Topic: Education and Child Policy

Live Free and Learn: NH Supreme Court Upholds School Choice

Low- and middle-income children in New Hampshire will now be able to use tax-credit scholarships at any school they choose, whether secular or religious.

This morning, the New Hampshire Supreme Court (NHSC) followed the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court in unanimously ruling that the petitioners challenging the “Live Free or Die” state’s scholarship tax credit law lack standing because they could not demonstrate any harm. The law grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low- and middle-income parents send their children to the schools of their choice.

When two anti-school choice organizations challenged the law, the Institute for Justice intervened, representing several low-income families who had applied for the scholarships. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief defending the law’s constitutionality.

The NHSC overturned a lower court’s flawed and unprecedented decision, which had forbidden scholarship recipients from using the funds at religiously-affiliated private schools. The lower court held that the scholarship funds constituted “money raised by taxation” and therefore violated the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states:

[No] money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination. (New Hampshire Constitution, Part II, Article 83)

The NHSC did not address the merits of the lower court’s decision because it held the petitioners were unable to demonstrate that “their personal rights have been impaired or prejudiced.” Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court, in rejecting the petitioners’ standing in ACSTO v. Winn, held that the tax-credit funds did not constitute public money because they had not “come into the tax collector’s hands.”

This is great news for the tens of thousands of students who qualify for tax-credit scholarships—parents like Melissa Cogan, who used the program to cover homeschooling expenses for her two children, Hope and Hunter.

“Without the scholarship from (the Network for Educational Opportunity), homeschool would not have been an option for us,” Melissa said. “We are a large family with very limited resources for supplies, books, workbooks, and electronic technology. The generosity of the Network for Educational Opportunity has made it possible for us to purchase everything we needed to become a successful homeschooling family.”

Such stories should make it unsurprising then that, last year, nearly 97 percent of scholarship families reported being satisfied with the learning environments they chose for their children.

NH tax-credit scholarship, parental satisfaction.

The decision’s import reaches far beyond New Hampshire’s borders. The NHSC’s ruling today takes some wind out of the sails of the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA), which is inexplicably suing the Sunshine State over its more-than-decade-old scholarship tax credit law, in a complaint that mirrors the legal reasoning of the NH petitioners.  It is likely that the Florida Supreme Court’s reasoning will mirror that of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court.

Certainly there are families in Florida, and elsewhere nationwide, similar to the Cogans who are craving an educational environment that works best for them. Today, the New Hampshire Supreme Court handed them a much-needed victory and, thus, the ability to live free and learn.

New Front Opening in Core War

Reports are out this morning that Louisiana will be challenging in court federal coercion behind the Common Core standards. If so, it will open a new front in the war against the Core, a standardization effort that has been listing badly in public opinion, but nonetheless survives in the vast majority of states. That could very well change should the force of Race to the Top funding or, more importantly today, waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, be eliminated by the courts, as Core supporters likely knew when they asked for federal pressure.

Does this suit have a chance of success? I’m not a lawyer – though I’ll be consulting a few! – so this is not the best-informed legal analysis. From what I do know, though, the chances of prevailing are middling, at best. The courts in the past have been pretty lenient in cases in which Washington gets states to do its bidding in exchange for funding when the feds don’t have authority in the Constitution to do something. And the Louisiana suit hinges largely on federal action that seems very intentionally to push the Core – standards “common to a majority of states” under RTTT, and only one other standards option to get a waiver – but that doesn’t state outright that the Core must be adopted. That way the feds can say they aren’t prescribing a specific “program of instruction,” which would clearly violate the letter of several education laws, while in reality very much requiring such a program.

Sadly, one major diversion likely to be employed by Core opponents to battle this suit is impugning Governor Bobby Jindal’s motives. Since Jindal first reversed course on the Core, supporters of the standards have said his stance is all about presidential aspirations and not about what’s best for kids. Those may well be his motives, I don’t know. But as with all aspects of the Core debate, we should focus on the merits of the arguments being employed, not the motives for offering them. (This goes for opponents who attack people like Bill Gates, too.) We should look at the merits of the lawsuit, which requires an honest assessment of both the Constitution and federal education statutes, just as we should look at the research on national standards, the content of the Core, and the reality of how so many states adopted standards that are now heavily disliked.

Do those things, and I think the Core loses hands down. Ignore them completely, and everyone loses.

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.