The Year of Educational Choice: Update II

Educational choice is on the march.

As I noted back in February, the stars appeared to be aligned for a “Year of Educational Choice.” By late April, state legislatures were halfway toward beating the record of 13 states adopting new or expanded school choice laws in 2011, which the Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Year of School Choice.” The major difference in the types of legislative proposals under consideration this year is that more than a dozen states considered education savings account (ESA) laws that allow parents to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services and save for future education expenses, including college.

On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Individualized Education Act, an ESA program for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Mississippi enacted the nation’s third ESA law, behind Arizona and Florida. Lawmakers in Montana also passed an ESA, but Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed it earlier this month.

Nevertheless, Gov. Bullock allowed a universal tax-credit scholarship bill to become law without his signature. The law is an important step toward educational freedom, albeit a very modest one. Taxpayers can only receive tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations up to $150, meaning that a single $4,500 scholarship will require 30 donors. No other state has such a restrictive per-donor credit cap. Unless the legislature raises or eliminates the cap, Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program is likely to help very few students.

America’s NATO Liabilities

Washington’s collection of European security dependents (aka, the NATO allies) seek an even stronger U.S. commitment to their defense.  That desire has clearly been on the rise since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent escalation of the Ukraine crisis.  Not surprisingly, Moscow’s smaller neighbors, especially the three Baltic republics, worry about the Kremlin’s intentions and want to take cover behind the shield of America’s military power.  Their latest ploy is to seek the permanent deployment of a NATO brigade (some 3,000 to 5,000 troops) on their territory.  It is a safe bet that they will want U.S. forces to be part of that unit.  Indeed, the United States already keeps more than 150 troops (along with military aircraft) in those countries as part of a continuing rotation of forces.

It is not hard to understand why small, weak nations would seek maximum protection from a distant power against a large, powerful neighbor that has displayed worrisome intentions.  It is much harder to understand, though, why undertaking such a risk would be in the best interest of the United States.  Allies are only beneficial when they augment a nation’s strength, and the potential benefits of defending them significantly outweigh the potential costs and risks. The Baltic republics (and most NATO members, for that matter) spectacularly fail that basic test.  They do next to nothing to augment America’s already vast military power, while (being on bad terms with their powerful neighbor) they create the risk of a U.S.-Russia confrontation where none would otherwise exist.  In short, they are strategic liabilities, not strategic assets. 

Making matters even worse, the Baltic countries and the other European members of NATO don’t seem terribly serious about their own defense, even as they sound alarm bells about Russia’s behavior.  As I note in a new article in Aspenia Online, their defense spending continues to be woeful.  Despite a commitment following the 2006 NATO summit, only the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia currently spend at least two percent of annual GDP on defense.  What is especially frustrating is that several major NATO powers, including Germany, Italy, and Spain, have spending levels far below the two percent target.  By comparison, just the U.S. base military budget is more than four percent of a much larger GDP, and if overseas contingency spending for supposed emergency missions (like the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) is included, Washington’s defense outlays reach nearly five percent. 

Reforming the Highway Trust Fund

Congress has created an ongoing crisis in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Year after year, policymakers spend more on highway and transit aid to the states than the HTF raises from gas taxes and other dedicated revenues. CBO projects that annual HTF spending will be $53 billion and rising in coming years, while HTF revenues will be $40 billion. That leaves an annual funding gap of at least $13 billion.

Congress faces a deadline at the end of May to reauthorize the HTF. However, Congress will probably enact a short-term HTF extension, and then grapple with the funding gap problem later in the summer. Everyone agrees that Congress should find a long-term solution to the funding gap.

The best solution for the HTF is simple: cut annual spending by $13 billion to match revenues. State and local governments are fully capable of funding more of their own highway and transit expenses. Congress can help the states by reducing federal regulations that boost transportation construction costs, such as Davis-Bacon and environmental rules.

Cutting federal aid for highways and urban transit would improve the efficiency of infrastructure investment. Ending transit aid would be particularly beneficial. Local officials often focus on maximizing the flow of money from Washington, rather than ensuring that projects generate overall net value. By injecting federal dollars and regulations into local transit planning, Congress distorts local decision making and increases the complexity, bureaucracy, and costs of projects. 

Put Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

Washington’s latest symbolic battle is looming. America’s money celebrates its early political leaders, all white males. There’s now a campaign to add a woman. A recent poll named antislavery activist Harriet Tubman the favorite, ahead of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that a woman appeared on America’s money. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony and Native American Sacagawea graced ill-fated dollar coins which were little used and quickly forgotten.

President Barack Obama indicated his interest in showcasing more women. Republican legislators should take up the challenge and introduce a resolution urging the Treasury to add Tubman. There’s nothing sacred about the present currency line-up. After all, America was created by many more people than presidents and other politicians. Indeed, replacing Andrew Jackson makes a certain sense since he resolutely opposed a federal central bank.

Moreover, Tubman would be a great choice to replace him. She was born between 1820 and 1822 in Maryland to slave parents. Tubman was hired out and often beaten. After her owner’s death in 1849, which led his widow to begin selling their slaves, she escaped through the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia.

However, a year later she returned to Maryland to rescue her niece and the latter’s two children, beginning a career of leading slaves to freedom. She was daring and creative; her plans were sophisticated. Although she trusted God she also saw value in arming herself. She directed her last rescue in December 1860.

