Topic: Education and Child Policy

Now’s the Time To Pass School Choice

Gov. Mark Sanford is really on a roll lately, decrying and rejecting bailouts and now recommitting to real education reform. From the Beaufort Gazette:

The Republican governor highlighted four priorities in education reform: enacting funding that “follows the child,” charter school funding, school choice, and access to higher education.

Of course, the government school fanatics are trying to head him off again. Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond, for instance, thinks “now is not the time to toy around with school choice again… not in the environment that we are in now.”

Hmm. Fiscal problems, slow economy, and school choice has been shown over and over to save money. In fact, a large-scale program could save South Carolina taxpayers over $1 billion.

It’s the perfect time to pass a robust education tax credit system in South Carolina, or anywhere else for that matter.

How to Cut Taxes, Balance Budgets, and Help Kids

Thanks to the economic crisis and its impact on state revenues, most states are faced with a tough and unpopular set of choices: which and how many services to cut; how much to raise taxes? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to cut taxes while expanding the services available to citizens? As it happens, there is.

I’m in Las Vegas this morning to present a new study showing how broad-based education tax credits would impact Nevada’s finances. Over the first 10 years, I estimate the program would save nearly a billion dollars, and that by its fifteenth year in operation it would be saving $426 million annually. Not only that, per pupil spending in the state’s public schools would actually rise over time under this program.

One of the most interesting things about this study was how easy it was to complete, and how easily it could be reproduced in other states. Last year, economist Anca Cotet and I published a Cato Institute paper presenting a generalized Excel spreadsheet tool for calculating the fiscal impact of education tax credits on any state’s finances, based on some state-specific data input by the user. Using that tool (and in fact refining its model a little) I was able to run the numbers for Nevada quite easily. The only new math in this paper is the calculation of the marginal cost of public schooling in Nevada (the amount district spending rises in response to the enrollment of one additional student, and the amount it falls when enrollment declines by one student).

So if there are any legislators out there fretting over how to balance their state budgets in these difficult economic times, consider education tax credits: they cut taxes while dramatically expanding the range of educational options available to families. And they’re an increasingly bipartisan idea.

Educator Droning

As I’ve noted before, an incessant, plaintive drone comes from educators at both the k-12 and college levels about chronic underfunding of education and ever-falling financial skies. It’s a drone the media, all too often, is happy to amplify, repeating it constantly and almost never muting it with contradictory evidence.

In k-12 education, the most discomfiting part of this din is the mantra that public school teachers are woefully compensated. In a report released last month I present considerable evidence that this just isn’t true. On their teaching salaries alone – in other words, not including extra money they can and often do earn with their significant time off – first-year teachers in sixteen diverse districts could afford everything they need to lead comfortable lives…and then some. And salary is just a part of teacher compensation. As RiShawn Biddle lays out in a new American Spectator piece, the non-salary compensation that public school teachers get might be the real prize, including generous – and massively taxpayer-subsidized – health and retirement benefits. Check out Biddle’s story and my analysis, and you’ll get a good sense for the reality of k-12 educators’ compensation.

In higher education, there is no bigger myth than that government support for the ivory tower has been gutted, especially when in comes to public colleges and universities. (Just yesterday, a San Antonio Express-Times article stated that public colleges and universities have had to get “used to starvation.”) If you look at inflation-adjusted state and local funding per-pupil – as I have highlighted before – the trend is essentially flat; there has been no “starvation.” Indeed, digging deeper reveals significant evidence that far from starving, higher education is actually suffering from obesity.

So what is the obesity evidence? Unfortunately, as with the mention of my teacher salary report, I am writing this post as much to plug as to inform, so I’m not going to lay out all of the evidence right now. (Though, honestly, it’s not that hard to find.) To get all the fatty details, you’ll either have to come to Cato this Wednesday for our forum “Does Public Higher Ed Funding Drive Economic Growth?” or watch the proceedings via streaming video. In other words, if you want to cut through the tedious droning of public higher educators, you’ll have to put up with some quick and insightful presentations by forum panelists. It should be worth the effort.

