Must Voucher Programs Include Religious Schools?

That’s the question that several Maine families and the Institute for Justice have put before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maine has had a voucher-like “tuitioning” program for well over a century. During most of that period, it allowed participating famillies to choose either a secular or religious school. Then, in 1980, the state decided it had been acting unconstitutionally. Maine’s Attorney general told the legislature that its tuitioning program violated the First Amendment’s proscription against establishing religion. Quick to obey, the legislature passed a law ending the right of voucher-receiving parents to choose religious schools.

A number of court cases have since tried to undo the legislature’s actions. These efforts gained momentum in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs do NOT violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

From that point on, it clearly has been legal for Maine to once again allow the participation of religious schools, but the state has elected not to do so. A group of Maine parents have thus joined with the Institute for Justice this week and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to force the state to permit religious schools to participate.

Their legal argument is that, if a state operates a voucher program, the equal protection and free exercise clauses require it to treat religious and non-religious schools equally, allowing parents to choose either.

That argument has merit. It is discriminatory to exclude religious schools simply because of their religiosity.

But the plaintiff’s solution is not without problems of its own.

If they are successful, parents who object to funding religious schools will nevertheless be compelled to do so. While this sort of compulsion has not been ruled to constitute a federally unconstitutional infringement of taxpayers’ rights, it is nevertheless a bad idea. Compulsion to fund instruction that some taxpayers find objectionable is a recipe for social conflict – a conflict that can currently be seen in the Netherlands over the funding of some conservative Islamic voucher schools.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: The use of education tax credits instead of vouchers to ensure universal access to the public or private schools of parents’ choice. These programs can avoid virtually all of the compulsion that makes public schools a social battleground, and that remains a concern under government voucher programs. See the link above for a short explanation of the tax credit advantage, or this paper for a more substantial one.

Furthermore, even if the parents’ suit prevails, it does not mean that all will be rosy for state-level school voucher programs. All but three states (and Maine is one of those three) have their own constitutional provisions against government funding going to religious institutions. If the U.S. Supreme Court forces all voucher programs to include religious schools, some states may be obliged by their state constitutions to shut down or forego voucher programs rather than allow them to operate with the participation of religious schools.

This, in other words, is a messy, and unnecessary, road to travel. There is a better option: education tax credits.

Trust Me, It’s Just Not Fair

Apparently, if your subject is how you are being victimized by the nation’s higher education system, personal anecdotes and unsupported assertions are all it takes to get in the Washington Post. At least that’s what can be surmised from “Put Grad School Within My Grasp,” a one-woman pity party in which Sui Lang Panoke, an American University graduate student, grieves over having to pay too much of her own education bill, and declares that “a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created.”

Ordinarily, when discussing such low-fact, high-emotion articles as Miss Panoke’s, I would put together one argument rather than tackling individual points. Unfortunately, there’s just too much worthy of comment in Miss Panoke’s piece to let any little bit slip by. I hope, therefore, you’ll pardon my dealing with her lament one piece at a time… 

1. The Introduction: “Is access to graduate education in America exclusively for the upper class? As a first-year graduate student struggling to make ends meet, I believe the answer is yes.”

Not a good start. Miss Panoke offers nothing – not a single fact or figure – to back up her claim that graduate school has become an exclusive preserve of the upper class. And how could she: According to the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 27 percent of graduate students receive means-tested, subsidized Stafford Loans. That means that at the absolute least more than a quarter of American graduate students cannot be upper-class, and no doubt the percentage of non-wealthy grad students is much higher than that.

2. I’m not rich: “I have no college fund, trust or inheritance.”

The assumption here seems to be that anyone who can afford graduate school on their own must be loaded. Of course, a “college fund” could just come from saving over the years, which brings us to…

3. I didn’t get a job after I got my bachelor’s: “I don’t independently qualify for private student loans because I lack the substantial credit or employment history that is required, and I do not have the luxury of having a willing and eligible co-signer.”

Assuming Miss Panoke knew graduate school wasn’t cheap before enrolling, she probably should have worked after getting her bachelor’s degree and saved money for grad school, which would have enabled her to both establish that crucial employment history and make grad school a little more affordable. But wait…

4. I need a graduate degree just to get a job: “Today’s job market is becoming more and more competitive. Bachelor’s degrees don’t carry the weight they used to. It’s almost necessary to have a graduate, doctorate or law degree to compete with the current highly qualified pool of candidates.”

