Topic: Education and Child Policy

Drop the Pipe Dream

The gargantuan “stimulus” coming down the pike has suddenly gotten education a lot of attention, but commentators continue the pipe dream that politicians might finally leverage this infusion of cash into effective reform.

Here’s an idea: Wake up and smell reality instead of hoping upon hope that this time our billions…er…tens of billions will get us something. As Adam Schaeffer and I document today on RealClearPolitics, the U.S. has been stimulating education at all levels for decades, and have gotten essentially nothing for our money. And of course we haven’t: As the “Washington must do something” rhetoric driving the pork-laden stimulus-to-end-all-stimuli well illustrates, the overwhelming goal of most legislation is to make politicians appear to “care,” not to actually accomplish anything. And nothing, unfortunately, says “care” as much as wasting tens of billions in the name of cute, innocent children.

US News and World Report Gets it Wrong

US News and World Report contributing editor Bonnie Erbe writes that “school vouchers… have already drained federal tax coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars.” With all due respect, this is not true.

There is only one federal school voucher program, in Washington, DC. That program is serving fewer than 2,000 children with an average voucher amount below $6,000, for an annual price tag under $12 million. It is in its fifth year of operation. Perhaps Ms. Erbe can explain to her readers how 5 * $12 million can be made to exceed $100 million?

Of course, even if the value of the vouchers to date did exceed $100 million, that wouldn’t mean it had “drained federal coffers” as Erbe claims. That’s because, as I wrote in the Washington Post and on this website, DC’s public schools spent $24,600 per pupil in 2007-08 – more than four times the average voucher cost. Much of the DC school system’s budget comes from the federal government, and the DC voucher program is saving taxpayers a great deal of money for every child it serves in place of the exorbitant district schools.

Ms. Erbe’s misrepresentation of the cost of federal vouchers calls into question the reliability of the US News and World Report. A correction is in order.

Schools Have Plenty of Money!

How many times do we have to repeat that the United States spends more per elementary and secondary student than almost any other industrialized nation before our political leaders stop talking like our schools get by on pennies a day? And how often do we have to point to state spending to show that, annual cries of the sky falling notwithstanding, expenditures have been on a very long, inflation-adjusted upward trend?

Judging by this tired fare from new U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan, and this standard story of rage from California, a lot more. So here you go:

Check out the OECD data here (table B1.1a)…

…see the figures for state spending here

…and reporters who cover incessant assertions of financial misery from educators, please check out the contact info for Cato’s media department here.

Operators are standing by.

Behold the Power of Education Tax Credits and Tremble

Arizona is proving a great example of why education tax credits have so much potential to expand over time compared with vouchers.

The state is facing budget shortfalls and some Democrats have demanded an end to the education tax credit program. So, is the program in mortal danger?

Nope. From an Arizona Republic news report:

Anyone who does [oppose the tax credits] could face an abrupt end to a political career because the program is so popular… Tinkering with the school-tax-credit donations is a political grenade, policy analysts say. “Voting against a tax credit can be seen as a vote to raise taxes,” said Michael Griffith, a school-finance expert for the Education Commission of the States, which tracks education-policy issues… . Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne warned that “the constituency is too strong” in support of tax-credit donations to private and public schools. He cannot imagine legislators would change the credits to pull the state budget out of the red.

These quotes illustrate two extremely important differences between tax credits and vouchers.

One, vouchers are seen as government spending and welfare while tax credits are seen as tax cuts. When you cut a voucher program, you’re slashing spending. When you cut a credit program, you’re raising taxes. We’ve been saddled with wasteful and distorting tax credits for years because of this political dynamic. It can now be used to advantage.

Two, tax credits multiply the school choice constituency. A voucher program counts only voucher recipients as constituents. An education tax credit program counts recipients, donors, and scholarship organizations as constituents, adding not just numbers but individuals with more money and political influence to the category of active choice supporters.

Let’s Just Have A Big Bonfire of Cash Instead

Can you think of a better use for taxpayer money than spending it on the most inefficient and least productive segment of our economy?

Well then it’s a good thing that the Economic Stagnation and Ruinous Debt Plan (aka “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan”), includes a hefty dose of dedicated funding for the government school monopoly (aka “public schools”).

Around $142 Billion, or around 17% of the “stimulus” is planned for Big Ed, and, surprise, school choice programs don’t make the cut for funding.

Dan Lips has a great overview of this small chunk of folly off the enormous folly-block presently tumbling its way through Congress.

A Different Kind of Ownership Society

In the Christian Science Monitor today, Southern Illinois University professor William A. Babcock tries to make a case for mandatory national service – two years of forced toil in politically specified areas of “national need” that would be rewarded with two free years of college (and, presumably, no free years in jail). In addition, Babcock touts a bunch of valuable lessons that “youth corps” slav…er…members would learn, including how to be “more worldly wise,” whatever that means, and how to be “more fiscally self-sufficient.” Right…

I can really only see two lessons being taught by a national service program like the one Babcock proposes: (1) a college education is little more than a parting gift, not the way to gain truly advanced knowledge and skills, and (2) the state owns you. 

Unfortunately, Prof. Babcock is not alone in endorsing a bizarro ”ownership society.” In fact, some guy who just became president, while stopping short of calling for mandatory service (but not the taxation to pay for it) is almost right there with the professor. It’s radical change we should all hope we’re not forced to believe in.

Lousy, Ungrateful, Punk Kids!

Yes, the title sounds like a line from the crotchety old man in a movie, but somehow it just seems to fit. In Nevada, the college students have taken to the anger/dance party streets, outraged over a proposal to cut state higher education funding in the face of recession:

Before the rally got underway, students crammed tents to sign petitions and receive information on how to contact state legislators. Others waved signs of protest like “Impeach [Governor Jim] Gibbons” as a DJ spun music near the stage. During the event, students bristled with indignation at the mention of the cuts, while they wildly cheered calls demanding action.

Now, I believe the children are our future and all that, but let’s put this in perspective. First off, everyone has lots of things they think are valuable and for which they want to use their money. Why should they have to support UNLV, or any other college, rather than, say, buy a car? More concretely, as the attached chart from the State Higher Education Executive Officers shows, Nevada has pretty steadily increased public per-pupil expenditures on higher ed over the last few years and, indeed, kept funding pretty stable or growing over the last few decades. Meanwhile, the state’s kept net revenue from tuition pretty constant. Moreover, relative to other states, Nevada is extremely generous, with public per-pupil expenditures of $8,589 in 2007 (versus a national average of $6,773) and per-pupil revenue through tuition of only $1,798 (versus a national average of $3,845).

And so, I repeat the crotchety old man’s line — “Lousy, ungrateful, punk kids!” — with a warning that the Silver State is hardly the only place we’ll see such self-righteous student greediness in the coming months.