The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. The next installment is here.
Rev. Joe Darby
Opening Comment, Con
My local newspaper, The Charleston Post and Courier, recently affirmed their continuing editorial suggestion that we "give School Tax Credits a Try." I think that’s a very bad idea.
My wife is a public school teacher -- and an excellent one at that. She spends much of her time either shaping young minds or preparing to do so, even supplementing meager supplies at her own expense and using creative means to reach and teach children described as "at risk." Her school is almost 100% "free lunch," but her students score well on state tests because she’s a good teacher. Most of her colleagues who labor under difficult circumstances are excellent teachers too. Rather than simply blaming an ominous "public education establishment," we should note the truth -- objective studies show that private education is not always a winner. A 2008 United States Department of Education study of the District of Columbia voucher program found that students in the program generally did no better on reading and math tests after two years than their public school peers.
A mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students. The major beneficiaries of private school choice in South Carolina will not be poor families, for the tuition tax credits and scholarships proposed will not cover the cost of many good private schools and will leave parents to take up the slack and to provide other things like uniforms, transportation and extracurricular activity fees. The major beneficiaries will be affluent parents who will simply have more disposable income when their share of their children’s tuition is decreased.
Before we give school tax credits a "try" we should first give equitably funded, staffed and equipped public schools a "try," for many southern states have never done so. Excellence in public education for African-Americans was frowned upon after the Post Civil War period of reconstruction. In Paradoxes of Segregation by R. Scott Baker, Charleston, SC School Superintendent A.B. Rhett touted what was Burke Industrial School in 1939 as a place to "supply cooks, maids and delivery boys."
His views matched those of the political powers that be when South Carolina’s schools were separate and unequal. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954, but South Carolina held out until the 1960's. Our legislatively ordained strategies to maintain segregation included allowing parents to "choose" their children’s public schools and giving state "scholarships" to white parents who sent their children to private schools established to maintain segregation -- the same essential strategies in the present quest for school tax credits. Many predominately African-American schools were woefully underfunded, and when whites fled the public schools for private schools, public schools sank into a state of chronic neglect. We can’t label public schools as "failures" when we’ve failed our schools. When we fully and equitably fund, equip and staff all public schools, we can then "try" tuition credits, for parents can then choose between quality public and private schools -- although that might be bad for the private school business.
I serve as the pastor of a church in peninsular Charleston, where architectural preservation is serious business. Homes and businesses that have been long abandoned or neglected and are all but falling over aren’t torn down -- they’re rebuilt and restored in spite of years of chronic neglect. If we can do that for neglected homes, then we should also acknowledge our past failings and do the same for our public schools instead of simply tearing them apart or abandoning them.
The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.
Opening Comment, Pro
On paper, the United States offers its citizens a solemn promise: work hard and you can succeed here -- regardless of your race, sex, creed, or family wealth. But there's a catch. To secure a good job you first need a good education. On paper, we've taken care of that, too. Over the past 150 years we've built up a monumental system of free state-run schools that aims to ensure every child access to a quality education.
In reality, it's all lies.
If you're in the top fifth of wage earners, there's just a one-in-a-hundred chance that you are functionally illiterate. If you're in the bottom fifth or have no income at all, the odds are that you cannot understand a newspaper or follow the directions on a pill bottle. Despite the relentless efforts of generations of reformers, America's system of public schooling has failed in its most essential duty. We are not equipping all children to succeed in private life and participate in public life. America's meritocratic promise is a lie.
What can we do about it?
There are those who still believe that the existing system can be fixed. Having compared different kinds of school systems from ancient Greece to the modern day, and from the poorest to the richest nations on Earth, I am convinced that that effort is futile. The problems with the status quo are endemic to its design.
Public schooling hasn't failed so many children for so long because teachers weren't smart enough, or paid well enough, or because classes were too large, or the federal government played too small a role. It has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field. Public school teachers are hamstrung by regulations and are paid based on time served rather than classroom performance. Parents are not free to seek out the public or private educational setting best suited to their children, they are extorted into the state system because of its monopoly on $12,000 per pupil in government funding.
But should we prevent people from trying to fix it? Certainly not. If they think they can bring to public schooling the same incredible progress that other human endeavors have experienced over the past forty years, more power to them.
By the same token, no one who wants what's best for kids should stand in the way of a program that would give parents educational alternatives today. Our children cannot wait to see if the current generation of public school reformers will somehow succeed where their predecessors failed.
I'm an engineer by training and a geek by nature. I advocate programs like the one under consideration in South Carolina because the evidence overwhelmingly supports them. Scientific studies comparing this kind of free enterprise education system to conventional public schooling favor the free enterprise approach by a margin of 15 to 1.
Others advocate school choice for more personal reasons. DC school voucher recipient Carlos Battle wrote a poem explaining his gratitude and commitment to school choice, and delivered it to the rally here last week in support of that program:
surrender me from the typical stereotype of a
black young man
one who slings rocks, smokes weed, and keeps a
gun at hand
i am a whole different guy
one who reads books and wears a tie
you see, I’m changing the perception of a young
i’m climbing the ladder of success - try and stop
me, try as hard as you can....
