Topic: Education and Child Policy

Hey GOP: Just Because It’s Choice Doesn’t Make It Right

It is increasingly clear that the congressional GOP will be using school choice – especially charter schools – as an election-year weapon [$]. And certainly Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens – whatever – should support school choice because educationally, socially, and financially it is the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean Republicans should ignore that the Constitution gives Washington no authority to meddle in education outside of controlling the District of Columbia, federal installations, and ensuring that states and districts don’t discriminate when they provide schooling.

Congressional Republicans’ primary vehicle for showing how much they care about choice is a bill – the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) – that would use $300,000,000 annually to expand charter schooling. Charters, recall, are schools authorized to function by public entities such as school districts or states, but that are run by ostensibly private entities.

The biggest threat that typically comes from federal funding, of course, is that regulation will follow. That said, as public schools, charters already have to follow federal laws such as No Child Left Behind, so regulation isn’t the primary threat from charter aid. No, it’s another major threat: unintended consequences. And the most dangerous – and real – of those consequences is the damage charter schooling does to private schooling, by far the truest form of school choice.

As a 2012 Cato analysis revealed, between 8 and 11 percent of all charter students, depending on the level of schooling, came from private schools. In urban areas the numbers are much more stark, with nearly a third of elementary charter students having been likely private schoolers. As a new Friedman Foundation report describes, the problem for private schools is a clear one: It is very hard to compete when parents think they are getting a private education at public school prices: $0.

It’s great if congressional Republicans, or anyone else, wants to talk up school choice. But the Constitution exists for a reason: to keep federal politicians from inflicting harm, even when they think they’re doing good.  

The Common Core Walks into a Bar…

Defenders of the Common Core national curriculum standards have long employed ridiculing Core opponents as a primary tactic to keep their effort from crumbling. Unlike, say, a circus, the pro-Core assault hasn’t been very entertaining or funny, but it’s been there. Now, though, the humor tide may be turning, with actual funny people – professional comedians – taking on the Common Core.

A first big laugh attack was launched a few weeks ago, when David-Letterman-in-waiting Stephen Colbert ripped into bizarre math questions stemming from the Common Core:

Yesterday, another comedian went after the Core. Louis C.K., of the show Louie, tweeted what actually sounded like a kinda serious distress call about his children:

Now, nobody should make policy based on the jibes of comedians, professional or otherwise. But that pop culture is starting to mock the Core is yet another bad sign for the national standards effort, an effort proponents once thought in the bag when, under federal pressure, 45 states quietly signed on to the Core.

Funny thing is, Core stalwarts don’t seem to be laughing anymore.

Are Unpaid Internships A Social Evil? Ask Our Political Leaders

Next time you notice some politician demanding a higher minimum wage and denouncing private employers for underpaying labor, chances are good the message reached you with the help of an unpaid student intern. Last week a Washington Post opinion contributor unsurprisingly revealed that the Obama White House is itself taking on about 150 such interns this summer, even as it keeps dreaming up new ways to extend and toughen the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for everyone else. New York State Sen. Daniel Squadron, sponsor of a bill to raise the minimum wage at many employers to $15/hour, turns out to offer his own unpaid internships (minimum commitment: 3 days a week), while Del. Heather Mizeur, the left-most Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, has advised would-be Campaign Fellows that “All positions are unpaid and you must provide your own phone and laptop.”  All this following two years of agitation by labor activists and class-action lawyers about the iniquity of unpaid internships.

More about politicians’ double standards in a moment: should, in fact, the government ban such internships for private employers? I answer “no” in a new U.S. News “Debate Club” also featuring an entry by Dan Rothschild of R Street Institute as well as contributions by three advocates of a ban. Excerpt from mine:

With eyes wide open, students with many options have long sought out voluntary unpaid internships because they’re an arrangement that can rationally benefit both sides.

In an Auburn University working paper last month (via), four economists reported on a study that found internship experience was associated with a 14 percent increase in the rate at which prospective employers request interviews of job seekers. As a predictor of the rate of callbacks, an internship on the resume actually worked much better than a business degree itself.

Yet class-action lawyers and labor activists now attack internships as — in the trendy, elastic new term — “wage theft.” These same lawyers and activists go to court demanding millions of dollars retrospectively over arrangements both sides understood perfectly well at the time to be unpaid — and think shakedowns like these should *not* be called “theft.” …

In modern America, it’s never more than a short jump from “this set-up isn’t for everyone” to “let’s ban it.”

I go on to discuss the sclerosis of the European job market, especially when it comes to youth employment, and observe that the “campaign against internships is part of a wider campaign against low-pay work options in general — call it a campaign to get rid of any stepping stones in the stream that aren’t sturdy enough to support a whole family.” And I note the curious contrast with higher education pointed out by my colleague Andrew Coulson: “Paying to Learn Nothing = Legal. Paying Nothing to Learn = Illegal.”

But back to the politicos. My reaction to the stories above is not to try to shame President Obama or Sen. Squadron. To begin with, we know exactly what fix they are likely to propose once we “win” that debate: mulct taxpayers in Terre Haute and Ticonderoga to provide stipends for highly credentialed White House or Albany interns who are already probably headed for the top 10 percent of the income distribution no matter what. Another victory for salving our consciences about inequality!

