Topic: Education and Child Policy

Federal Voucher Advocates Ignore the Risks

Conservative school choice advocates seem almost unanimous in their desire for federal vouchers. Writing in National Review Online, the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli supports such a program on the grounds that it would save urban Catholic schools from insolvency. I couldn’t agree more that Catholic schools have been an invaluable educational lifeline for many families, and are eminently worth saving. But I am mystified by the right’s apparent lack of concern about the risks of federal school choice programs.

And I’m not just talking about the 10th Amendment’s proscription against federal education policymaking, which Bill Bennett and Rod Paige dismissed last week as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” I’m talking primarily about the sobering examples of national voucher programs in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden.

While these programs are superior, in many respects, to education monopolies such as our own, they suggest that federal voucher programs bring with them stifling federal regulation. In Sweden, the regulation was there from the start, while in the Netherlands it built up inexorably over time. There are no examples anywhere in the world of federal governments extending funding to private schools without also extending federal control – whether immediately or gradually. The end result is that independent schools lose their independence, and any hope for the rise of a truly competitive education industry is lost.

Why are conservatives ignoring this risk? Perhaps they no longer see federal regulatory encroachment as a risk at all. Many have specifically advocated increased federal intervention in the content of instruction (see this debate on federal standards between Michael Petrilli and Cato’s own Neal McCluskey, or Neal’s current piece in NRO).

There are alternatives. State level school choice policies are preferable to federal ones, and funding universal school choice with private dollars (through non-refundable tax credits) is preferable to doing it with government dollars. Short version of this argument here. Long version here.

Educational Excellence Through Central Planning?

In a Washington Post op-ed, former education secretaries Rod Paige and Bill Bennett call for a federal education testing regime. States that don’t like the idea would be free to keep their own standards, but only under the “rules and meddling of federal bureaucrats” that already takes place under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). What they’re saying to states is this: why don’t we replace those NCLB handcuffs – that you might slip out of anyway – with a nice new straightjacket.”

In trying to sell this idea, they acknowledge that the Constitution makes no mention of education – and hence, by the 10th Amendment, leaves power over it in the hands of the states and the people – but then dismiss adherence to that Amendment as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” It is federal officials like these, keep in mind, who would oversee the standards and tests in question. I can see it now. “Guess what I learned in school today, daddy: ‘The Bill of Rights is for wussies!’”

Even more puzzling, the secretaries acknowledge the virtues of competitive education markets in their double plus ungood argument for central planning. As a champion of the Western literary canon, surely Mr. Bennett has turned the pages of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which begins by explaining that markets depend on specialization and the division of labor. Imposing a single set of federal standards and tests would crush the diversity that markets require.

Most short-sightedly, the secretaries’ simply assume that a new federal standards and testing regime would necessarily meet with their approval. They make that gross assumption at a time when their own party’s control of congress is in doubt, and after acknowledging that “most states have deployed mediocre standards.”

In a nutshell, it’s a bad argument for a bad idea.

Remind me again, which of the two major parties stands for limited government?

ACLU Sues to Limit Educational Liberty in AZ

Arizona passed a series of new school choice bills this June, and the ACLU has now filed suit to stop one of them from being implemented. For more than six years, individual Arizonan taxpayers have been able to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on donations they make to private Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The SGOs, in turn, help families to pay tuition at the independent school of their choice. The recent bill that the ACLU is challenging extends that donation tax credit to businesses as well as individuals.

On what grounds does the ACLU claim to oppose this policy, you ask? They assert that “it violates state constitutional provisions prohibiting public funding for religious schools and mandating that the state provide a general and uniform public school system.”

The first objection is not likely to hold water, given that the AZ Supreme Court already ruled, in Kotterman v. Killian, that tax credits do not constitute public funding.

The second challenge is more interesting, having been inspired by the astonishingly inventive Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down that state’s A+ voucher program early this year. Will foes of educational freedom find this argument a winner in AZ? Not knowing much about the AZ Justices, it’s hard to say. The argument certainly did not work with Wisconsin’s Supreme Court when it was used against Milwaukee’s voucher program during the 1990s.

What’s most interesting about all this is, however, is not the details of the legal arguments but the fact that opponents have been reduced to arguing about such minutia. In states where school choice programs are established and running, they tend to be very popular with the families who are able to participate. Hence, opponents find it hard to convince people that choice is bad – they have to try to show that some legal “i” has gone undotted to have any hope of herding the public back into state monopoly schools. In the Florida case, the plaintiffs openly acknowledged that the success of the voucher program was utterly immaterial to their argument.

Opponents of school choice don’t care whether or not educational liberty helps families. They are ideologically wedded to the status quo monopoly and will seek to preserve it by any means necessary.

How this benefits the American people, or advances “civil liberties,” I really can’t imagine.

Hopelessly Devoted to HIM?

SMU Biblical studies professor Mark Chancey has just penned a study of Bible teaching in Texas Public Schools (.pdf). The report concludes that “the public school courses currently taught in Texas often fail to meet minimal academic standards for teacher qualifications; curriculum, and academic rigor; promote one faith perspective over all others; and push an ideological agenda that is hostile to religious freedom, science and public education.”

