Topic: Education and Child Policy

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).

Parents: Teach Your Children Well

On Friday I picked my son up at Union Station.  He came home for the weekend to go see Corteo with the family.  He has only been at college for a few months.  I miss his smile.  I miss his questions.  He and his girlfriend were so polite. They were being the adults while I was being the child.  I just couldn’t help myself.  I told them all about my new job, what I had done that day, what I had done the day before, my plans for the weeks to come.

On the way home in the car, Nathan said, “Hey, Mom.  I’ve written a new poem.”

“Really?” I answered, realizing how selfish I’d been.  “Let’s hear it.”

And I ask you

Speak to me of freedom? You know not what it means
but take its name and shackle those with whom you disagree
You wave a flag of righteousness; you bellow and you scream
That those who are not as you are they never should have been

Speak to me of god and tell me what he thinks
of bigotry and hatred for the love each person makes
A fellowship, a flock for which you try to build a wall
The blackest sheep is slaughtered as an offering to them all

Speak to me of love and tell me what it takes
to make a love and test it true, the arrow to be straight
One path is true one path is tried one path we will allow
Two people bound in heart and mind but cannot give a vow

Speak to me of law and tell me what is just
a chance for those with tyrant tendencies to run amok
A forum for the many to oppress a hapless few
Virginia is for lovers, but there’s no room here for you.

Nathan Revere (Nov. 2006).

Will Democrats Become the Party of Educational Liberty?

The swing vote has swung. As I write this on November 7th at 10:30pm PST, the Democratic party has taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives and seems headed for victory in the Senate as well.

Democrats ran, and won, largely on voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. But political honeymoons are shorter than Hollywood marriages. Before too long, Democrats will have to show that they bring something to the table beyond the fact of not being Republicans. They will have to prove that they can once again become a party of ideas – and good ones, at that.

Short of a miracle, they are not going to come up with any political silver bullets in the foreign policy arena. It’s doubtful that anyone could. That leaves domestic policy. As it happens, though, a growing number of state and local Democratic politicians are already showing compelling leadership on an issue of importance to every parent, child, taxpayer, and business in America: education.

In recent weeks, several prominent Democrats have thrown their support behind education tax credit programs that would bring real school choice to families that have little if any such choice today. In NJ, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan – both Democrats – are among the “new and powerful backers” of a scholarship donation tax credit. The proposal would allow businesses to donate money to private scholarship-granting organizations which in turn would provide tuition assistance to low-income families. Yet another high-profile NJ Democrat to come out in favor of the policy is popular Newark mayor Cory Booker, who sent a letter to state legislators urging them to support it.

They aren’t alone. Elliot Spitzer, NY state’s new governor-elect (D - landslide), has also come out in favor of education tax credits.

These endorsements will most likely be characterized as departures from the party’s recent anti-school-choice stance. Much more importantly, they represent a return to its historical principles and policy solutions. Democratic U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan championed an education tax credit bill back in the early 1970s, and it very nearly passed. He later mourned the political calculus that caused his party to spurn school choice, saying:

I do not think that the prospect of change in [education] is enhanced by the abandonment of pluralism and choice as liberal ideas and liberal values. If that happens it will present immense problems for a person such as myself who was deeply involved in this issue long before it was either conservative or liberal. And if it prevails only as a conservative cause, it will have been a great failure of American liberalism not to have seen the essentially liberal nature of this pluralist proposition.

School choice was rejected by Democrats because the party was so beholden to public school employee unions, and because some Democrats were fearful, according to Moynihan, of educational pluralism. But in blue states such as New Jersey and New York, absolute obeisance to union demands is not essential to Democrats’ political survival. And over the course of the past several decades, Democrats have consistently voiced support for educational diversity, and praised more humanized, child-centered approaches to learning. Both are far more compatible with a system of parental choice than with the factory-like public school monopoly we have today.

And support for school choice through education tax credits is not without its own appealing political calculus for Democrats. What other single policy could promote the loyalty of the libertarian swing voters who have just helped Democrats to power, while also meeting the demands of inner-city voters who have been clamoring for school choice.

Democrats, in other words could very easily steal the school choice issue from Republicans. Best of all, they wouldn’t actually be stealing it. Education tax credits were a Democratic idea more than thirty years ago. The torch has been passed from Moynihan at the national level to current state party leaders. Now it’s up to them to spread that fire of educational liberty, or let it fizzle out. And more than their party’s future depends on their decision.

Forget the Election … Education Tax Credits Will Save the Republic and Bring World Peace!

Let’s face it : everyone is sick of election prognosticating and there’s nothing left to say in any case (until the results come in and politicians and pundits begin to spin again).  So let’s turn to wonky school reform spats that just won’t die!

Sara Mead at Edpresso just doesn’t buy that education tax credits are the best thing going in education reform, so we’ll have to get more detailed.

