Topic: Education and Child Policy

Don’t Blame School Choice for Philly’s School Funding Fiasco

Philadelphia’s government schools are in the midst of a financial crisis and anti–school choice activists think they found the perfect scapegoat.

Earlier this week, the group Americans United (AU) attacked Pennsylvania’s scholarship tax credit program, claiming that it was partially responsible for Philadelphia’s budget woes.

For the second year in a row Philadelphia’s public schools are struggling to open on time, and it appears deep budget cuts—including money siphoned for a voucher-like program—are to blame. … That’s why it’s important to remember that when voucher [sic] programs expand, it often comes at the expense of public schools.

Curiously, in a post of more than 650 words about Philly’s school funding fiasco, the AU blogger could not find space to mention how much Philadelphia actually spends per pupil. Perhaps that’s because citizens are far less sympathetic to claims of school underfunding when they learn how much is already being spent. Consistent with previous studies, a recent Education Next survey found that support for increasing government school spending dropped from 63% to 43% when respondents were first told how much the schools currently spend.

Philadelphia’s schools are well-funded compared to the national and state averages. As Andrew J. Coulson observed last September, the Philly school district spent nearly $16,000 per pupil in 2013-14, which is about $3,000 above the national average and about $1,000 more than Pennsylvania’s statewide average. It’s even $1,600 more than in-state tuition at Temple University. The $32 million budget cut that AU laments is only about 1% of the city’s $3.03 billion budget (p. 54). Moreover, that “cut” came entirely from temporary stimulus funds that had expired.

The AU blogger also does not offer an explanation for how the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) supposedly harms government schools. The EITC grants tax credits worth 75% to 90% of corporate donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low- and middle-income families select the schools of their choice. The scholarships averaged only $990 in 2011-12, which is barely 6% of Philadelphia’s per pupil expenditures. Scholarship organizations can use up to 20% of the donations they receive for administrative purposes, so even assuming that every organization used the maximum administrative allowance (though a 2010 state report [p. 33] put the average at 8%), that’s still only $1,237.5 per pupil. Even assuming that every donor received the maximum 90% credit, the EITC reduces revenue by only $1,113.75 per pupil, which is still only about 7% of what Philly spends per pupil.

Support for School Choice Continues to Grow

Today, Education Next released its latest survey results on education policy. As with the Friedman Foundation’s survey earlier this year and previous Education Next surveys, scholarship tax credits (STCs) remain the most popular form of private educational choice. STCs garnered support from 60% of respondents compared to 50% support for universal school vouchers and only 37% support for low-income vouchers.

The Friedman Foundation’s survey found the strongest support for educational choice among younger Americans. While Americans aged 55 and up favored STCs by a 53%-33% margin, Americans aged 18-34 supported STCs by a whopping 74%-14% margin. While it’s possible that younger Americans are more likely to support educational choice because they’re more likely to have school-aged children, it could also be evidence of growing support for educational choice generally. The series of Education Next surveys provides strong support for the latter interpretation, as shown in the chart below. (Note: the 2013 Education Next survey did not ask about STCs.)

Education Next 2014 Survey

While support for STCs was only 46% in 2009, it has grown to 60% this year. Over the same time, opposition has fallen from 27% to 24%, with a low of 16% in 2012. If support among millennials merely remains constant, overall support for educational choice will continue to grow in the coming years, making the adoption and expansion of such programs increasingly likely.

[See here for Neal McCluskey’s dissection of the Education Next survey questions concerning Common Core.]

Spinning the Core, Again

The annual Education Next survey is out, and its headliner is the Common Core. Unfortunately, it features basically the same incomplete, answer-skewing question it employed last year, and reports the same dubious finding of majority support. But even with that, the direction in which opinion has moved speaks volumes about the serious trouble the Core is in.

Just like last year, the question gives a misleading description of either the Core or national standards generically—pollsters asked a version that did not mention the Core by name—and got high rates of support. Here’s the question, with the parts that were omitted, for half the respondents, in brackets:

As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use [the Common Core, which are] standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of these [the Common Core] standards in your state?

Like last year, the question completely ignores major federal coercion behind states’ adopting the Core, as well as the fact that the Core itself is only part of what’s necessary to “hold public schools accountable.” Tests, and consequences for performance on them, are needed for accountability, and those are driven by federally demanded testing and sanctions. Oh, and Washington selected and paid for specific Core-aligned tests.  Meanwhile, generic common standards would in no way have to be used to hold schools accountable; they could just be toothless measuring devices. And how many people would come out against something as seemingly positive as holding schools “accountable”? The devil is in how, exactly, that would be done.

Fact-Checking the Teachers Union: A Follow Up

Yesterday, I noted that American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten cited an imaginary statistic on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Weingarten claimed that “most teachers right now in America have less than two years of experience.” That’s clearly false because the most recent NCES data shows that 91 percent of government school teachers had more than three years of classroom experience in 2011-12.

