Topic: Education and Child Policy

Federal Education Tax Credits. So Close, and yet…

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) has introduced a federal education tax credit bill (“America’s Class Act”) modeled on a program in his home state. The Pennsylvania program is indeed an excellent concept, allowing businesses to make tax-creditable donations to private scholarship funds that in turn help low income families gain access to independent schools. Donation tax credit programs such as this are one of the two critical components in an ideal market education policy (the other being a personal tax credit for parents who choose independent schools for their children).

Unfortuntalely, the unmitigated merits of this policy at the state level are heavily mitigated at the federal level. First, because the Federal government is accorded no role in education whatsoever by our Constitution (“oh, that old thing?!”). And second, because any regulatory encroachment of the independent education sector by the federal government will suffocate schools from sea to sea, leaving nowhere for truly independent schools to thrive.

I’ve already made this case with respect to vouchers, and while I’m more fond of tax credits as a market education reform, federal involvement in this area is still problematic.

New Higher Ed Think Tank in Town

There is a new group joining the national debate over higher education, and unlike many student advocates and higher education associations, its leader, economist Richard Vedder, knows that pouring more money into colleges and universities just expands the ivory tower, it doesn’t make the tower better.

Welcome, Center for College Affordability and Productivity! It’s nice to have you with us.

Prairie Pugilists Keep on Fighting

Were the creationism vs. evolution battle in Kansas a prize fight, no one who bought a ticket to it or purchased pay-per-view would be disappointed. It has gone on forever, with one combatant constantly getting the upper hand only to see his opponent reenergize and take it back. Yesterday, the momentum seemed to be changing once again, with supporters of evolution on the verge of regaining two seats on the state Board of Education, which would give it a 6 to 4 pro-evolution majority.

Of course, the creationism conflict in Kansas – and, indeed, across America – isn’t a prize fight. It’s a battle between the deeply held values of regular people, and unlike Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield, Kansas children, parents, and other citizens aren’t being richly compensated for the punishment they’re taking. They’re fighting because they have to. They all have to support one system of public education, and they all, rightfully, want their beliefs and morals respected.

And so the fight goes on, into rounds we lost count of long ago.

Thankfully, there is a way to end this death match, but it will require that both combatants do something that so far they’ve seemed unwilling to consider. Rather than exchanging blows in perpetuity, they could agree to let each other have what they want. They could cease forcing all people to support a single system of government-created and government-run schools, and implement school choice, giving parents control over their children’s education by letting them pick schools that share their values.

It is, really, a simple way to end a seemingly endless brawl. Unfortunately, right now it seems that too many people would prefer to keep on fighting.

Hmm. Students Are Leaving… Maybe We Should Improve?

This headline and story, ladies and gentlemen, is what market education reform is all about:

School board, staff to address student exodus

Saying it’s time to take a direct role in addressing parents’ concerns about district schools, the Columbus Public Schools Board of Education pledged to create a vision statement to guide policies that will strengthen the city schools and keep students from leaving.

At the same time, administrators and staff members promised to work together on ways to make the the district better.

Board members held a special meeting last Thursday, along with administrators and members of the district’s employee unions, to discuss a survey that said one in nine parents plans to withdraw their child from CPS this year.

That, in a district that has lost nearly 7,000 students to charter schools over the past several years, and stands to lose more because of private school vouchers this fall….

The Same Problem Up North

A report on the state of Canadian higher education has our northern neighbors in a bit of an uproar. It seems that to accumulate political support, policymakers in Canada have been taking college aid originally intended for truly poor Canadians and giving it in gobs to the not-so-needy middle class.

“Governments must stop treating student aid as a cheap forum for buying middle-class votes and once again treat it as a way to help those without means,” declare authors Sean Junor and Alex Usher in the Educational Policy Institute’s Student Aid Time-Bomb.

Boy could we stand to learn that lesson down here! Look no further than the Democratic Leadership Council’s American Dream Initiative to see how American politicians barter for middle-class votes with promises of free-flowing aid. Who cares that huge government giveaways just keep driving up the price of college – we need votes, and we need them now!

