Tag: school choice

Montana Can’t Use a 150-Year-Old Anti-Catholic Law to Discriminate Against Religious Schools

Blaine Amendments—adopted by many states starting in the late 1800s as an anti-Catholic measure—prevent states from using public funding for religious education. Thirty-seven states currently have the amendments, and some courts have interpreted them excluding religious options from state school-choice programs—that is, preventing access to otherwise publicly available benefits purely on the basis of religion. In other words, Blaine Amendments let some states practice religious discrimination.

Montana created a program where people who donated to private-school funding organizations received tax credits. The program both encouraged school choice and allowed people to spend their own money how they saw fit. However, the Montana Department of Revenue used the state’s Blaine Amendment to exclude those donors whose money found its way to religious private schools, and, at the same time, it allowed non-religious private-school donors to benefit. During the ensuing legal challenge, the Montana Supreme Court not only ruled against the religious families that challenged the discrimination, it struck down the entire program, meaning both religious and non-religious donors wouldn’t receive tax credits.

Our friends at the Institute for Justice have petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear the case, and Cato has filed a brief in support. Both Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies have an interest in this case, so we teamed up to cover both the constitutional and policy angles of the issue. We argue that the Court should correct the Montana Supreme Court’s flawed reading of the First Amendment’s religion clauses and reaffirm that states cannot erode the Free Exercise Clause in the guise of strengthening the Establishment Clause. The Religion Clauses work together to help protect the freedom of conscience, not to prohibit school-choice programs that help both religious and non-religious schools.

The First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As Cato explained in a recent brief, the two clauses work together to protect individual freedom of conscience. However, states like Montana often use the Establishment Clause to justify the existence of Blaine Amendments. They argue that Blaine Amendments are necessary to prevent “an establishment of religion” by strengthening the wall of separation between church and state. But in the modern world, where government is so involved in giving public benefits like tax credits, it is impossible to maintain a complete wall of separation without discriminating against religion (as Blaine Amendments do), which is not what the Framers intended. Instead, the government must remain neutral toward religion and not disfavor religious people or organizations. In this sense, the Establishment Clause is a shield protecting the people from state religion, not a sword enabling government to discriminate against religious faith.

At the same time, school-choice programs help prevent the forced ideological conformity that is inevitable in public schools. Tax-credit programs like Montana’s allow parents to select schools that share their values, reducing the need to impose those values on others. In so doing, they improve our nation’s social and political cohesion and reduce conflict. Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map tracks how public schools create conflict by forcing uniformity onto ideological diversity. Blaine Amendments merely fan the flames of the ideological conflicts that currently engulf public education.

Despite all these considerations, the Montana Supreme Court declined to properly consider the First Amendment implications of the state’s Blaine Amendment. Instead, it gave the Montana Department of Revenue a slap on the wrist for exceeding its procedural authority and destroyed the entire tax credit program rather than contend with the unconstitutional discrimination inherent in Montana’s Blaine Amendment. As school choice becomes more popular around the country, the question of religious discrimination and Blaine Amendments will become more salient. The Montana decision was just the latest in a series of federal and state courts decisions that are divided on the issue. That divide will continue without guidance from the Supreme Court. The Court should take this case to clarify that the Constitution requires religious neutrality, not discrimination.

Brown v. Board Did Not Start Private Schooling

A common refrain in opposition to school choice is that choice is rooted in racial segregation. Specifically, that people barely thought about choice until the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision required public schools to desegregate, and racists scrambled to create private alternatives to which they could take public funds. I have dealt with this before and won’t rehash the whole response (hint: Roman Catholics), but a new permutation popped up on Vox yesterday, with author Adia Harvey Wingfield asserting:

Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, most US students attended local public schools. Of course, these were also strictly racially segregated. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court struck down legal segregation that a demand for private (and eventually charter and religious parochial) schools really began to grow, frequently as a backlash to integrated public institutions.

Kudos to Prof. Wingfield for making clear that many public schools were “strictly racially segregated,” which often seems to be soft pedaled when linking choice to segregation. But her assertion that private schooling didn’t “really” begin to grow until after Brown is not borne out by the data. As the chart below shows, while the share of enrollment in private schools spiked in 1959, the growth in private schooling didn’t suddenly increase right before that. In 1889—the earliest year available— the private school share was 11 percent, dipping to 7 percent in 1919, then pretty steadily rising until the 1959 peak. (Note, the earlier years of the federal data are in ten-year increments. Also, data include pre-K enrollments.)

History is clear that private education has long been with us, and while it has certainly at times been used to avoid racial integration, it has also been employed for reasons having nothing to do with that. This remains true even in our relatively modern era in which “free” public schools have crowded out many private options.

