Topic: Education and Child Policy

Utah House Passes Nation’s First Universal School Voucher Bill

A couple of hours ago, the Utah House of Representatives passed the nation’s first universal school voucher bill (HB 148) in a nail-biting 38-37 vote. From what I hear coming out of Utah, it’s going to pass the Senate next week as well, and be signed by the governor. 

If it is signed into law, it will be an unprecedented step forward for educational freedom in this country. The media, as well as school choice advocates and critics, will be watching Utah intently to see what happens, and there are some caveats that I think are very important for everyone to keep in mind. 

First, dramatic results should not be expected overnight. In other nations that have adopted similar school choice programs (e.g., Chile, Sweden), it has taken five or 10 years for large numbers of new schools to be created, and for the good ones to be weeded out from the bad. Competition and consumer choice work wonderfully well in education, but their effects are not instantaneous. Part of the reason for that lag is that potential school founders have to be convinced that a newly passed school choice law is on firm legal and political ground, and not likely to be overturned by the courts or repealed by a subsequent legislature. And you can bet this law will be challenged.

Second, the maximum value of Utah’s school vouchers would be $3,000, only about half of what Utah spends per pupil in its public schools. So Bill 148 would still leave private schools at a considerable financial disadvantage compared to their state-run counterparts, and that would inhibit competition between the public and private sectors and retard innovation. 

Those caveats aside, this is a momentous day not just for Utah families, but for our entire nation. What Utah’s legislature has figured out is that school choice is a much better way of fulfilling the promise of public education than is the one-size-fits-all factory school system we inherited from the 19th century.

School Reform in Utah

Although it is opposed by the usual special interest groups, Utah lawmakers are moving forward with a school choice plan. Since Utah recently enacted a flat tax, there apparently is a real commitment to reform. The Wall Street Journal reports

The voucher bill passed out of committee earlier this week and is backed by Governor Jon Huntsman. It would offer students who attend private K-12 schools from $500 to $3,000 in tuition reimbursement based on family income.

While Utah is known for its Mormon population, the biggest winners under the plan would be the state’s growing Hispanic population, who haven’t done well in general in Utah public schools.

As usual, local school boards and the state teachers union (the Utah Education Association) are fighting the idea, claiming that it will “drain” money from public schools. This hardly seems likely because the $9 million cost of the program is about 0.5% of total school spending. And the voucher maximum of $3,000 is less than half the state per child public-school spending average of $6,325. The voucher bill also allows Utah public schools to keep the difference between the voucher amount paid out to students who leave and the $6,325 per pupil average.

Vouchers are working in a handful of cities, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush also promoted a statewide plan, until a liberal state court invented constitutional objections.

The evidence on student performance has mostly been favorable in these schools, and research by Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby has found that the presence of vouchers has caused the public schools to improve their performance as well. 

What’s the Matter with “Thoughts from Kansas”? (Part 1)

In a recent post, I argued that mandating the teaching evolution by government fiat is not only ineffective but illiberal, divisive, and counterproductive.

I always like to preface my comments on this subject with the disclaimer that I am a card-carrying evolutionist. Joshua Rosenau, a grad student in ecology and evolutionary biology who blogs at “Thoughts from Kansas,” is unconvinced. He writes that my “consistent treatment of evolution as if it were anti-religious by its nature suggests that [my] views are more… nuanced than [I’m] letting on.”

This comment is worth exploring. Let’s start with an excerpt from a recent interview with Richard Dawkins, one of the most influential evolutionary biologists of our time:

Terrence McNally: When and how did you become an atheist?

Richard Dawkins: I suppose it was discovering Darwinism. I was confirmed into the Church of England at the age of thirteen. I then got pretty skeptical about it, but retained some respect for the argument from Design – the argument that says living things look as though they’ve been designed, so they probably have been. I then learned the real scientific explanation for why they look as though they’ve been designed, and that was enough for me. I lost my religious faith pretty much then.

Evolution isn’t so much anti-religious as un-religious. While it is possible (indeed common) to simultaneously understand evolution and be religious, it is not necessary to be religious once you understand evolution. The existence of humanity can be explained by purely natural causes, so “God the Creator” becomes an extraneous assumption. And when hardcore empiricists come across an extraneous assumption, they, like Richard Dawkins, have a tendency to pull out Ockham’s razor and shave it off. (And if my own views on this subject are relevant: I liked Ockham’s razor so much, “I bought the company.”)

