…or Sometimes as Tragedy and Farce

“History repeats itself: first as tragedy then as farce,” according to Karl Marx. Not to be outdone, Congress and the president have gone Karl one better by managing both at once.

The “America Competes Act,” signed into law today by President Bush, is pungently reminiscent of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, passed during the techno-existential crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

The impact of the NDEA was slight. Adoption of new federally-sponsored curricula and teaching methods was slow and uneven, and the bureaucratic process through which the money was allocated did a predictably bad job of weeding out good scientific instruction programs from bad ones — so it isn’t clear that faster or broader adoption would have been desirable.

In addition to repeating that earlier mistake, the “America Competes Act” is also deeply ironic — its methods run precisely counter to its motivations. Spurred by the necessity of keeping up with foreign competitors in our global economy, Congress has decided to resort to central planning. What they have given us, in other words, is the “America Competes Via Central Planning Act.”

There is a painfully obvious, irony-free alternative: We can increase our global competitiveness in education by forcing all schools to compete for the privilege of serving each and every student. America, more than any other nation in history, has proven that market competition drives up quality and drives down costs across the entire economy. And yet, in the area of education, we remain unconsciously but inextricably wedded to a Marxist approach, despite overwhelming evidence of its inferiority.

It is as though Congress, like “international man of mystery” Austin Powers, has just awoken after sleeping in suspended animation since the 1960s, unaware of how the Cold War turned out.

Basil Expedition:  The Cold War is over!
Austin Powers:  Well!  Finally those capitalistic pigs will pay for their crimes, eh? Eh comrades? Eh?
Basil Expedition:  Austin… we won.
Austin Powers:  Oh, groovy, smashing!  Yay capitalism!

Uh, Congress? We won, and market forces work as well in education as in every other field.

The More You Tax, the Less You Get

An article in USA Today notes that big tax hikes on tobacco have dramatically reduced consumption of cigarettes. This is hardly surprising. Indeed, politicians openly state that they want higher tobacco taxes to discourage smoking, and their economic analysis is correct (even if their nanny-state impulses are not).

It is frustrating, though, that the same politicians quickly forget economic analysis when the debate shifts to taxes on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. But just as tobacco consumption fell when taxes rose, it is inevitable that there will be less productive activity if statists in Congress follow through on plans to hike tax rates on capital gains and corporate income:

As Congress weighs the biggest federal cigarette tax hike in history, a
USA TODAY analysis finds that higher state taxes on smokers have produced sharp declines in consumption. The amount of decline in smoking is directly tied to the size of the tax increase, the analysis shows. Cigarette sales fell 18% in North Carolina last year after the tax was raised in two steps to 35 cents from a nickel. The tobacco-growing state resisted higher cigarette taxes until 2005.

Elsewhere: Connecticut has increased its tax to $1.51 from 50 cents per pack in 2002. Since then, per capita consumption of cigarettes has fallen 37%.
New Jersey raised its tax to $2.40 from 80 cents in 2002. Smoking has dropped 35%.

…Thomas Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, agrees that consumption will fall about 6% if a $1 federal tax is imposed but says the high tax will have negative effects. State governments will suffer a sharp decline in revenue, and black-market sales and thefts will increase to avoid the draconian tax, he says.

A Lot of Kids Aren’t Alright

The WSJ editorial board looks at recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores for American students and sees a glass half full:

Pop quiz: Which has been most important in reducing poverty over time: a) taxes, b) economic growth, c) international trade, or d) government regulation?

We know what our readers would say. But lest you think American young people are slouching toward serfdom, you’ll be pleased to know that 53% of U.S. high school seniors also answered “b.” The latest version of NAEP asked this question, among others on economics, and the results will not please members of the Socialist International, or for that matter the Senate Finance Committee.

Good news, I suppose, considering that our kids are mostly taught by employees of a government monopoly. But 53% is only a bare majority.  Even if you add in the 8% of students who picked trade, you only get to 61% of students giving an answer that’s remotely plausible. 

So here’s the half-empty analysis: Some 38% of high school seniors think either that taxes or government regulation has been the most important factor in reducing poverty over time.

That’s just plain scary.  Add it to the very, very long list of reasons why we need to reform our government-mandated system of government youth indoctrination and support educational freedom through tax credits.

Conservative Big Spending Goes Global

By now it’s old hat that President Bush, who remains inexplicably popular with conservatives, is the biggest spender since LBJ. Now it turns out that the Conservative government elected two years ago in Canada is trying to match him.

John Williamson of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation notes in the National Post that “the Conservatives’ two budgets boosted spending by $24.4 billion over two years.” OK, it’s not Bush’s trillion dollars. But Canada is a smaller country, and “as a result the size of the federal government has grown by 14%.”

It looks like Patrick Basham was all too prescient when he predicted, to much consternation in Canada, that Harper would become “Bush’s new best friend.” 

Talk Radio Can’t Handle the Truth

Speaking of Casey Lartigue’s speaking truth to power, as we just were, here’s his recent Washington Post column on how he got fired from his XM radio show. He was sacked after devoting a show to exposing a conspiracy theory about government plans to undermine black leadership that has received widespread credibility in the African-American media.

Here’s hoping a more entrepreneurial station manager will see an opportunity to hire a courageous and insightful host who’s suddenly available.

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Even Public School Employees Love Education Tax Credits!

This recent Education Next/ Harvard (PEPG) survey of U.S. adults’ opinions on education issues has been out for a bit, but everyone seems to have missed some really interesting results. 

In this poll, like so many others, there is significantly more support for tax credits (53 percent) to offset private education costs than for school vouchers (45 percent), and much greater opposition to vouchers (34 percent) than to tax credits (25 percent).  That leaves a 28-point margin of support for tax credits compared to just 11 points for vouchers. 

And before you object that “the voucher label has been trashed by the unions!,” the possibly tainted word “voucher” doesn’t appear in the relevant survey question.

But that’s not all; most current/former employees of the government school system support tax credits, by a decisive margin of 22 percent!

I have to repeat that, because it just feels so flippin’ good: Most of the people who have worked for the government school system support education tax credits.

This is truly remarkable.  Even vouchers are only narrowly opposed by public school employees, by a close two-point margin. 

It is clear that using tax credits to effect school choice is much more popular and less objectionable to the general public, and even to public school employees, than are vouchers.  It is also clear that the word “voucher” appears to have relatively little to do with the tax credit advantage in public support. 

I just wish they had asked about broad-based programs, not just ones targeted to low-income families.  Polls show that the public is much more supportive of universal policies.

Education tax credits are a political win — and we in the school choice movement need to do a much better job getting politicians to see that fact.

Good News for D.C. Schools

The Washington Post reports:

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that most of the District’s public schools will start the academic year this month stocked with required textbooks, although more than half of the schools lack the requisite number.

Most of the schools will have textbooks when they open. Cool. A few years ago the school superintendent was boasting that most of the schools would open on time. So this is an improvement. Not only will they open, most of them will have textbooks.

My former colleague Casey Lartigue told the sad story of the D.C. government-run schools five years ago. Then-School Board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz sharply rebuked him — without pointing out any errors in the study — at a Cato Policy Forum.