Tag: school choice

Win for School Choice in Georgia

Lost in all the commotion over the U.S. Supreme Court’s several decisions today is another important decision with ramifications for school choice. The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue that plaintiffs had no standing to challenge the state’s tax-credit scholarship program because the scholarship funds are private funds, not a government expenditure:

We also reject the assertion that plaintiffs have standing because these tax credits actually amount to unconstitutional expenditures of tax revenues or public funds. The statutes that govern the Program demonstrate that only private funds, and not public revenue, are used.

The program allows donors to receive tax credits in return for contributions to qualified nonprofit scholarship organizations that help families send their children to the schools of their choice. Plaintiffs asserted that the program violated Georgia’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the state from giving public funds to religious schools. However, as we explained in our amicus brief, no public funds are involved. “Taxpayers choose to donate voluntarily using their own private funds and receive a tax credit for the amount of the donation; no money ever enters or leaves the treasury.” Neither does the state direct where the funds are used. “The state exercises no control over which scholarship organizations donors choose to support, which students receive scholarships, or at which schools parents choose to use the scholarships.” The Georgia Supreme Court agreed:

Individuals and corporations chose the [scholarship organizations] to which they wish to direct contributions; these private [scholarship organizations] select the student recipients of the scholarships they award; and the students and their parents decide whether to use their scholarships at religious or other private schools. The State controls none of these decisions. Nor does it control the contributed funds or the educational entities that ultimately receive the funds.

“Today’s victory has secured Georgia parents’ right to continue choosing the best education for their children,” stated Erica Smith, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented scholarship parents in the Gaddy case. “This Court correctly recognized that government should promote educational opportunity and choice, not limit it as the plaintiffs proposed.” 

Trinity Lutheran Ruling Only Gets Us Closer to Equality in Education

Today’s Trinity Lutheran ruling strikes a blow against patently unequal treatment of religious Americans under state laws, an inequality felt no more acutely than in education. But it does not yet get us to where we need to be.

The huge impact of today’s ruling is that it says religious institutions cannot be barred from participating in government programs simply because they are religious. The Trinity Lutheran Church could not be ruled ineligible to participate in a grant program to improve playgrounds simply because it is a religious entity. This should have been a simple decision: It is clearly unequal treatment of religious Americans under the law to say “the reason you are ineligible for this benefit for which anyone else is eligible is that you are religious.”

This is crucial, but it is not sufficient to throw open the doors to full freedom and equality in education.

First, as Justices Thomas and Gorsuch note in their concurring opinions, the Trinity decision keeps in place the ruling in Locke v. Davey (2004) that a state could deny a student a scholarship otherwise available to him because he planned to study to become a minister. Trinity supports the rationale of denying funding for someone to learn to propagate religion. But why should someone be barred from accessing otherwise generally available funding only because the profession he wished to follow was religious? From a school choice perspective, if a goal of sending your child to a religious school with a voucher is that he or she will learn to evangelize, precedent still stands in your way.

Second, Trinity says that religious institutions cannot be excluded from funding otherwise available to other groups. It does not state that it is unconstitutional to require people to fund a single government institution—in education, de facto atheist or agnostic public schooling systems—then pay a second time for institutions that are consistent with their beliefs and values. That would be crucial to truly treat religious people equally, and to totally clear the path for school vouchers. (Tax credits, as we see again in Georgia today, are a different, more liberated story!)

Today’s ruling is a welcome move in a decidedly right direction, but it is not sufficient to achieve full equality in education.

More School Choice, Less Crime

One of the original arguments for educating children in traditional public schools is that they are necessary for a stable democratic society. Indeed, an English parliamentary spokesman, W.A. Roebuck, argued that mass government education would improve national stability through a reduction in crime.

Public education advocates, such as Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman and the American Federation for Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, still insist that children must be forced to attend government schools in order to preserve democratic values.

Theory

In principle, if families make schooling selections based purely on self-interest, they may harm others in society. For instance, parents may send their children to schools that only shape academic skills. As a result, children could miss out on imperative moral education and harm others in society through a higher proclivity for committing crimes in the future.

However, since families value the character of their children, they are likely to make schooling decisions based on institutions’ abilities to shape socially desirable skills such as morality and citizenship. Further, since school choice programs increase competitive pressures, we should expect the quality of character education to increase in the market for schooling. An increase in the quality of character education decreases the likelihood of criminal activity and therefore improves social order.

