Debunking a Misleading Report on School Choice

Today, the left-wing Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA) released a misleading report on school choice programs in Indiana and elsewhere. Among its key findings include the following claims:

  • None of the independent studies performed of the most lauded and long standing voucher programs extant in the U.S.—Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and Washington, D.C.—found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.
  • According to the annual financial report of the Indiana Department of Education, Indiana spent $115 million on its voucher program in the 2014-2015 school year. In context, that means over $115 million of public, taxpayer money annually will be diverted from … the state’s public school system, and instead used to subsidize students attending private schools.

Both claims, while they contain elements of truth, are highly misleading.

Evidence for the Effectiveness of School Choice

To support its claim regarding the supposed lack of evidence for the success of school choice programs, CBTA points to a few studies of school voucher programs.

First, CTBA cites a longitudinal study of Milwaukee’s voucher program by researchers at the University of Arkansas, claiming that voucher students in grades 3-8 “performed statistically similar” to a matched group of district-school peers on standardized tests. Oddly, CTBA relies on the 2008-2009 findings, published in 2010, rather than the most recent 2012 report. In fact, as the study’s coauthor, Dr. Patrick Wolf, explains, the study found “school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”

First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers.

In the final year of the study, voucher students in grades 3-9 performed about 15 percent of a standard deviation higher on standardized reading tests, “a modest but meaningful educational difference.” The achievement growth in math was not statistically significant relative to the achievement growth of the matched district-school students, but the study concluded that Milkwaukee district-school students were “performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” And because the vouchers were worth about half of the cost per-pupil at the district schools, the study found that the voucher program saved the state nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011.

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

Making Sense of the Trade Negotiations Secrecy Debate

In Tuesday’s New York Times, law professor Margot Kaminski laid out a compelling case for increased transparency in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.  On Wednesday, John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered a fairly convincing response in defense of confidentiality.  The problem is that—as is common in trade policy “debates”—they’re not talking about the same thing.  That’s frustrating to me because I think they’re both right.

Kaminski makes the point that the U.S. Trade Representative has been overbroad in what it deems classified material, that the current approach improperly privileges business lobbying over public interest groups, and that as negotiations cover more non-trade issues negotiators need more exposure and guidance from different people.

Murphy responds by noting that trade agreements are successfully increasing U.S. exports, that confidentiality in negotiations is both appropriate and helpful in achieving this outcome, and that systems are in place to ensure that all interested parties have input. 

Murphy’s concern is that “public disclosure of confidential negotiating texts would mean a weaker hand for U.S. officials at the negotiating table.”  For Kaminski, “it’s a question of whose input we’re getting on decisions that reach far beyond trade — into questions on the price of generic drugs or whether websites will have to monitor users online.”

Murphy is right about the value of confidentiality.  Trade negotiations are negotiations, which means the final agreement is the result of some necessary compromise.  Compromise is politically difficult, and negotiators need to know that they’ll be evaluated on the final product regardless of their initial positions.  In any event, we don’t know what’s in the agreement until it’s completed, and there will indeed be time after the negotiations conclude to debate the package.  Murphy’s also justified in being generally defensive about secrecy complaints, which often simply mask general antipathy toward trade liberalization.

Bridging the Hatch-Wyden Divide Over Trade Promotion Authority

The eyes of the international trade community are fixed on Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), upon whom responsibility for crafting bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation has fallen. At last report, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hatch and Ranking Member Wyden were at an impasse over some important components of the bill, passage of which is widely considered necessary to concluding the long-gestating, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. That agreement must be concluded before the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations make any progress. Those negotiations will have far-reaching implications for the multilateral trading system, including China, India, Brazil and other countries not currently party to these mega-regional trade agreements. Hence, TPA’s outcome is of worldwide interest.

Trade Promotion Authority has been maligned as a congressional capitulation or executive power grab.  It is neither. The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the authority to “regulate commerce with foreign nations” and to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises” and grants the president power to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Accordingly, the formulation, negotiation, and implementation of trade agreements require the involvement and cooperation of both branches. TPA is a compact between the branches that obliges these respective constitutional authorities, while guaranteeing an up-or-down vote by Congress, on an expedited basis, of any trade agreement negotiated by the executive branch with foreign governments, provided that the agreements meet the objectives spelled-out by Congress in the legislation. This conditionality is often ignored or brushed over by news reporters, who either spend too much time with trade skeptics or who are looking to economize on words.

