Topic: Education and Child Policy

Educational Choice Fosters Political Tolerance

As America prepares to celebrate its independence, many Americans are caught up in the political squabbles over several recent Supreme Court decisions. If the SCOTUS decisions and their fallout reveal anything, it’s that too many Americans are willing to use the government to coerce their fellow citizens into behaving a certain way. Such people lack the virtue of political tolerance, which Thomas Jefferson believed was the foundation of “social harmony… the first of human felicities.”

What sort of education system is most likely to foster that political tolerance? 

People often assume that government-run “public” schools are the best inculcators of political tolerance. After all, Horace Mann’s vision of the “common school” involved bringing together students from ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds and training them to be good citizens. By contrast, private schools are not required to take all students and many of them are religiously sectarian. Indeed, even President Obama made this claim when visiting Ireland in 2013:

If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

Surely the common schools do a better job inculcating the value of political tolerance than the sectarian schools… right?

In reality, as my colleague Neal McCluskey has painstakingly demonstrated, government schools often force citizens into political conflict. Parents and educators clash over issues of pedagogy, curriculum, morality, sexuality, etc. Too often, deciding which policies a government school will adopt is a zero-sum game

Moreover, the empirical evidence demonstrates that private schools (including religiously sectarian ones) do as well or better than government schools at inculcating political tolerance. In 2007, Dr. Patrick Wolf conducted a literature review of the research on schooling and political toleration, finding:

The most commonly used method of measuring such political tolerance first asks respondents to either think of their least-liked political group or select one from a list that includes such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis, the religious right, and gay activists. It then asks whether respondents would permit members of the disliked group to exercise constitutional rights such as making a public speech, running for political office, and teaching in the public schools. Other studies simply ask respondents whether they would permit various activities from a group with whom they disagree, without first asking them to choose their least-liked group. In either case, responses are aggregated into a tolerance scale.

With one exception, the findings regarding the effect of school choice on political tolerance are confined to the neutral-to-positive range. Eleven findings—five of them from the more-rigorous studies—indicate that school choice increases political tolerance.

The studies do not tell us why the private schools tend to outperform the government schools at fostering political tolerance. Prof. Jay P. Greene, the author of two of the studies in Wolf’s literature review, offered two potential explanations:

It may be that private schools are better at teaching civic values like tolerance, just as they may be more effective at teaching math or reading. It is also possible that, contrary to elite suspicion, religion can teach important lessons about human equality and dignity that inspire tolerance.

It may also be that private schools recognize the importance of the political tolerance that allows them to operate without government intrusion. The same political tolerance that protects them also protects other institutions and groups, including those with diametrically opposite values. Whereas the government schools force zero-sum conflicts—meaning that some people ultimately prevail at forcing their view on others—a market in education allows parents to select the schools that reflect their values. 

A free society requires political tolerance. The most likely education system to foster that tolerance is one that is rooted in free choice.

The Coming School Choice Tidal Wave

Last week I reviewed the latest survey on education policy from the Friedman Foundation but I missed something that should warm the cockles of the hearts of everyone who supports greater choice in education: each generation is progressively more favorable and less opposed to educational choice. 

Scholarship tax credits (STCs) remain the most popular form of educational choice. Even among the 55+ cohort, there is a 20 point spread in favor of choice, 53 percent to 33 percent. Support increases in each cohort by 8 to 13 points. Meanwhile, opposition falls precipitously from 33 percent to only 14 percent. The 35-54 cohort has a 39 point spread in favor of educational choice and the 18-34 cohort has a whopping 60 point spread, 74 percent to 14 percent.

Friedman Foundation survey: popularity of scholarship tax credits

Vouchers are the second most popular of the three reforms. While the oldest cohort is slightly more pro-voucher than pro-STC, opposition is 7 points higher at 33 percent, for a spread of 16 points. The margin widens considerably to 32 points for the middle cohort (65 percent support to 33 percent opposition) and 44 points for the youngest cohort (69 percent support to 25 percent opposition), which is 16 points narrower than the spread for STCs.

Americans Underestimate Government School Spending

In addition to showing that American parents favor educational choice and are skeptical of Common Core, the new national survey on education policy from the Friedman Foundation demonstrates that Americans still vastly underestimate how much is spent per pupil at government-run schools. 

According to the latest National Center for Education Statistics data, the average total per pupil expenditure in U.S. public schools was $12,136 in the 2009-10 school year. However, 63 percent of respondents thought that government schools spend less than $12,000 per pupil, including 49 percent who estimated that they spend less than $8,000 per pupil. Those findings are consistent with the 2013 Education Next survey, in which the average guess was $6,680 per pupil, barely more than half of what is actually spent.