While Miss Panoke is right that bachelor’s degrees have become less meaningful over the years – largely as a result of government pushing everyone into college, and colleges giving out diplomas that signify less and less learning – does she really think everyone has to have an advanced degree to get a job? Unfortunately, she never tells the reader what her own bachelor’s degree is in, but if she majored in anything the least bit marketable, employment opportunities are out there. Indeed, as the National Association of Colleges and Employers recently reported, the employment picture for recent bachelor’s degree recipients is actually very bright.

5. Dude, where are my scholarships? “While I have applied for a few scholarships, I have yet to be awarded one.”

How does Miss Panoke define “a few scholarships?” One? Two? Three? Who knows! And why hasn’t she been awarded any? Was she not qualified? Were winners randomly assigned? Without a lot more information, the reader can’t tell whether the problem is “the system” – as Miss Panoke asserts – or the student herself.

6. There just isn’t enough scholarship money: “Scholarships represent less than 4 percent of the total aid available each year for college students, and much less than that for graduate students.”

At least there’s a stat here, but Miss Panoke cites no source for it, and it is of questionable accuracy.

Using College Board data, in the 2004-05 school year private and employer grants – which might be what Miss Panoke used to calculate scholarship aid – constituted 5 percent of total aid, a little higher than Miss Panoke’s number. But that is really only the tip of the non-government-aid iceberg; Add institutional aid to private and employer grants, and the scholarship share of total aid goes all the way up to 22 percent.

As for graduate students, specific data is hard to find, but given Miss Panoke’s low-balling of undergraduate scholarships–that, and the fact that over 60 percent of graduate students get some kind of aid to attend school–I’ll assume she’s overstating the severity of the problem for grad students.

7. Our Marxism isn’t working: “We are failing to redistribute the wealth in America, and the divide between the upper and lower classes is widening.”

Um, I’ll let this one speak for itself.

8. There’s a less expensive school? “The writer is a first-year graduate student at American University working toward a master’s degree in public administration.”

Wait. American University? This starving student couldn’t have pursued her master’s anywhere cheaper? 

Of course she could have, and right in the Washington, D.C., area. Indeed, with tuition at $1048 per credit hour, AU is roughly 2.5 times more expensive than in-state tuition at Virginia’s George Mason University, and 1.4 times more expensive than out-of-state tuition. Similarly, AU’s tuition is 2.2 times higher than in-state tuition at the University of Maryland, and 1.4 times higher than out-of-state tuition.

9. It Takes Tax Money to Make Tax Money: As frustrating as it is to read Miss Panoke’s fact-free argument for why taxpayers should be forced to shell out more for her schooling, the real kicker is that she wants to use that schooling to get a public sector career (assuming that’s what she’ll use her master’s in public administration for). So, in essence, what she really wants is for taxpayers to finance an education designed to help her get even more money out of them later!

Unfortunately this last point, unlike Miss Panoke’s piece, makes all too much intuitive sense. Read more of the complaints of self-proclaimed victims of American higher education like Miss Panoke, and it will be clear: Their ultimate dream is to be supported, in perpetuity, by the American taxpayer.

Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…

…there’s this piece of bad news, courtesy of the Jamestown Foundation:

In the midst of rising tensions between the Turkish and Iraqi governments over the presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in northern Iraq, the PKK has managed to expand to other parts of Iraq outside of their traditional strongholds in the northern mountains. It seems that the PKK has taken advantage of the lax security in the capital city of Baghdad and government distraction to open the “Ocalan Culture Center,” a PKK contact bureau, just steps away from the Turkish Embassy. Although Iraq has pledged that it will do what it can to crack down on the presence of PKK fighters in Iraq, the Ocalan Culture Center was opened with the approval of local government authorities, according to documents plastered on the walls of the center (Turkish Daily News, July 14). This comes despite the fact that the PKK is ostensibly an outlawed organization in Iraq.

The PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. Turkish intelligence estimates that there are between 4,000 to 5,000 PKK fighters in the mountainous border region in northern Iraq. The PKK began infiltrating back into Iraq from Turkey after it called off its unilateral cease-fire in the summer of 2004. The PKK already has a contact bureau in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

[…]Turkish officials fear that [the Baghdad center] will also be used to plan and facilitate terrorist operations around the border area and in Turkey (Cihan News Agency, July 12). Turkish officials officially opposed the opening of the Ocalan Culture Center in Baghdad. Diplomatic sources stated that Turkey delivered a note via the Turkish Embassy to the Iraqi government demanding the closure of the contact office, citing Iraq’s pledges that it would not allow Iraq to be a sanctuary for terrorist organizations (Anatolia News Agency, July 20).