Unfortunately, as much as we might like it to be different, such is the nature of the student aid game. You just can’t get aid for the poor without giving a lot more away to the “middle class,” a group that is always defined broadly enough that a critical political mass of Americans will get a piece of bribery pie, whether they need it or not.

Be warned, then, Americans (and Canadians) who intend to help the poor through government “charity” (like, say, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education): You may honestly want to expand aid only for “the truly needy,” but politics will inevitably ruin your plans.

Must Voucher Programs Include Religious Schools?

That’s the question that several Maine families and the Institute for Justice have put before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maine has had a voucher-like “tuitioning” program for well over a century. During most of that period, it allowed participating famillies to choose either a secular or religious school. Then, in 1980, the state decided it had been acting unconstitutionally. Maine’s Attorney general told the legislature that its tuitioning program violated the First Amendment’s proscription against establishing religion. Quick to obey, the legislature passed a law ending the right of voucher-receiving parents to choose religious schools.

A number of court cases have since tried to undo the legislature’s actions. These efforts gained momentum in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs do NOT violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

From that point on, it clearly has been legal for Maine to once again allow the participation of religious schools, but the state has elected not to do so. A group of Maine parents have thus joined with the Institute for Justice this week and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to force the state to permit religious schools to participate.

Their legal argument is that, if a state operates a voucher program, the equal protection and free exercise clauses require it to treat religious and non-religious schools equally, allowing parents to choose either.

That argument has merit. It is discriminatory to exclude religious schools simply because of their religiosity.

But the plaintiff’s solution is not without problems of its own.

If they are successful, parents who object to funding religious schools will nevertheless be compelled to do so. While this sort of compulsion has not been ruled to constitute a federally unconstitutional infringement of taxpayers’ rights, it is nevertheless a bad idea. Compulsion to fund instruction that some taxpayers find objectionable is a recipe for social conflict – a conflict that can currently be seen in the Netherlands over the funding of some conservative Islamic voucher schools.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: The use of education tax credits instead of vouchers to ensure universal access to the public or private schools of parents’ choice. These programs can avoid virtually all of the compulsion that makes public schools a social battleground, and that remains a concern under government voucher programs. See the link above for a short explanation of the tax credit advantage, or this paper for a more substantial one.

Furthermore, even if the parents’ suit prevails, it does not mean that all will be rosy for state-level school voucher programs. All but three states (and Maine is one of those three) have their own constitutional provisions against government funding going to religious institutions. If the U.S. Supreme Court forces all voucher programs to include religious schools, some states may be obliged by their state constitutions to shut down or forego voucher programs rather than allow them to operate with the participation of religious schools.

This, in other words, is a messy, and unnecessary, road to travel. There is a better option: education tax credits.

Trust Me, It’s Just Not Fair

Apparently, if your subject is how you are being victimized by the nation’s higher education system, personal anecdotes and unsupported assertions are all it takes to get in the Washington Post. At least that’s what can be surmised from “Put Grad School Within My Grasp,” a one-woman pity party in which Sui Lang Panoke, an American University graduate student, grieves over having to pay too much of her own education bill, and declares that “a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created.”

Ordinarily, when discussing such low-fact, high-emotion articles as Miss Panoke’s, I would put together one argument rather than tackling individual points. Unfortunately, there’s just too much worthy of comment in Miss Panoke’s piece to let any little bit slip by. I hope, therefore, you’ll pardon my dealing with her lament one piece at a time… 

1. The Introduction: “Is access to graduate education in America exclusively for the upper class? As a first-year graduate student struggling to make ends meet, I believe the answer is yes.”

Not a good start. Miss Panoke offers nothing – not a single fact or figure – to back up her claim that graduate school has become an exclusive preserve of the upper class. And how could she: According to the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 27 percent of graduate students receive means-tested, subsidized Stafford Loans. That means that at the absolute least more than a quarter of American graduate students cannot be upper-class, and no doubt the percentage of non-wealthy grad students is much higher than that.