Like the Education Next survey, the Friedman survey asked respondents whether they thought public school spending was too high, about right, or too low, after first randomly assigning the respondents into two groups: one that first heard a prompt explaining that the average U.S. public school spends $10,658 per pupil (this is average operating expenditure per pupil), while the other group was not given any prompt. Whereas 56 percent of the uninformed group thought spending was too low, only 47 percent of the informed group agreed. (It’s likely that the shift would have been even more pronounced had the Friedman Foundation cited the higher total per pupil expenditures in the prompt rather than the partial figure. Indeed, a previous Friedman survey found that the public prefers to know the total figure.) Those findings are consistent with the 2013 Education Next survey, which found that 63 percent of uninformed respondents wanted to increase public school spending but only 43 percent of informed respondents agreed.

At an American Enterprise Institute event discussing the findings, AEI’s Ramesh Ponnuru observed that politicians could loudly promise to spend $9,000 per pupil and most voters would think that they were calling for an increase in school funding rather than a significant cut.

Maybe Deceive-and-Denigrate Isn’t Such a Great Strategy

Yesterday, I wrote about new survey results from the Friedman Foundation showing that the Common Core, if even close to fairly presented, has either negative, or thinly positive, levels of public support. But I posted that too soon; not long after I wrote it, two new polls came out showing even bigger trouble for the Core.

The first was a Rasmussen survey that revealed plummeting support for the Common Core effort among parents of school-aged children. Support dropped from 52 percent in November 2013 to just 34 percent in yesterday’s release. Opposition now outweighs support 47 percent to 34 percent. Assuming the question was unchanged between surveys, that is a huge drop.

The second survey was a University of Southern California poll of Golden State residents. The Core hasn’t been as controversial there as in many states–at least, there doesn’t seem to be a major groundswell to dump it–but it’s getting drubbed there, too. The USC research showed a marked increase in the percentage of Californians who claimed to know about the Core since the survey’s 2013 administration, and among those who reported knowing something only 38 percent had a positive feeling about the Core. Some 44 percent had negative impressions. Presented with pro- and anti-Core statements, a larger percentage of respondents–41 percent to 32 percent–agreed more with the negative statement. In 2013, the pro statement got the plurality, 36 percent to 25 percent.

The Core has clearly been taking a public relations beating. Why? No doubt largely because most people only started to become aware of the Core a couple of years ago as long-silent implementation hit districts and schools. And the more aware they became, the more they disliked what they saw and learned about how the Core ended up in their schools.  

It is also quite possible that the primary strategy Core proponents have employed in the face of mounting opposition–deceive the public about everything from the federal role in moving the Core, to its impact on curricula, and denigrate opponents as misinformed, loony, or both–has blown up in their faces. Perhaps it has amplified the impression that the Core has been foisted on Americans by a relatively small, well-connected group of elites who hold regular people in contempt. I don’t think that most supporters actually are contemptuous of the average American, but it is almost impossible not to feel they are given how many have used the tactic of belittling Core opponents, who are, in many cases, just concerned citizens.

I have long thought Core supporters should publicly admit the truth about the Core–it is heavily federalized and intended, along with related tests, to direct curricula–and apologize to the public for having dodged those basic truths. Maybe now, for their own cause’s sake, they’ll do that.

Common Core Pufferfish II: This Time, Poison’s Mentioned!

Last week, I examined a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that found 59 percent of respondents favored implementing the Common Core national curriculum standards, 31 percent opposed. Of course, as has often been the case, that response came after a description of the Core was read that was biased both in what it said, and what it did not. It gave a positive spin to the Core while ignoring, in particular, federal coercion behind it.

Today, a survey was released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice that, among many matters, asked people about the Core. Unlike many previous polls, this one tried to offer a balanced description of the Core. After first finding that without a description respondents opposed the Core 39 to 34 percent, the pollsters asked the following:

The objective of the Common Core State Standards Initiative is to establish similar academic standards and comparable tests across all states for students in grades K-12. The standards were initially developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. States and districts have adopted the common standards and tests in association with U.S. Department of Education incentives. In general, do you favor or oppose the “Common Core”?

The results? 50 percent supported the Core, 41 percent opposed. It switched support, but the margin was a fraction of the WSJ/NBC survey: 9 points instead of 28. And the wording is still dubious, featuring the awkward phrasing “in association with U.S. Department of Education incentives.” Make the wording more straightforward – and accurate – such as, “many States adopted the common standards and tests at the same time the federal government made doing so important to compete for federal funds,” and the gap might be smaller, or even reversed. Indeed, the Friedman poll found that a sizeable 74 percent of respondents thought the feds were doing a “fair” or “poor” job in K-12 education, versus only 22 percent saying “good” or “excellent.”