Any Budget That Cuts Fed Ed Is Good, But…

The Trump Administration’s proposed U.S. Department of Education budget, released yesterday, is due some props. It would cut spending by about 10 percent from 2019, and kill some bad programs. But there’s also a downside: it would push federal tentacles further toward private schools, and deeper into charters. Which means the lesson still hasn’t been learned: The Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern in education, and that includes advancing ideas the Trump Administration—and I!—like.

Let’s first acknowledge that it takes some guts to cut education department funding, because the average person probably hears “cuts to education” and thinks “oh no, cutting education!” What they should hear is “cutting spending in the name of education, but that often has very dubious educational effects.”

You can look at National Assessment of Educational Progress scores since the early 1970s, as federal intervention ramped up, and observe essentially no improvement for 17-year-olds:

That’s the federal government’s own yardstick showing stagnation, despite real spending from all sources per public K-12 student, and total federal elementary and secondary outlays, more than doubling since 1970. (The massive leap in federal spending in 2009 is the Obama “stimulus.”)

 

You can also look at the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, funded to the tune of $1.2 billion for 2019, to see a program for which federal studies find neutral to negative effects. Or you can look at federal student aid programs—including Pell Grants, loans, and loan forgiveness programs that favor Americans working in putatively “nonprofit” jobs—to see hugely counterproductive effects, including rampant tuition inflation, high debt, and the hollowing out of college degrees.

The administration will be bludgeoned with woeful rhetoric for these proposed cuts, but they are the right thing to do.

School choice is also good, but trying to expand it through Washington, as this budget calls for, is wrong, both constitutionally and if we desire maximum choice. As I wrote last week about the Administration’s proposal for a $5 billion scholarship tax credit, “what the feds fund, even indirectly, they inevitably want to control.”

School Choice Reduces Crime and Paternity Suits

One of the original arguments for a government-run education system is that public schools are necessary for stable democratic society. After all, self-interested families might send their children to private schools that specialize in maximizing earnings rather than citizenship skills. But new evidence suggests that private schools are actually more conducive to maintaining social order than public schools. Here’s why.

The new study - coauthored by Dr. Patrick J. Wolf and me - used student-level data from the longitudinal evaluation of the longest-running private school voucher program in the United States. We found that students using a voucher to attend a private school in 8th or 9th grade were convicted of fewer crimes and were involved in fewer paternity suits than their public school peers by 25 to 28 years of age.

As shown in the figure below, students using the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) were found guilty of 60% fewer property damage crimes, 41% fewer drug-related crimes, and experienced 31% fewer paternity suits as young adults than their carefully matched peers in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

MPCP Effects

But why?

Competition works in the market for education services. Families care about the civic and character educations their kids are getting at school each day. And, of course, private schools must cater to the needs of families if they want to stay in business. Public schools, on the other hand, hold significant monopoly power over their customers because of residential assignment and funding through property taxes. Private school choice programs could also reduce criminal activity by exposing students to peer groups and school cultures that discourage risky behaviors.

While our new study is the first to link a private school voucher program to adult paternity suits, four other studies have also examined the intersection between school choice and crime. As shown in the table below, all five studies on the topic have found that school choice reduces criminal activity. For example, an experimental study published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2015 found that winning a lottery to go to a charter school in Harlem Children’s Zone completely eliminated (a 100% reduction) the chance male students would be incarcerated and reduced the likelihood of teen pregnancy by 59% for female students.

The Effect of School Choice on Crime Reduction

Study Choice Type Location Method Finding
Deming (2011) Charter Charlotte, NC RCT +
Dobbie & Fryer (2015) Charter New York, NY RCT +
Dills & Hernández-Julián (2011) Residential United States QED +
DeAngelis & Wolf (2016) Voucher Milwaukee, WI QED +
DeAngelis & Wolf (2019) Voucher Milwaukee, WI QED +

Notes: Green cells indicate the study found statistically significant positive effects on crime reduction. “RCT” is “Randomized Controlled Trial.” “QED” is “Quasi-Experimental Design.”

The evidence on this subject is limited. Much more research needs to be done. But every existing study on the topic suggests that school choice has large positive effects on crime reduction. And two reviews of the evidence indicate that private school choice tends to lead to better civic outcomes. Maybe public schools aren’t necessary for a stable democracy after all?

Even Something as Great as School Choice Should Not Be Federalized

Today, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), in conjunction with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, will unveil a bill to create a $5 billion scholarship tax credit, an unprecedented federal school choice effort. An op-ed all three have in USA Today spells out both the good of federal school choice, and inadvertently, the potential bad which makes it too dangerous to justify.

First, the good. DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne argue, quite rightly, that “education isn’t about school systems. It is about school children.” If you recognize basic reality, you’ll know that all children and families are different—different talents, values, dreams—hence it makes no sense to say all should get uniform education. But opposing school choice is de facto endorsing the idea that education should be largely uniform. One size must fit all.

