Topic: Education and Child Policy

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?

Born-Alive

Last week the British Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report including step-by-step recommendations regarding the proper care of premature infants.  The Council recommended that infants born earlier than 22 weeks of gestation not be resuscitated and that infants between 22 and 23 weeks of gestation only receive intensive care if their parents request such care and the infant’s doctors agree.

There has been a flurry of commentaries in U.S. papers and blogs about the Nuffield Council’s recommendations, but not a single one that I have seen mentions the fact that in the U.S., it would be illegal to follow the Council’s recommendations.   In 2002 President Bush signed into law the federal Born-Alive Infant Protection Act and in 2005 DHHS Secretary Mike Leavitt stated “[w]e aggressively enforce federal laws that protect born-alive infants.  We issued clear guidance that withholding medical care from an infant born alive may constitute a violation of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act and the Medicare Conditions of Participation.”

It is nevertheless worth considering what the Nuffield Council has said to help put the Born-Alive Infant protection Act into perspective.   The Council’s report makes it clear that there is no realistic chance that a baby born under 22 weeks of gestation will survive and that infants born between 22 and 23 weeks have only a 1% chance of survival.  Furthermore, those few that do survive at 22-23 weeks are highly likely to suffer from severe handicaps.  (None of this information is limited to Britain.  U.S. statistics confirm these conclusions).  The Born-Alive Infant Protection Act requires health care professionals to try to save such babies. They must tape them down, stick them with needles and tubes, and resuscitate them – essentially, they are required to torture such babies until they die.  As a mother of four children and a Christian, I would want to hold and rock my little infant as it dies.  I wouldn’t want its precious few hours of life to be filled with pain and fear and never a mother’s warm embrace or soft voice.  It is a very cruel world indeed if the drafters of the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act knew they were going to require health care professionals to torture dying infants and deny parents the only realistic succor they have to offer – the physical affection that would tell such infants that, while their stay on earth is short, they are nevertheless loved.

“No Child” Not Working? Unbelievable!

The New York Times today reports the unthinkable: The vaunted No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has done almost nothing to shrink the black-white achievement gap, and the credit the Bush administration has given the law for overall achievement gains is – get ready – unfounded! Writes the Times:

The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a battery of reading and math tests administered to thousands of students in every state, showed some rising scores for all ethnic groups, and the black-white score gap narrowed in a statistically significant way for fourth-grade math. But on fourth-grade reading, and on eighth-grade reading and math, the black-white and Hispanic-white gaps were statistically unchanged from the early 1990s.

Over the past three decades, the gaps narrowed steadily from the 1970s through the late 1980s but then leveled out through 1999. Since then, some have narrowed again, but at a rate that would allow them to persist for decades. That picture showed up in a separate National Assessment test devised to measure long-term trends, administered in late 2003 and early 2004.

That test showed that regardless of race, scores increased a bit over three decades for 9- and 13-year-old students, with the best gains coming between 1999 and 2004.

Test administrators warned against attributing those gains to the federal law, because it had been in effect for about only a year when the 2004 test was given…..But Bush administration officials have routinely credited the law for the improved scores on that test.

Many Democrats who originally supported NCLB, as you can imagine, have put the blame for its failure squarely on Bush. Unfortunately, their own solutions feel distinctly like old times are here again:

The findings pose a challenge not only for Mr. Bush but also for the Democratic lawmakers who joined him in negotiating the original law…and who will control education policy in Congress next year.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative George Miller of California, who are expected to be the chairmen of the Senate and House education committees, will promote giving more resources to schools and researching strategies to improve minority performance, according to aides.

Of course! More resources and “researching strategies” are the keys to real change. Why didn’t anyone else think of that?

Oh wait. They did: Federal spending on elementary and secondary education leapt from $43.8 billion in FY 2000 to $68.0 billion in FY 2005, a 55 percent increase, and NCLB imposed a whole new strategy of unprecedented federal control onto the schools. Yet, somehow, nothing changed.

Thankfully, there is a strategy that really could help struggling students get the education they need, but it would require embracing real change. First, the federal government would have to get out of education, ending more than 40 years of demonstrated failure and pulling some of the worst politics out of America’s classrooms. That, however, would not be enough, because while federal politicians are the most shameless about claiming victory in the face of abject failure, state and local politicians aren’t much better. There must, therefore, be a second phase: All states must offer universal school choice, finally putting parents in charge of education, and ending the era of strategies hopelessly built on politicians’ empty rhetoric and broken promises.

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends

The forces of educational stagnation have launched a comprehensive attack on school choice in Arizona.  The ACLU-and-friends lawsuit in September against the state’s new education tax credit was followed yesterday by a challenge to two new voucher programs.  This is the first time that the education establishment has dared to turn its fire on school choice programs that help disabled and foster-care children.  This recent move signals panic among school choice opponents, who now begrudge a few thousand of the most disadvantaged children in Arizona a choice in education, along with everyone else.  Hopefully the court will go with recent precedent in Kotterman vs. Killian (1999), where the Arizona Supreme Court upheld personal donation tax credits, and find that vouchers supporting parental school choice isn’t government support of religion (which AZ’s anti-Catholic Blaine amendment prohibits).