Drilling down a bit, the survey revealed some more interesting information about the how the public may truly feel about the Core. First, while respondents without children in school favored the post-description Core 52 to 38 percent, school parents opposed it 49 to 44 percent. Second, while the majority of respondents said it would make no difference in their vote if “a candidate for Governor, State Senator or Representative” supported the Common Core, 24 percent said it would make them less likely to support the candidate, versus 16 percent more likely.

So what does all this tell us? For one thing, polling is an inexact science. More importantly, the public is probably not nearly as supportive of the Core as many polls have suggested – indeed, without a description the plurality opposed it – and just mentioning the Pufferfish poison appears to make a difference.

[Programming note: Look for more coverage of the Friedman Foundation’s poll coming soon from Jason Bedrick. There’s a lot more to talk about!]

Several States Expand Educational Choice

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that expands eligibility for the Florida’s longstanding scholarship tax credit (STC) program and creates a new education savings account for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Oklahoma expanded its STC program and Arizona expanded both its STC and education savings account programs. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation creating a new STC program, though unfortunately it is limited only to low-income students assigned to government schools that are designated as “failing” by the state’s board of education. Students in “non-failing” schools that are nevertheless failing to meet their needs are not eligible to receive scholarships.

The changes to Florida’s scholarship program were mostly positive. Florida eliminated the requirement that students first spend a year at a government school before being eligible to receive a scholarship. Also, starting in 2016-17, the income eligibility cap for first-time recipients will increase to include middle-income families (from 185 percent of the federal poverty line to 260 percent), with priority given to lower-income students. Students from middle-income families will receive smaller scholarships. Students in foster homes will be eligible regardless of their foster family’s income.

Unfortunately, the law adds new rules regulating the operation of scholarship organizations. Florida already has the most regulated scholarship program in the nation, which explains why the state has only one scholarship organization while other states have dozens or even (in the case of Pennsylvania) hundreds.

Back in March, the bill’s prospects seemed dim. The Florida Speaker of the House and Senate President battled over whether to mandate that private schools administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) as a condition of receiving scholarship students. As a result, the bill’s sponsor withdrew the legislation. That poison pill would have severely restricted school autonomy and parental choice. Fortunately, the resurrected bill that the governor signed into law did not mandate state tests. Participating schools must still administer nationally norm-referenced tests.

Florida’s new education savings account for students with special needs is based on Arizona’s highly popular program, but with a twist: nonprofit scholarship organizations will administer the program rather than the state, though the accounts will still use public funds.

Parents will be able to use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services. … The maximum amount for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account shall be equivalent to 90 percent of the state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula that would have gone to the student had he or she attended public school.  

Students qualify if they reside in Florida and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten through 12th grade who have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina-bifida, Williams syndrome, and kindergartners who are considered high-risk. 

Unfortunately, New York legislators ended the session without passing an educational choice bill, despite majority support in both chambers of the legislature and a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Timothy Cardinal Dolan that he would support STC legislation. Given the legislative support, the New York Post faulted Gov. Cuomo for the failure to pass the legislation:

The human tragedy, of course, is who will pay the price for Cuomo’s alliance with the Working Families Party & Co.: i.e., the children of actual working families, who have no avenues of escape from rotten public schools where they aren’t learning.

Common Core Survey: You’ll Love the Pufferfish!

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that after being presented with a description of the Common Core, 59 percent of Americans “strongly” or “somewhat” support “adoption and implementation,” while 31 percent oppose it. Of course, as we’ve seen before, the description is key. The WSJ/NBC pollsters used the following:

The Common Core standards are a new set of education standards for English and math that have been set to internationally competitive levels and would be used in every state for students in grades K through 12.

This is first biased in favor of the Core in what it says. It is, in fact, highly debatable that the Core is set to top international levels, while the use of “competitive” might suggest that the standards aren’t just benchmarked to top countries, but will help us to compete with them, an empirically hollow suggestion.

More important, though, is what’s not included: any mention of the massive federal role in pushing state adoption. The WSJ notes this omission deep in its online coverage of the question, after stating that “the Obama administration’s disbursal of federal education grants to states that adopted Common Core set off alarms among conservative activists wary of federal incursion into local schools.”

The poll question, in other words, is like failing to tell people pufferfish are poisonous, saying, “pufferfish are delicious and nutritious,” then asking, “would you like to eat some pufferfish?”

Leaving out the “poisonous” part – and presenting deliciousness and nutritiousness as fact – would probably make a difference. Don’t you think?