Topic: Education and Child Policy

School Choice Is about Accountability

Private schools are held directly accountable to families. They must attract their customers and provide a high-quality educational product if they want to stay in business. School choice programs  allow families to access schools that are accountable to their children’s needs.

Government schools are not held accountable to children in the current system. A family that is not satisfied with their child’s residentially assigned government school typically only has three options: (1) buy an expensive house that’s near a better government school, (2) pay for a private school out of pocket while still paying for the government school through property taxes, or (3) complain to the government school leaders and hope things get better.

The high costs associated with each of those options leaves most families powerless – especially the least advantaged.

This clip from Andrew Coulson’s award-winning School Inc. highlights the fact that school choice is all about accountability. Low-income families in India are asked the following question: “Why are you spending money on the private schools when the government schools are free?”

Their response is telling:

“In the government schools our children are abandoned.”

First and Foremost, School Choice Is about Liberty

Liberty. It is America’s foundational value. We have failed to uphold it for far too many people much too often, but the freedom of Americans to choose what they will believe, and how they will live, is at the very heart of the American experiment. It is fitting, then, that we kick off five days of National School Choice Week posts on Cato@Liberty with a reminder of the fundamental good that is sacrificed when government controls education.

As we will be doing all week, I direct your attention to a clip from Andrew Coulson’s award-winning School Inc., a documentary series that ran on PBS stations nationwide in 2017 and can still be watched, in its entirety, on the website of Free to Choose Media. Here, after discussing sometimes even deadly fights that Americans have had over what the public schools will teach, Andrew invokes Thomas Jefferson’s warning about the tyranny of compelled support of others’ views, and explains how, by compelling such support, public schooling forces wrenching, divisive conflict. Such conflict could be avoided were people allowed to direct the funding for their children’s education to educators who share their values. In other words, by upholding liberty school choice is both more just, and more conducive to social harmony, than public schooling.

 

Which States Provide High Quality Schools at Low Cost?

If you pay state and local taxes or have kids in public schools, you will want to check out this recent Cato study on education spending and education results. Looking across the states, the study by Stan Liebowitz and Matthew Kelly found no significant relationship between per-pupil spending and student performance when you adjust for state cost of living.

The starting point is the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, which measure student knowledge of various subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12. The scores are used in various media articles on school quality, such as those by U.S. News and World Report.

Liebowitz and Kelly argue that the basic NAEP results are flawed as a measure for comparing public schools across states because they are not adjusted for state demographic differences. So, for example, Texas ranks 35th on aggregated NAEP data and Iowa ranks 17th, but the demographics of the two states are quite different. As it turns out, generally, white children in Texas score higher than white children in Iowa, Hispanic children in Texas score higher than Hispanic children in Iowa, and so on for other groups.

The authors adjust for state demographic differences and produce their own school quality scores. Using these scores, Texas moves up to 6th place and Iowa moves down to 32nd.

The chart shows the authors’ quality score on the vertical axis and per-pupil spending in nominal dollars on the horizontal axis. Consider that students in many states score higher than students in New York yet those states only spend half of what New York does. Compare Florida, Texas, and Virginia to New York, for example.

Further analysis by the authors looks at spending adjusted for state cost of living.

You Can’t Make This Up: A Speech Code that Investigates Students for Discussing the Freedom of Speech

Public university campuses, once bastions of free thought, have become increasingly hostile toward the freedom of speech. Although students greatly benefit from expressing and being exposed to a wide variety of ideas, administrators often prevent this from happening. An increasing number of universities have even instituted speech codes that subject students to burdensome investigations merely for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Two student organizations at the University of South Carolina ran afoul of campus speech codes when, in promoting a pro-free speech event, they displayed posters and handouts that referred to censorship at other colleges. Although the students obeyed the school’s regulations about handing out materials, several people filed harassment charges because they didn’t like what the handouts said. In a bizarre turn of events, the students were questioned and investigated by school officials—for talking about incidents where other students were likewise questioned and investigated for exercising their First Amendment rights. To make matters worse, the university refused to clarify its policies and essentially imposed a gag order on one student, forbidding him from discussing this incident with the faculty or student body.

The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment allows the government to set reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner of expression. But the Court has repeatedly said that the government can’t act in a way that discourages speech. Its policies and actions must survive strict judicial scrutiny—being narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest—to even investigate individuals for engaging in protected expression. Public universities, as government actors, are legally bound by this principle. And yet the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled for the University of South Carolina here.

An extensive inquisitorial process like the one here has a chilling effect on speech. That is, people are less likely to exercise their First Amendment rights due to fear of reprisal. It is the epitome of state censorship for people not to be free to discuss even the very concept of free speech without facing investigation. The process itself is a punishment; not only is it extensive and undefined, but it also leaves the door open for future persecution.

The purpose of education is to broaden one’s mind, testing the strength of ideas in the fire of adverse opinion. Far-reaching campus speech codes run counter to this objective. Instead of producing strong young minds capable of adapting to the challenges of the adult world, universities like the one here have insulated and infantilized students, doing both the students and the public at large a great disservice.

Cato thus joins the ACLU of South Carolina, DKT Liberty Project, and Reason Foundation in filing an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear Abbott v. Pastides and supporting students’ right to express themselves in ways consistent with the First Amendment. The Court should remind universities that the merits of a speaker’s ideas are determined by each individual listener, not by school administrators, and that the reward or punishment for speech is found in the swaying of public opinion, not in retaliatory investigation processes or the absence thereof.

