Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.”

President Trump’s Campus Speech Order

President Trump has waded into the ongoing campus free speech controversy—or should I say “cannonballed” in off the high dive. Though lacking in details for now, Trump promised conservative activists at CPAC in Washington, D.C. that he would soon issue an executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.”

Though debate rages over the nature and extent of the problem—after all, higher education is a vast and complex domain—it must be said that Trump’s objective is highly defensible. Who except would-be censors and narrow-minded political activists thinks free speech is not vital to higher education and the country? And fair minded observers agree that free speech is at least embattled in many institutions, if not in worse shape at others. So who can argue against Trump’s promise?

Alas, my experience in free speech politics and higher education informs my concern that Trump’s end does not justify his means for at least two reasons. First, do we really need yet another executive order to deal with a problem that is already being addressed by many concerned citizens? We the People and our legislative representatives have kicked too many problems over to the executive/administrative branch of government to solve, weakening democratic consensus and self-government in the process. Many critics, including me, chided President Obama’s issuance of a unilateral executive order requiring transgender access to every public school bathroom in America. Though not opposed to transgender rights, we thought it best for each school or state to work out its own policy in this delicate area as a matter of principle. Is Trump’s order any different? This is true apart from the constitutional issues implicit in Trump’s statement which require separate consideration once we know the details.

Second, such an order could well backfire. To begin, the Feds often intervene with a jackhammer, unintentionally breaking things in the process. Recall how the expansive application of Title IX in sexual misconduct cases led to the evisceration of due process in campus hearings for many years. Only recently has the pendulum balancing justice for the accuser and the accused begun swinging back toward an appropriate position. As the president of the University of Chicago, perhaps the nation’s leading institution in supporting campus free speech, wrote in response to Trump’s declaration, such intervention “makes the government, with all its power and authority, a party to defining the very nature of discussion on campus.” Such power undermines institutional responsibility and could readily include chilling the voices of those whose politics differ from whatever group or party controls the government at the time.

Such an order could also undermine faculty free speech activists who have worked hard over the years to restore free speech and liberty on campus. If I have learned anything from the campus politics of free speech, it is that the defense of free speech must be non-partisan in both substance and appearance. Presidents are partisan, and Trump is certainly no exception. In Wisconsin, state campuses construed the state legislature’s 2017 campus free speech bill as partisan, a perspective only reinforced by other legislative measures that intruded upon university autonomy and challenged the academic freedom of some instructors. Trump’s executive order is hardly guaranteed to be helpful to local free speech activists.

There is a way that the administration could help free speech on campus while avoiding these potential pitfalls. In 2003 the assistant secretary of the Office of Civil Rights in the federal Department of Education wrote a letter to colleges and universities affirming the institutions’ obligation to apply existing harassment law in a manner that does not violate the First Amendment: “I want to assure you in the clearest possible terms that OCR’s regulations are not intended to restrict the exercise of any expressive activities protected under the U.S. Constitution.”

Rather than calling for a sweeping policy dictating how higher education institutions should deal with harassment and speech, the 2003 letter simply reaffirmed what was already obvious: in applying harassment policy, be sure not to confuse protected speech with harassment, leaving the implications to each institution and its litigation concerns. A similar letter by Secretary Betsy DeVos might help campus free speech activists, rather than complicate their cause.


*Donald Downs is is the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science Emeritus, and the Affiliate Professor of Law, and Journalism Emeritus at UW-Madison. He is currently writing a book on campus free speech for the Cato Institute.

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.

Elizabeth Warren’s Universal Child-Care Proposal: The Starting Point For A Government Takeover Of The Sector

Senator Elizabeth Warren is right: Child care services in America can be extremely expensive.

In certain areas, child care can be difficult to find at all. High prices have perniciously regressive effects on low-income families, causing them to miss job opportunities, use unlicensed relatives to care for their children or else forego high amounts of their hard-earned income.

So the presidential candidate’s new promise of universal child care subsidies will no doubt resonate with many families. She would have the federal government cover the costs of child-care from birth to school age entirely for any family earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, provided they use government-approved local providers. Federal funding would also be available above that, with a cap on out-of-pocket spending on child-care at 7% of any family’s income. According to Warren’s explanation, this would come coupled with providers being held to government educational standards and a desire to push up pay for child care workers to levels seen for public school teachers.

