Topic: Education and Child Policy

Hubris Core

It may not seem necessary to say these two things, but here goes: (1) No person or group of people are omniscient, and (2) all people are different. Why do I state these realities? Because Common Core supporters sometimes seem to need reminders.

Writing on his New York Times blog, the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey takes Donald Trump to task for saying that if elected he would eliminate the Common Core. Fair enough, though just as Washington strongly coerced adoption of the Core – a reality Carey deceptively sidesteps by saying states “voluntarily” adopted it – the feds could potentially attach money to dropping it. But that would be no more constitutional than the initial coercion, and the primary coercive mechanism – the Race to the Top – was basically a one-shot deal (though reinforced to an appreciable extent by No Child Left Behind waivers).

Carey is also reasonably suspicious of Trump’s suggestion that local control of education works best. Contrary to what Carey suggests, we don’t have good evidence that state or federal control is better than local – meaningful local control has been withering away for probably over a century, and some research does support it – but it is certainly the case that lots of districts have performed poorly and suffer from waste, paralysis, etc. But then we get this:

But states and localities, in a sense, don’t actually have the ability to set educational standards, even if they choose to. The world around us ultimately determines what students need to learn — the demands of highly competitive and increasingly global labor markets, the admissions requirements of colleges and universities, and the march of scientific progress.

The only choice local schools have is whether they will try to meet those expectations. The Common Core is simply a way of organizing and articulating standards that already exist, for the benefit of students, parents and teachers, so that schooling makes sense when children move between different grades, schools, districts and states.

Good Question: What to Do Before Major Change

“Dean Dad” Matt Reed has responded to my rebuttal to him Tuesday, and I appreciate his engaging me in discussion. His main point now: The student loan default problem is not mainly about big total debts, but smaller debts that are hard to pay off because the students dropped out before getting a degree.

I agree. Indeed, that was pretty much the point of my Wall Street Journal article that kicked off the exchange. As I wrote:

Many dropouts have loans, which are much harder to repay when one fails to finish, or gets a worthless degree. Borrowers on the academic margins, who often attend community colleges and for-profit schools, likely struggle the most to repay even though their debts tend to be relatively small. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 34% of borrowers with debts between $1,000 and $5,000 defaulted, versus only 18% with debts in excess of $100,000, a level of debt associated with advanced degrees.

Where the confusion might lie is that I thought in his response to me Reed was suggesting that a major problem for anyone coming out of community college was that the minimum wage was too low and, connected to that, so were the wages of entry-level jobs. This was based on the following:

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back? Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage. 

Knowing that Reed did not mean to include graduates among “former students” makes his comments about low wages less alarming. Still, his solution – raise low wages instead of requiring evidence of college readiness – seems a broad, slow, and dubious way to deal with the debt problem. “Broad” because it calls for, essentially, overhauling a huge part of the economy as opposed to specifically reforming students loans; “slow” because doing that would take a pretty long time; and “dubious” because there is a lot of evidence that raising the minimum wage has substantial negative effects.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Reed calls for “free (or much less expensive) community college.”

Free community college would probably solve the problem of community college noncompleters leaving with debt, depending on how one accounted for living expenses, but it comes with its own set of troubles. The first is that we would likely still have lots of people not finishing, only the costs would be borne more by taxpayers and less by students. The second is that, unless “free” were somehow focused on the poor, you would have taxpayers subsidizing well-to-do people. Recent data show about 39 percent of dependent undergraduate students at community colleges, and about 54 percent of independent students, are from the upper half of the income distribution.  About 16 and 28 percent are from the highest income quartile. Then there is the question of how to pay for this, especially if making it free leads to even more people enrolling. And will community colleges be able to handle all of the new students, or will they have to ration spots? What will encourage students to complete their studies as quickly as possible?

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.]