Supreme Court Makes It a Little Interesting

The common refrain this Supreme Court term is that, after several years of blockbuster cases—race-based school assignment, partial-birth abortion, the rights of Guantánamo detainees, the D.C. gun ban, etc., etc.—this year the Court is giving the front pages a break. Indeed, as we celebrated the advent of 2009, the only cases guaranteed to make it into the Cato Supreme Court Review were a drug regulation case (Wyeth v. Levine) and one involving the detention of a civilian in the United States as an enemy combatant (Al-Marri v. Pucciarelli). Almost all the cases garnering media and scholarly attention would have been after-thoughts in previous years.

On Friday, however, as it rounded out its docket for the term (no more than a handful more will be added to the list of cases to be argued and decided before the Court recesses in June), the Court gave us four fascinating cases to chew on:

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Mukasey

This is a challenge to the requirement of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that certain state and local governments, mostly but not entirely in the South, obtain “preclearance” before making any changes affecting voting. A small (3,500 residents) utility district in Austin, Texas, argues that it has never been accused of voting discrimination or other irregularities and should not have to seek federal permission to, for example, move the location of a polling place or coordinate voting for its board with other county or state elections. You may recall that the latest extension of the VRA, in 2006, did not pass without some controversy. Indeed, in our federal system, should certain jurisdictions still be under the Justice Department’s thumb over 40 years after the demise of Jim Crow (and to this extent of micromanagement)?

Ricci v. DeStefano

A group of firefighters (19 white, 1 Hispanic) allege that New Haven city officials racially discriminated against them when they refused to certify the results of two race-neutral promotional exams that yielded racially disproportionate results (i.e., a much higher percentage of whites and Hispanics qualified for promotion than did blacks). As offensive as the facts of the case are, the way that the Second Circuit—a panel including oft-mentioned Supreme Court contender Sonia Sotomayor—summarily dismissed the petitioners’ appeal is even more disconcerting. When the full court voted 7-6 not to rehear the case en banc, Judge José Cabranes (a Clinton appointee) excoriated his colleagues, concluding that “[t]his perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal.” I won’t get into the weeds of legal analysis here, but Ed Whelan has two excellent posts discussing the Second Circuit shenanigans over at NRO and Stuart Taylor last month wrote a typically hard-hitting piece on it for the National Journal. But again, however the Supreme Court decides this one, it has already provided a potent line of attack on Judge Sotomayor when the next vacancy arises on the high court.

Republic of Iraq v. Beaty

This case asks the simple question of whether U.S courts have jurisdiction over claims regarding misdeeds committed by the Saddam Hussein regime—or whether today’s Iraqi government can assert sovereign immunity. This simple question actually involves the interplay of a host of legislative and executive action that the Court will have to wade through. Beaty joins the Eurodif (international trade, about which I wrote here) and Elahi (treaty enforcement) cases as this year’s leading contributions to the Court’s international law jurisprudence.

Horne v. Flores

Taking up a complicated conflict between the No Child Left Behind Act and earlier legislation, this is the term’s leading education case. The main issue is whether a state, in this case Arizona, which complies with NCLB on English language instruction can still be violating the funding requirements for such instruction imposed by the Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974. The Ninth Circuit declined to modify an eight-year-old injunction requiring Arizona to spend millions on this instruction and imposing millions in fines. It’s a highly technical case but one with significant ramifications for a key part of President Bush’s domestic policy legacy.

Despite these four grants, however, it is still safe to say that Court shied away from many, many cases that should interest readers of this blog—not least the patent/abuse of state sovereign immunity case called BPMC v. California, which I had earlier urged the Court to accept for review.  I will be commenting further at least on NAMUDNO and Ricci when the Court hears argument and decides them.

