Topic: Education and Child Policy

A Win for Educational Choice in Mississippi

Mississippi is poised to become the third state, behind Arizona and Florida, to enact an education savings account (ESA) law. Yesterday, the Mississippi Senate voted to concur with the state House’s version of the bill, which would provide ESAs for students with special needs to cover numerous education expenses, including private school tuition and fees, tutoring, textbooks, educational therapy, assistive technology, and higher education expenses. Gov. Phil Bryant has indicated that he will sign the legislation.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice provides a useful breakdown of the ESA legislation. While about 63,000 Magnolia State students would be eligible for an ESA next year, “this opportunity is limited to 500 students in year one, with an additional 500 students added to the program each year during a ‘pilot’ period of five years.”

The state will fund the ESAs at $6,500 annually in the form of reimbursements for eligible expenses. The reimbursement model may make it difficult for lower-income families to participate—something policymakers should monitor and address if necessary. Arizona provides ESA parents with restricted-use debit cards that allow parents to conveniently access ESA funds while minimizing the potential for fraud.

In a 2013 survey, parents of students with special needs in Arizona overwhelmingly reported being satisfied with the education they purchased for their children with ESAs. ESAs empower parents to completely customize their child’s education based on his or her unique learning needs. As Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and I explained in a recent article:

Parents can also save unused funds from year to year and roll the funds into a college savings account. These two features of ESAs—the ability of parents to completely customize their child’s education and save for future educational expenses—make them distinct from and improvements upon traditional school vouchers. ESAs empower parents with the ability to maximize the value their children get from their education services. And because they control how and when the money is spent, parents also have a greater incentive to control costs.

Whether or not 2015 ends up being the Year of Educational Choice, Mississippi has taken an important step toward educational freedom.

National School Choice Proposal Heartening, Frightening

According to the American Federation for Children, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) have reintroduced “the Educational Opportunities Act, which would create an individual and corporate tax credit for donations that pay for scholarships for students to attend a private school of their parents’ choice.”

It is encouraging to see growing support for scholarship tax credit school choice programs, which have been found to simultaneously boost achievement for students who switch to private schools, do the same for students who remain in public schools, and save taxpayers millions of dollars every year–a win-win-win scenario. Nevertheless, it is ill advised to pursue such a program (or other school choice programs) at the federal level.

Years ago I summarized those problems when President George W. Bush advocated creating a federal school voucher program. Such programs are not only beyond the mandate accorded to Congress by the Constitution, they bear the risk of suffocating private schools nationwide with a raft of new regulation, defeating their very purpose of increasing the range of educational options available to families with limited means.

In the past few years I have visited Sweden and Chile and studied their federal school chioce programs. Both confirm my earlier worries about national programs. Chile’s entrepreneurial voucher schools grew rapidly at first, but with a recent change of government hostile to the program they have sensed the new climate and stopped expanding.The new government is trying to enact regulations to diminish the scope and freedom of private schooling in Chile.

Meanwhile, something similar is happening in Sweden. Among other things, the government has mandated that all schools hire graduates of government-certified teacher training programs, despite the well known fact that those programs are currently attracting the lowest-achieving college students.

National school choice programs have proven to be a prime case of “staff car legislating.” The legislators who enact them are not always the ones in the official staff cars, making the rules. New lawmakers with different preferences ultimately come to power and can wreak havok on a nation’s entire K-12 education sector.

This problem can be minimized by leaving school choice legislation to the state level, where the Constitution rightfully leaves it. We thus have a “laboratory of federalism”–a variety of different policies across states that make it easier to determine how best to design such programs.

Scholarship Tax Credits Do Not Financially Benefit Donors

In a desperate attempt to halt New York legislators from enacting a new school choice law, teachers and their allies have resorted to misrepresenting what the proposed law would do.

Scholarship tax credit laws make donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations eligible for tax credits, rather than merely tax deductions. The scholarship organizations help low- and middle-income families afford tuition at the schools of their choice. The New York proposal, known as the Education Investment Tax Credit, would create a 75 percent tax credit, meaning that a $1,000 donation to a scholarship organization would reduce a donor’s tax liability by $750. Between the donation and the remaining $250 in tax liability, the donor would have given a total of $1,250.

New York teachers unions and the think tank they fund are trying to portray this arrangement as somehow financially benefiting the donors. Sadly, some media outlets have reported their spin verbatim, including WXXI News:

“It’s nothing more than a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations,” said Ron Deutsch, with the think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, which is in part funded by unions.

He says it’s also bad tax policy that could harm other charitable organizations. Under current laws, a million dollar charitable donation nets the donor just $22,000 in tax credits. He says education tax credit donors would get $750,000 back from a million dollar donation. Under a Senate version of the plan, donors would get $900,000 dollars back.

It takes real chutzpah to describe an arrangement that decreases the amount of money in the donor’s pocket as a “giveaway.” Deutsch falsely claims that the donors receive a “net” benefit, but the net is actual in the negative. The hypothetical donor that Deutsch describes could have paid only $1,000,000 in taxes, but instead chose to pay $250,000 in taxes and donate an additional $1,000,000. In other words, the donor would have saved $250,000 had she decided not to donate anything.

Some giveaway!

Scholarship tax credits expand educational opportunities for low-income families–the type that have been rallying in support of the proposal in recent weeks. Donors do not financially benefit from their donations whatsoever. Media outlets should not let themselves be used to spread misinformation to the contrary.

