The Unbearable Meaninglessness of “School Choice”

The National Center for Education Statistics has just released a report titled “Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2003.” One of the highlights in the news release is the statistic that only 17 percent of students “attended a school other than their parent’s first-choice school.”

Wow! Isn’t that great!?! 83 percent of American kids are attending the schools their parents most want them to attend! School choice is here! We can declare victory and go home! (I’m out of a job!)

Er. Not so fast. Let’s say you’re approached by a stranger who wants to offer you a holiday greeting, and the two greeting choices are: a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, and a kick in the shin. Almost everyone would presumably chose the kick, and if 83 percent of them got it, they’d have their first choice. Hurray! Not.

Obviously, most people would rather be greeted by, “happy holidays,” “season’s greetings,” or any of a variety of religious holiday wishes. But if those options are not available to them, they’ll make a choice from among the options that are.

The moral of the story is that it is senseless to speak of someone’s “first choice” of school in the context of a roughly 90 percent government monopoly. In the absence of that monopoly, the range of options would be vastly greater, and it is likely that many parents would find schools that appealed to them more, and served them better, than any of the existing options.

This is yet another reason why it is preferable, when possible, to speak of free education markets rather than “school choice” – the latter term being vague to the point of meaninglessness.

Atlanta Woman, 88, Shot Dead in Drug Raid

Today’s New York Times reports on another drug raid gone awry.  Kathryn Johnston thought criminals were breaking into her home–so she retrieved a handgun and shot at the people who were at her front door.  As it turns out, the men at the door were cops on a drug raid.  The officers were wounded, but they returned fire and killed Ms. Johnston.  According to the Times report, the cops involved may have lied to get the search warrant and may have lied about the shooting afterward.  These incidents are far more common than most people believe, as this Cato raidmap shows.

Global Warming Showdown

The media is increasingly embracing the idea that anyone in the scientific community who doesn’t wet their bed over the prospect of future warming is some sort of (a) flat-earth know-nothing, or or (b) a cynical money grubber who allows oil and coal companies to buy their expertise despite knowing full well that doom is on the horizon.

Well, today you can judge for yourself.  At a conference co-sponsored by the Western Business Roundtable and the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), Cato senior fellow Patrick J. Michaels (who, more relevantly, is a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia and a member of the International Panel on Climate Change) will debate Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at the Earth Sciences center at Columbia University.  The debate begins at 1:30 Mountain Standard Time and will be webcast live for all interested.  If you count yourself among them, you can go sign up here to listen.  

SCOTUS Rebuffs Maine School Voucher Case

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case seeking to overturn the exclusion of religious schools from Maine’s school voucher (a.k.a., “tuitioning”) program.

Maine’s tuitioning program was created in 1873, and until 1980 it allowed families whose towns did not operate their own public high schools to choose any public or private school, using funds allocated for their education by the local taxing authority.

In 1980, then-Attoney General Joseph Brennan (D), ruled that the inclusion of religious schools violated the First Amendment of the federal Constitution, and religious schools were subsequently expelled from the program. That prohibition has persisted to this day, even in the wake of the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, that found vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional.

The case was filed by 8 families whose children are not eligible for tuition assistance solely because their children attend religious schools. They were represented by the Institute for Justice which would have argued that the exclusion of religious schools was itself an unconstitutional act of discrimination against religion by the state.

There is certainly something to be said for this argument. Under the federal constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, governments must strive to remain neutral with respect to religion, and clearly parents who chose religious schooling in this case are being denied an opportunity afforded to all other parents. That is not neutrality.

The proscription against religious schools is not only legally dubious, but socially divisive, as well. Parents who wish to send their children to religious schools are taxed to pay for services they cannot themselves use – a recipe for social tension. There is, however, a school choice system capable of ensuring that all families have an unfettered choice of schools for their children without anyone being forced to pay for schooling to which they object: the education tax credit.

By offering personal use tax credits (essentially targeted tax cuts) to parents who pay for their own children’s education, as well as tax credits for donations to private scholarship organizations (that in turn subsidize education for low income families) a system of private funding could be created that would ensure universal school choice without compelling anyone to fund schooling to which they objected.

Such a system would achieve the goals of public education far more ably than our current system of state-run schooling, while avoiding most of the legal problems that beset government-funded voucher programs.

Why would anyone oppose such a system, except perhaps because they wish to make it artificially difficult for families to obtain religious schooling, or because they wish to protect the lucrative monopoly for the public school employee unions?

What Is Health Insurance?

Over at the Health Affairs Blog, Mark Smith, president of the California HealthCare Foundation, offers the following assessment of that which we call “health insurance”:

When you ask people why they want health insurance, they will give you one of four answers… . (1) “What if I’m hit by a bus?”; (2) “I need to be covered for my preventive services”; (3) “I can’t afford to go to the doctor, or to get my medicine”; and (4) “I’ve got a chronic disease, for which I can’t afford to pay over time.” …

Please note: Only the first of those is insurance, in the sense in which anyone would understand that term — that is to say, protection of financial assets against the rare, unpredictable, catastrophic event …

Some component of what we call health insurance is that “what if I’m hit by a bus” concept. But the difficulty, we think, in trying to find a method of coverage which is acceptable to the various constituencies who are involved in health insurance … is that this thing we call health insurance is actually four different market items put together in one financial instrument which is increasingly unaffordable… .