Evidence

There are only three studies causally linking school choice programs to criminal activity. Two studies examine the impacts of charter schools and one looks at the private school voucher program in Milwaukee. Each study finds that access to a school choice program substantially reduces the likelihood that a student will commit criminal activity later on in life.

Notably, Dobbie & Fryer (2015) find that winning a random lottery to attend a charter school in Harlem completely eliminates the likelihood of incarceration for males. In addition, they find that female charter school lottery winners are less than half as likely to report having a teen pregnancy.

Note: A box highlighted in green indicates that the study found statistically significant crime reduction.

According to the only causal studies that we have on the subject, school choice programs improve social order through substantial crime reduction. If public education advocates want to continue to cling to the idea that traditional public schools are necessary for democracy, they ought to explain why the scientific evidence suggests the opposite.

Of course, these impacts play a significant role in shaping the lives of individual children. Perhaps more importantly, these findings indicate that voluntary schooling selections can create noteworthy benefits for third parties as well. If we truly wish to live in a safe and stable democratic society, we ought to allow parents to select the schooling institutions that best shape the citizenship skills of their own children.

In Education, Democracy Is the Threat

When people hear “democracy,” they tend to get warm, fuzzy feelings. As the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg writes in an article that, among other things, portrays private school choice as a threat to democracy, “public education…was also meant to instill a love of liberal democracy: a respect for the separation of powers, for a free press and free religious exercise, and for the rights of political minorities.” The fundamental, ironic problem is that both democracy and democratically controlled public schooling are inherently at odds with the individual rights, and even separation of powers, that Kahlenberg says democracy and public schools are supposed to protect.

Let’s be clear what “democracy” means: the people collectively, rather than a single ruler or small group of rulers, make decisions for the group. We typically think of this as being done by voting, with the majority getting its way.

Certainly, it is preferable for all people to have a say in decisions that will be imposed on them than to have a dictator impose things unilaterally. But there is nothing about letting all people have a vote on imposition that protects freedom. Indeed, in a pure democracy, as long as the majority decides something, no individual rights are protected at all. The will of the majority is all that matters.

We’ve seen basic rights and equality under the law perpetually and unavoidably violated by democratically controlled public schooling. It cannot be otherwise: At its core, a single system of government schools—be it a district, state, or federal system—can never serve all, diverse people equally. It must make decisions about whose values, histories, and culture will and will not be taught, as well as what students can wear, what they can say, and what they can do, in order to function.

Public schooling since the days of Horace Mann has found it impossible to uphold religious freedom and equality. Mann himself was constantly assailed by people who felt that by trying to make public schools essentially lowest-common-denominator Protestant institutions, he was throwing out religion or making the schools de facto Unitarian (his denomination). Mann, in response, promised that the Protestant Bible would always be used in public schools. Indeed, Protestantism was often thought essential to being a good American, including supportive of democracy, which meant that if the public schools were to serve their civic purpose they could not treat religious minorities equally, especially Roman Catholics, who were suspected of taking their political orders from the Pope in Rome.

Today, after more than a century of even deadly conflict over religion, the public schools are no longer de facto Protestant, but instead may legally have no connection that could appear to be advancing religion, right down, often, to speeches by individual students at events such as graduation ceremonies or athletic contests. This inherently renders religious people second-class citizens—any values are fair game in public schools except for theirs—while also curbing basic expression rights.

Of course, the inherent inequality of public schooling is not restricted to religion. In a public school a teacher, committee, school board, or other government actor must decide what aspects of history will be taught or literature read. This requires that government elevate some peoples’ speech and perspectives, while deeming others’ essentially unworthy. As a result, we have perpetual battles that tear at the social fabric over which books—The Bluest Eye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—should or should not be read in class or over whose history should be taught, and the losers are rendered unequal under the law.

Education Dollars Should Matter—but Do They?

Education reporters such as Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum continue to cling to the idea that pouring exorbitant resources into an inefficient school system can make a sustainable difference in the lives of America’s children. To support the claim, Barnum points to a couple of recent studies examining the association between court-ordered education spending increases and student outcomes.

