Utah House Passes Nation’s First Universal School Voucher Bill

A couple of hours ago, the Utah House of Representatives passed the nation’s first universal school voucher bill (HB 148) in a nail-biting 38-37 vote. From what I hear coming out of Utah, it’s going to pass the Senate next week as well, and be signed by the governor. 

If it is signed into law, it will be an unprecedented step forward for educational freedom in this country. The media, as well as school choice advocates and critics, will be watching Utah intently to see what happens, and there are some caveats that I think are very important for everyone to keep in mind. 

First, dramatic results should not be expected overnight. In other nations that have adopted similar school choice programs (e.g., Chile, Sweden), it has taken five or 10 years for large numbers of new schools to be created, and for the good ones to be weeded out from the bad. Competition and consumer choice work wonderfully well in education, but their effects are not instantaneous. Part of the reason for that lag is that potential school founders have to be convinced that a newly passed school choice law is on firm legal and political ground, and not likely to be overturned by the courts or repealed by a subsequent legislature. And you can bet this law will be challenged.

Second, the maximum value of Utah’s school vouchers would be $3,000, only about half of what Utah spends per pupil in its public schools. So Bill 148 would still leave private schools at a considerable financial disadvantage compared to their state-run counterparts, and that would inhibit competition between the public and private sectors and retard innovation. 

Those caveats aside, this is a momentous day not just for Utah families, but for our entire nation. What Utah’s legislature has figured out is that school choice is a much better way of fulfilling the promise of public education than is the one-size-fits-all factory school system we inherited from the 19th century.

A Man’s House Is His Castle?

A guy sits down to watch the World Series, drink beer, and clean his World War II-era firearms. A quiet, relaxing evening in his own home. He could not fathom that the “Mobile Emergency Response Group and Equipment Team” would soon be on the scene to “neutralize the threat” he is posing to the community. The ”Team” forces him out of his apartment with flash bang grenades, chemical gas canisters, and rubber bullets.

The details are set forth in this recent judicial ruling.

Yet another example of the disturbing militaristic mind-set that pervades too many of our police agencies. Unnecessary provocation and violence. Unfortunately, the judiciary essentially approves, even lauds, the police work, but nevertheless issues a tiny $1 rebuke because the agents failed to obtain an arrest warrant during this “standoff.”  

Now the city has a budget of $3 billion, but it decides to appeal instead of paying out a measly four quarters. From the point of view of the government attorneys, it was apparently crucial to spend who-knows-how-many-taxpayer-dollars to defend police power and to keep the warrant requirement precedent off the books.

The Constitution is supposed to be “the supreme law of the land,” but consider how much regard the police showed to the right to keep and bear arms and the right to be secure in our homes against unreasonable searches and seizures. Anyone who thinks this is an “isolated incident” should study this, this, and this.

EU vs. Gas-guzzlers

The commissioners of the European Union endlessly preach about the need for carbon taxes and costly regulations that will reduce the quality of life for regular people. But those same commissioners get driven around in low-mileage vehicles. Fortunately, they are getting attacked for this hypocritical attitude.

Sadly, the embarrassment will have little impact. American politicians — including President Bush — want to force Americans into smaller (and more dangerous) cars, yet periodic efforts to require them to live by the same rules have proved fruitless.

The EU Observer reports on the controversy in Brussels: 

EU commissioners are finding themselves under scrutiny to see if they are putting into practice the green values that Brussels is increasingly preaching, with most of the 120-strong fleet of officials cars comprising gas-guzzling, C02-emitting giants.

…[T]he vast majority of the 27 commissioners use the standard-issue vehicles such as Audis or Mercedes — high on security features but rather lower on environment friendliness — to be ferried here and there across Brussels; sometimes even the few hundred metres between commission buildings.

…A commission spokesperson said, “It’s an individual decision for commissioners what their service car should be but as a general rule, the commissioners choose cars that are functional and safe for what they are doing.”