Kids in Charter Schools Still Aren’t Getting Equal Education Funding

What a lousy deal. My colleagues at the University of Arkansas and I just released another study examining funding disparities between traditional public schools and public charter schools in 14 cities across the country. The overall finding is clear: families lose a substantial amount of education dollars when they pick charter schools for their children.

Using data from the 2015-16 school year, we find that children in charter schools receive $5,828, or 27 percent, less than their traditional public school peers each year, on average. Put differently, a family forgoes over $75,000 in educational resources for their child’s K-12 education if a charter school fits their needs better than the residentially assigned option. And, unfortunately, the funding inequities are much worse in some cities. As shown in Figure 1 below – and in the original report – children in charter schools in Washington, DC, and Camden, New Jersey receive over $10,000 less than their traditional public school peers each year.

 

But that’s not all. Our team has released four other reports over the past two decades with similar findings. And across the 8 cities with longitudinal data, the funding disparity favoring traditional public schools has grown by 58 percent since 2003 after adjusting for inflation. It’s like a swarm of mosquitoes in the summer. It’s persistent and never goes away.

 

Fortunately, one city in our sample has consistently demonstrated equitable funding across school sectors. In Houston, Texas, students in public charter schools receive only $517, or 5 percent, less than their peers in traditional public schools each year. In other words, equitable public school funding can be achieved if policymakers make the right decisions.

Families shouldn’t have to lose $5,828 each year in educational resources for each child that doesn’t fit into the one-size-fits-all education system. Thankfully, state policymakers have the authority, opportunity, and responsibility to achieve equal total funding of public school students in their states. Policymakers can deliver equitable education funding by revising state funding formulas to allow 100 percent of public education dollars to follow children to whatever school works best for them.

At Cato Unbound: How Best To Reform Child Protective Services?

This month I’m participating in a Cato Unbound symposium on Child Protective Services and family rights. In its lead essay, attorney Diane Redleaf details some of the ways in which CPS agencies can arm-twist parents into so-called interim placements and safety plans that separate families with little or no judicial review.  Participant James G. Dwyer, in a response essay, takes a relatively positive view of the agencies’s work. My essay, by contrast, generally backs up Redleaf’s critique of CPS as a species of government enforcement agency gone wild: far too often, these agencies seize children from parents based on flimsy evidence, second-guess everyday parental behavior and decisions, or act on misguided Drug War zeal. 

Redleaf in her essay then goes on to raise distinctive objections about how the agencies negotiate with parents before a judge has ruled on their cases, which I paraphrase thus: 

…what sorts of policy response should apply to agencies’ practice of proffering to parents ostensibly voluntary interim placements and “safety plans”? What happens when parents regret—the next month, or the next day—having agreed to those conditions? Can they reopen the concessions they made, and how? Does it matter whether the agency has withheld information from them or menaced them with worst-case scenarios?

In my response essay, I argue that the problems with these practices are real but that legal attack on the voluntariness of interim plans is likely to be of at best limited helpfulness because our courts follow a strong presumption of enforcing settlements as written. More promising in the long run, I argue, may be to impose direct obligations on agencies to respect families’ autonomy without attacking the settlement process as such. “Safeguarding every family’s rights will, as one of its benefits, shore up families against unwise surrenders of their rights.”

 

 

Unified by Public High?

If someone told you that public high schools have taken people with political and social power and brought them together, to the exclusion of other people, would you celebrate those schools? Probably not. But that is essentially what a new Atlantic article does in extolling public high schools and attacking school choice.

The piece, by English professor Amy Lueck, asserts that public schools—particularly high schools—have been crucial, unifying institutions. After criticizing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for calling public schools a “dead end” (DeVos actually said monopolistic public schooling is a dead end for innovation) Lueck offers the following:

Far from being a “dead end,” for a long time the public school—particularly the public high school—served an important civic purpose: not only as an academic training ground, but also as a center for community and activity in American cities.

The public high school’s unifying importance, especially compared to private schooling, is very much wanting for proof. Lueck talks a lot about public high school football games, dances, yearbooks, and supporting the country in World War II to back her thesis, but says nothing about whether private schools did the same things. Of course, they did. She also says nothing about whether public high schools were especially effective in forming good citizens, while the research suggests that private schools and other schools of choice actually do better jobs than traditional public schools inculcating civic values such as voting, political tolerance, and volunteering in one’s community.  

More important than ignoring what private schools have done, though, is what Lueck concedes in a few welcome but quick admissions: public high schools have a highly discriminatory history. This is not just with egregious segregation of African Americans, which Lueck mentions, but also in some places Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Public schools have also been demeaning places for immigrants, and from early on in the history of public schooling numerous Roman Catholics felt that they had no choice but to stay out of the often de facto Protestant—and sometimes openly hostile—public schools. Indeed, by 1970 more than 1 million students attended Catholic high schools. But Lueck somehow doesn’t mention Catholics at all, including the recent evidence that Catholic schools are powerful forces for community cohesion. And Catholics have hardly been the only religious dissenters to the coerced uniformity of public schooling.

It is easy to say that public schools are essential unifiers, and that choice threatens cohesion. But what one says, and reality, are not always the same.

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