Learning about evolution thus leads at least some people find religion superfluous. But many believers see faith in God as crucial to individual morality and even to the survival of civilization, so naturally they are apprehensive about the teaching of human origins as a purely natural process. In fact, opposition to scientific materialism was the main motivation behind the creation of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture – the chief advocacy organization for “Intelligent Design” and “teaching the [purported] controversy” over evolution.

So, even though natural evolution is not intrinsically incompatible with faith, it is decidedly unpopular with many of the faithful.

That’s one important clarification out of the way. Here is another. Joshua characterizes my argument as follows: “his claim is that the only way to end the wars over creationism would be to let children learn whatever they want in schools that their parents pay with other people’s tax dollars.” That last bit is mistaken.

I am highly conscious of the social conflicts that arise when people are compelled to pay for instruction that violates their convictions – as paying for creationist schools would likely violate Joshua’s. In fact, that compulsion is one of the key causes of our never-ending battles over the content of public schooling. That was a central point of the paper by Neal McCluskey that launched this conversation.

Fortunately, there is a way to ensure universal school choice without forcing anyone to pay for instruction that offends their deeply held values: cut taxes on middle income families so they can spend more of their own money on their own kids’ education, and offer tax credits for donations to private scholarship granting organizations.

The tax cuts, or personal use tax credits, already exist in Illinois, though they are very limited in size. Essentially, parents who choose to shoulder the cost of their own children’s education would receive a dollar for dollar reduction in their state and local taxes, up to some pre-determined limit. This would put government and non-government schools on a more even financial playing field, and bring the option of independent schooling within easy reach of far more families.

But personal use tax credits can’t help low-income families that have little or no tax burden. To serve those families, tax credits would be offered to businesses and individuals who donate to private scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). Those organizations would, in turn, provide tuition assistance to low-income families. Such programs already exist in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida, though they, too, are currently quite limited in scope.

Combining and expanding these two kinds of tax credit programs would ensure universal access to public and private schools of parents’ choosing, without forcing anyone to pay for schooling that violated their convictions. Taxpayers, not just parents, would have choice, since they could pick the SGO to which they made their donations (or choose not donate to such an organization at all). Pennsylvania has 42 SGOs, and Arizona has more than 140. It isn’t hard to find one consistent with your values, whatever those values happen to be.

I’ll respond to Joshua’s other thoughts from Kansas in a subsequent post.

The Ol’ College Lies

Most college kids have no choice but to subsist on Ramen noodles, and every year skimping on aid keeps tons of fully-qualified students out of higher education, right? Wrong, but you’d certainly believe such things if you listened to the nations’ student interest groups, or most of our politicians.

“We must address the crisis in college affordability that affects every low- and middle-income family and threatens our economic progress,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) after the House recently passed a bill that would cut in half interest rates on subsidized federal student loans. “I applaud the efforts of my colleagues in the House and look forward to taking up this critical issue in the Senate very soon.”

The problem with continuing to propagate these ideas, as I and others have argued many times, is that if anything, making student aid cheaper and more plentiful actually drives college “sticker prices” higher by pulling up demand and allowing colleges to increase prices with impunity. We’ve also argued that politicians encouraging practically everyone to go to college – and providing them with big subsidies to do so – is hugely wasteful, pushing many kids into higher education who aren’t prepared for it, and squandering huge bundles of student and taxpayer money in the process.

A few articles in today’s newspapers illustrate well the yawning gap between the rhetoric and reality of higher education.

First, there is a collection of pieces in USA Today which reveal that as much as students complain about crushing college costs and massive debt, recent grads are both generally happy with their college experiences, and substantially to blame for their own debt burdens.

In a survey of 100 recent graduates, USA Today found that 68 percent of respondents thought that their college experiences were worth the price, and 44 percent thought the value of their education exceeded the costs. Even more interesting were the newspaper’s findings about debt and spending:

More than a third said some debt was unavoidable, but 60% said they should have “absolutely” monitored spending more closely.

Books, lab supplies — “those are just excuses we all make to justify our high debt load,” says pilot Brian Lee, 27, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., who owes more than $70,000 in loans and $20,000 on credit cards. In truth, he says, much unnecessary spending goes to “luxuries like eating out and fancy gadgets.”

Now, you should take these findings with a grain of salt, because a newspaper survey of only 100 recent graduates probably isn’t representative of graduates in general. (I couldn’t find a description of USA Today’s methodology to prove this one way or the other). However, the sob-stories about kids working as hard as they can but still coming up short on college funds that start most news pieces about college costs also aren’t representative, and almost always leave out relevant details about kids’ spending choices.

