Topic: Education and Child Policy

Parents and Taxpayers Want More Educational Choice

Ever since Georgia enacted a scholarship tax credit law in 2008, individual and corporate taxpayers in the Peach State could receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations—at least until the $58 million cap is reached.

Donors are eligible to receive credits starting on January 1st of each year. In 2012, the last of the credits were claimed in mid-August. The following year, donors hit the cap in May. Last year, they hit it in just three weeks. This year, all the credits were claimed within hours of becoming available on January 1st. In fact, taxpayers applied for more than $95 million in credits, $37 million more than the cap.

Scholarship families are highly satisfied. In a 2013 survey of families receiving scholarships from Georgia GOAL, 98.6% of respondents reported being “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their chosen school.

Clearly, both the demand for scholarships and the willingness of taxpayers to support scholarship students have grown far beyond what the law currently allows. It’s time to raise the cap. Georgia legislators considering pending legislation to raise the cap to $250 million should be encouraged by two additional facts. First, the best evidence suggests that the tax credit law saves money by reducing expenses by more than it reduces tax revenue. Second, two-thirds of Georgians support the scholarship tax credit law. In other words, it’s good policy and good politics.

In other states that cap the amount of scholarship tax credits available—such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—donors consistently hit the cap each year. Two recent exceptions—New Hampshire and Alabama—highlight the adverse effects of lawsuits on fundraising. After anti–school choice activists sued to block New Hampshire’s Opportunity Scholarship law, donations dropped off precipitously because of the uncertainty about the law’s future. Fortunately, the state supreme court unanimously rejected the challenge last summer, so we should expect a significant increase in donations this year.

In Alabama, scholarship organizations raised only half as much in 2014 as they did in 2013 because of the uncertainty created by government education establishment’s legal challenge. The lawsuit is likely to meet the same end as similar lawsuits in Arizona and New Hampshire, but the plaintiffs are harming thousands of children while the case is being litigated.

Public Schooling’s Pluralism Problem and the School Choice Solution

Last month, the Orthodox Union, a prominent Jewish organization, launched a campaign advocating for private school choice policies. That raised hackles from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which condemned the chutzpah of the Orthodox Union to work for equal funding for children in their community:

“It [the campaign] will require us to stop being timid,” [Orthodox Union executive vice president Allen Fagin] said. “We pay our taxes, and our kids are also entitled not to be left behind.”

That statement, of course, is only half-true: Fagin’s constituents do pay their taxes, and their children are indeed entitled to an education. But that’s exactly what public schools are for. OU’s campaign relies on the same faulty logic we’ve seen from advocates of voucher programs: Because parents pay taxes, they should be able to ask every other taxpayer in the state to subsidize their child’s religious education. It’s a clear constitutional violation. […]

It’s unconscionable (and exceptionally brazen) for OU to demand that further funds be siphoned away from public schools intended to serve entire communities in order to promote their private religious agenda. If Orthodox parents want to place their children in religious schools, that’s their right. And it’s their responsibility to pay for it.

In reality though, it’s the idea that so-called “public” schools are actually “public” that is only half-true. District schools are technically open to any student whose parents can afford to live in the district, but they are certainly not “intended to serve entire communities.” For example, they are not intended to serve Orthodox Jews or others like them who have a different vision of education. When everyone is forced to pay for one school system and decisions about education are made via a political process, there will be winners and losers.

Community College Courtesy of the Federal Taxpayer? No Thanks

Word came out last night that in a speech in Tennessee today President Obama will propose that two years of community college be made free to all “responsible” students, primarily funded by federal taxpayers. But one look at either community college outcomes or labor market outlooks reveals this to be educational folly.

The fact of the matter, according to the federal government’s own data, is that community college completion rates are atrocious. The federal Digest of Education Statistics reports that a mere 19.5 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete their programs within 150 percent of the time they are supposed to take. So less than 20 percent finish a two-year degree within three years, or a 10-month certificate program within 15 months. And that rate has been dropping almost every year since the cohort of students that started in 2000, which saw 23.6 percent complete. Moreover, as I itemize in a post at SeeThruEDU.com, even when you add transfers to four-year schools, the numbers don’t improve very much. Meanwhile, interestingly, the for-profit sector that has been so heavily demonized by the administration has an almost 63 percent completion rate at two-year institutions, and that has been rising steadily since the 2000 cohort.