The Turks have absolutely no love for the PKK, and things have been heating up both diplomatically and militarily between the Turks and the Iraqis.  In a country that doesn’t need any more flashpoints, this could easily become one.

Mercantilist Logic Flounders at Sea

The good news from the listing cargo ship near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands is that all 23 crew members were plucked safely from the ship by helicopter last night. (See news story.) The bad news is that the 5,000 cars aboard the ship bound from Japan to Canada may not survive the mishap.

Come to think of it, would it be such bad news if those 5,000 cars sank to the bottom of the ocean? According to the mercantilist mindset that seems to dominate Washington’s discussion of trade policy, the loss of merchandise in transit from one country to another may be the best of all possible worlds.

Mercantilism is a centuries-old approach to trade that believes that exports are the big payoff from trade and imports a burden. By definition, then, a trade surplus signals success for trade policy and a trade deficit failure.

From a mercantilist point of view, then, the loss of those 5,000 cars at sea should be a blessing to the global economy. The people of Japan would have occupied themselves producing those 5,000 cars for export, while the people of Canada would not have shoulder the “burden” of accepting them as imports. Japan can add to its trade surplus without Canada being forced to suffer a deficit.

The great French economist Frederic Bastiat exposed this fallacy more than 150 years ago in an essay, “The Balance of Trade” (Chapter 6 of his Economic Sophisms). If the mercantilists are right, we should all be praying for bad weather in the sea lanes carrying all those cars, shoes, shirts, and laptop computers to our showrooms and store shelves.

Rent-Seeking Weasels

We’ve all heard about how actor-director Rob Reiner sponsored an initiative in California in 1998 to raise cigarette taxes to fund preschool programs. Reiner then became chairman of the state agency created by the initiative. And then he funneled $230 million of state spending through the ad and PR agencies that had worked on the initiative. And then he spent another $23 million of state money to support Proposition 82 this spring, to create universal preschool programs. He had to resign from his position, and voters turned down Prop 82.

But he’s not the only person sponsoring an initative that would benefit himself, his family, or his friends. A wealthy real estate developer who thought stem cell research would benefit his diabetic son spent $3 million of his own money to get Californians to create a $3 billion taxpayer-funded stem cell research organization, which he then became chairman of.

And now comes Vinod Khosla, a founder of Sun Microsystems and former partner in the fabulously successful Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, and recently number 1 on Forbes magazine’s Midas list of “the people who most successfully use venture capital to create wealth for their investors.” He’s been the subject of two admiring profiles in the Washington Post (one reprinted from Slate) in the past two days for his latest venture: ethanol. If Vinod Khosla says ethanol is a good investment, don’t bet against him. Or against fellow Silicon Valley megamillionaire Bill Gross, who says that “reinventing energy … dwarfs any business opportunity in history.”

But if it’s such a good investment, why is Khosla ”supporting an initiative on this fall’s ballot in California that would tax oil companies to generate $4 billion to help encourage the use of alternative energy,” as Slate writer Daniel Gross notes? Khosla told Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby that he wants just a little help from the federal government, too: “Khosla wants government to require auto companies to make more flex-fuel cars that run on gasoline or ethanol… .  Khosla wants government to require big gasoline distributors to install ethanol pumps at a tenth of their gas stations.” Oh, and a better subsidy.

Taxing your competitors to subsidize your industry is a rent-seeker’s dream. Usually you have to be more subtle about it. But if you have a “green” business idea, you can get liberal journalists to write gushing stories about you without even stopping to ask, “Hey, aren’t you going to benefit from these initiatives and laws you’re pushing? Isn’t that sort of like, you know, corporate welfare? Like we’re always accusing the oil industry of?”

We shouldn’t bet against Khosla. But if his latest investment is really such a great business opportunity, we should feel free to vote against subsidizing it.

Hillary’s Health Care Initiative Gets off to a Bad Start

Pop quiz.  Finish the following sentence:

No factor does more to hold back America’s economic growth and keep American workers from earning as much as they deserve than _________________.

A. the soaring cost of health care [16.5 percent of GDP]

B. the soaring cost of government [31.4 percent of GDP]

If you understand the “greater than/less than” thing, you picked B.  But if you are Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, you picked A.  In fact, that is how Senator Clinton completed the first sentence of the “Affordable Health Care” section of her “American Dream Initiative,” released yesterday. 

Just one sentence into her vision for health care, and I am already disappointed.