Education and Child Policy

August 7, 2019 10:44AM

Why Public Schools Can’t Have Nice Values

It’s nearing back‐​to‐​school time, and that means in addition to lots of yellow buses, we’ll be seeing the annual spate of education polls. The first one just came out — the 2019 Phi Delta Kappa poll—and it furnishes some interesting information illustrating why it’s so hard for public schools to inculcate values. Short answer: we just don’t agree on them, and a lot of people fear what their kids might be taught.


This edition of the survey — PDK, by the way, is an organization of professional educators — has a special focus on teaching religion, civics, and other values‐​based subjects, as well as presenting regular fare such as grades for public schools and lists of perceived “biggest problems.” Taken as a whole, it reveals that most people want values taught, but there is major disagreement about what values specifically, and the possible consequences of teaching them. It’s what we see play out in districts nationwide on Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, and no doubt in many places not on the Map because conflicts and concerns don’t make it onto reporters’ radars.


Start with civics. A central promise since the earliest days of American public schooling advocacy was that “common” schools would form good citizens. But to the extent that involves things like teaching how government works, it’s not happening. One reason may be that while those who are supposed to govern public schools — “the people” — overwhelmingly agree that civics should be taught, they don’t think it is nearly as important as other things. When asked what “the main goal of a public school education” should be, only 25 percent of respondents replied “to prepare students to be good citizens.” 21 percent said “to prepare students for work” and 53 percent “to prepare students academically.” The results specifically for parents, in the chart below, were similar.

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The next problem is, if you do teach civics, what do you include? 27 percent of respondents, and 29 percent of parents, were at least “somewhat” concerned that “civics classes might include political content” with which they would disagree, with 35 percent of Republicans feeling that way. That’s less stark than one might expect if one thinks of such heated showdowns as those in Michigan and Texas over the core word “democracy,” but having more than one in four people fearing political bias means there’s a good chance of polarizing disagreement in lots of schools, making even basic civics something of a minefield to avoid.


Even more precarious is religion, but many Americans are religious, and we have seen several states pushing to include religious content, especially on the Bible, in schools. The PDK poll shows that while almost everyone thinks civics should be taught, if not prioritized, feelings are more mixed on religion. On whether comparative religion classes should be in public schools, only 7 percent of respondents said they should be required, 70 percent supported them as electives, and 23 percent did not want them at all. Bible classes were more polarizing, with 6 percent wanting them to be mandatory, 58 percent electives, and 36 percent nowhere in the schools. (Again, as the chart below shows, parents were similar to the general public.) Tracking with this, about one in four respondents feared comparative religion classes would cause students to question their families’ beliefs or change their faith, and more than one in three feared Bible classes “might improperly promote Judeo‐​Christian religious beliefs.”

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Again, those numbers may feel a little low, but having any sizable share of families potentially object to what is taught is a powerful deterrent against presenting the material. Indeed, while the pollsters found nearly unanimous approval for teaching generic “honesty” and “civility,” nearly 40 percent of respondents said it would not be possible to get people in their community “to agree on a set of basic values.”


All of this points to an inherent problem for public schools in a diverse society: It is very difficult get diverse people to agree on what to teach, especially on highly personal matters such as religion, or highly volatile such as politics. The result is that public schools often spark social conflict, downplay anything potentially controversial, or first do one and then the other, harming social cohesion and academic rigor. Of course, there is an educational arrangement that avoids the zero‐​sum nature of public schooling, fostering peace and rigor: school choice. This year, PDK did not ask about that.

July 30, 2019 5:15PM

Universal Childcare Could Have Terrible Social Consequences

Some Democratic presidential candidates want to introduce government‐​funded, universal childcare programs.


The stated rationale is usually the need for targeted financial help for families with children. But this reasoning is usually buttressed by a faith that government‐​funded care or preschool would improve the life chances of the children using it.