Please don't stop Carlos or the children who would follow him up that ladder.
Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.
The AP reports today that president Obama wants the nation's school districts to close 5,000 failing schools and re-open them with new principals and teachers. Here is why this won't work:
- Typically, public schools only dismiss teachers when they are forced to reduce their workforce for budget reasons, but the president has just infused the system with $100 billion to prevent such dismissals. And when teachers are let go, it is done starting with those with the least seniority, not the lowest performance. So the hundreds of thousands of teachers displaced from failing schools will simply move to other schools rather than being replaced by better teachers. This has been going on for decades. It is called "the parade of the lemons." Overall, it achieves nothing.
- The new principals who take over the formerly failing schools have to come from somewhere. So for every school that gets one of the system's "good" principals, there will be another school that loses one. Public schooling has no incentive structure to ensure that it can identify, hire, and retain competent administrators to strengthen its ranks.
What the president is trying to do in education -- as in the auto industry -- is to replace the web of market forces that close failing businesses in the private sector with his own personal diktat. This is Hayek's Fatal Conceit.
The market solves the problem of failing schools by allowing consumers to chose the ones that serve them best, which simultaneously accomplishes two things: it drives failing schools to either improve or go out of business, and it provides incentives for the expansion of successful schools and the hiring of effective teachers and administrators.
As I wrote here, and in expanded and updated form in vol. 3, no. 1, of the Journal of School Choice, the international scientific evidence reveals the overwhelming superiority of market over monopoly schooling. President Obama's educational dirigism will fail.
It's an interesting problem for charter-school afficianados: many want charters to have all the freedom of private schools, but go to pains to let people know that charters are public schools whenever the schools are under fire (or want money). Well I've just learned -- perhaps before reporters have even been able to write their stories, because I haven't yet found a news link to it -- that New York's Public Employee Relations Board will force the KIPP AMP charter school in New York City to let its teachers unionize.
This will be a tough pill for KIPP AMP to swallow, especially since an integral part of the famous KIPP model is requiring employees to be available far beyond the normal working hours of traditional public school teachers -- not something the United Federation of Teachers is known for loving. But this is the chance you take when you run a charter school: No matter how much you want to act like a private school, sooner or later the public-schooling powers will remind you of what you really are.
Last week, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that students participating in a Washington D.C. voucher pilot program outperformed peers attending public schools.
According to The Washington Post, the study found that "students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school." In a statement, education secretary Arne Duncan said that the Obama administration "does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation."
Why then did the Obama administration "let Congress slash the jugular of DC's school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed?"
The answer, says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, lies in special interests and an unwillingness to embrace change after decades of maintaining the status quo:
It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction — public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before "public schooling" became widespread or mandatory — but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.
Susan L. Aud and Leon Michos found the program saved the city nearly $8 million in education costs in a 2006 Cato study that examined the fiscal impact of the voucher program.
To learn more about the positive effect of school choice on poor communities around the world, join the Cato Institute on April 15 to discuss James Tooley's new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.
Obama Announces New Direction on Immigration
The New York Times reports, "President Obama plans to begin addressing the country's immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday."
In the immigration chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Cato trade analyst Daniel T. Griswold offered suggestions on immigration policy, which include:
- Expanding current legal immigration quotas, especially for employment-based visas.
- Creating a temporary worker program for lower-skilled workers to meet long-term labor demand and reduce incentives for illegal immigration.
- Refocusing border-control resources to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country.
In a 2002 Cato Policy Analysis, Griswold made the case for allowing Mexican laborers into the United States to work.
For more on the argument for open borders, watch Jason L. Riley of The Wall Street Journal editorial board speak about his book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.
In Case You Couldn't Join Us
Cato hosted a number of fascinating guests recently to speak about new books, reports and projects.
- Salon writer Glenn Greenwald discussed a new Cato study that exa
mines the successful drug decriminalization program in Portugal.
- Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute explained his project to build self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of national governments and start their own societies on the ocean.
- Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid, spoke about her research that shows how government-to-government aid fails. She proposed an "aid-free solution" to development, based on the experience of successful African countries.
Find full-length videos to all Cato events on Cato's events archive page.
Also, don't miss Friday's Cato Daily Podcast with legal policy analyst David Rittgers on Obama's surge strategy in Afghanistan.
Brookings senior fellow Grover Whitehurst has just come to the defense of education secretary Arne Duncan over charges that Duncan sat on (or remained "willfully ignorant" of) a study showing that the D.C. voucher program is boosting achievement. The Senate passed a bill sunsetting funding for the program on March 10, but Whitehurst contends Duncan wouldn't have known about the study's results until a week or so later (it was released on April 6th).
Until last November, Whitehurst was head of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), which released the new voucher study. He obviously knows its timelines and procedures. But even Whitehurst acknowledges that there is "substantial reason to believe that the secretary didn’t want to draw attention to the report," citing the choice of a Friday release (Friday releases were deliberately discontinued by the IES years ago) and the mysterious absence of the news briefing that typically accompanies the release of such reports.