For those interested in learning how scholarship tax credit laws affect the lives of real families, watch the Cato Institute’s recent film, “Live Free and Learn”:

UT-Austin’s Secret Racial Preferences Undermine Its Admissions Policy

In 2013’s 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 lower-court opinion that had allowed 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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That court was 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 10 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 pointed out how the majority deferred, once again, to the university’s hand-waving claim that its use of racial preferences is tailored to an actual, appropriate interest, without having actually proven anything approaching what is constitutionally required.

After being denied a rehearing before the full Fifth Circuit, Abigail Fisher, the former applicant suing UT-Austin, has now petitioned the Supreme Court to hear her case once again. And Cato has again filed a brief supporting that petition. We argue that the Court should hear the case because (1) UT-Austin’s “qualitative” diversity rationale is still a complete and unjustified sham, (2) the university continues to openly flout its disregard of Supreme Court precedent governing the use of race in higher education admissions, and (3) leaving the Fifth Circuit’s shockingly deferential and judiciously lazy ruling on the books will give other schools a roadmap for circumventing the Equal Protection Clause’s limitations on the use of race.

Among other evidence we marshal is the recently discovered program of secret racial preferences run out of the university president’s office, which flouts Supreme Court precedent and belies the stated rationale of UT’s admissions policy. This is just the latest example of college administrators’ massive resistance to the Fourteenth Amendment’s charge not to discriminate based on race or ethnicity.

The Court will decide whether to take up Fisher v. UT-Austin (again) later this spring.

Cato legal associate Julio Colomba contributed to this blogpost.

Did Common Core Do That? We Don’t Actually Know

Common Core supporters love to accuse opponents of peddling misinformation, and sometimes opponents do. On the flip side, Core supporters are frequently guilty not only of peddling deceptive information of their own, but promising the world without sufficient evidence to justify it. A new report from Harvard’s Paul Peterson – generally a pretty sober analyst – comes a bit too close to making such a leap, strongly suggesting that the Common Core has caused appreciable improvement in the rigor of state standards.

Based on a rough trend of decreasing differences between the percentage of students scoring “proficient” on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Peterson and co-author Matthew Ackerman report that state standards are rising. In other words, “proficient” on state tests is looking more like presumably high-flying “proficient” on the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Between 2011 and 2013, “20 states strengthened their standards, while just 8 loosened them,” Peterson and Ackerman report. To what do they attribute this? “A key objective of the CCSS [Common Core] consortium – the raising of proficiency standards – has begun to happen.” In case the text of the report didn’t make the attribution of success to the Core clear, the report’s subhead intoned that, “commitments to the Common Core may be driving the proficiency bar upward.”

At the very least, there should be a huge emphasis on “may,” and the Core probably shouldn’t be mentioned at all.  

Indeed, Peterson and Ackerman’s results could suggest that the Common Core actually dampened rigor. According to the report, of the four states that never adopted the Core, Texas and Virginia raised their standards while Alaska and Nebraska stood pat. That means 50 percent of non-adopters lifted their standards and 50 percent stood their ground. None went backward. Among Core adopters, in contrast, eight states, or 18 percent, lowered their standards; 19, or 42 percent, stood still; and only 18, or 40 percent, raised their bars. (I exclude Minnesota, which adopted the English standards but not the math, and West Virginia, for which data were unavailable. Among adopters I include Indiana and Oklahoma, which eventually dropped out but were Core states as of 2013.)

Are School Choice Technocrats Needed?

In a recent blog post, Andy Smarick of the Fordham Institute declares: “School Choice Technocrats Wanted.” Smarick argues “if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer,” then “reform-oriented technocrats” will have to play a greater role.

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled to a private enterprise economy requires new rules related to property rights, lending, contracts, and currency.

Mr. Bush, the Lines Are Already Clear

In a Washington Post op-ed laying out his thoughts on the federal role in education, Gov. Jeb Bush wrote, “We are long overdue in setting the lines of authority so clearly.” Alas, the lines he offered would furnish just the sort of “clarity” that has led to nearly limitless federal control over schooling without any meaningful evidence of lasting improvement.

The true heart of what Bush wrote was not his declaration about setting lines, but the three justifications he offered for federal intervention. Washington, he wrote:

should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help.

All of this is what has gotten us to the de facto state of federal control we are currently in:

  • “Transparency” has come to mean federally driven tests and curriculum standards – the Common Core – because under No Child Left Behind states had been defining “proficiency” for themselves, and it wasn’t sufficiently “transparent” for some people whether “proficient” kids in Mississippi were as educated as those in Massachusetts. Of course, you can’t have much more complete federal control than Washington deciding what students are taught.
  • Supporting policies with “a proven record” opens the door for any policies politicians declare “proven.” See, for instance, the rhetoric vs. the reality of pre-K education programs.
  • Making sure states “can’t ignore students who need extra help” has also been used to justify national standards and tests. Indeed, it underlies everything Washington does. Sayeth federal politicians, “Some groups aren’t doing so well, and since we spend money to end that we’d better dictate terms. So let’s connect all that money to school nutrition guidelines, teacher evaluations, English and math content, school opening times…”

Quite simply, in setting his lines, Gov. Bush set no lines. Thankfully for him, lines of federal authority have already been drawn. Indeed, they were set centuries ago: the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to impose transparency, offer help, or anything other than prohibit discrimination by state and local governments and govern federal lands.

As I’ve noted before, obeying the Constitution would save folks like Gov. Bush a lot of reinventing work. More importantly, it would save everyone else expensive, ineffectual trouble.