She cannily (given that we’re libertarians here) attacks tax credits on rational choice/econ grounds, arguing that dollar-for-dollar tax credits will reduce the “cost to the donor and his or her incentive to hold scholarship foundations accountable.”  This is certainly true compared with someone in a system without tax credits that has to make the decision to pay twice for education – their incentives to hold the school accountable are large due to the significant additional investment. 

But her analysis overlooks many important factors. Most importantly, it fails to compare incentives in a tax credit system to those of the relevant alternative – our current government-run school system. 

There are many costs and incentives beyond fiscal ones.  A business that donates money to a Scholarship Granting Organization, it is true, reallocates money from the government to a non-profit, and therefore does not incur any additional monetary cost in this very simplified scenario.  That does not mean there are no costs to the company.  They must identify SGOs to which they wish to donate and comply with the required paperwork to do so.  This cost may be offset by community good will and publicity (or added to by criticism from school choice critics).  In addition, they have a long-term interest in the performance of both the SGO and children and schools they fund because their company name is now associated with them.  Donating to SGOs that fund failing schools will provide no community goodwill and is likely to draw criticism.

Another reason why businesses participate in scholarship donation programs is because they recognize that many students are emerging from our K-12 public schools unprepared to succeed in work or higher education. In addition to its civic benefits, ensuring that children are better educated directly benefits the donor businesses themselves. Better educated students mean a stronger labor force from which businesses can recruit new employees. Those businesses would thus have an incentive to direct their money to the best-managed SGOs.   

Businesses using donation tax credits have very significant interests in holding SGOs and schools accountable for educating children, interests that would easily justify the costs of choosing and donating to SGOs. 

Individual donors face the same costs of donating, and will be invested with personal incentives to make sure that they are not wasting their money and the time they have devoted to the process on SGOs and schools that fail.

Again, the reason an individual would make a donation under an SGO program is that that individual is dissatisfied with the quality of education on offer in the public schools.  Donors with that sort of motivation are hardly likely to pick SGOs at random.  Furthermore, just as the media now cover the school beat, so too would they cover SGOs, so the cost to donors of finding out about SGO operations would be low – they’d just have to pick up the paper.

It may be true that the choices of what one can do with a tax credit are severely limited compared to the universe of unrestricted choices.  But the donor will still face a choice between many SGOs, individual children, and sending the money to the state for it to disburse for her.  The donor is still making a decision regarding how to spend her money – it is simply a restricted choice set.  But the donor will still have an incentive to hold organizations accountable for results, and will have an easier time responding to information.  A donor can easily send next year’s tax credit to another SGO. 

Sara compares these incentives to hold schools accountable with donations made without the benefit of a tax credit.  Certainly, in the latter case, the incentive is large because the cost to the donor is large.  But a cost can be too large, and in this case it is – otherwise we would be awash in private scholarships.  People must currently pay twice to help the disadvantaged – once through state taxes and then again through donations.  It’s no surprise that many do not do both, even when the state misspends their tax dollars.  Education tax credits reduce the costs but not the incentives to help the disadvantaged, thereby ensuring that more of the disadvantaged will be helped.

The appropriate comparison is not with the incentives of donors who cannot claim tax credits.  The appropriate comparison is with the incentives and ability to hold schools accountable under the current system versus other proposed systems.   Sara recognizes this, but doesn’t consider the strength of the incentives within the current or proposed government-run systems (emphasis in the original):

More significantly, Adam’s point here acknowledges that the people who fund schools have a clear interest in holding those schools accountable. Guess what–when we’re talking about education that’s supported from public coffers, then the people funding the schools are all of us taxpayers, and we all have an interest in holding schools accountable for serving the public good.

Taxpayers may have an interest, but not the ability to hold schools accountable. Just try withholding your taxes when you don’t like the local schools.  I don’t think the police will be impressed with your explanation.

One of the most difficult problems in government is accountability.  There is a reason that even farmers who don’t need it continue to get subsidies, that sugar prices here are absurdly high, that the tax code is cluttered with special breaks, and that earmarks for pet projects have exploded.  All of these things are funded by “all of us taxpayers,” and we certainly “all have an interest” in holding our Congress accountable for serving the public good and not running up a deficit.  But the costs are diffuse and small to any single taxpayer, while the benefits are large and concentrated among organized groups. 

The key differences between a true system of school choice and a government run system are that individual taxpayers fund students in a system of choice, and the government funds schools in the current system.  The ability and incentives to hold schools accountable in such a system are almost non-existent, and it shows.  The costs are diffuse, and therefore not readily apparent, and the benefits are concentrated among the education establishment, which uses the political system to its advantage.  

In order for taxpayers to hold the schools accountable, they must unite on a single issue area and work together through a difficult political system for very definite goals.  Needless to say this does not happen.  It is too difficult, and the costs and potential gain are too diffuse (and non-selective) to overcome collective action problems.  Even in a charter system, this would hold true.  And even within a student-based/attached funding or voucher system, the government would fund students, meaning that costs and responsibility would still be diffuse and therefore the incentives and ability for taxpayers to hold schools accountable would be low. 

