Topic: Education and Child Policy

School Choice: What Would Bartlet Do?

The federal voucher program that enables nearly 2,000 children in the District of Columbia to attend private schools is facing opposition in the Democratic Congress and may be discontinued. Some people just can’t stand to think that kids might get educated outside the grasp of the government. 

The most honest, decent, and thoughtful Democratic president of modern times, Jed Bartlet, was surprised to find himself supporting vouchers on an episode of NBC’s “The West Wing.” Bartlet’s staff summoned the mayor of Washington, D.C., to the White House to plot strategy for his veto of a Republican-backed bill to provide vouchers for a few students in D.C. schools–and was stunned to discover that the mayor and the D.C. school board president both supported the program, as indeed Mayor Anthony Williams and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did in real life. Why? the president asked the mayor. “After six years of us promising to make schools better next year,” the mayor replied, “we’re ready to give vouchers a try….We spend over $13,000 per student–that’s more than anywhere else in the country-and we don’t have a lot to show for it.” (As Andrew Coulson wrote recently in the Washington Post, the real cost is actually much higher than that.)

Then the president summons his young personal aide to testify to the merits of D.C. public schools and gets another surprise:

Faced with the evidence, President Bartlet decided to do the right thing. Will Congress?

Should Suburbia Fear School Choice?

In a recent “Best of the Web” column, the WSJ’s James Taranto uncharacteristically ventures into the world of education policy. Suburban conservatives, he notes, often oppose school choice because they fear the impact of choice programs on their property values and their own children’s schools. “A voucher program,” he adds, “offers little to those who already have choice.”

Taranto, as always an astute political observer, is right that this perceived self-interest on the part of suburbanites is a serious hurdle for school choice advocates. Where he goes astray is in assuming that the perception is correct.

According to Taranto, parents who are wealthy enough to pick from among existing public school districts and private schools “already have” everything that a free educational marketplace could possibly offer them. That’s like saying upscale Soviet apparatchiks already enjoyed the benefits of capitalism because they could choose between a Lada and Yugo. The system of schools we have today is not a free market system. We have a legally protected 90 percent state monopoly school system with a small niche of non-profit schools mostly serving the religious education market due to the “free” government schools’ inability to serve that niche. This hobbled and distorted system no more captures the full panoply of options a true market would provide than the Yugo and Lada represented the full range of vehicle options in the capitalist West. Furthermore, no existing U.S. school choice program comes close to creating a genuine free market in education, as economist John Merrifield pointed out in a recent Cato Policy Analysis (“Dismal Science: The Shortcomings of U.S. School Choice Research and How to Address Them”).

Getting Americans to realize what they’re currently missing is indeed going to be a tough hurdle for school choice advocates. But it’s a hurdle that can be overcome.

As for the impact of school choice on property values, Taranto is right that there would likely be an important effect, but it is more subtle than he imagines, and there are countervailing forces he ignores. It is more subtle because property values and school district quality are not perfectly correlated. Some desirable places to live have better schools than others, and most homeowners do not currently have children in school. In otherwise desirable areas with mediocre or relatively poor schools, property values would go up, just as they would likely fall in expensive districts with relatively better schools. So, for some suburban homeowners the property value effect would be negative, while for others it would be positive. More importantly, well-designed market education reforms will generate very substantial state and local tax savings, year after year, because the current monopoly system is ridiculously expensive. Cato is about to release a study of the fiscal impact of a large-scale education tax credit plan, and it would save taxpayers billions of dollars in all five states analyzed. A one-time hit in property values may not seem so grim a prospect when offset by this falling tax burden. Most people own their homes for many years, and so would have plenty of time to reap tax savings.

Finally, the idea that a competitive education marketplace would lead to a mass migration of urban children into suburban schools is highly unlikely. Urban parents want the same things as suburban ones: good schools in their own neighborhoods. Urbanites do not commute to suburbia to go to Barnes and Noble or Starbucks. There are already good bookstores and coffee shops in our nation’s cities (in fact, there are good coffee shops in good bookstores in our major cities). Supply rises to meet demand in education as in every free marketplace. Once all families have the financial resources to easily choose schools, more and better private educational options will emerge in cities – just as has been the case with even the tiny Milwaukee voucher program. Most urban families will prefer good local schools to good schools in remote suburbs that would require long bus rides for their children.