To the extent that insurers and providers both see the problem of the uninsured as a revenue problem — which is to say, there are all these people out there who aren’t part of our system, and we need to find a way to buy them into our system at more or less our system’s price, at more or less our system’s configuration, and more or less maintain the incomes of everybody in our system — that is a very different question from how can we make the underlying asset more affordable… .

My point, therefore, is not [we] shouldn’t continue with the quest for expanded insurance coverage but that in so doing, we try to understand what it is we mean by insurance in the first place, and the extent to which combining these functions in one financial package creates a package which is simultaneously attractive for some people and unattractive for others. And in a voluntary market you create this mismatch, because for instance, how many people would pay money to protect their assets if they don’t have assets to protect? Most of the uninsured are low income; most low-income people don’t have huge amounts of assets to protect. They know that the hospital won’t come after them in quite the same way as the department store will, even for the same bill, and so asking them to pay money every week or every month, to protect assets that they don’t have, in case of an experience which will probably not occur to them, strikes us as not a very likely way to expand coverage among that population.

Hagel Makes the Case for an Exit Strategy

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) penned an important op ed in Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section calling on President Bush to fashion an exit strategy from Iraq.

Hagel’s candor is refreshing, but I have come to expect this from Hagel. Equally impressive is his brevity. He manages to say in a short 739 words what so few of his fellow senators have been willing or able to articulate in twice or three times as many: “The United States must begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq.”

The gist of the editorial explains that we must exit Iraq because it is in our interest to do so. He notes the “devastating” costs “in terms of American lives, dollars and world standing.” He points out that ”We are destroying our force structure, which took 30 years to build.” This cost to our military – and therefore to our national security – cannot be quantified. Neither can the cost in lives. But this much we do know: in dollar terms alone, war costs now exceed $300 billion, and are accumulating at a rate of $8 billion per month.

As to Hagel’s pragmatic understanding of the limitations of military force to achieve noble ends, the following passages are instructive:

Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation – regardless of our noble purpose.

We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam. Honorable intentions are not policies and plans.

Well said, Senator Hagel. Here’s hoping that some of your fellow senators took time off from leftover turkey and stuffing to read the newspaper.

The Results of Defending Freedom of Religion and Referring to “This Man” in Turkey?

Dr. Atilla YaylaA respected political scientist, Dr. Atilla Yayla of the Gazi University of Ankara, Turkey, has been dismissed from his teaching position and pilloried in the press in Turkey for daring publicly to make critical remarks about the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose version of “secularism” has meant state control of and suppression of religion.

Kemalist secularism is not well understood by Americans and Europeans. As Dr. Yayla put it some years ago (about 10, I think) at a seminar on Islam and civil society I organized for him at the Cato Institute, “People say that you have separation of church and state in America and we have separation of mosque-and-church and state in Turkey. In America, that means freedom of religion. In Turkey, it means freedom from religion. There is a great difference between the two.” Private property, contract, and limited government, he argued, should create the framework for people to decide on their own, through voluntary cooperation, whether and how to build a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or anything else. Such decisions should not be made by state officials.

Atilla was calm during the hot discussion that followed and offered a voice of reason and true liberalism, as passionate secularists and Islamists around the seminar table argued against each other, the former for suppressing and controlling religion by force and the latter for imposing it by force. One secularist even showed a calculation of how many square meters a Muslim needs to pray, multiplied it by the Muslim population of Turkey, calculated the number of square meters of Mosque space in Turkey, and concluded that Turkey had a 50 percent surplus capacity of Mosque space, and therefore that no more should be allowed to be built. Dr. Yayla suggested that that decision should be left to the religious devotion of the faithful, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise, and calmly appealed for peace by promoting freedom of religion: religion should be neither suppressed nor supported by the state.

Americans can be grateful that they enjoy the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is not the same as “secularism,” as it is understood in the Middle East. That’s why when I’m in the Middle East I promote freedom of religion, rather than secularism, for the simple reason that secularism in that context doesn’t mean the same as the term “secular state” does elsewhere. That is one element of the Kemalist legacy that Dr. Yayla dared to criticize.

Advocates of freedom the world over should support Dr. Atilla Yayla, a principled voice for freedom of speech, for toleration, and for the civilized values of limited government, protection of property, and freedom of contract, association, and trade.

Those who wish to express their support for Dr. Yayla should contact Ms. Ozlem Caglar Yilmaz, executive director of the Association for Liberal Thinking in Ankara, of which Dr. Yayla is the president. The email is ozlemcaglar [at] liberal [dot] org [dot] tr and the fax is +90 312 230 80 03.