Such assertions are based on extrapolating research findings from more limited programs targeted at those on low incomes, such as Head Start, the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project. But assuming these results apply to more universal programs is fraught with danger. Wise heads, such as Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, have previously warned that:

A much more careful analysis of the effects of scaling up the model programs to the target population, and its effects on costs, has to be undertaken before these estimates [of their impact] can be considered definitive.

A new paper on the effects of the universal childcare program in Quebec (by economists Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan) shows why Heckman was right to be cautious. The results are devastating for the case for universal care.


On a sweep of evidence of universal programs around the world, the paper concludes that “there is a little clear evidence that these programs provide significant benefits more broadly,” than for some disadvantaged children.


The results in Quebec were even worse. The government there introduced heavy subsidies for care for all children from ages zero through four in the 1990s, alongside regulations designed to improve “quality.” Maternal labor supply unsurprisingly rose, and child care services were used more heavily than in the rest of Canada.


Disturbingly, though, “there was a large, significant, negative shock to the preschool, noncognitive development and health of children exposed to the new program, with little measured impact on cognitive skills.” This included “increases in early childhood anxiety and aggression.”


Proponents of universal care usually say, to paraphrase, that “a good start in life is crucial to future wellbeing.” It stands to reason then that interventions that harm children can likewise have enduring scarring effects. When it comes to Quebec, this is exactly what the economists found.


Though their results find “no consistent evidence of a lasting impact of the Quebec program on cognitive test scores,” the rest of their findings are extremely worrying:

We do, however, find a significant decline in self‐​reported health and in life satisfaction among teens. Most strikingly, we find a sharp and contemporaneous increase in criminal behavior among the cohorts exposed to the Quebec program, relative to their peers in other provinces. We illustrate graphically a monotonic increase in crime rates among cohorts with their exposure to the child care program, and we show in regression analysis that exposure led to a significant rise in overall crime rates. We also report that these effects are primarily for boys, who also see the largest deterioration in noncognitive skills [the later includes aggression and hyperactivity].

The economists charitably conclude that their results confirm that early life interventions can have sustained impacts on life chances (implying the importance of doing childcare policy “right”).


A more pessimistic reader would foresee potentially disastrous social consequences from adopting the sorts of universal programs that Democratic candidates are pushing.


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More on childcare, and a better way of helping families, here and here.

July 24, 2019 2:28PM

Sen. Warren’s Debt Cancellation May Stir Resentment

On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released more details to her proposal to transfer approximately $640 billion in student debt to taxpayers. With total student debt at about $1.6 trillion, and annual college tuition and fee increases outpacing inflation for decades, many Americans might welcome policies that seemingly make college more affordable, including student loan “forgiveness.”


The program would benefit many responsible students repaying their loans as scheduled. However, it would also reward students who used college as a consumption good (playtime) as opposed to an investment opportunity (acquiring skills), and those who borrowed for degrees they didn’t need, or degrees that delivered big earnings, like doctors and engineers. 


Consequently, the transfer of student debt from those who took it on voluntarily to hard working taxpayers may not resonate well with those Americans who had to make difficult decisions regarding college affordability. Those who might understandably feel resentful are:

  1. Students who chose an affordable higher education route, as opposed to debt financing, by working while in school, attending community college for two years, living off campus, commuting from home, or other means.
  2. Students who sacrificed to repay their student loans.
  3. Parents who sacrificed to pay their children’s college expenses.
  4. Students who chose more lucrative majors, over their desired field, for the sole purpose of repaying student loans.
  5. Those who wanted to attend college but chose not to, believing it too costly.

The broader message sent to all Americans is also not a good one, but one that discourages responsible personal finance. Why should you pinch pennies, minimize debt, and pay your bills when those who don’t get bailed out?


Policy should be geared toward encouraging and rewarding responsible behavior. This does the opposite. 

June 24, 2019 12:16PM

Senator Sanders’ Not So Great Free College Proposal

Sen. Bernie Sanders proposes free college for all and the cancellation of all student debt.