As I noted in an update to my post, some claimed that Weingarten had probably intended to refer to the mode, not “most.” Weingarten herself later admitted that she misspoke and meant to refer to the mode, but even then, the data she meant to cite was out of date. What she said was technically true for 2007-08 (though misleading, as I will show), but she claimed that this was the case “right now,” which is false. In fact, the most recent data (see page 12) show that the mode for teacher experience was five years in 2011-12.

Nevertheless, she still claims that the statistic she meant to cite buttresses her point. Actually though, her use of that statistic is misleading.

Fifth Circuit Disobeyed Supreme Court in Allowing Racial Preferences at UT-Austin

Last year, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to the use of racial preferences in university admissions by reversing a Fifth Circuit panel opinion that had allows the use of race in UT-Austin’s admissions policy. That wasn’t the end of the story, however; after holding that the university bears the burden of proving that its use of racial preferences is necessary and narrowly tailored—a point on which university administrators are due no deference—the Court remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether UT had offered evidence sufficient to prove that its use of race was “narrowly tailored to achieving the educational benefits” of diversity. 

Recall that UT-Austin’s admissions program fills most of its spots through a race-neutral Top Ten Percent Plan—which offers admission to high school graduates in the top ten percent of their class—then fills the remaining seats with a “holistic” rating that takes into account various factors typical to admissions programs (including race for certain preferred minorities).

Well, on remand, the Fifth Circuit panel split 2-1 but once again sided with the university, holding that even if the Top Ten Percent Plan already provided a “critical mass” of minority students, the use of racial preferences was necessary to achieve some other special kind of diversity.  The dissenting opinion by Judge Emilio Garza points out how the majority has deferred, once again, to the university’s hand-waving claim that its use of racial preferences is narrowly tailored to an actual, appropriate interest, without having actually proven anything approaching what is constitutionally required. 

Abigail Fisher, the white former applicant suing UT-Austin, has asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case. Cato has filed a brief supporting that petition. 

In our brief, we argue that the Fifth Circuit panel failed to apply actual, deference-free strict scrutiny, failed to require the university to define the “critical mass” its race-based policy is intended to achieve, and failed to require the university to explain with particularity why race-blind measures wouldn’t be able to achieve its interests. Rather than require that UT-Austin even roughly define what quanta of black and Hispanic students is necessary to further its diversity goals–a particularly meaningful task given the significant black and Hispanic presence on campus resulting from the Top Ten plan–the university was allowed to skate on vacuous platitudes about “critical masses,” “tipping points,” “upper bands,” and the like. But if interests so vacuous they read like a parody of a Thomas Friedman column were all that strict scrutiny required, why would the Supreme Court have even bothered taking up the Fisher case?

The constitutional laziness and deference the panel majority showed is striking.  The Fifth Circuit should hear this case en banc and correct the errors made by the panel majority, which contradict circuit precedent in various ways.

Further background and Cato’s previous filings in the case are available here.

Fact-Checking the Teachers Union

In a conversation about teacher tenure reform on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) claimed that “most teachers right now in America have less than two years of experience.”

Studies show that teachers are more effective after a few years of classroom experience, so this new development would be quite disturbing… if it were remotely true.

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 9% of government school teachers had less than three years of classroom experience in 2011-12. Even charitably assuming that by “most” Weingarten meant only 50.1%, there would have had to have been massive layoffs and unprecedented hiring in the last two years. Since the number of teachers has not changed significantly in that time, Weingarten’s claim assumes that about 1.4 million experienced teachers were replaced by new recruits since 2012. The latest NCES data showed only 8% of government school teachers leaving the profession after the 2008-09 school year, which is fewer than 275,000.

In other words, Weingarten would like us to believe that the number of teachers leaving the profession has increased five-fold in five years. Even half that number would have resulted in screaming headlines across the nation. It simply did not happen.

Florida Parents Fight for Educational Choice

On what would have been the 102nd birthday of Milton Friedman—the godfather of educational choice—six families with children that have special needs are fighting back against Florida’s largest teachers union, which is seeking to kill the Sunshine State’s newest educational choice program.

Milton Friedman on educational choice.

The Florida Education Association is suing the state of Florida to eliminate the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) program, among other recent education reforms, including an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit law. Modeled after Arizona’s popular education savings account (ESA), the PLSA would provide ESAs to families of students with special needs, which they could use to pay for a wide variety of educational expenses, such as tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online learning, and educational therapy. Six families with special-needs children who would have qualified for the program are seeking to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit, represented by the Goldwater Institute’s Clint Bolick.

The union’s lawsuit argues that the legislation creating the PLSA, Florida’s Senate Bill 850, violated the state constitution’s “one subject rule” because it contained a variety of education reforms.