The other huge problem is that the large majority of job categories expected to grow the most in the coming years do not require postsecondary training. Of the 30 occupations that the U.S. Department of Labor projects to see the greatest total growth by 2022, only 10 typically need some sort of postsecondary education, and several of those require less than an associate’s degree. Most of the new jobs will require a high school diploma or less.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in higher ed is that for so much of it, someone other than the student is paying the bill, tamping down students’ incentives to seriously consider whether they should go to college and what they should study if they do. This proposal would only exacerbate that problem, essentially encouraging people to spend two years in community college fully on the taxpayer dime while they dabble in things they may or may not want to do—and as they maintain a pretty low 2.5 GPA—then maybe focusing a little more when the two years is up and they have to pay something themselves.

Unfortunately, there is no way to look at this proposal (at least as it has been spelled out so far), investigate the reality of community college, and conclude anything other than it is a terrible idea.

How to Design an Education Savings Account

State legislatures across the nation are considering an innovative new education reform: education savings accounts. Hailed as “School Choice 2.0,” ESAs empower parents to customize their child’s education beyond the school walls—a development that could substantially alter the way students are educated. There is “no reason to expect that the future market will have the shape or form that our present market has,” observed Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman in a 2003 interview, “How do we know how education will develop? Why is it sensible for a child to get all his or her schooling in one brick building?”

Two states have already enacted ESA laws. In Arizona, parents of eligible students that opt out of their assigned district school can access 90% of what the state of Arizona would have spent on those students. The Arizona Department of Education deposits the funds directly into a privately managed bank account that parents can access through a restricted-use debit card. The parents can then spend the ESA funds on any qualifying education-related service or provider they choose. In the first year, eligibility was restricted to students with special needs. Since then, Arizona has expanded eligibility to include children in foster care, children of military personnel, and children assigned to low-performing district schools. Last year, Florida adopted a special-needs ESA law similar to Arizona’s except that it is privately managed.

Today, National Affairs published an essay I coauthored with Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation. Our essay explores the administrative, regulatory, and constitutional issues that policymakers will have to address when designing an ESA law. Policymakers should consider crafting a privately managed and privately funded ESA law that offers tax credits in return for donations to scholarship organizations that manage the ESAs. Florida’s privately managed model is already proving to be more operationally efficient and effective than Arizona’s government-run model. A privately managed ESA would be less susceptible to capture by hostile parties than a government agency, more likely to generate and retain best practices, and more likely to have the ability and incentives to be responsive to the needs of families. Privately funded ESAs also have several advantages over government-funded ESA laws. In particular, they are more likely to pass constitutional muster in states with restrictive “Blaine amendments” and less likely to include burdensome regulations that undermine the effectiveness of the program.

We conclude:

Most school choice programs offer significant but not revolutionary changes to the traditional educational model. But true educational choice, and the educational market it could help foster, promise to radically improve education for many children. As Milton Friedman observed, “not all ‘schooling’ is ‘education’ and not all ‘education’ is ‘schooling.’” Charter schools and voucher programs still conflate the two, but education savings accounts embody a more expansive understanding of education.

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent in a manner similar to spending their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs. […] These laws hold great potential to expand educational opportunity and remake the entire education system in ways that better and more efficiently meet the needs of children.

Newspaper Doubles Down on Anti-School Choice Errors

Give Rolling Stone credit: when their story on sexual assault at the University of Virginia completely unraveled, they at least had the decency to admit their errors and apologize to their readers. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Florida’s Sun-Sentinel.

A few weeks ago, the Sun-Sentinel ran an error-filled editorial against educational choice. Since then, it has refused to run a retraction or even a correction of its numerous errors, including:

  • Falsely claiming that the legislature enacted a “massive expansion” of the scholarship tax credit law this year;
  • Mistakenly relying on the moot fiscal analysis of a dead bill;
  • Misreading that analysis to report a “deficit” when it actually reports savings;
  • Falsely claiming that a separate fiscal analysis by the legislature’s budget office relied on “information provided by [private] schools.”

That list does not include several additional misleading comparisons and crucial omissions that were also brought to their attention.