Americans have watched the price of four‐​year college rise faster than inflation for several decades. This phenomenon is complex and can be attributed to several factors. Two of the most important factors are:

  1. the rising cost of education and campus amenities (keeping technology current, expanding physical education facilities, more administrative positions, improved meal plans, and so on).
  2. students’ increased willingness and ability to pay higher prices, owing to easy access to government subsidies.

The first point is enabled by the second, and Sen. Sanders’ proposal will simply exacerbate the problem.


President Reagan’s then‐​Secretary of Education William Bennett famously articulated the second point in a 1987 New York Times op‐​ed, saying: “If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.”


Free college and debt forgiveness are the motherlode of aid to colleges and universities, which under Sen. Sanders’ plan will fuel rising costs that will be redirected from students to taxpayers. Massive federal education funding will join other unsustainable “third‐​rail” entitlement programs and grow, adding to federal spending, the deficit, and debt.


If student loans are forgiven, those who borrowed — in some cases irresponsibly — are rewarded, whereas those who paid for their education by making sacrifices are punished. If anything, this would cause resentment and may discourage future responsible financial behavior. If Americans believe that debt is something that can magically be eliminated by government, why not maximize mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt?


And worst of all, education quality and accountability will suffer. We’ve seen this play out for decades in free public K‑12 schools, where per‐​pupil cost rises continuously and student performance stagnates or falls. Underperforming schools remain open and continue to provide inadequate education to many children.

May 16, 2019 11:41AM

DC Vouchers: Bang for the Buck

Standardized test scores aren’t what they used to be. From A Nation at Risk in 1983 to Common Core around 2010, they were close to exclusively how we assessed whether students and schools were succeeding. But over the years the monomaniacal focus on test scores increasingly grated on schools and families, and with the Common Core threatening to put everyone on the road to the exact same standards and tests, there was a political revolt. At about the same time an empirical revolt was brewing, with increasing evidence that schools’ test scores may not correlate all that well with other important outcomes, ranging from college attendance to health. Which brings us to the latest evaluation of the Washington, DC, voucher program.


After the first two reports in the three‐​installment series found negative test score effects it was easy to be disappointed, even while realizing that test scores are very cramped measures, and the DC voucher program was functioning in a district where choice, once you add in charter schools and choice among traditional public schools, was the norm. Choice is still the norm — 78 percent of students who applied for vouchers but did not receive them nonetheless went to schools other than those to which they were assigned — but now test scores for DC voucher students are statistically indistinguishable from those of applicants who did not receive vouchers.

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So DC vouchers are a test‐​score wash. But they are a plus in many other areas, including reducing chronic absenteeism (see chart above), increasing student satisfaction, and making students feel safe. Meanwhile, they have no overall negative impacts. And all this at a fraction of the cost of traditional DC public schools. The voucher cap is $9,022 for grades K‑8 and $13,534 for 9 – 12, while traditional DC publics spend around $27,000 per student.


All in the world of school choice test scores is not good – see the most recent assessment of Louisiana’s particularly troubled voucher program. But more and more we are seeing that test scores are not the super‐​measures we thought — or at least acted like — they were, and school choice is — and must be—about much more.

April 16, 2019 4:40PM

Montana Can’t Use a 150‐​Year‐​Old Anti‐​Catholic Law to Discriminate Against Religious Schools

Blaine Amendments — adopted by many states starting in the late 1800s as an anti‐​Catholic measure — prevent states from using public funding for religious education. Thirty‐​seven states currently have the amendments, and some courts have interpreted them excluding religious options from state school‐​choice programs — that is, preventing access to otherwise publicly available benefits purely on the basis of religion. In other words, Blaine Amendments let some states practice religious discrimination.


Montana created a program where people who donated to private‐​school funding organizations received tax credits. The program both encouraged school choice and allowed people to spend their own money how they saw fit. However, the Montana Department of Revenue used the state’s Blaine Amendment to exclude those donors whose money found its way to religious private schools, and, at the same time, it allowed non‐​religious private‐​school donors to benefit. During the ensuing legal challenge, the Montana Supreme Court not only ruled against the religious families that challenged the discrimination, it struck down the entire program, meaning both religious and non‐​religious donors wouldn’t receive tax credits.