A tax credit system creates the most powerful system of incentives to hold schools accountable because individual taxpayers fund students.  Parents have the ability and incentive to hold schools accountable by going elsewhere with ease, because the money follows their child.  And taxpayers have the ability and incentive to hold schools and SGOs accountable because they know where their money is going and can take it to other schools or SGOs with ease. 

An education tax credit system relies on the incentives, knowledge, and actions of thousands of parents and taxpayers, ensuring that the interests of individual parents, families, communities, and the diverse public at large are met.  This system makes schools accountable to the largest number of stakeholders possible, and provides the most effective means of holding schools accountable to each stakeholder: exit. 

This is true public accountability.  And this system truly serves the public good by ensuring a basic education for all citizens – an education that respects the diversity of the public to which that good is provided. 

Sara proclaims that she supports choice in education, and that she doesn’t “care if you want to send your kid to a Montessori school, a single-sex school, a military school, a religious school, or a billingual Esperanto immersion school.”  Wonderful news, I say!

 “But,” Sara says, “I do care, as a taxpayer, that schools using my tax money meet basic health and safety standards, don’t discriminate, and teach kids sufficient math and verbal/literacy skills to contribute to the economy and have a decent shot in life. That’s why we need both parent choice and public accountability. And it’s why education tax credits just don’t cut it.” 

First, any educational facility would be required to meet basic health and safety standards under existing laws.  Tax credits don’t magically eliminate all previously passed regulations.    Second, all tax credit programs and proposals with which I am familiar already prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race and national origin.  Third, I can’t imagine how tax credits could result in lower basic math and verbal skills than those our current system is producing – but, even such an unfounded concern can be resolved with ease by requiring participating students to take some kind of basic achievement test, which current programs and proposals all do, and which most private schools do currently as well (however, it’s an unnecessary measure in any case – just look at all of the information on colleges).

There must be other, legitimate issues if Sara’s concern for the “public accountability” of education tax credits is to be taken seriously.  If these are the only problems Sara has with an education tax credit system, then she should unite with us behind ETCs!

The Quick and the Ed NOT a Bunch of Droolers …

I never thought I would see the day, but I’ve been charged with “drooling” over a Democratic candidate’s policy position. I guess it’s true, and I guess I am that big of a nerd. I do some additional Spitzer-drooling on NRO this morning.

Sara Mead over at The Quick and The Ed says she can’t get excited about education tax credits like me and Ryan at Edspresso – no drooling from her. The primary problem comes down to this:

“If you’re a moderate on these issues, you should actually find tax credits more troubling than straight-out vouchers, mainly because tax credits for private education have even less public accountability for how public funds are used than do vouchers.”

But the thing is, school choice through tax credits provides an education system more accountable to parents and the public than charters, voucher, or anything else.

Personal-use tax credits allow parents to spend their own money on schools that they choose … and school accountability to parents is the most effective kind of accountability. Donation tax credits let people choose the kinds of Scholarship Granting Organizations they think do the best job educating lower-income children. In both cases, the people with the most interest in holding schools accountable for results are the ones with the power to actually hold them accountable – parents and the people funding the schools.

On top of this direct accountability to parents and the public, families and communities can choose the kind of school that works best for them, without making other people who disagree with their preferences pay for it. As it stands, we have to duke it out in the political and legal sphere over issues like separate but equal schooling for girls and boys. Some people want it, some don’t. Right now, it’s winner-takes-all, loser-tough-luck. Shouldn’t these decisions be ones for the parents, not the courts, the state, or the school district? And shouldn’t people who think same-sex education is wrong be able to withhold their support from it?

Education tax credits let individuals, families, and communities support the kind of educational environment they think works best. What’s wrong with diversity and freedom? Personally, those are the kinds of principles that get me drooling.

Feds Approve Separate But Equal Schools

The federal Department of Education has granted public schools “broad freedom to teach boys and girls separately.”

Presumably, however, school districts will not compel parents to send their children to same sex schools, but rather give them the option of choosing such schools. But if the public school system is willing to grant that same sex schooling might be good for some students and not for others, and that the decision should be left to parents, it begs the question: Is this the only respect in which children should be treated as individuals, and families afforded educational choice?

Surely we could add that some students might benefit from an orderly, structured classroom environment while others might learn more quickly and deeply when allowed greater freedom to explore on their own. Or that some children might be unusually advanced in certain subjects, and require an unusually challenging curriculum, while others might need extra emphasis on the basics.

Offering same sex schooling as an option to families is an admission that children are not identical widgets to be processed by a one-size-fits-all education factory. But once we admit that point, we reveal our current education monopoly for the travesty that it is.

The best way to advance our ideals of public education is not through a monolithic government school aparatus, but through a liberated system of independent schools competing for the privilege of serving each and every unique child.