2. I’m not rich: “I have no college fund, trust or inheritance.”

The assumption here seems to be that anyone who can afford graduate school on their own must be loaded. Of course, a “college fund” could just come from saving over the years, which brings us to…

3. I didn’t get a job after I got my bachelor’s: “I don’t independently qualify for private student loans because I lack the substantial credit or employment history that is required, and I do not have the luxury of having a willing and eligible co-signer.”

Assuming Miss Panoke knew graduate school wasn’t cheap before enrolling, she probably should have worked after getting her bachelor’s degree and saved money for grad school, which would have enabled her to both establish that crucial employment history and make grad school a little more affordable. But wait…

4. I need a graduate degree just to get a job: “Today’s job market is becoming more and more competitive. Bachelor’s degrees don’t carry the weight they used to. It’s almost necessary to have a graduate, doctorate or law degree to compete with the current highly qualified pool of candidates.”

While Miss Panoke is right that bachelor’s degrees have become less meaningful over the years – largely as a result of government pushing everyone into college, and colleges giving out diplomas that signify less and less learning – does she really think everyone has to have an advanced degree to get a job? Unfortunately, she never tells the reader what her own bachelor’s degree is in, but if she majored in anything the least bit marketable, employment opportunities are out there. Indeed, as the National Association of Colleges and Employers recently reported, the employment picture for recent bachelor’s degree recipients is actually very bright.

5. Dude, where are my scholarships? “While I have applied for a few scholarships, I have yet to be awarded one.”

How does Miss Panoke define “a few scholarships?” One? Two? Three? Who knows! And why hasn’t she been awarded any? Was she not qualified? Were winners randomly assigned? Without a lot more information, the reader can’t tell whether the problem is “the system” – as Miss Panoke asserts – or the student herself.

6. There just isn’t enough scholarship money: “Scholarships represent less than 4 percent of the total aid available each year for college students, and much less than that for graduate students.”

At least there’s a stat here, but Miss Panoke cites no source for it, and it is of questionable accuracy.

Using College Board data, in the 2004-05 school year private and employer grants – which might be what Miss Panoke used to calculate scholarship aid – constituted 5 percent of total aid, a little higher than Miss Panoke’s number. But that is really only the tip of the non-government-aid iceberg; Add institutional aid to private and employer grants, and the scholarship share of total aid goes all the way up to 22 percent.

As for graduate students, specific data is hard to find, but given Miss Panoke’s low-balling of undergraduate scholarships–that, and the fact that over 60 percent of graduate students get some kind of aid to attend school–I’ll assume she’s overstating the severity of the problem for grad students.

7. Our Marxism isn’t working: “We are failing to redistribute the wealth in America, and the divide between the upper and lower classes is widening.”

Um, I’ll let this one speak for itself.

8. There’s a less expensive school? “The writer is a first-year graduate student at American University working toward a master’s degree in public administration.”

Wait. American University? This starving student couldn’t have pursued her master’s anywhere cheaper? 

Of course she could have, and right in the Washington, D.C., area. Indeed, with tuition at $1048 per credit hour, AU is roughly 2.5 times more expensive than in-state tuition at Virginia’s George Mason University, and 1.4 times more expensive than out-of-state tuition. Similarly, AU’s tuition is 2.2 times higher than in-state tuition at the University of Maryland, and 1.4 times higher than out-of-state tuition.

9. It Takes Tax Money to Make Tax Money: As frustrating as it is to read Miss Panoke’s fact-free argument for why taxpayers should be forced to shell out more for her schooling, the real kicker is that she wants to use that schooling to get a public sector career (assuming that’s what she’ll use her master’s in public administration for). So, in essence, what she really wants is for taxpayers to finance an education designed to help her get even more money out of them later!

Unfortunately this last point, unlike Miss Panoke’s piece, makes all too much intuitive sense. Read more of the complaints of self-proclaimed victims of American higher education like Miss Panoke, and it will be clear: Their ultimate dream is to be supported, in perpetuity, by the American taxpayer.