Democratic Dodges

Democrats love to insist that they’re out to empower the little guy, to help “working-class” people. Maybe that’s why they have to tap dance so much when it comes to school choice, a reform that really does empower poor and working-class folks, but that also ticks-off some very powerful big guys who like their monopoly just the way it is.

In an interview yesterday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama offered the sort of lame excuse-making that all too often characterizes the Democratic approach to school choice.

TAPPER: You talked about the need to change the status quo in education today.

OBAMA: Right.

TAPPER: But…proponents of school choice say that the best way to change the status quo is to give parents, inner-city parents a choice. Why not?

OBAMA: Well, the problem is, is that, you know, although it might benefit some kids at the top, what you’re going to do is leave a lot of kids at the bottom. We don’t have enough slots for every child to go into a parochial school or a private school. And what you would see is a huge drain of resources out of the public schools.

So what I’ve said is let’s foster competition within the public school system. Let’s make sure that charter schools are up and running. Let’s make sure that kids who are in failing schools, in local school districts, have an option to go to schools that are doing well.

But what I don’t want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the public schools. That’s going to make things worse, and we’re going to lose the commitment to public schools that I think have been so important to building this country.

TAPPER: So it would help some kids, but overall it would be bad for the system?

OBAMA: I think it would be overall bad for most kids.

Oh please! It stretches credulity beyond the breaking point that someone as smart as Sen. Obama could actually believe these things. Let’s break ‘em down:

School choice would “benefit some kids at the top.” The kids at the top clearly aren’t the ones school choice is serving, or hasn’t Sen. Obama noticed that most school choice programs are means-tested? And parents with money have huge advantages in the current system because they are able to choose schools by buying a house in a good district.  The poor have no such option, and are the ones who need school choice the most.

“We don’t have enough slots for every child to go into a parochial school or a private school.” Well of course we don’t now because everyone is already paying for “free” public schools. Give parents education money instead of public schools, however, and private institutions will expand to meet newly liberated demand.

“What you would see is a huge drain of resources out of the public schools.” Some quick math: Say we spend $10,000 per public-school student and have two students. Then say one is given a $7,500 voucher to go to a private school, and the remainder stays with the public school. Suddenly, the remaining student is getting $12,500, a huge per-pupil increase in resources. Of course, the district could lose the entire per-pupil amount, but it still wouldn’t lose resources. It would break even.

“So what I’ve said is let’s foster competition within the public school system.” While we’re at it, let’s not allow multiple auto producers, let’s just foster competition within General Motors and see how that works

“What I don’t want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the public schools.” Guess what? Public schools actually send the hardest-to-teach kids to private schools right now, so we don’t need to worry; this one came to pass long ago.

“I think it would be overall bad for most kids.” Just like freedom and competition are bad for most people who want news and information, food, consumer electronics, cars, clothes, telephone service….

To be fair to Sen. Obama, at least his objections are comprehensible. Much worse is DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s attempt in today’s Washington Post to show that she really does care about kids in the DC voucher program, a program she intends to see die:

Far from conducting a “campaign” to cut off funding, as The Post alleges [editorial, June 12], I have asked that there be no cutoff at the end of the pilot program, which would leave these children rudderless, and for a plan for the children’s education in case funding does not continue.

What does this mean? Is Norton saying that the kids in the program should keep getting vouchers even if the program ends? If so, why not just say that? And what does “a plan for the children’s education” mean? That we plan to put kids right back in the rotten schools they were trying to escape?

Unfortunately, Norton furnishes what appears to be an answer to these questions. She wants private individuals to fund scholarships after they’ve paid their public school taxes, just as they did before the voucher program. But the public sector won’t just sit there. It will do, um, something:

But whatever Congress decides, surely the private and public sectors working together can develop a plan to satisfy a finite group of children. The Washington Scholarship Fund, which has administered the pilot program, was funding more than a thousand scholarships without federal dollars when it came to Congress in 2003 to urge approval of this program. This and other private funding could be reactivated.

