Education and Child Policy

January 14, 2020 12:26PM

Elizabeth Warren: Taxpayer‐​Funded Student Debt Jubilee, Meet Pen and Phone

We already know that Elizabeth Warren’s massive student loan forgiveness proposal is atrocious policy that would saddle taxpayers with at least $640 billion in debt that millions of students freely accepted to greatly increase their lifetime earnings. That’s private profit, socialized cost. Now Warren is declaring that she’ll combine bad policy with even more dangerous government, promising to start forgiving student debt “on day one” of her presidency, as she declares in the tweet below. She offers a justification we’ve seen before: Congress isn’t moving fast enough. She does not, however, cite where the Constitution says Congress shall have the power to make law, unless the president decides it is taking too long.

To be fair, Warren says that there is authority in law for massive loan forgiveness, and it is true that Congress has too often given away its power. But that there is legal authority for what Warren suggests she’ll do defies the obvious reading of applicable law, which not only contains no “cancel it all” provisions, but has many targeted forgiveness and cancellation programs, including for debt held by teachers and people in “public service.” If the president is legally allowed to cancel student loans in basically any way he or she sees fit, why bother with targeted programs with specific rules?

Blanket student loan forgiveness that will fall on the backs of taxpayers is terrible education policy that should scare us a lot. Such policy coupled with presidential usurpation of power is awful, unconstitutional governance that should scare us much, much more.

December 18, 2019 11:13AM

Upon Further Review, the Spending Stands as Called

Last week I wrote about an op‐​ed in the Washington Post claiming that “public funding for schools has actually decreased since the late 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars.” I furnished the graph below illustrating how completely that flew in the face of available evidence, and folks like Reason’s Corey DeAngelis and Heritage’s Lindsey Burke did the same, and much more.

K-12 spending since 1979-80, inflation-adjusted

Well all the scrutiny to the claim (and some dogged prodding by Corey) paid off: the Post issued a 180‐​degree correction this morning. (The picture below is courtesy of Corey’s incredibly energetic tweeting.) Hopefully word will quickly reach any readers who simply accepted the spending‐​cuts assertion:

WaPo Spending Correction

There is lots of room for interpretation in many public policy debates, including assertions of fact. But the idea that public funding for K‑12 education has fallen since the 1980s simply does not reside in that generous space.

December 11, 2019 11:14AM

Absent Further Review, the Spending Stands as Called

In a new Washington Post op‐​ed, University of Virginia Curry School of Education dean Robert Pianta offers an assertion that is shocking, at least if you follow education policy: “public funding for schools has actually decreased since the late 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars.” It is shocking because federal, inflation‐​adjusted data show nothing even close to that, as you can see in the chart below.

K-12 spending since 1979-80, inflation-adjusted

This spending data is well‐​known among wonks, and while it is open to some interpretation, I can find nothing supporting Pianta’s claim. His piece includes a link to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, but I found nothing in it backing up his assertion. Bruce Baker of Rutgers, who is a supporter of Pianta’s argument that spending more on education would make a big difference, has also failed to see the basis for his claim.

Of course, it is possible I am missing something, and I hope Pianta will clarify the assertion. But until he does, the play stands as called: inflation‐​adjusted K‑12 spending has risen substantially since the 1980s.

December 4, 2019 10:28AM

DeVos Proposes “Government Corporation” Handle Student Aid. Color Me Dubious

Gold bars

The U.S. Department of Education was not created to be a giant lending institution. But that is what it has become, overseeing nearly $1.5 trillion in federal student loans. At a meeting of college financial aid administrators in maybe‐​symbolic Reno, NV, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed to change that by turning the department’s student aid offices into an independent “government corporation.” It would have its own governing board that would, she suggested, be freed of political meddling and motivated to “deliver world‐​class service to students and their families.”

Color me dubious.

For sure, it is hard to imagine an independent agency running less efficiently than the U.S. Department of Education, though that is mainly because the bigger the organization, the greater the red tape. I am not aware of evidence that given its size and that it is a government institution, ED is a particularly atrocious steward of student loans. The fact is, as DeVos pointed out in her speech, it is Congress, with approval of the president, that has created the inscrutable profusion of loans, grants, and loan repayment plans — not to mention tax‐​favored savings accounts and Work Study — that has made federal student aid a tangled web only a professional financial adviser could love. Probably no one could make that into a well‐​oiled machine.

DeVos laid out few specifics for her proposal, but if an independent Federal Student Aid (FSA) agency had to follow all the rules and qualifications of the current aid programs — and Congress put them in there for a reason — it is hard to imagine the system getting much more efficient no matter who oversees it. With its only mission running aid programs, an independent FSA might be more efficient in watching over schools and loan servicers, but probably not by a lot. And DeVos suggested it would not just be a narrower focus that would make it work better, but greater incentives: a need to “work to secure its financial strength and sustainability.”

I don’t see it. If its job were to run student aid programs as they exist now — to deliver entitlement money right from the Treasury — the financial sustainability of the new FSA would be assured. It would also have no real competitors to push it to do better — private lending is less than a tenth of the volume of generous federal loans — and as a government entity it would presumably have no profit motive. In other words, it would have no incentives to be more efficient or consumer‐​friendly than ED.

