Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Solving the Evolution Question

The Texas state board of education is currently engaged in a debate over science standards and how to teach evolution in public schools, the Associated Press reports.

In a recent Cato policy analysis, Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict [pdf], Associate Director of Education Policy Studies Neal McCluskey examines the root cause of the debate, and how to fix it.

McCluskey writes:

Ultimately, the problem in Texas isn’t whether or not the theory of evolution has weaknesses, or whether pointing to such weakness is religiously or scientifically motivated. The problem is that the public schooling system requires everyone in the state to fund schools that take a single view, resulting in divisive conflict in the short-term and erosion of liberty in the long. Add to this that government-mandated orthodoxy is inherently incompatible with free inquiry, and it is clear that what Texas needs isn’t to decide what everyone will learn, but how to give everyone the ability to choose where and how their children will be educated.

For more on solutions to America’s troubled education system, check out McCluskey’s book, Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.


President Obama delivered an interesting inaugural speech yesterday. His theme was responsibility, a theme that provides a useful frame for his administration.

The individual versus the collective: Americans generally affirm individual or personal responsibility for one’s life. To be an adult – to put aside childish things - means taking responsibility for one’s actions and outcomes. Yet language permits another possibility. “We” can take responsibility for this outcome or that injustice. Putting aside childish things means taking collective responsibility through government action. In this view, emphasizing the individual suggests a childish selfishness that should be overcome. Obama seems to be about both kinds of responsibility right now. But extending state control over society vitiates personal responsibility. The new president will have to choose between the two.

The rule of law versus charisma: In a free society, individuals associate together through consent within a set of impersonal rules enforced by an impartial judiciary. Societies may also be ruled by charismatic leaders who are thought to have special powers granted by divine favor or by other means. Charismatic authority undermines both individual and collective responsibility. No one need do anything: the special man will say the magic words and everything will change for the better. Moreover, charismatic men with special powers should not be restrained by mere laws. They are above such restraints and must be so to do their work.

Consequences versus absolute ends: In an ethic of responsibility, leaders and followers look to consequences in acting politically. President Obama alluded to an ethic of responsibility yesterday. We want a government that works; programs that do not work will be ended. The thought is admirable, the reality unpromising. Ronald Reagan eliminated two federal programs, one of which was a training program that worsened the lot of its clients. Reagan was thought to have a mandate to cut back government. Obama was elected for many reasons, none of which were constraining the federal government. More than a few of his followers expect he will, as he put it yesterday, “remake the world.” Those who set out to remake the world rarely notice the immediate consequences of their crusade. After all, the benefits of bringing heaven to earth will more than overcome the costs of the crusade.

Obama’s modest demeanor suggests an understanding of his own limitations.  If that is true, he may turn out to be more a politician and less a priest, a president content to live within the laws and achieve marginal changes in public policy.

But I wonder. Living in Washington, DC, I have recently had reason to recall Samuel Johnson’s remark about Shakespeare: “In his plays, there are no heroes, only men.” Obama seems to be telling a different story, a tale about charismatic heroes and utopian aspirations. When the talking stops and the doing begins, one question will be answered: Do Americans really want to live out a play where there are no men, only heroes?

President Obama and the D.C. Schools

For the third time in 30 years, a president has to decide where to send his school-age children after moving to Washington, D.C. And having school-age children naturally gives any new president a particular interest in the D.C. public schools. A big headline in today’s Washington Post (actual paper copy) proclaims, “Obama Interested in D.C. Schools.” In an interview with the Post, President-elect Obama said he was determined to be part of the local community and that

he and his wife had specifically discussed working with the D.C. public schools, using their own celebrity and success “as leverage to get kids and parents and teachers excited about the possibilities of an education.” He said he was “trying to think about regular visits to local schools to meet with kids and meet with teachers and principals” and reiterated his desire to open up the White House “in ways that haven’t been done before.”

At a policy level, he said that he had met D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee but had not spent much time with her and that he expects his incoming Education Department secretary, Arne Duncan, to be “interested in how the school experiment here goes.”

But the next sentence acknowledges that

Obama’s two daughters are attending the private Sidwell Friends School.

So he’d like to make regular visits to the D.C. public schools, but he ain’t sending his own kids there. Which is perfectly understandable. Neither did Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or Al Gore. Or Vice President-elect Biden’s son. Indeed all their children attend or did attend Sidwell friends. The Carters sent Amy to D.C. public schools, but that was the last time a president did so. The Obamas don’t seem to have considered public schools. They’re sending Malia and Sasha to Sidwell, a school of choice for the Washington elite.

Of course, the Obamas also sent their daughters to private school in Chicago. What’s most striking to me in all of this is that Obama has named Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan to oversee the nation’s schools, even though in seven years he wasn’t able to produce a school in Chicago that Barack and Michelle Obama would send their own children to. “What he did for Chicago, he can do for America”?

Perhaps Obama and Tim Geithner believe that taxes and public schools are for the little people. And it would be nice if they’d give the little people a break on their taxes and a choice of schools.