School Reform in Utah

Although it is opposed by the usual special interest groups, Utah lawmakers are moving forward with a school choice plan. Since Utah recently enacted a flat tax, there apparently is a real commitment to reform. The Wall Street Journal reports

The voucher bill passed out of committee earlier this week and is backed by Governor Jon Huntsman. It would offer students who attend private K-12 schools from $500 to $3,000 in tuition reimbursement based on family income.

While Utah is known for its Mormon population, the biggest winners under the plan would be the state’s growing Hispanic population, who haven’t done well in general in Utah public schools.

As usual, local school boards and the state teachers union (the Utah Education Association) are fighting the idea, claiming that it will “drain” money from public schools. This hardly seems likely because the $9 million cost of the program is about 0.5% of total school spending. And the voucher maximum of $3,000 is less than half the state per child public-school spending average of $6,325. The voucher bill also allows Utah public schools to keep the difference between the voucher amount paid out to students who leave and the $6,325 per pupil average.

Vouchers are working in a handful of cities, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush also promoted a statewide plan, until a liberal state court invented constitutional objections.

The evidence on student performance has mostly been favorable in these schools, and research by Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby has found that the presence of vouchers has caused the public schools to improve their performance as well. 

The Libertarian Vote: New Returns Trickle In

Don’t miss the latest from David Kirby and me on the libertarian vote. In Cato Policy Report (pdf; less attractive HTML version here) we report the results of our Zogby International poll of 2006 voters.

In the Zogby survey, 15 percent of voters gave libertarian answers to our three questions. And those libertarian-leaning voters showed the same shift away from Republican candidates that we had identified in the 2004 election. Clearly, “two more years of war, wiretapping, and welfare-state social spending” had not brought back any of the wandering libertarians.

We did some new tests in the Zogby survey. We asked voters to identify themselves ideologically. Full results are in the article, but most respondents whom we identified as libertarian described themselves as “conservative” (41 percent) or “moderate” (31 percent). Only 9 percent called themselves “libertarian.”

But … when we asked half the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” we were quite surprised that fully 59 percent said yes. And when we asked the other half of the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” we knew the number would go down. But it only went down to 44 percent. So 44 percent of American voters are willing to label themselves as “libertarian” if it’s defined as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

We point out to Republican strategists:

After the 2000 election Karl Rove was convinced that 4 million Christian evangelicals had stayed home, and he was determined to get them to the polls in 2004. By our calculations, Republicans carried the libertarian vote by 5.5 million votes in the off-year election of 2002 and by only 2.9 million votes in 2006. That’s a swing of 2.6 million libertarian voters. Remember, it takes two new base voters to replace one swing voter who switches from one party to the other. Rove and his colleagues should have been watching out for the libertarian vote as well.

Read the article.

But wait, there’s more!

Since that article was written, David Kirby (whose number-crunching skills prove that you can actually learn something useful at the Kennedy School of Government) has analyzed newly released data from the American National Election Studies, the gold standard of public opinion research. ANES’s 2006 survey once again found that 16 percent of voters held libertarian values. And David found the following shifts from the 2002 midterm elections:

How Libertarians Voted

House              2002                2006 
D candidate       23                     46 
R candidate       70                     54 

In other words, among libertarians, the margin for Republican House candidates dropped from 47 to 8 points, a 39-point swing. (Note: ANES asked the question a slightly different way, so that votes for third-party or independent candidates were not recorded in 2006. Libertarian voters seem to vote for alternative candidates at a higher rate than other voters.)

Turning to the upper chamber,

Senate             2002                2006 
D candidate       15                     48 
R candidate       74                     52 

Among libertarians, the margin for Republican Senate candidates dropped from 59 to 4 points, a 54-point swing.

As we noted in the Cato Policy Report article, “To put this in perspective, front-page stories since the election have reported the dramatic 7-point shift of white conservative evangelicals away from the Republicans. The libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote measured in exit polls, and it is subject to swings more than three times as large.”

We reiterate our advice above to Karl Rove, and invite Democratic strategists to look carefully at the gift that Republicans are offering them.