No one is likely to be fooled by Del. Norton’s ham-fisted attempt to seem to care about the kids she’s tossing back into the dens of ignorance. It’s so sloppy and fractured an illiterate could see she’s an artless dodger. But then, she and many other Democrats aren’t really trying to send the message that they care about kids. Their message is that they care about the teachers unions, administrators associations, and other special interests that live off of our decrepit public schooling monopoly, and that message keeps coming through loud and clear.

WSJ Inadvertently Flaks for DC Schools

A WSJ editorial recently observed that “the $7,500 [DC school] voucher is a bargain for taxpayers because it costs the public schools about 50% more, or $13,000 a year, to educate a child….”

Um, no. As I reported back in April, it is costing taxpayers $24,600 to warehouse a child in DC public schools this year. The WSJ’s reference to $13,000 is a fantasy no doubt attributable to the use of dated Census Bureau figures that exclude capital expenditures, and that capture neither the spending increases nor the rapid enrollment losses of the past few years (let alone inflation).

If an economically savvy paper like the Journal can fall into this trap…. Oy!

The School Choice Money Angle

The AP story on the New Orleans voucher program that just passed the state Senate illustrates something interesting that all school choice proponents should consider. Opponents of choice in Louisiana appear to be focusing on the financial angle, just as they have elsewhere (italics added):

Opponents point to recent improvements in New Orleans public schools that have been realized since the state and various charter organizations began running them after the hurricane. They say the $10 million would be better spent on public schools.

Opponents also said the cost is likely to balloon as the first-year students progress and more students enter the program. “When we get to the end how much is this program going to cost?” asked Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth.

The school choice community tends to focus on the human-interest, educational equity, side of things because it seems the most compelling and toughest angle to dismiss.

But we neglect the fiscal side of the equation at our peril. My doctoral research on school choice messaging suggests that emphasizing the financial argument for school choice – that it saves money – is the best way to increase support among the general public.

Most voters don’t have children, but almost all of them pay taxes. And in general, people think school choice reform will cost taxpayers a lot more than we already spend on education. Of course, that just isn’t the case.

School choice great way to save millions or even billions of dollars each year, and we all need to do more to make sure the public knows this fact.

Louisiana Moving on School Choice

The Louisiana Senate passed a voucher program for New Orleans that looks set to become law soon. The House already passed the bill and Gov. Jindal is a strong supporter. Here’s more from the AP:

The plan would cover children in kindergarten through third grade in the 2008-09 school year, with subsequent grades added each year thereafter. Children from families earning up to 2.5 times the current federal poverty level (or about $53,000 for a family of four) would be eligible. If there are more applicants at a school than there are available seats, the school would choose participants randomly.

Although the bill is aimed at up to 1,500 students, backers say there may be only a few hundred slots available at private schools in the city next year.

It’s great that Gov. Jindal is pushing for more school choice in a state that sorely needs it, but his administration and state lawmakers should take a look at a more powerful and more popular way of promoting educational freedom; a broad-based program of personal-use and donation tax credits.

The small tax deduction passed earlier this year was a great first step, but Jindal can and should think much bigger on education tax credits.

Eleanor Holmes Norton Loves Government Schools, Kids … Not So Much

The Wall Street Journal has a great editorial today on the plans that D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and teacher’s-union hacks in Congress have for the city’s voucher program:

Democrats in Congress have finally found a federal program they want to eliminate. And wouldn’t you know, it’s one that actually works and helps thousands of poor children.

We’re speaking of the four-year-old Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides vouchers to about 2,000 low-income children so they can attend religious or other private schools. The budget for the experimental program is $18 million, or about what the U.S. Department of Education spends every hour and a half… .

Many of the parents we interviewed describe the vouchers as a “Godsend” or a “lifeline” for their sons and daughters. “Most of the politicians have choices on where to send their kids to school,” says William Rush, Jr., who has two boys in the program. “Why do they want to take our choices away?”