It could also become dangerous. While DeVos said a new FSA should not “look like another CFPB,” one wonders what would keep it from targeting specific types of schools, or servicers, for scrutiny. True, its governors would not be facing popular election, so they might not have as much incentive to demonize for‐​profit college or unpopular servicers as politicians would, but everyone likes to be applauded for doing the popular thing.

Until this proposal is fleshed out more it should not be dismissed. But from what we have so far, it’s hard to be very optimistic. Indeed, DeVos said that even with the new agency the federal government would continue to “monopolize student lending.” As long as that is the case, we will be nowhere near where we need to go.

December 3, 2019 11:57AM

Latest Exams Say Something Definitive: There’s Little That’s Definitive

I dread the release of national standardized test scores because there is always big pressure to pull something out of them and declare, as quickly as possible, that they show your favorite reform works. In my younger days I’m sure I succumbed. But as time has gone on, I’ve concluded that any given year’s big release is just one year of new data from which nothing can be definitively determined about why scores have moved as they have. There are simply too many variables at play, from family wealth, to spending, to school choice, to what any given test asks, to conclude very much. So I hope you’ll bear with me while I throw all that out the window. The latest scores from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) do reveal something conclusive: It’s dangerous to look at one country and declare “We all must do what they do!”

Finland, I’m looking — or no longer looking — at you.

After the Finns ranked among traditionally top, typically East Asian, countries in the 2001 PISA — a test of 15‐​year‐​olds containing reading, mathematics, and science portions — and replicated that a few more times, a veritable cottage industry arose declaring that the United States, and everyone else, should copy Finland. Google “Finnish miracle education” and your search results will overflow. Because Finland did so well, education analysts confidently proclaimed the need for fewer standardized tests, light‐​touch national standards, more teacher autonomy, and small classes, just like the Finns had.

But something has happened. The Finns have suffered the biggest score drops of any nation in mathematics and science. They dropped 37 points (on a 0 to 1,000 scale) in math (shown below) between 2003 and 2018, and 41 points in science between 2006 and 2018. In reading the news wasn’t quite as bad, with Finland only tying for the third biggest drop over time: 26 points between 2000 and 2018. In contrast, the United States saw a 13 point increase in science, a 1 point uptick in reading, and a 5 point decrease in math.

Trends in PISA math scores

To be fair, Finland still places high among countries — depending on how you count various parts of China, tied for 4th in reading, 13th in math, 5th in science—and it is easier to have big drops when you start at greater heights. But these declines should nonetheless cast doubt on the wisdom of identifying one country that seems to do well and declaring “we should do what it does.” Of course, we should have had such doubt all along, because, again, numerous variables affect test scores, including that many people and cultures do not think test scores really mean that much. And they may be right to think that.

So thank you PISA for one thing this year: Revealing the dangers of deciding a single country has clearly figured out the right way to educate, and declaring we all need to be like it. Life is far more complicated than that.

November 27, 2019 10:27AM

Thankful for More Educational Freedom (Hopefully) On Its Way

Pilgrim Thanksgiving prayer

If you know your United States history, you know that the Pilgrims came to North America seeking to practice their religion free from the constraints of the Church of England. If you know your U.S. history well, you know that what many call the beginning of public schooling was the Massachusetts Bay colony’s law of 1647 requiring towns to supply some form of education, lest children fall victim to “that old deluder, Satan.” And if you know your history really well, you know that as public schooling developed it was repeatedly beset by religious conflicts, first as the schools were de facto Protestant, then as they became de facto agnostic.

What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? That we may be on the verge of tearing down barriers to people directing education funds to schools sharing their religious values, barriers that do not just hurt religious families, but by forcing all to support one system of schools also keep non‐​religious families from getting what they want. Where religious people are sufficiently numerous, they can sometimes create de facto religious public schools, and where they are not sufficiently numerous to exert outright control educators will often avoid things that upset them.

The barriers I’m speaking of are “Blaine Amendments,” named after 19th century U.S. Senator James G. Blaine but found in 37 state constitutions. They are being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. The case involves a scholarship tax credit program that was struck down by Montana’s supreme court because it would have allowed scholarships to be used at religious schools. Oral arguments are scheduled for January 22, 2020.

These amendments, originally created to keep money in de facto Protestant public schools and out of Catholic institutions, are often interpreted to mean that no government money may go to religious schools even if directed by the free choice of parents. Basically — and as these Cato amicus briefs lay out in greater depth — they force religious people to pay for government schools that legally cannot teach religious beliefs as true, or make policies based on religious convictions. Indeed, the schools often teach things and institute policies that contradict people’s religious beliefs. That violates religious freedom and renders religious people unequal under the law.

The prospects for these amendments being struck down, or at least sufficiently curbed that people can get tax credits for funding religious school scholarships, are good. From Zelman v. Simmons Harris, in which the U.S. Supreme Court established that parents can take state vouchers to religious schools without violating the U.S. Constitution, to the Trinity Lutheran decision that states cannot bar institutions from participating in funding programs simply because they are religious, precedent is on freedom’s side.