The Very Model of a Modern Monetary Economist

I’m very well acquainted… with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General
.[1]

One of the chief goals Cato’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives is to make people aware of alternatives to conventional monetary systems—that is, systems managed by central bankers wielding considerable, if not unlimited, discretionary authority. The challenge isn’t just one of informing the general public: even professional monetary economists, with relatively few exceptions, are surprisingly ill-informed about such alternatives.

I recently came across a document that perfectly illustrates this last point: a power point presentation by a senior Federal Reserve Bank research economist, given at a conference aimed at school teachers specializing in economics.

I have no desire to single-out the economist in question, who I will therefore refer to simply as “our economist.” On the contrary: I offer his presentation as an example of the all-too common tendency for otherwise competent monetary economists (and our economist is in fact very accomplished) to misread the historical record regarding potential alternatives to central banking and to otherwise give such alternatives short shrift.

Florida Judge Dismisses Lawsuit against School Choice

This morning, a Florida circuit court judge dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit by the members of the education establishment against the 13-year old Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship law, which grants tax credits to corporations that make donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. About 70,000 low-income students in Florida currently receive tax-credit scholarships to attend the schools of their choice. Travis Pillow of RedefinEd (a blog connected to the scholarship organization Step Up for Students) has the story:

The statewide teachers union, the Florida PTA, the Florida School Boards Association and other groups filed the lawsuit in August, arguing the tax credit scholarship program unconstitutionally created a “parallel” system of publicly supported schools and violated a state constitutional provision barring state aid for religious institutions.

Judge George Reynolds, however, dismissed the case this morning. The plaintiffs, he ruled, could not show the scholarships harmed public schools, and could not challenge the program as taxpayers because it was not funded through the state budget.

Claims the lawsuit would harm public schools were purely “speculative,” Reynolds wrote, siding with arguments made by the state and parents who had intervened in the case. The plaintiffs could not show the program would hurt school districts’ per-pupil funding, or result in “any adverse impact on the quality of education” in public schools.

In dismissing the lawsuit on these grounds, the judge is following the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court and the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

In ACSTO v. Winn (2011), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the standing of plaintiffs against Arizona’s tax-credit scholarship law because the scholarships constitute private funds, not government expenditures. Private funds, the Court ruled, do not become government property until they have “come into the tax collector’s hands.” Moreover, any impact on other taxes or spending is purely speculative, so the plaintiffs could not demonstrate any harm:

The costs of education may be a significant portion of Arizona’s annual budget, but the tax credit, by facilitating the operation of both religious and secular private schools, could relieve the burden on public schools and provide cost savings to the State. Even if the tax credit had an adverse effect on Arizona’s budget, problems would remain. To find a particular injury in fact would require speculation that Arizona lawmakers react to revenue shortfalls by increasing respondents’ tax liability.

Last year, in Duncan v. New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a lawsuit against the Granite State’s tax-credit scholarship law for the same reasons:

The personal injuries alleged by the petitioners in this case […] are insufficient to establish standing. The petitioners’ claim that the program will result in “net fiscal losses” to local governments does not articulate a personal injury. […] Moreover, the purported injury asserted here – the loss of money to local school districts – is necessarily speculative. […] Even if the tax credits result in a decrease in the number of students attending local public schools, it is unclear whether, as the petitioners allege, local governments will experience “net fiscal losses.” The prospect that this will occur requires speculation about whether a decrease in students will reduce public school costs and about how the legislature will respond to the decrease in students attending public schools, assuming that occurs.

This morning, the Florida judge reached the same, logical conclusion. The plaintiffs are not challenging “a program funded by legislative appropriations” so they lack standing to sue. Moreover, citing both of the above opinions, the judge concluded that any “injury” they allege is purely speculative:

Plaintiff’s Complaint also does not allege special injury sufficient to confer standing on Plaintiffs to challenge the constitutionality of the Tax Credit Program. […] [W]hether any diminution of public school resources resulting from the Tax Credit Program will actually take place is speculative, as is any claim that any such diminution would result in reduced per-pupil spending or in any adverse impact on the quality of education.

The plaintiffs are likely to appeal. And they are likely to lose that appeal. Last September, another circuit court judge dismissed a separate teachers union lawsuit alleging that the legislation expanding the tax-credit scholarship law was passed improperly. That judge also held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not demonstrate any harm.

Perhaps the education establishment should spend less time trying to prevent students from leaving their schools and more time trying to improve their schools so families will choose them.

A Happy Birthday for Head Start?

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson announced the launch of Project Head Start, a federal program that would deliver health, nutritional, academic, and other services to low-income, preschool children, hopefully giving them an early boost in life. It was certainly well intentioned, but as the federal government’s own research has shown, pure intentions don’t make something work, nor do hundreds-of-billions of taxpayer dollars:

In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.

Unfortunately, the expansion of government pre-K programs generally seems to be based much more on good intentions than evidence. As George Mason University professor David Armor concluded in a recent examination of the research not just on Head Start, but numerous state-level preschool programs, “the evidence as it currently exists demonstrates only short-term skill gains that fade after a few years.”

It’s Head Start’s birthday. How happy should we be?