Topic: Education and Child Policy

ESSA Seems Ripe for Federal Control

Think the end of the No Child Left Behind Act means the end of federal micromanagement? You may have to think again.

As I’ve laid out before, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has several ambiguities that seem to keep the door open for continued federal control over state standards, tests, and accountability mechanisms, even as the law has some provisions that seem to prohibit federal intervention. What, for instance, constitutes “challenging” state standards, and who determines that? Or who decides what the right mix of academic and non-academic factors is in school accountability schemes? It certainly seems that because this is federal law, and it includes required federal approval of state plans, there will be federal control.

A report on comments from numerous interest and advocacy groups as the U.S. Department of Education prepares to write ESSA regulations – frankly, where law is really made – only bolsters the fear of continued federal domination. While some groups are certainly calling for a light federal touch, others clearly want continued force. As the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now – hardly just a player in the Nutmeg State – wrote:

As you establish rules and regulations around the ESSA, we urge you to maintain challenging and high standards for all students, ensure high-quality, valid and reliable annual statewide assessments, and implement comprehensive and robust school and district accountability and performance systems that help identify and improve our highest need schools and districts.

Sound like a light federal touch? Not to me, either.

Thankfully, rules and regs haven’t been written yet, and there is still time to address what appear to be very real threats of continued federal control both specifically in the law, and ultimately in regulation. And address them we shall on February 16, when Cato will host a debate between experts who see the ESSA as returning power to states and districts, and those who see that as a very uncertain proposition. Or maybe you think the law goes too far removing influence from DC. Well we’ll tackle that, too, especially if you join us – either in-person or online, and using #FedsLeaveEd on Twitter – and ask our panel about it.

Does the ESSA really relinquish federal power? That remains an open question, and lots of people – including at Cato – will be debating what the answer should be.

Georgia Judge Rejects Challenge to School Choice

Great news from the Peach State, where a superior court judge dismissed a constitutional challenge to Georgia’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law. The Institute for Justice intervened to defend the law on behalf of five tax-credit scholarship recipients. Currently, more than 13,000 Georgia students receive tax-credit scholarships to attend the schools of their choice.

School choice opponents alleged that the STC violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the state from publicly funding religious schools, among other provisions. However, citing precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court and several state supreme courts, Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams held that tax-credit eligible donations constitute private funds, not public expenditures:

Courts that have already considered whether a tax credit is an expenditure of public revenue have answered this question in the negative. Of particular importance is Arizona Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 131 S. Ct. 1436 (2011), where the United States Supreme Court found that taxpayers lacked standing to challenge a scholarship tax credit program under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution that was almost identical to the Program at issue here. Like Georgia’s Program, the Arizona program provided that taxpayers could receive a credit for donations made to independent scholarship organizations which then provided scholarships for students to attend private schools. […] Plaintiffs have not presented any arguments for why this Court should not follow this persuasive authority.

The fact that tax-credit eligible donations are private funds is the primary reason that STC laws have a perfect track record in the state courts thus far. It’s also why tax credits are the most liberty-friendly means of financing educational choice, as the late, great Andrew J. Coulson never tired of reminding us. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s similar ruling five years ago, Andrew wrote:

The rationale underlying the Court’s ruling highlights a unique advantage that tax credits have over other ways of funding education: they expand both freedom of choice for parents and freedom of conscience for taxpayers.

Plaintiffs had argued that cutting a person’s taxes is equivalent to spending government money, and so taxpayers were being compelled to support religion when credits were used for donations to religious [scholarship organizations]. The Court said, “that is incorrect.”

Unlike the funding of public schools, which is compulsory for all taxpayers, participation in [a] tax credit program is voluntary. If an individual chooses not to donate to [a scholarship organization], his taxes are collected just as they have always been, and those dollars cannot be used for any sectarian purpose. Furthermore, if a taxpayer does choose to make a donation, he is free to select the STO most consistent with his own values. […]

There are other ways of funding universal choice in education, but only tax credits (either for parent’s own education expenses or for donations to [scholarship organizations]) respect the freedom of conscience of taxpayers as well as the freedom of choice of parents. If we truly wish our schools to help build strong, harmonious communities, there is no better way than to adopt such programs at the state level on a grand scale.

The opponents of educational choice are likely to appeal the judge’s decision. Let us hope their appeal meets the same fate as all of its predecessors. 

The Educational Freedom Legacy of Andrew Coulson

Early yesterday morning, after a fifteen month battle with brain cancer, Senior Fellow in Education Policy Andrew Coulson passed away. He is survived by his beloved wife Kay. Andrew was 48 years old.

Andrew’s death is very sad news for everyone at Cato, but especially those of us at the Center for Educational Freedom, where Andrew was the director—and an almost impossibly sunny colleague—for more than a decade. Coming from a computer engineering background, Andrew seized on education reform—and the need for educational freedom—not because he had spent a career in education, but because he saw a system that was illogical, that was hurting society and children, and that needed to be fixed.

And when Andrew wanted to fix something, he went to work.