Our friends at the Institute for Justice have petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear the case, and Cato has filed a brief in support. Both Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies have an interest in this case, so we teamed up to cover both the constitutional and policy angles of the issue. We argue that the Court should correct the Montana Supreme Court’s flawed reading of the First Amendment’s religion clauses and reaffirm that states cannot erode the Free Exercise Clause in the guise of strengthening the Establishment Clause. The Religion Clauses work together to help protect the freedom of conscience, not to prohibit school‐​choice programs that help both religious and non‐​religious schools.


The First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As Cato explained in a recent brief, the two clauses work together to protect individual freedom of conscience. However, states like Montana often use the Establishment Clause to justify the existence of Blaine Amendments. They argue that Blaine Amendments are necessary to prevent “an establishment of religion” by strengthening the wall of separation between church and state. But in the modern world, where government is so involved in giving public benefits like tax credits, it is impossible to maintain a complete wall of separation without discriminating against religion (as Blaine Amendments do), which is not what the Framers intended. Instead, the government must remain neutral toward religion and not disfavor religious people or organizations. In this sense, the Establishment Clause is a shield protecting the people from state religion, not a sword enabling government to discriminate against religious faith.


At the same time, school‐​choice programs help prevent the forced ideological conformity that is inevitable in public schools. Tax‐​credit programs like Montana’s allow parents to select schools that share their values, reducing the need to impose those values on others. In so doing, they improve our nation’s social and political cohesion and reduce conflict. Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map tracks how public schools create conflict by forcing uniformity onto ideological diversity. Blaine Amendments merely fan the flames of the ideological conflicts that currently engulf public education.


Despite all these considerations, the Montana Supreme Court declined to properly consider the First Amendment implications of the state’s Blaine Amendment. Instead, it gave the Montana Department of Revenue a slap on the wrist for exceeding its procedural authority and destroyed the entire tax credit program rather than contend with the unconstitutional discrimination inherent in Montana’s Blaine Amendment. As school choice becomes more popular around the country, the question of religious discrimination and Blaine Amendments will become more salient. The Montana decision was just the latest in a series of federal and state courts decisions that are divided on the issue. That divide will continue without guidance from the Supreme Court. The Court should take this case to clarify that the Constitution requires religious neutrality, not discrimination.

April 4, 2019 4:44PM

Brown v. Board Did Not Start Private Schooling

A common refrain in opposition to school choice is that choice is rooted in racial segregation. Specifically, that people barely thought about choice until the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision required public schools to desegregate, and racists scrambled to create private alternatives to which they could take public funds. I have dealt with this before and won’t rehash the whole response (hint: Roman Catholics), but a new permutation popped up on Vox yesterday, with author Adia Harvey Wingfield asserting:

Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, most US students attended local public schools. Of course, these were also strictly racially segregated. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court struck down legal segregation that a demand for private (and eventually charter and religious parochial) schools really began to grow, frequently as a backlash to integrated public institutions.

Kudos to Prof. Wingfield for making clear that many public schools were “strictly racially segregated,” which often seems to be soft pedaled when linking choice to segregation. But her assertion that private schooling didn’t “really” begin to grow until after Brown is not borne out by the data. As the chart below shows, while the share of enrollment in private schools spiked in 1959, the growth in private schooling didn’t suddenly increase right before that. In 1889 — the earliest year available— the private school share was 11 percent, dipping to 7 percent in 1919, then pretty steadily rising until the 1959 peak. (Note, the earlier years of the federal data are in ten‐​year increments. Also, data include pre‑K enrollments.)

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History is clear that private education has long been with us, and while it has certainly at times been used to avoid racial integration, it has also been employed for reasons having nothing to do with that. This remains true even in our relatively modern era in which “free” public schools have crowded out many private options.