religious schools is not only legally dubious, but socially divisive, as well. Parents who wish to send their children to religious schools are taxed to pay for services they cannot themselves use – a recipe for social tension. There is, however, a school choice system capable of ensuring that all families have an unfettered choice of schools for their children without anyone being forced to pay for schooling to which they object: the education tax credit.

By offering personal use tax credits (essentially targeted tax cuts) to parents who pay for their own children’s education, as well as tax credits for donations to private scholarship organizations (that in turn subsidize education for low income families) a system of private funding could be created that would ensure universal school choice without compelling anyone to fund schooling to which they objected.

Such a system would achieve the goals of public education far more ably than our current system of state-run schooling, while avoiding most of the legal problems that beset government-funded voucher programs.

Why would anyone oppose such a system, except perhaps because they wish to make it artificially difficult for families to obtain religious schooling, or because they wish to protect the lucrative monopoly for the public school employee unions?

Money Can’t Buy ‘em Learning

New York’s Court of Appeals has just ordered the state to spend an additional $1.93 billion on NYC public schools. It is the resolution of a 13-year lawsuit claiming that the city had been nickel-and-diming NYC students, but neither the plaintiffs nor the dissenting Chief Judge are satisfied.

The ruling “does not resolve the inadequate funding of the New York City public schools,” wrote Chief Judge Judith Kaye. Democratic City Councilman Robert Jackson, who helped organize the original lawsuit, called the decision “very disappointing because the amount of money that the court is talking about is not what’s needed.”

So what is the putative pittance that NYC spends per pupil in public schools, which will purportedly remain inadequate even after the injection of an additional $2 billion: about $14,000 per year. Back in 2003, NYC was already spending $13,640 per pupil annually – almost identical to the $13,826 per pupil average for the state as a whole. That was $341,000 a year, per classroom of 25 children. The current figure would of course be higher.

In the 1999-2000 school year, the average private school tuition in the United States was $4,689. Catholic schools, of which NYC has many, charge considerably less. And, as I found in a recent analysis of Arizona private schools, tuition typically comprises about 80 percent of total private school revenue. So private schools get by with thousands of dollars less per pupil annually than the supposedly underfunded government system, while offering far higher graduation rates and comparable or better student achievement. They even do a better job of promoting such social virtues as tolerance and civic engagement among their students.

How high will government school spending have to rise before the institution’s believers start to question their absolute faith in its beneficence? How many more children’s futures will they sacrifice to their ideological vanity before acknowledging that monopolies are just as dysfunctional in education as in every other field?