The Mixed Up Minds of Education Neocons

Today is the seventh birthday of the No Child Left Behind Act and I’d planned to celebrate it with a review of all that ails the decrepit law. In a stroke of luck, however, an op-ed appeared this morning that lets me address the most important political force behind NCLB – and its impotence – without having to go over all the law’s flaws for about the billionth time. (If you want the gory details, though, feel free to go here, here, here, here, here, here, here…)

NCLB is basically a neoconservative creation, a mangy mutt that tries to cram together both a supposed neocon distrust of government and a burning desire to use Washington to attack things neocons don’t like. So NCLB demands standards, tests and full “proficiency” by 2014 – an attempted assault on ”progressive” or just uncaring state and local education systems – while leaving states to write the standards and tests and define proficiency for themselves. The result is the exact opposite of what neocons say they want: Instead of “tight” accountability and “loose” bureaucratic directives, federal bureaucrats get a lot more power while state officials set “proficiency” levels at hovercraft elevations.

In light of NCLB’s failure – and decades of public-schooling stagnation – you’d think neocons would finally learn that no level of government is going to give them tough standards and accountability. The people employed by government simply have far too much sway over it, playing tireless politics to keep their power and kill accountability. Yet somehow even after they appear to have finally mastered this lesson, neocons turn right around and prove they’ve learned nothing at all.

On NRO today, leading neocon education analysts Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, put their contradictory thinking out for all to see. Almost immediately after decrying proposals to spend tens-of-billions on public schooling as part of a federal economic stimulus package – “taxpayers have spent decades funding an enormous, inefficient jobs program,” they write of public schooling – the neocon troika commences to list a bunch of federal undertakings they think would be just grand:

  • “Make the summers of 2009 and 2010 into ‘Summer of Learning.’ Invest billions to keep schools open from June to August across the land. Offer remedial classes, enrichment programs, sports camps, the works.”
  • “Create a service-learning program whereby teenagers can travel to national parks and landmarks, do valuable public works there, and get paid a little.”
  • Build “education data systems”

And, of course, there’s the obligatory call for national standards:

  • “Uncle Sam could also invest in creation of world-class national standards, tests, and even curricular materials”

Neocons, one can’t help but conclude, must be politically and logically bipolar, able to swing from “no more government” to “hell yes, more government!” in a single op-ed. At the very least, they evince little understanding of why government works or fails, or what it can and cannot do. They appear simply to call on government to get the things they want and decry its dangers to fight things they don’t. But that’s no way to make policy. I mean, it gave us No Child Left Behind, for crying out loud!

College Football Star Highlights the Poverty of a Public Education Monopoly

The Washington Post has an interesting profile on University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the first sophomore to win the Heisman, and possible winner of the national championship.

Probably the most striking thing about the young man is his unusual background; he was home-schooled by missionary parents who expected a lot from him and provided him with a host of interesting educational opportunities.

Tebow learned things that are impossible to teach in a public school, and not just the religious content. There is a strong secular-left thread in the home-school movement as well.

From the Post:

The more Tebow talks, the more it becomes apparent that almost everything he knows about leading a football team he’s learned away from the field. Many important lessons came in his parents’ home near Jacksonville … Others came on the ground in the Philippines, where Tebow traveled from village to village, talked to thousands of students and visited the four dozen children at the orphanage his father helps run on the island of Mindanao.

Pam Tebow said she geared her home-school lessons to her children’s interests, with an emphasis on public speaking to ensure they could effectively communicate their beliefs when they were older. . . [Bob Tebow] insisted the children tend to a half-acre garden – which provided nearly all of the vegetables for family meals – and dispose of fallen trees in the back yard as measures designed to teach disciplineAll five children received college scholarships

No two families are exactly the same and neither are any two children. And what works for one might not work for another. What a tragedy it is to strangle that variety with a one-size-fits-all, government-run educational system.

Home-schooled kids are winning science fairs, spelling bees and Heisman trophies. School choice works because educating kids isn’t an assembly-line process.

We need to help recover and expand a diversity of educational environments and let parents decide what works best for their children.