Instead, I hope stories like the above lead some supporters of Obama, Squadron and Mizeur to rethink their notions of exploitation and unpaid labor. Why wouldn’t a 22-year-old with a laptop and a few free months take a flyer to work for a dynamic political operation, or (mutatis mutandis) hang out in a foreign correspondent’s office, or be the coffee-bringer while getting to see how a Hollywood studio makes a film? Why shouldn’t consenting parties be free to make a choice like these for themselves, rather than our presuming to make it for them? [adapted and expanded from Overlawyered]

Two Questions, Two Answers

As the fall-out continues from the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision earlier this week—see, in order, Ilya’s, my, and Wally’s Cato@Liberty comments—I was invited late yesterday to expand, very briefly, on my earlier reflections at a site called “2paragraphs”—in particular, to discuss, in two paragraphs, how public higher education transfers wealth from the lower to the upper classes of society, and how affirmative action actually harms those it’s meant to help. You’ll find that brief discussion here.

A Visual Aid to Prevent Future Core Shock

While almost certainly not intended to do this, yesterday the Council of Chief State School Officers – one of the creators of the Common Core – held a revelatory panel discussion with four state superintendents. Revelatory, because two Core-supporting state superintendents said pretty much what many Core opponents have long explained: Even if the standards are of outstanding quality, the Core won’t work because “accountability” won’t be rigorously implemented.

Starting around the 30-minute mark of the event video you can start catching comments from Tennessee Supe Kevin Huffman, and New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera, lamenting past failure to translate high standards into performance, and the abandonment of Common Core testing by teacher unions. Huffmann seems especially shocked and angry that state unions he thought were on board with the Core and all its attendant accountability measures are suddenly fighting tooth and nail against it.

Said Huffmann, whose state is on the brink of delaying Core testing: “Our union leadership, which started out…in support of the standards and the assessments…has quit on the process. And they have come out against the transition to more robust assessments….I find that a shocking deviation from the past.”

Alas, had Huffman and other Core supporters been listening to opponents such as myself, or Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas, they would not have been the least bit shocked by this. For instance, as I wrote in the 2010 report Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards:

School Choice Lawsuit Explained

Last week, the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Duncan v. New Hampshire, concerning the constitutionality of the “Live Free or Die” state’s trailblazing scholarship tax credit program. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the program. Over at the Friedman Foundation’s blog, I summarize the law’s history and the primary legal arguments on each side, including legal standing, public versus private money, and the use of public funds at religious schools. I conclude by outlining four possible outcomes:

1. The court rules that the plaintiffs lack standing. In this case, the trial court’s opinion would be overturned and scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

2. The court rules in favor of the program on the merits. That would mean either the court holds that tax credits are private money or that public money may be spent at a religious school so long as it reaches the schools in a manner that is indirect and incidental to the choices of parents. As in the first scenario, scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

3. The court upholds the trial court’s decision. In this case, the tax-credit scholarship program would continue as it has in the last year. The trial court forbid the use of scholarships at religious schools but allowed their use at secular private schools, out-of-district public schools, and homeschool environments. In this scenario, the Institute for Justice likely would challenge the decision in federal court for violating the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment since such a decision would require legislative hostility toward religion rather than neutrality.

4. The court rules against the program and rejects the severability clause. The trial court found that the severability clause that the legislature had added was valid, therefore the program could continue for parents selecting secular schools or homeschooling. The state supreme court could reach the same conclusion on the merits, but reject the severability clause. This would be the most devastating outcome for educational choice in New Hampshire, as it would completely obliterate the tax-credit scholarship program.

Ideally, New Hampshire’s Supreme Court will follow the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona Supreme Court by holding that taxpayers’ money is their own until it reaches the tax collector’s hand.

It’s Constitutional for Voters to Stop Their Government from Discriminating Based on Race

Today the Supreme Court finally ruled on Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, in which Cato filed a brief last summer. This is the case involving a challenge to a voter-approved Michigan state constitutional amendment that bans racial discrimination (including racial preferences) in higher education. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had somehow manage to conclude that such a law violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which … requires that state governments treat everyone equally, regardless of race. The ruling was fractured – six justices voted to reverse the lower court, but for three separate reasons, plus a separate concurrence from Chief Justice John Roberts to respond to the two-justice dissent – but ultimately achieved the correct result: Michigan’s Proposal 2 stands.

But really Schuette is a much easier case than the above description might indicate. Indeed, it’s no surprise that six justices found that a state constitutional provision prohibiting racial discrimination complies with the federal constitutional provision that prohibits state racial discrimination. To hold otherwise would be to torture the English language to the point where constitutional text is absolutely meaningless. The only surprise – or, rather, the lamentable pity – is that Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg somehow agreed with the lower court’s confused determination that the Constitution requires what it barely tolerates (racial preferences in university admissions).

To quote the conclusion of Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurring opinion, for himself and Justice Clarence Thomas:

As Justice Harlan observed nearly a century ago, “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U. S. 537, 559 (1896) (dissenting opinion). The people of Michigan wish the same for their governing charter. It would be shameful for us to stand in their way.

This case was so easy precisely because it didn’t involve the fraught question of whether states can pursue race-conscious measures in order to achieve (some mythical) diversity. Instead, it was about the democratic process and whether voters can rein in the powers of their state government. The answer to that question, like the answer to the question of whether the Equal Protection Clause mandates racial preferences, is self-evident. 

Here’s the full decision, which begins with a plurality opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, for himself, the chief justice, and Justice Samuel Alito.