Sometimes, reporters even ignore evidence of wasteful spending that is right in front of their eyes. (Hit the link, watch the video, and then check out this article.) At the very least, the USA Today pieces provide some desperately needed balance.

The second story of interest today, from the Tennessean, shows that not only do many students waste their money while in college, but lots of kids receive aid who will never get their sheepskins:

Only 1 of every 4 students who received the first batch of lottery-funded HOPE scholarships will graduate in 2007-08 with their awards intact….

A report prepared by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for state lawmakers also showed that, between 2005 and 2006, 47 percent of students at four-year schools lost their HOPE scholarships and 65 percent at two-year schools failed to keep their awards….

At this point, all involved in the program seem to agree on one thing: High school students in the state need to arrive at college better prepared.

It is one thing to get the money to go to college. It is another thing entirely, apparently, to be able to make good use of it.

None of this, of course, says that there aren’t some kids with great aptitude for higher education who genuinely can’t afford it. There are. But considering student aid’s inflationary effect on tuition, many students’ wasteful spending habits, and all the kids getting aid on whom it is squandered, and it seems pretty clear that we all – the truly poor included – would be better off if government just got out of the aid business completely and returned the money to taxpayers.

The Global Market for Kannadian Call Centers

“How can I help you, today, eh?” 

No, not that Canada. Kannada: the native language of 70 percent of Karnatakans.

Karnataka is the Indian state whose capital city, Bangalore, has been described as “the back office of the world.” Bangalore is awash in call centers, boasts over 200 high tech companies, and is reported to have the highest number of engineering colleges of any city in the world. Bill Gates has made a promotional and recruiting trip to the city.

Bangalore’s economic success rests not simply on its wealth of skilled technicians, but on their ability to work in English. There is no global market for Kannadian call centers. There is a global market for English ones.

And that’s where two visions of India’s educational future collide. On the one hand, we have the School Choice India campaign of the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society. This campaign would like to see independent schooling brought within reach of every family in India, and the overwhelming majority of non-government schools in that country teach all their classes (other than, of course, native language classes) in English. They do so because that is what their customers demand.

On the other hand we have the government of Karnataka, and the highly influential linguistic nationalists who wish to promote the use of Kannada and who see English as tainted by its association with India’s colonial past. Back in 1994, the Karnatakan government passed a law – not initially enforced – banning English-medium schools. According to recent reports, it plans to start enforcing that ban in April of this year, under pressure from Kannadian activists, shuttering any schools that refuse to comply.

If the ban goes ahead, it will undoubtedly be short-lived, as Bangalore’s businesses start making plans to relocate to other Indian cities and the full economic ramifications are more widely grasped. The fact that it is even being contemplated is just one more excellent example of why centralized control over the curriculum is a bad idea, eh.

Why Fight Educational Freedom?

As reactions to Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict have started coming in, a few recurring objections have emerged to letting parents choose schools that comport with their values. Andrew Coulson, in an excellent post, responds to the arguments of one group in particular: defenders of evolution-only biology instruction. I won’t focus on that camp since Andrew handles them so deftly, and because many of their objections are really just specific examples of the more general complaints I’m going to tackle.

Unfortunately, many of the broadsides launched against Why We Fight employ what I’ll call the “boogeyman gambit”: attacking the entire notion of school choice on the grounds that some parents might choose fringe schools. As Red State Rabble contends:

Cato’s solution to Balkanization? Balkanize the schools. A Christian fundamentalists school here, a Muslim Madrassa there. Hey, there might even be enough money left for a school with a science department somewhere. 

These kinds of attacks are easy, and all too often effective, frighteningly suggesting without any support that somehow the nation will explode with maniacal kooks if we stop forcing people to fund public schools and let them go to institutions of their choice. Give people educational freedom, we’re supposed fear, and the name “Bob Jones” will replace “Horace Mann” on schools across the country.

Right.

Were such fringe groups truly the great threat Red State Rabble makes them out to be, then their schools would already swamp the nation. Parents are, after all, allowed to send their children to private schools as things stand now. Yet with very few exceptions, we hear little or nothing about a threat from private education. Which leaves two possibilities: either the malevolent hordes that Red State Rabble envisions going wild with school choice don’t actually exist, or they’re not so zealous that they’d be willing to part with private school tuition to indoctrinate their kids. Sure, we’re supposed to believe, they’re single-minded fanatics about their causes, but not so much that they’d sacrifice money for them!