Last week, they ran a rebuttal by Doug Tuthill, president of the Step Up for Students scholarship organization. However, they subsequently published a bellicose letter from Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, which attempts to rebut Tuthill… by repeating the same errors as the Sun-Sentinel editorial.

Blanton opened his letter by accusing Tuthill of “attempting to deceive the public,” but not a single one of Blanton’s accusations has any merit. Indeed, Blanton’s accusation better describes his own letter. Let us address his claims in order.

Early Childhood Summit Don’t Lie?

When I first heard about the White House Summit on Early Education being held today, I worried. “I sure hope this isn’t going to be a PR stunt to cheerlead for government pre-kindergarten programs,” I thought. Then I got the announcement: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be having a Twitter chat with pop sensation Shakira in conjunction with the summit! “Oh, I was just being silly,” I said to myself, relieved that this would be a sober, objective discussion about what we do – and do not – know about the effectiveness of pre-K programs.

Okay, that’s not actually what happened. In fairness to Shakira, she does appear to have a very serious interest in children’s well-being. Unfortunately, the White House does not appear to want to have an objective discussion of early childhood education.

Just look at this, from the official White House blog:

For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these kids as adults.

Early education is one of the best investments our country can make. Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a solid foundation for success in school.

Let me count the ways that this is deceptive, or just plain wrong, as largely documented in David Armor’s recent Policy Analysis The Evidence on Universal Preschool:

  • The 7-to-1 ROI figure – for which the White House cites no source – almost certainly comes from work done by James Heckman looking at the rate of return for the Perry Preschool program. It may well be accurate, but Perry was a microscopic, hyperintensive program from the 1960s that cannot be generalized to any modern, large-scale program.
  • If you look at the longitudinal, “gold-standard” research results for Head Start, you see that the modest advantages accrued early on essentially disappear by first grade…as if Head Start never happened. And federal studies released by the Obama administration are what report this.
  • It stretches credulity to call Head Start “high quality,” not just based on its results, but on its long history of waste and paralysis. Throughout the 2000s the federal Government Accountability Office and general media reported on huge waste and failure in the program.
  • Most evaluations of state-level pre-K programs do not randomly assign children to pre-K and compare outcomes with those not chosen, the “gold standard” mentioned above. Instead they often use “regression discontinuity design” which suffers from several shortcomings, arguably the biggest of which is that you can’t do longitudinal comparisons. In other words, you can’t detect the “fade out” that seems to plague early childhood education programs and render them essentially worthless. One large-scale state program that was evaluated using random-assignment – Tennessee’s – appears to be ineffective.
  • The White House says early childhood programs can help “children from all backgrounds.” Not only is that not true if benefits fade to nothing, but a federal, random-assignment evaluation of the Early Head Start program found that it had negative effects on the most at-risk children.

I suspect the vast majority of people behind expanding preschool are well intentioned, and I encourage them to leverage as much private and philanthropic funding as they can to explore different approaches to pre-K and see what might work. But a splashy event intended to proclaim something is true for which we just don’t have good evidence doesn’t help anyone.

Let’s not mislead taxpayers…or kids.

Exposing an Error-Filled Editorial against Educational Choice

Over the weekend, Florida’s Sun-Sentinel editorialized against Florida’s scholarship tax credit law. But, as I detail at Education Next today, the editorial was rife with errors, distortions, and omissions of crucial context. Here’s just one example of many:

Rather than put the scholarship tax credit law in the context of Florida’s overall education spending, the Sun-Sentinel compares it to… Iowa.

“No state has a bigger voucher [sic] system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.”

Setting aside the fact that the state of Florida did not “spend” even one red penny on the scholarships, this comparison is misleading. Do the editors at the Sun-Sentinel really believe that Iowa has as many students as Florida? If so, why haven’t they decried the fact that Florida spends more than $25 billion on its public schools while Iowa spends barely $5 billion? Perhaps because Florida has more than five times the number of students?

Comparing apples to apples, fewer than 10,500 students received tax-credit scholarships in Iowa last year compared to more than 69,000 in Florida. And while the tax-credit scholarships are larger in Florida than Iowa – about $4,660 on average versus about $1,090 on average – they are dwarfed by the more than $10,000 per pupil spent on average at Florida public schools.

The Sun-Sentinel owes its readers and the public a full and detailed retraction.