Without such a compact, trade agreements would be nearly impossible to conclude because foreign negotiators – knowing that any agreement reached would be subject to congressional revisions – would never put their best offers on the table.  The process of negotiating and renegotiating with 535 officials (instead of one agency, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative) would make for an interminable process too cumbersome and costly to pursue.  For practical purposes, negotiations have to occur between small parties vested with the authority to speak on behalf of those whom they represent. Trade Promotion Authority is the solution.

The “Language of Privacy” Is Doing Well in Police Body Camera Discussions

In David Brooks’ latest New York Times column he explains that he is now a proponent of police body cameras, but adds that he did not come to his position “happily.” According to Brooks, the debate over police body cameras has revealed that an increasing number of people have lost “the language of privacy” and “an understanding of why privacy is important.”

It’s refreshing to read that Brooks does have concerns related to privacy. After all, Brooks said last June that the NSA’s snooping isn’t “particularly intrusive.”  But the rise of police body cameras is prompting a sensible conversation about privacy and why it is important.

Given the nature of their work, police officers regularly witness members of the public experience tragic and embarrassing moments, many times on private property. Police officers are often among the first at the scene of auto accidents or other life-threatening emergencies. They also talk to informants as well as victims of sexual and domestic abuse. In addition to sometimes entering private homes, police officers also occasionally visit hospitals and schools.

Brooks discusses some of the legitimate privacy concerns these kind of situations raise towards the end of his column:

When a police officer comes into your home wearing a camera, he’s trampling on the privacy that makes a home a home. He’s recording people on what could be the worst day of their lives, and inhibiting their ability to lean on the officer for care and support.

Cop-cams insult individual dignity because the embarrassing things recorded by them will inevitably get swapped around. The videos of the naked crime victim, the berserk drunk, the screaming maniac will inevitably get posted online — as they are already. With each leak, culture gets a little coarser. The rules designed to keep the videos out of public view will inevitably be eroded and bent.

Even the most committed advocate of police transparency and accountability must concede that the unedited release of all police body camera footage could lead to devastating infringements on a citizens’ privacy and potentially compromise ongoing investigations. A sensible police body camera policy will exempt some footage from public release. If a police officer arrives at the scene of a fatal auto accident, interviews a young victim of sexual assault, or gives a presentation in an elementary school there are serious privacy concerns that police body camera policies ought to address.

Washington Should Make Foreign Policy for Americans, Not Foreign Liberals

Washington’s actions abroad affect the size and power of Washington at home. “War is the health of the state,” declared social critic Randolph Bourne.

The more active America’s foreign policy, the more the United States has to spend on the military: the “defense” budget is the price of Washington’s foreign policy. American military personnel and contractors die. Enemies are created, some of whom become terrorists. A national security state develops.

Thus, Americans committed to limited government and individual liberty should support a foreign policy based on humility and restraint. An imperial foreign policy like that today inevitably inflates–indeed, requires–a Leviathan state.

Nor should anyone who understands government believe the American state to be capable of competently fulfilling more expansive foreign policy objectives. At times, war is an unfortunate necessity and government must rain down death and destruction on other peoples.

Far more often, however, policymakers turn the military into just another government tool intended to achieve complicated ends that often aren’t even important, let alone vital. Attempts at so-called humanitarian intervention and nation-building, for instance, almost always turn out badly, even disastrously.

A Tax Day Review

Today is Tax Day. Federal tax returns are due to the Internal Revenue Service with a postmark before midnight. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the federal government will collect $3.2 trillion in revenue this year.

Revenue comes from five main sources:

  • Individual Income Taxes ($1.5 trillion). The largest source of federal revenues, individual income taxes are imposed on labor and capital income, with statutory rates that vary from 10 to 39.6 percent.
  • Payroll Taxes ($1.1 trillion). These taxes finance Social Security and Medicare. Employees and employers split the 15.3 percent tax assessed on wages, but economists agree that the entire burden ultimately lands on workers in the form of lower wages.
  • Corporate Income Taxes ($328 billion). These taxes are assessed on the worldwide earnings of corporations.
  • Excise Taxes ($96 billion). Excise taxes are consumption taxes on specific goods. At the federal level, excise taxes are charged on such things as gasoline and tanning salons.
  • Other ($206 billion). This category includes the remaining sources of federal revenue like federal tariffs and the death tax.  

The amount of money collected by the federal government ebbs and flows depending on economic growth, but the overall trend is upwards. Federal revenue decreased in 2008 and 2009 due to the Great Recession, but has since rebounded strongly for two reasons. First, the return of economic growth increases revenue collection. Second, the federal government has passed several large tax increases since 2010. In 2015, the federal government will collect the largest amount of revenue in its history, even after adjusting for inflation.