Topic: Education and Child Policy

Is It Really “Offensive” to Say Don’t Saddle People with Bad Debt?

“Dean Dad” is angry with me. A blogger for Inside Higher Ed and a community college dean, Matt Reed found my argument in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that the federal government should stop giving student loans to people without regard to their demonstrated ability to do college-level work “as offensive an argument as I’ve seen in major media in a long, long time.”

As I wrote in my piece, I absolutely understand the impetus to give anyone who wants it access to college. Apparently, though, you must be utterly heartless to say maybe we should be concerned about the unintended consequences of related policies, which we see with throngs of unprepared people entering college and never finishing, many with loans they struggle to pay off because they don’t have the necessary credentials to increase their earnings.

Mr. Reed thinks that my view is about “getting tough on the poor and badly prepared.” I suppose that’s one way to spin it. But it is not really about “getting tough” with anyone – it is about first doing no harm by providing an external check on people’s potentially damaging borrowing plans. And it is not about “targeting” the poor or anyone else, but protecting the unprepared. Of course, the poor are disproportionately the ones who are inadequately prepared, and that is something we need to deal with. As I wrote, though, that is something we should do at the K-12 level, not compound the problem with debt and no degree.

Reed next delves a bit into caricature, stating, “When someone in the Wall Street Journal suggests getting tough with the poor for their own good, it is worth asking some questions.”  I’d say it’s worth asking questions whenever people propose things in any outlet, but I would also suggest we assume people have good motives. I don’t doubt that Dean Dad has fine motives – he no doubt does work he finds morally fulfilling – but if he is going to suggest extra suspicion of me because I wrote in the Journal, it is perhaps worth a reminder that he is a community college officer, writing in a higher education outlet, calling, among other things, for more money to go to community colleges.

Debating the Impact of Regulations on School Choice

Over at the Brookings Institution’s education blog, Paul Bruno offers a thoughtful critique of Overregulation Theory (OT), the idea that government regulations on school choice programs can undermine their positive effects. Bruno argues that although OT is “one of the most plausible explanations” of the negative results that two studies of Louisiana’s voucher program recently found, it is not “entirely consistent with the available evidence” and “does not by itself explain substantial negative effects from vouchers.”

I agree with Bruno–and have stated repeatedly–that the studies’ findings do not conclusively prove OT. That said, I believe both that OT is consistent with the available evidence and that it could explain the substantial negative effects (though I think it’s likely there are other factors at play as well). I’ll explain why below, but first, a shameless plug:

On Friday, March 4th at noon, the Cato Institute will be hosting a debate over the impact of regulations on school choice programs featuring Patrick Wolf, Douglas Harris, Michael Petrilli, and yours truly, moderated by Cato’s own Neal McCluskey. If you’re in the D.C. area, please RSVP at this link and join us! Come for the policy discussion, stay for the sponsored lunch!

More Mixed Results from Louisiana’s Highly Regulated Voucher Program

New research on Louisiana’s voucher program revealed mixed resultsYesterday, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (Tulane University) and the School Choice Demonstration Project (the University of Arkansas) released four new reports examining the Louisiana Scholarship Program’s impact on participating students’ test performance and non-cognitive skills, level of racial segregation statewide, and the effect of competition on district-school students. Here are the key findings:

  • Students who use the voucher to enroll in private schools end up with much lower math achievement than they would have otherwise, losing as much as 13 percentile points on the state standardized test, after two years. Reading outcomes are also lower for voucher users, although these are not statistically different from the experimental control group in the second year.
  • There is no evidence that the Louisiana Scholarship Program has positive or negative effects on students’ non-cognitive skills, such as “grit” and political tolerance.
  • The program reduced the level of racial segregation in the state. The vast majority of the recipients are black students who left schools with student populations that were disproportionally black relative to the broader community and moved to private schools that had somewhat larger white populations.
  • The program may have modestly increased academic performance in public schools, consistent with the theory behind school vouchers that they create competition between public and private schools that “lifts all boats.” [Emphasis added.]

The positive impact on racial integration and evidence that competition improved district-school student performance are both positive signs, but the significant negative impact on the performance of participating students is troubling. (Ironically, the evidence suggests that the voucher program may have improved the performance of non-voucher students more than the voucher students.) That said, although the impact on student performance is negative, the second year results show improvement over the first year. 

How Teachers Can Earn Millions

Last year, the comedy duo Key & Peele’s TeachingCenter sketch imagined what it would be like if teachers were treated like pro-athletes, earning millions, being drafted in widely televised events, and starring in car commercials. We’re not likely to see the latter two anytime soon, but some teachers are already earning seven figures.


The Key & Peele sketch inspired think pieces arguing that K-12 teachers should be paid more, but without making any fundamental changes to the existing system. Matt Barnum at The Seventy-Four brilliantly satirized this view in calling for pro-athletes to be treated more like teachers: stop judging teams based on wins or players based on points scored, eliminate performance pay in favor of seniority pay, and get rid of profits.