They also make another crucial point, one that is starting to elicit push-back from public schooling advocates who insist that public schooling and public education are synonymous. DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne write that their proposal is not “an attack on public education.” Of course it isn’t. For one, they say their proposal would allow credit-eligible funds to be used for public school options. More broadly, just as public assistance doesn’t mean every recipient of help must go to a government grocery store, nothing about public education implies government must supply the schools. Indeed, we’ve been moving away from things like government housing projects for decades.

Now the bad. School choice is about individualization and freedom, and almost certainly that is what DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne want. But federal initiatives are a terrible way to deliver that. The reality is that what the feds fund, even indirectly, they inevitably want to control. DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne specifically acknowledge that historical reality in federal education policy. They write, “A series of administrations on both sides of the aisle have tried to fill in the blank with more money and more control, each time expecting a different result.” Note that the primary vehicle for that control, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, started aimed just at funding low-income districts. It eventually became the uber-controlling No Child Left Behind Act.

DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne are looking to skirt the control problem, sticking with tax credits instead of vouchers, and letting states opt in. But not only is this unconstitutional—taxes are authorized to execute specific, enumerated powers, not to lightly engineer state policy—it won’t, ultimately, prevent encroaching federal control. If enacted, the credit would spur people to demand their states participate, and as more schools benefited from federally connected scholarships all schools would be financially pressured to use them. But the federal government will have the power to decide which state programs are or are not eligible, and on what grounds. As Corey DeAngelis and others have noted, what happens when, instead of a President Trump, we have a President Sanders or Harris and they don’t like the policies of religious schools, or maybe how economics is taught? Suddenly lots of private schools and other options will be federally pressured to look very similar—shape up or credit eligibility goes away—and true choice will be curtailed.

Even the roll out of the proposal raises the specter of federal control. Though the great benefit of tax credits is they do not use government money, and hence are less prone to regulation than vouchers, DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne write that through their proposal they “are putting forward a historic investment in America’s students.” That sure sounds like the federal government is doing the funding, and what government funds it tends to control. Also, that Secretary DeVos is so prominent in the proposal release at least symbolizes not only federal intervention in education policy, but a strong connection to the executive—the dangerously regulatory—branch of the federal government.

School choice is great, and DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne recognize that. But as with so many policies, we cannot let our hearts overcome either our adherence to the rule of law—the Constitution—or make us underestimate the potentially crushing unintended consequences that the product of our pure motives may have.

School Inc. and Andrew Coulson

All this week, the Center for Educational Freedom has been posting clips from Andrew Coulson’s award-winning documentary School Inc., which takes viewers through time and around the globe to explain how freedom is the key to transforming education for the better. Of course, a few clips can’t convey the entire case. If you want to soak in the whole journey you can do so on the website of Free to Choose Media, which finished production of School Inc. when Andrew became ill, and is the home to all three episodes. If that doesn’t satisfy your desire to better understand how free markets can work in education, or if you want to learn more about Andrew and his ideas—including disagreements with them—read Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas. You can get Kindle or print-on-demand editions on Amazon, or download a PDF version right from Cato’s website.

I hope you had a happy and informative National School Choice Week!

School Choice Is about Embracing Free Enterprise

When did economic growth, and the standard of living of average people, really begin to take off? What caused it? There are many theories, but as Andrew Coulson discusses in the School Inc. clip below, there is good reason to believe not when banking was invented, or factories, or some technological change, but when earning a living through free enterprise—profitable commerce—stopped being seen as, well, kind of tawdry. It is a feeling we continue to struggle with when it comes to education.  

There is, of course, profit made throughout public schooling, if that’s defined as taking in more revenue from providing a good or service than is spent to produce it. Whiteboard manufacturers, construction companies, publishers—all are typically for-profit. Indeed, while absent a free market we don’t know what the “right” amount is to pay educators, and many public school teachers may well be underpaid, few likely lose money on their jobs. In other words, they make profits. Which is not to say they are “in it for the money.” No doubt they care about and enjoy working with kids, but they do need money to live. And it turns out the primary motivation of successful entrepreneurs and business people is not raking it in, but producing something they care about. Does anyone think Steve Jobs was actually indifferent towards computers and just wanted to get rich?

More important than who is making a profit are the overall incentives if profit is matched with funding through students. While the first-blush reaction to profit is understandable—shouldn’t children trump mammon?—thinking it through reveals why profit and paying customers are beneficial to all. They incentivize schools to respond directly to parents, who control the money and best know their children, while also making schools compete for teachers’ services. In addition, they encourage schools to compete with each other, incentivizing them to try new ways of educating to attract more families. And when schools find better ways to educate and are more profitable, it incentivizes others to copy the innovations, taking them to scale. Freedom also allows educators to specialize in the needs of unique subsets of kids and, of course, is crucial to achieving social harmony and equality in our diverse society.

As School Choice Week 2019 nears an end, perhaps no message is more important than, simply, “embrace freedom.” It is the key to so much that we need in education.

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