Much Regulatory Ado about Nothing?

This story has all the makings of a Shakespearean comedy: a public watchdog asleep at the switch, a scorned woman, and the silliness of politics.

(OK, I’m hyping a post about regulation. But really, the other elements are in here and it’s a good tale. So keep reading.)

SLEEPING WATCHDOG   Last January 18, President Bush quietly approved major changes to the federal regulatory review process. Federal agencies will now be required to offer greater justification for new regulations, estimate those regulations’ costs and benefits, and the White House will have oversight of agencies’ quasi-regulatory “guidance documents,” which until now have been largely free from executive review.

The changes initially went unnoticed by the media — almost. Lauren Morello of the energy & environment trade publication Greenwire (subscription required) ran a good article the next day (full disclosure: I was one of her interviewees). But, unless I missed it, none of the major media reported the story.

None, that is, until this week. On Tuesday, Bloomberg Media’s Cindy Skrzycki dutifully reported the changes in her column “The Regulators.” The same day, the New York Times ran the story front-page, above-the-fold. But for more than a week, the major policy change went unnoticed by the press, other than Greenwire. And, I might add, Greenwire did by far the best job of explaining the new policy’s substance and controversy.

THE SCORNED WOMAN   The policy change has been attributed to new White House regulatory affairs adviser Susan Dudley. Dudley came to national attention last summer, when President Bush nominated her to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a small but very important part of the Office of Management and Budget. At the time, Dudley was directing the Regulatory Studies Program at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, and she has contributed a number of articles to Cato’s Regulation Magazine. (For a fun read, see her short article “A Regulated Day in the Life” from the Summer 2004 issue.)

Dudley’s nomination was met with considerable controversy, and even nastiness, reminiscent of the earlier OIRA fight over Harvard professor John D. Graham. Graham was ultimately approved by the Senate, but Dudley’s nomination never received a committee vote.

I have read some of Dudley’s work, and I’ve found it to be well reasoned and illustrative of issues of legitimate concern — even though I’ve sometimes disagreed with her conclusions. OIRA’s job, as I interpret it, is to scrutinize regulatory agencies’ proposals and require the agencies to justify why they would restrict people’s interactions and impose costs. Such scrutiny is, after all, part of deliberative policymaking. Perhaps Dudley’s scrutiny would have been unreasonably difficult, but a good OIRA chief would certainly ask the tough questions that Dudley’s analyses raise.

THE NEW POLICY   Technically, what President Bush did on Jan. 18 was issue Executive Order 13422, amending President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 12866. EO 12866 pushes federal regulatory agencies to consider the costs of the various regulations they propose, and to examine alternative regulations that could accomplish the same goals at lower costs. EO 12866 also places several transparency and openness requirements on the regulatory process. Finally, EO 12866 gives OIRA a regulatory review role — albeit a less muscular one than what OIRA had under President Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12291. (For more on OIRA and EO 12866, read Dudley’s “Bush’s Rejuvenated OIRA” from the Winter 2001 Regulation.)

The new Bush amendments make four important changes to EO 12866:

  1. Regulatory agencies will have to identify what “market failure” a proposed regulation is intended to address. In other words, an agency will have to explain why the “problem” addressed by the proposed regulation cannot be solved through private action.
  2. Agencies must give some estimate of the aggregate costs and benefits of their regulations.
  3. Guidance documents, which give informal direction for how to comply with various federal regulations, will have to undergo OIRA review if they are considered “significant.”
  4. A political appointee in each agency will have oversight of that agency’s regulatory process.

The first amendment should be unobjectionable, at least on a theoretical level. ”Market failure” is the fundamental justification for government regulation (e.g., pollution should be regulated because no one “owns” the environment), so requiring a regulating agency to cite the relevant market failure when proposing a new regulation seems an appropriate requirement. Indeed, this requirement was part of the original EO 12866 and of President Ronal Reagan’s previous EO12291, but compliance with the requirement has been weak. That is unfortunate, because clearly identifying the market failure should help agencies to formulate effective and efficient regulations.