Chancey’s most damning charge: “Most Bible courses are taught as religious and devotional classes that promote one faith perspective over all others.” If true, that, of course. would be unconstitutional. (Nadine Strossen, call your office.)

Here’s a thought: Rather than forcing all Americans to pay for a one-size-fits-few government monopoly that inevitably creates legal and cultural conflict over the curriculum, why not institute a school system that would give both parents and other taxpayers real educational choice? This could easily be done by combining and enlarging the existing personal use and scholarship donation tax credit programs that exist in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona. A short exposition of the idea appears here, and a more comprehensive one is available here.

Cato’s Neal McCluskey will be publishing a study of the endless school wars caused by our state-run education monopolies later this year. Stay tuned.

Glad to be Proven Wrong

In a recent op-ed for the Indianapolis Star, I wrote that Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) had a vested interest in finding school choice to be unpopular with voters — because it was a part of the University’s Department of Education, and that department could well be rendered obsolete under a large scale school choice program. As it turns out, the Center is largely financially independent of the Department, and so would not likely go down with the ship under a voucher or education tax credit program.

I also expressed concern about the Center’s pattern of polling on school choice, which seemed to be moving away from the sort of neutral, general question that elicits more favorable responses, and toward narrower questions that elicit lower support. After speaking with CEEP’s director, Jonathan Plucker, I’m informed that they already have plans to ask their initial general voucher question once again, on their next survey, and so the appearance of a move away from such questions was illusory.

I’m delighted to hear both of these facts, should have taken the time to obtain them in advance, and owe Dr. Plucker and his staff an apology.

Now if Phi Delta Kappan, the publisher of an annual nationwide education survey, is willing to return to THEIR original voucher question, I will be delighted to apologize to them as well. Still not holding my breath on that one.

Private Voucher Schools Less Racially Segregated

Reaffirming earlier research, new studies of the voucher programs in Cleveland (.pdf) and Milwaukee (.pdf) find that private voucher schools are less racially segregated than the public schools in their districts.

This should come as no surprise. Economist Thomas Nechyba (.pdf) has shown that public schools’ geographically-based student assignment system lowers not only school-level integration, but neighborhood integration as well. By de-coupling school choice from place of residence, considerably higher levels of integration become possible and, as the research shows, actually take place.

As in so many other cases, the argument that government-run schooling is necessary to promote integration is precisely backward. Government schools are an impediment to integration and to the achievement of minority students.

Anyone who truly believes in the ideals of public education should support the free market reforms that can actually fulfill those ideals, and abandon the government-run monopoly system that so consistently fails to advance them.

College Aid Calculations Don’t Measure Up

Every other year, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (NCPPHE) – an organization run almost exclusively by politicians and higher education insiders – issues a report called Measuring Up, which typically declares that as a nation we provide far too little aid to students to help them afford college. Measuring Up 2006, released today, is no different.

Now, to be fair, the 2006 edition of the biennial woe-fest does make a good point about government-funded student aid, noting that it has increasingly targeted middle and even upper-class – rather than low-income - students. Of course, it fails to note the inevitability of that outcome given that aid to the poor must be accompanied by aid to the middle class to be politically viable.

Where Measuring Up 2006 deserves scorn, though – as have previous Measuring Up reports – is in how it calculates federal student aid, a critical part of the report’s determination of college affordability.

A reasonable person would, of course, consider federal aid to be any kind of financial assistance provided to students by the federal government. That would be both federal and aid, after all. But the folks at NCPPHE don’t see it that way. No, for them, only Pell grants count as federal aid. Why? Because, according to the Measuring UpTechnical Guide” – which is separate from the main report – “Pell grants are by far the largest component of federal grant aid.”

Oh, come on! According to data from the College Board, while it is true that Pell grants provide more aid than any other federal grant programs, Pell is still far from the only federal grant initiative, and not even close to the only federal aid program.

Here are the numbers: In the 2004-05 academic year, while the federal government doled out $13.1 billion in Pell grants, it provided an additional $6.3 billion through work study and grant programs other than Pell. Add to that the $8.0 billion that people received through federal higher education tax benefits, and the non-Pell total surpasses the Pell amount, hitting $14.3 billion. And then there are federal loans, which even when not technically subsidized (the feds pay the interest on the loans for a given amount of time) are still in reality subsidized because they are backed with taxpayer dollars, which helps keep their interest rates artificially low. Add those loans – a total of $62.4 billion – to the student aid pot and Pell grants are absolutely dwarfed, coming in at just 14 percent of all federal aid.

And so, the higher education establishment has struck again. Absurdly defining all federal student aid as just Pell grants, Measuring Up 2006 has ignored the vast majority of aid furnished by federal taxpayers and cried out for more money. It’s just the kind of accounting that could only measure up in a report intended to further rip off taxpayers and enrich the ivory tower.