Another frequent objection to letting parents choose their kids’ schools is that American children need to be steeped in a shared worldview, lest they be in constant combat as adults. This arose as a major line of argument in a Free Republic discussion about Why We Fight, and is very similar to the “Americanization” mission given to industrial-era public schools, where immigrant students were taught to reject the customs and values of their parents’ lands — and often their parents themselves — and adopt the values political elites deemed proper.

Now, if one were willing to accept a system that would, by definition, quash any thoughts not officially sanctioned, then in theory one would be okay with a public schooling system intended to force uniform thought. In the context of an otherwise free society, however, getting such a system to work is impossible, because it would require that incredibly diverse and constantly combative adults create and run an education system that somehow produces uniform and placid graduates. It’s no more realistic than hoping a tornado will drop houses in a more perfect line than it found them.

The practical result of our trying to make uniformity out of diversity has, of course, been constant conflict, as Why We Fight makes clear. Moreover, there is another by-product of this process that no one mentions when they weave scenarios about choice producing schools steeped in ignorance: our schools right now teach very little, especially in the most contentious areas like evolution and history, because they want to avoid conflict.

When it comes to teaching the origins of life, for instance, while evolution stalwarts might think they have the upper-hand because courts have regularly ruled in their favor, the reality on the ground is often that, courts or no courts, teachers dodge evolution. As the New York Times reported in February 2005:

Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said she heard “all the time” from teachers who did not teach evolution “because it’s just too much trouble.”

“Or their principals tell them, ‘We just don’t have time to teach everything so let’s leave out the things that will cause us problems,’ ” she said.

So here’s what happens when evolution supporters fight to the political death to keep dissenters’ tax dollars in the public schools: Neither evolutionists nor creationists get what they want. It ends like a dispute between children, with someone taking their ball home and no one getting to play.

As one can imagine, because it potentially involves the stories of every group ever on Earth, history instruction often ends up even more denuded than science, thanks to the controversy-avoidance instinct. As Diane Ravitch explains in great detail in The Language Police, history textbooks — and, as a result, history classes — have been rendered utterly barren by the need to pass muster in highly contentious, politicized textbook adoption processes. The result is that nothing very critical ever gets said about any group, and students do not learn anything interesting or meaningful about history. The entire subject, it seems, has taken its ball and gone home.

Which brings us to the fundamental problems with the anti-choice arguments thrown at Why We Fight: they ignore the utter failure of the system we have now, and rest on baseless scare tactics. Choice opponents, however, can only ignore the very real consequences of not having choice for so long. Pretty soon, parents on all sides of the public school wars will unite around just two things: exhaustion with the all the fighting, and demands for school choice.    

Why, Here’s the Myth Now!

Yesterday, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) released Why We Still Need Public Schools: Public Education for the Common Good, which argues that American public schooling is a unifying force that has taken diverse people and made them one, as well as taught them to be good, democratic citizens. 

CEP is wrong, but the timing of their report couldn’t have been better. It just so happens that two days earlier Cato released Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, which directly addresses CEP’s main points. 

Why We Fight itemizes nearly 150 divisive, political battles forced by public schooling in the 2005–06 school year. The paper dispels many of the historical myths about unity through public schooling that are contained in both CEP’s report and the common rhetoric of government schooling advocates.

The conclusions of Why We Fight couldn’t be more clear: Because public schooling forces all of America’s diverse peoples to support a single system of education, but allows only those groups that can accumulate the most political power to control the schools, the people are forced into constant conflict to make the schools reflect their values and desires. From battles over evolution, to dress codes, to student speech, to multiculturalism, to the place of religion in the schools, public schooling has been a constant battleground, not the gentle flame beneath the American melting pot described in CEP’s report. 

In addition to tackling the unity myth, Why We Fight finds no evidence that we need public schools to teach children how to be good citizens. Indeed, it reports that as public schooling became more entrenched and widespread over the decades, such measures of civic involvement as voting rates in presidential elections plummeted. It also shows that students in private schools tend to have greater civic knowledge than their public school peers, and are more tolerant of people different from themselves. 

In the final analysis, only where unity has already existed has public schooling avoided divisive conflict, and where there’s been great diversity, public schooling has produced great conflict. Thankfully, a truly unifying force has overcome public schooling: the shared desire for freedom among the millions of people who have landed on America’s shores, and a shared recognition that to succeed in life, diverse people must voluntarily work together. In other words, we are united in spite of coercive public schooling, not because of it.