Jackson, Johnson, and Perisco (2016) conclude that an annual 10% increase in per pupil spending for all 12 years of schooling leads to an increase of about a third of a year of completed education. Similarly, Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach (2016) find that court-ordered spending increases improve test scores for the least-advantaged students by a little under a hundredth of a standard deviation per year.

However, both of these studies suffer from important methodological issues that limit their ability to identify a strong causal relationship between education dollars and student outcomes.

Governments Shouldn’t Even Fund Schools

Education reporters frequently make the claim that government ought to fund and operate educational institutions because schooling is a public good. However, since schooling fails both conditions required for a public good to exist, schools should not be publicly operated.

Schooling is Not a Public Good

According to the economic definition, a public good is non-rival in consumption and non-excludable. The first condition means that one individual’s consumption of the good does not hinder others’ abilities to use the product. Schooling fails this condition since students take up seats when receiving an education. The second condition means that the producer of the good is unable to exclude non-payers. Schooling fails this part of the definition since school leaders can prevent students from attending their institutions, if necessary.

Since schooling is not a true public good, the basic free-rider problem does not exist. This is important because it means that government does not need to operate schools or force residents to pay for them.

A Merit Good?

When journalists claim that schooling is a public good, I believe they actually mean to say that education is a merit good since it produces positive externalities. When an educational product is purchased, both the consumer and the provider benefit, as in all other voluntary transactions. However, the rest of society may also benefit if schooling actually creates citizens that are more educated. This argument leads many scholars to support government subsidization of schooling.

The Problem

Obviously, schooling is only one channel through which people can achieve an education. Since children can learn in various settings, the current system of schooling may actually harm their overall educational levels. In other words, schooling may impose negative externalities on society through providing a less than optimal level of education to all children.

Similarly, schooling likely creates a more obedient citizenry. This generates positive externalities, through less criminal activity, and negative externalities, through less creativity and technological innovation.

Since there are large positive and negative externalities that result from schooling, in theory, it is impossible to determine the overall sign of the net spillover. Consequently, it is unclear whether we ought to tax or subsidize schooling; and even if we could somehow figure out the overall sign, we would not be able to determine the optimal magnitude of the intervention.

We should recognize the fact that externalities do exist in education. However, as the founder of externalities conceded, we must also realize that attempting to reach the socially optimal level of schooling through government intervention may ironically result in much harm. Instead, we ought to limit this probable detriment by allowing individual families to seek ideal educational experiences for their own children.

Controversial Subjects in Involuntary Educational Institutions

Last week, the Cato Institute hosted a policy forum on teaching controversial subjects such as sex and religion in k-12 educational institutions. All of the panel members pointed out that schools needed to do a better job at improving student civic outcomes such as character skills and tolerance of others’ views; however, a couple of the speakers claimed that the issue is not a result of our traditional system of public schooling.

This assertion fails to recognize the scientific evidence and, more importantly, the clear logic of incentives.

While families have a diverse set of values and goals for their children, the political process regurgitates a uniform educational environment. Further, since children are forced to attend schools based on zip codes, the government perhaps rightfully protects various family values by avoiding controversial discussions altogether. After all, if public schools were teaching that evolution was not real, many parents would obviously be very upset.

Of course, it is not the fault of public school employees. If you or I were held accountable to standardized test scores, we would probably not allocate a lot of time towards fostering friendly debates on provocative topics. In fact, it would be a risk to do so if we taught in a state that had laws attempting to protect individual family values. It is completely rational that traditional public schools are not spending much time on controversial issues.

On the other hand, if families had the ability to opt into or out of schools based on their values and goals, the state would not need to protect them. In addition, if parents cared about civic skills such as citizenship and tolerance, they would be able to reward schools for improving the lives of their children. Further, schools would not have the perverse incentive to focus on standardized tests if they were accountable to parents instead of public officials.

The scientific evidence largely supports the theory. Dr. Patrick Wolf’s review of the evidence finds that school choice increases civic skills. Moreover, my forthcoming review of fourteen rigorous studies also shows that private school choice improves civic outcomes such as crime and tolerance.

We must not pretend that the scientific evidence is mixed on such an important topic. We also must not pretend that school systems have nothing to do with shaping skills that will impact children and societies for years to come. If we wish to live in a more tolerant society, we ought to listen to scientific evidence, clear logic, and the needs of all families.

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