This would have dramatic consequences for the child-care sector. A few observations:

  1. Warren’s plan will significantly reduce out-of-pocket costs for many families. It represents a huge new subsidy. Take care for 4 year-olds as one example; at the moment, data from Child Care Aware of America show just two states (Alabama and Mississippi) have average full-time care costs below 7% of median income. For infants, no state has average costs below 7% of median income. For families with 2 or more children in these care settings, the subsidy will be massive. Such a large, universal subsidy will bring significant deadweight (people using the scheme who would otherwise have paid for their own care anyway). But it is so generous that it will encourage many new users of child care too.
  2. This is significant, because state-level government regulations – not least on staff:child ratios and qualification requirements for carers – currently make providing child-care more expensive. This reduces the number of child-care facilities available in low income markets and increases prices for families. Warren’s subsidy response amounts to a classic case of government restricting supply through policy, on the one hand, and then labelling the resulting high prices a “market failure” that needs to be corrected. In fact, Warren’s plan would worsen the supply problem through its promise to raise pay rates for carers substantially. This would restrict supply further while the subsidies induce demand, raising underlying market prices – higher prices now overwhelmingly paid by taxpayers.
  3. In the U.K., child-care subsidies drove providers in some areas out of business. Why? The government-provided subsidy rates to deliver “free” care were often lower than market prices, meaning providers had to cross-subsidize government-guaranteed places by charging more for unsubsidized families. As “free” care expanded, the opportunity to engage in this cross-subsidization fell, and some companies found the government-funding rate uneconomic as it took over more of the sector.
  4. In the U.S., the average cost of child care varies dramatically by state. For a 4 year-old, the cost of full-time center-based care ranges from $5,061 in Alabama, right through to $18,657 in D.C. Warren’s plan would cap the proportion of income any family paid on child-care. But no government would put taxpayers on the hook for a blank check for any family’s spending habits. Otherwise providers would have every incentive to provide extremely luxurious care on the basis that taxpayers would foot the bill. Instead, the federal government would either likely try to fix rates to prevent over-spending (risking big distortions in certain markets through de facto price controls, as seen in Britain), control what services child-care facilities provide very prescriptively or else cap the overall amount any family could spend while still benefiting from the subsidy.

In short, instead of reducing the costs of providing care through much-needed supply-side reform, this new demand-side scheme will further drive up the market price of child-care, with taxpayers on the hook now for increased use of formal care.

Given the cost implications of capping the per income amount spent by any family, the federal government would inevitably have to circumscribe the nature of care, fix the rates taxpayers would finance or cap the total amount families could spend on child-care within the scheme. These would fundamentally change the types of care available or used in the sector.

 

Responding to Bruce Baker

Mathew Kelly and I provided a new ranking of state educational systems that was published as a Cato Policy Analysis in November of 2018. Our goal was to provide a ranking that did not treat all states as if their student populations were identical, unlike traditional state rankings. Instead, students of a particular ethnic group were compared across states and the state ranked based on its average of the group rankings. These rankings were further extended to provide evidence of how much student learning ‘bang’ states were getting for their expenditures (‘bucks’). Finally, we ran some regressions of state performance, measured in this manner, to see which factors appeared to be related to successful educational outcomes.

Rutgers University professor Bruce D. Baker responded to this work in a review published by the National Education Policy Center.[1] While scholars often feel gratified to see their work discussed by other academics, this gratification can turn to annoyance if the discussion becomes unreasonably hostile or unprofessional, especially when the discussion is filled with errors, as Baker’s discussion is. Fortunately, Baker’s commentary, though replete with nasty slights, mostly deals with questions that were already answered in our report, making my response easier.

Before responding to Baker’s critiques, however, some housekeeping items are in order. Baker reports several times that our study was published by the Reason Foundation as a “policy brief”. This is incorrect. We did publish a short article in the November 2018 issue of the monthly Reason Magazine which summarizes our results and methods and was written for a lay audience.[2] At the end of that Reason article we steered readers to the more complete, academic style article published as a Cato Policy Analysis on November 13th of that year, and Baker does reference this Cato report in his first footnote.[3] Nevertheless, he mislabels this Cato Policy Analysis as a Reason Policy Brief over a dozen times throughout his text. He refers over thirty times to our “reports” in the plural when we have only one academic style published report, the Cato Policy Analysis, which obviously replaces the prior working paper that we had uploaded on a working paper website.[4] Baker should know that academics routinely improve working papers into final published articles and that references should be made to the published article. This ‘housekeeping’ error is a minor issue in the larger scheme of things, but at a fundamental level it reveals a sloppiness that permeates Baker’s overall analysis.

All of my discussion here is based on the Cato Policy Analysis, which is the complete finalized published work, not a short magazine article or an unpublished working paper.

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!

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