So what is a fair observer to think of Secretary Duncan based on Whitehursts' revelations? Duncan may not have had an opportunity to sit on the report, because he may not have known about it. But Duncan had ultimate control over its release and it looks as though he went out of his way to bury it.
Why would a secretary of education bury a study showing that one government program (vouchers) produces better outcomes than another government program (D.C. public schooling) at one quarter the cost? No flattering explanation comes to mind. Perhaps someone else will come forward to defend Duncan on this point.
Or perhaps the secretary himself might like to share with the American people why this study was buried at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in the basement of an abandoned building with a hand scrawled "beware of leopard" sign affixed to it. Maybe he would like to let us know why he isn't touting private school choice as a model for the states to emulate at a time when outcomes are languishing and money is tight. The only justification he has offered for not doing so is risible: it doesn't serve enough kids. As Cato's David Boaz pointed out earlier today, it is only limited in size because, uh..., Congress statutorily limited its size. We know that many more parents would like vouchers. We know from the international evidence that the supply of schools rises to meet demand, just as supply rises to meet demand in other fields.
But we also know that the Democratic party is beholden to the teachers unions and that the National Education Association sent a letter to congressional Democrats — not to all of Congress, mind you, it's addressed "to Democrats" — demanding that they kill the D.C. voucher program.
Because of the constant pressure exerted by the NEA, Democrats who might otherwise have supported the program have voted to let it — and the hopes of 1,700 poor kids — die. To reverse their decision, a countervailing public pressure must be brought to save it.
And that is why Grover Whitehurst is mistaken when he says that "the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is far more important than the contretemps" over the secretary's handling of the voucher study. The future of the program depends on that "contretemps." Were it not for the public outcry, there would be no political pressure on Democrats to rethink their decision to feed these children back into the D.C. public schools.
And as someone who is much happier under divided government than under the unitary rule of either major party, I hope that Democrats figure out that long-term political calculus demands support for educational freedom. When the $100 billion "stimulus" spending on public schools accomplishes little or nothing — as it will — the public will be even angrier at the politicians extorting them into those schools. And the party associated with defending that system to the bitter end against the wishes of families won't recover for a long while.
“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”
That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.
That was before reality set in.
With the Department of Education's media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan's galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program's fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn't necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.
It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they've delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren't good enough for the president’s children.
So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.
Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan's people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study's results.
Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli doesn't just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.
So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.
If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama's rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.
The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.
Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.
It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.
So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.
But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?
Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.
Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.
I've received a fair bit of e-mail in response to my commentary yesterday on the recent defunding of the Bush administration's Reading First program. Several people questioned my assertion that the program failed to yield a significant nationwide improvement in literacy. I cited a 2008 federal government report in support of that assertion, but questions were raised as to the validity of that study and other research seeming to contradict it was presented.
Taking the latter point first, it was pointed out that an EDS study of California found a positive impact to the program, as did an NWREL study of 5 other Western states. Note that there is not necessarily any contradiction between the federal study and the California and Western states studies. It's possible that, nationwide, Reading First was associated with academic improvements in some schools, no effect in others, and lower performance in still others, resulting in the overall lack of impact reported by the federal government study. If so, it could be that schools in which Reading First proved effective are unevenly distributed around the country, and happen to be concentrated in the West.
Another possibility is that the federal study was so flawed that it failed to find a significant positive effect to Reading First when there actually was one. For the sake of argument, let's say that this is true and that Reading First is actually working, overall, at improving student literacy nationwide. If so, what confidence should we have that it would continue to be effectively implemented in the long term, and not displaced by something else, or altered so as to become ineffective?
The answer is: not much. As I've noted in the case of the Follow Through experiment of the 60s and 70s, which is typical, even when a proven method is adopted in public school classrooms and yields great success it tends to be discarded for one reason or another. Since nothing fundamental has changed in the incentive structure of public schooling since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that Reading First would buck the trend and somehow survive in perpetutity.
But all of this is of course academic, because Congress has already defunded the program. Democrats were not interested in continuing to evaluate the program to make absolutely sure of its impact. They killed it almost immediately because it is a traditionalist pedgaogical program that appeals to conservatives rather than "progressives."
And that was the second point of my commentary: even when effective methods are implemented in public schools they remain subject to the inconstant winds of politics. If you want to find fields where better methods roiutinely displace worse ones rather than vice versa, you have to look to the free enterprise sector of the economy. Without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, stagnation and declining productivity are the norm. Education is no different in this regard from any other field.
And just to be clear, I am convinced by the earlier research that the pedagogical ideas behind Reading First are sound, and that when properly implemented its systematic use of phonics is superior to most of what it would have displaced. I'm simply pointing out that there was never good reason to expect a government-protected monopoly consistently implement it effecitvely, and that even if it did for some period of time Reading First would eventually have fallen victim to shifting political winds. While some may choose to disagree on the first point, the second has already come to pass.
If we want schools around the country to continually adopt and refine the best methods available, we must create the freedoms and incentives that will cause that to happen... or get used to disappointment.