For this we should all be thankful. Because more freedom is what America is supposed to be about.

November 11, 2019 11:07AM

Homeschooling, Choice, and Innovation: A Response

Homeschooling continues to be a popular option for many U.S. families as they seek alternatives to conventional mass schooling. In my September briefing paper for Cato, I argued that homeschoolers should generally support the expansion of education choice programs, whether or not they personally benefit from such programs, because an environment of education choice empowers parents to consider a variety of options for their children, including homeschooling.

I spotlighted four states, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, that have some of the most robust education choice programs in the country, and that also demonstrated increases in the homeschooling population while the K‑12 public school population declined.

My briefing paper was clearly correlational and suggestive from the beginning. I made no causal claims and no indication that this brief was in any way an exhaustive report or deep statistical analysis. Indeed, this was my thesis: “This paper offers an overview of homeschooling trends and a glimpse at the current homeschooling population while arguing that educational freedom creates momentum for families to seek alternatives to conventional mass schooling.”

Despite the obvious nature of my 8‑page briefing paper, Robert Kunzman at Indiana University wrote a 10‐​page critical response, stating that my “report suggests a causal link between greater private education choice and continued homeschooling growth and innovation.”

Nothing in my paper suggested “a causal link,” and Kunzman is correct to acknowledge, as I did, that collecting data on homeschoolers is challenging. The four states I selected are known to be four of the most aggressive school choice states, and they also track and report state‐​level data on homeschoolers — something many states do not do at all.

As I wrote in my briefing paper: “Certain states with robust private education choice programs, however, are seeing particularly high growth in homeschooling compared with overall public school enrollment.”

In his critique, Kunzman explains that while I mentioned New Hampshire’s unique tax‐​credit scholarship program and offered an example of how homeschooling is supporting education innovation in the state, New Hampshire is not included in my analysis.

I did not include New Hampshire because its education choice programs are meager compared to other states, and its state‐​reported data on homeschooling are flawed. Kunzman acknowledges this flaw, writing: “During the three‐​year period the report examines, their official homeschool numbers have actually declined from 5,914 to 2,875, but the state notes that ‘due to reporting changes, the data in this report should not be compared to prior years for trend data.’”

According to Michelle Levell, who runs the non‐​profit organization School Choice for New Hampshire, the reporting change resulted in data on homeschoolers registering in a given year, and not the cumulative total of all homeschoolers in the state.

As Levell writes: “In the DOE’s reading, ‘shall maintain a list of all home education programs’ does not mean a running total.” The New Hampshire state‐​level data on homeschoolers are unreliable and should not be cited in any meaningful analysis on homeschooling rates.

Kunzman also challenges my claim that homeschooling is driving education innovation. He writes:

Educational options for homeschoolers have indeed proliferated as their numbers have grown, and many of these — such as umbrella academies, private learning centers, and family‐​run learning cooperatives — enable students to customize their educational experiences in a variety of creative ways. If this is what the report means by ‘a key trend’ (p. 3), then plenty of anecdotal evidence supports this limited claim. But such innovation is hardly unique to homeschooling.

Kunzman explains that innovation is also occurring in public and private schools, but he misses my main point. I argue that the type of innovation that is occurring through homeschooling, due to its flexibility and opportunity to bypass restrictive compulsory schooling statutes, is the type of disruptive innovation that will fundamentally disentangle education from schooling.

As I wrote in my briefing paper: “By shifting power to families, education choice creates greater variety in how young people learn and triggers education entrepreneurship and experimentation. With its legal flexibility, homeschooling provides an ideal incubator for educational ingenuity.”

In my brief, I suggest that homeschoolers benefit from an environment of education choice even if they are not included in a choice mechanism because as education options expand, more families will likely consider homeschooling and more resources for homeschoolers will then sprout.

In what is perhaps the most peculiar rebuke of my paper, Kunzman asserts: “Creating more homeschoolers, however, isn’t necessarily a primary goal of current homeschoolers; certainly many of the homeschoolers I’ve interviewed over the past fifteen years would not want to see more parents homeschooling just for the sake of increased numbers, if those parents are not deeply committed to doing it well.”

Whether or not a goal of current homeschoolers is to cultivate more homeschoolers, the reality is that as the population of homeschoolers expands in a given area, there will likely be more abundant and diverse resources for homeschooling families. Some of these resources would benefit current homeschooling families who would be able to take advantage of more activities, classes, and social opportunities.

But many of these resources will likely involve home‐​based micro‐​schools, hybrid homeschooling programs, learning centers, and other innovations that look nothing like traditional homeschooling but that meet the needs of many more families who would otherwise not have access to this education option. The growth of homeschooling widens opportunities for both current homeschooling families and new homeschooling families who gain access to a different way of learning.

I am delighted that my September briefing paper sparked interest and dialogue about the intersection of homeschooling, choice, and education innovation. Homeschooling families have long advocated for the right to opt‐​out of conventional schooling, create new learning approaches, and choose the educational path that works best for them. They should be on the front lines of supporting expanded educational freedom and choice for all families.