Topic: Education and Child Policy

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).

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!