Likewise, the second amendment seems unobjectionable, at least in theory. Most citizens assume (incorrectly, it turns out) that government regulations undergo and pass a cost-benefit test. Requiring an estimation of the aggregate costs and benefits of regulation would help to ensure that regulation produces a net gain in public welfare — which, I take it, is the ultimate goal of regulation.

The third amendment involves guidances, a broad category of agency-issued documents that try to explain the application of various statutes and regulations. Guidances lack the force of law and also are not subject to the sort of rigorous review process that regulations are. Guidances are thus subject to a number of complaints, including that agencies do not adequately identify the documents as “advisory” and thus not having the force of law, and that agencies improperly use guidances as a way to expand government’s regulatory reach while avoiding the scrutiny of regulatory review. Those concerns are supposed to be addressed by the amendment’s subjecting “significant guidances” to OIRA scrutiny.

Finally, the fourth amendment is intended to put the regulatory process more under the control of the President. A justification for this change is that the public is better served if greater regulatory responsibility is taken by the appointees of an elected official than by career civil servants.

SILLY POLITICS   But is this shift in regulatory responsibility such a good thing? And, indeed, don’t each of the amendments put regulation more under the control of politicians? A good cost-benefit analysis or thoughtful consideration of market failure would certainly improve the regulatory process, but if politicians are in charge of the analysis (whether a President Bush or, say, a President Al Gore), could we trust the analysis they produce?

To be honest, I’m not sure whether we’d be better served by having the politicians, or the bureaucrats, lead the regulatory state. And I’m also not sure that the fight over EO 12866 matters.

In the Fall 2006 Regulation, New York Law School professor and environmental lawyer David Schoenbrod tells the disturbing story of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Faustian bargain. Schoenbrod claims that Congress created the EPA to be a whipping boy, making the difficult decisions and absorbing the abuse that Capitol Hill’s politicians want to avoid. Congress gets the accolades for voting to “save the environment”; the EPA gets the nightmare of figuring out how to do it, how much of it to save, and who absorbs the cost. And the EPA suffers the wrath of angered environmentalists and industrialists.

I would extend Schoenbrod’s analysis to all regulatory agencies: Congress is supposed to oversee the laws and consider the difficult tradeoffs implicit in regulation. But, because Congress has abdicated its duty, regulatory analysis has fallen to the White House and/or the federal bureaucracy — a situation that serves no one particularly well.

And what is more, it may not really matter whether the White House mandates additional regulatory analysis or who carries it out. As Rutgers University’s Stuart Shapiro argues in the Summer 2006 Regulation, the findings of regulatory analysis have surprisingly little effect on a proposed regulation; what seems to matter is the White House’s position on the regulation. If the White House likes the regulation, the regulation usually gets adopted regardless of the analysis; if the White House dislikes the regulation, it usually gets abandoned regardless of the analysis.

Despite the immense blood-feud over it, regulatory analysis seems to have neither produced the rational, low-cost regulatory paradise that proponents envisioned, nor the misery-plagued wasteland that opponents decried. Instead, as Cato chairman Bill Niskanen has cynically observed, regulatory analysts produce a bunch of lonely numbers that the politicians usually ignore. I suspect Bush’s EO 12866 amendments will produce more of the same — which is to say, the current brouhaha is much ado about nothing.

[Hat tip to Dr. Richard Belzer for correcting my description of EO 13422’s second amendment. You can read Dr. Belzer’s thoughts on EO 13422 at www.neutralsource.org.]

New Climate Change Report Out Today

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new climate change study today at a news conference in Paris. The study reports that global warming caused by human activities is now a virtual certainty, and paints a startling picture of the effects of global climate change. Still, not everyone is in complete agreement as to the severity of the threat. “Anyone who says that the planet is warming at an increasing rate is simply dead wrong,” says Cato scholar Patrick Michaels, author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media. Dr. Michaels’ full comments are available here.