Andrew hit the radars of everyone involved in education reform—especially school choice—with his 1999 book Market Education: The Unknown History, which captured exactly what he wanted everyone to know about education. For much of history, Andrew made clear, education was grounded in the free and voluntary interactions of teachers, students, and families—and when it was, it worked better for everyone than the rigid, moribund, government-dominated model we have today.

Andrew was not in the reform vanguard just in laying out the historical, logical, and empirical case for truly free-market education, but also in determining how, practically, to do that. Andrew was perhaps the earliest and clearest voice calling for tax-credit funded choice in preference to publicly funded voucher programs, which are themselves infinitely preferable to being assigned to a school based simply on your home address. Tax credit programs, he argued, would be more attractive—except to those who would lard regulations onto schools – by breaking the connection between state money and school choices. People would choose whether to donate to scholarships, and even to which organizations or schools such donations would go, rather than have the state hand out funds from all taxpayers.

Today, the wisdom of this choice mechanism has been borne out, with tax-credit-based programs starting later than vouchers, but now exceeding total enrollment by about 53,000 students. And enrollment through private educational choice programs of all types—vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts—has ballooned since 1999, when Market Education was published, from just a few thousand children to nearly 400,000.

That is tremendous progress. But as Andrew would be the first to proclaim, it is not nearly enough. Indeed, with an eye to pushing choice much further, before he died Andrew was putting the finishing touches on a documentary series vividly and humorously illustrating why we need educational freedom, and the great benefits even limited freedom in education has produced. We hope Andrew’s labor of love will be appearing on television sets across the country in the coming months.

Andrew Coulson is no longer with us. Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward. 

How Congress Should — and Shouldn’t — Bolster School Choice

This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “Expanding Education Opportunity through School Choice.” As I’ve written before, there are lots of great reasons to support school choice policies, but Congress should not create a national voucher program:

It is very likely that a federal voucher program would lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. Once private schools become dependent on federal money, the vast majority is likely to accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

Are Almost All NYC Public Schools Actually Voucher Schools?

A popular knock against vouchers and other school choice programs is that private schools do not serve many students with disabilities, whereas public schools serve everyone. If that’s true, then the vast majority of public schools in New York City must actually be private.

According to a federal investigation just rejected by the de Blasio administration, the large majority of New York City elementary schools – 83 percent – are not “fully accessible” to students with disabilities. That forces many disabled students to travel far afield from their local public schools, which are supposed to serve every zoned child. The U.S. Department of Justice’s letter to the city laying all this out contains this anecdote:

In the course of our investigation, we spoke to one family who went to extreme measures to keep their child enrolled in their zoned local school, rather than subject the child to a lengthy commute to the closest “accessible” school. A parent of this elementary school child was forced to travel to the school multiple times a day, every school day, in order to carry her child up and down stairs to her classroom, to the cafeteria, and to other areas of the school in which classes and programs were held.

Ultimately, “School Choice” Must Be about Freedom

It is National School Choice Week, and this ever-growing event-of-events will feature discussions throughout the country tackling test scores, competition, empowering the poor, efficient use of taxpayer dollars, monopoly breaking, and numerous other, very important topics. But ultimately just one goal must be paramount: maximizing freedom. In the end, it is defending liberty – the true, bedrock American value – that school choice must be about.

This is first and foremost a normative conviction. Freedom must have primacy because society is ultimately composed of individuals, and leaving individuals the right and ability to control their own lives is fundamentally more just than having the state – be it through a single dictator, or majority of voters – control our thoughts, words, or actions.

Of course, children are subject to someone’s control no matter what. But a corollary to free individuals, especially when no one is omniscient and there is no unanimous agreement on what is the “right” way to live, or think, or believe, must be free association – free, authentic communities. We must allow people and communities marked by hugely diverse religious, philosophical, or moral views, and rich ethnic and cultural identities and backgrounds, to teach their children those things. Short of stopping incitement of violence or clear parental abuse, the state should have no authority to declare that “your culture is acceptable,” or “yours must go.” Indeed, crush the freedom of communities and you inevitably cripple individual liberty, taking away one’s choices of how and with whom to live.

Of course, the reasons to demand educational freedom are not just normative. They are also about effective education, and it is not hard to understand, at a very basic level, why.

If there are things on which all agree, choice is moot – all will teach and respect those things. But if we do not all agree, forcing diverse people to support a single system of “common” schools yields but three outcomes: first, divisive conflict; then, either inequality under the law – oppression – when one side wins and the other loses, or lowest-common-denominator curricula to keep the peace. Forced conflict and curricular mush no one should want. And inequality under the law we should all loathe and fear, even if we do not care about the rights of others and think we will come out the victors today. Tomorrow, we may not.

School choice is something for which all Americans should fight. But ultimately, it is too limiting. What we need is freedom for all.

National School Choice Week Roundup

This week is National School Choice Week, the annual celebration of policies that empower families to choose the education that best meets the individual needs of their children. There have already been several important school choice developments this year, not all of them positive. Below is a roundup of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Florida expands its education savings account program

It will be hard to top 2015 (the Year of Educational Choice), but 2016 has already seen a flurry of legislative activity. Last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed legislation expanding the number of students with special needs who can receive education savings accounts. The bill also renamed the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts to honor their legislative champion, Senator Andy Gardiner.