Oklahoma Supreme Court Upholds School Choice

Barely a week after a Georgia judge threw out a challenge to the state’s scholarship tax credit law, today the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously upheld school vouchers for students with special needs.

Plaintiffs argued that the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities violated the Oklahoma constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the state from appopriating public funds for sectarian purposes. A lower court had agreed, limiting the vouchers only to private schools without any religious affiliation. Today, the state supreme court overturned that decision, upholding the law in its entirety.

Plaintiffs had argued that the vouchers unconstitutionally aided religious schools, but the court found that the voucher law “is void of any preference between a sectarian or non-sectarian private school” and that “there is no influence being exerted by the State for any sectarian purpose with respect to whether a private school satisfies [the law’s eligibility] requirements.”

Despite being “religion neutral,” the plaintiffs argued that the law is unconstitutional because more voucher recipients chose to attend religious schools than non-religious schools. However, the court rejected this claim, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (which upheld school vouchers in Ohio): “the constitutionality of a neutral educational aid program simply does not turn on whether and why, in a particular area, at a particular time, most private schools are religious, or most recipients choose to use the aid at a religious school.” What matters to the constitution, the Oklahoma court explained, is only that the law is religiously neutral and that parents have a choice: “When the parents and not the government are the ones determining which private school offers the best learning environment for their child, the circuit between government and religion is broken… Scholarship funds deposited to a private sectarian school occur only as a result of the private independent choice by the parent or legal guardian.” [emphasis in the original]

The court outlined the key factors that led to their conclusion:

(1) voluntary participation by families in the scholarship program;

(2) genuine independent choice by parent or legal guardian in selecting sectarian or non-sectarian private school;

(3) payment warrant issued to parent or legal guardian [not directly to a private school];

(4) parent endorses payment to independently chosen private school;

(5) Act is religion neutral with respect to criteria to become an approvate school for scholarship program;

(6) each public school district has the option to contract with a private school to provide mandated special educational services instead of private services in the district;

(7) acceptance of the scholarship under the Act serves as parental revocation of all federally guaranteed rights due to children who qualify for services under [the Individuals with Disabilities Act]; and

(8) the district public school is relieved of its obligation to provide educational services to the child with disabilities as long as the child utilizes the scholarship.

The timing of the decision couldn’t be better for supporters of the education savings account (ESA) legislation that just received a green light from the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee this week. Opponents had argued that the ESAs were likely unconstitutional, but with the court’s unanimous ruling, that will no longer be a concern. Legislators can now focus on the merits of ESAs.

[Update: The American Federation for Children posted the decision here.]

Andrew Coulson, In Memoriam

Earlier this week, we lost a giant. Andrew Coulson, Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, passed away after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer. In the days that followed, colleagues, friends, and admirers paid tribute to his achievements, reminisced about his character and virtues, and reflected on his legacy. What follows is a compilation of those tributes.

Neal McCluskey remembers Andrew in an interview with Caleb Brown:

Adam B. Schaeffer, former colleague and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute:

There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. […]

Andrew was a fine thinker and passionate advocate. But, as many have noted, he was also a kind man with a splendid sense of humor and relentless optimism. He remained immovably committed to his principles and the conclusions to which his great mind had led him. But he always engaged with a sense of magnanimity and humor, never bitter or angry. Even when I made a good deal of trouble for him with my lack of these qualities, Andrew stood by me. When he faced difficulties because of his principles, he always stood firm on those as well.

Adam concludes his tribute with a recommended reading list of Andrew’s works, which are among “all the wonderful gifts he’s left us.” 

Andrew Coulson’s Legacy

Andrew J. Coulson was my friend and mentor in school choice policy. He was a good, principled, brilliant, and funny man whom I will miss deeply, along with many, many, others. Andrew was so much more than his work, but I’d like to focus here on that legacy he leaves behind for those who never had the pleasure of knowing him personally.

There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. I have a short list of links to material representing Andrew’s core ideas below. In the near future, his final project – a documentary series on the history and future of education – will be released and should be added as mandatory viewing.

All the way through Andrew’s illness, he continued work on his passion; bringing freedom and excellence to education and opportunities to children. I know he has made a huge difference already, but I hope even more people read and learn from Andrew after his passing. If you have even a fleeting interest in education reform, please do yourself a favor and read as much as you can by Andrew Coulson.

I was first introduced to Andrew in graduate school, about twelve years ago. I’d written an article for NRO on vouchers, playing off a West Wing episode to encourage conservatives and Republicans to provoke a wedge-issue fight for targeted vouchers and black voters. Someone working in the choice movement emailed to compliment me on the article, but gently suggested I might be missing some important concerns about school choice policy.