Topic: Education and Child Policy

How Free are America’s Private Schools?

The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation has a useful new report out that assesses regulation of private schools in all fifty states, assigning letter grades according to market freedom.

Many of the criteria used are similar to those considered in the private schools section of the Cato Education Market Index (an overall ranking of educational freedom and incentives across all school types in the 50 states and 2 nations), but they’ve added a few extras (e.g., regulations on class sizes and libraries) and lent additional detail to others (e.g., a breakdown of different types of curriculum regulation). Kudos to the Foundation and author Christopher Hammons for an illuminating report.

Maybe a Less Checkered Future?

Yesterday, Andrew Coulson wrote a detailed response to an attack on libertarian education reformers by Chester E. “Checker” Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Finn declared, among other things, that libertarian support of universal school choice, unfettered by government-imposed standards, typified how libertarians “never let their vision of how the world ought to work be distorted by any realities about how it actually works.”

As Andrew made clear, we have often explained, based on empirical research and political reality, why universal school choice is the key to powerful standards and accountability—not to mention efficiency and innovation—while government-controlled education is routinely corrupted by accountability-loathing special interests like teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats. We’ve shown, using historical and political analyses, how increasingly centralized control over education has frozen out parents and good pedagogy, and have explained why proposals for national standards, including Fordham’s, would be educational suicide. Yet we have been dismissed by Fordham folks as naïve and heartless.

Fortunately, not everyone at Fordham seems to have tuned us out. Today, after reading a Washington Post article on how good education research fails to translate into good policy, Coby Loup, a Fordham policy analyst, declares that government education is essentially doomed to failure. Why? Because of the very political realities that we at Cato have been lamenting for years:

What’s surprising is that so many people continue to believe that these embarrassments stem from a failure of political will, rather than the inherent obstacles posed by, as the Post puts it, the “turbulent forces of politics, policy and public opinion.” We always think we’ll do better next time around, when our guys or gals are in office.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

New Study: Public School Students Benefit from Vouchers

Jay Greene and Marcus Winters have just authored a new Manhattan Institute study on Florida’s McKay voucher program for disabled students. According to Greene and Winters, the academic performance of mildly disabled students (the vast majority of all special needs students) who remain in public schools was positively affected by the proximity of their schools to private schools participating in the McKay program.

Haven’t had a chance to read it all yet, but looks interesting.

A Checkered Present

The Fordham Foundation’s Checker Finn recently responded to Neal McCluskey’s review of his new book. Let’s compare what Finn has to say with reality:

Finn: “You gotta give it to purebred libertarians, they never let their vision of how the world ought to work be distorted by any realities about how it actually works.”

Reality: Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom publishes and summarizes an extensive body of empirical research from the U.S. and abroad (.pdf). We also eschew animal breeding terms when describing those with whom we disagree.

Finn: “the CATO crowd [is] indistinguishable nowadays from the ‘separation of school and state crowd’ ”

Reality: Cato’s Center for Educational freedom recently published the Public Education Tax Credit model legislation. The Alliance for Separation of School and State opposes all state involvement in education.

Finn: “the CATO crowd… basically doesn’t believe in any form of public education”

Reality: As explained in Adam Schaeffer’s Public Education Tax Credit paper, we distinguish between the institution of state-run public schooling and the ideals of public education (universal access to good schools, preparation for both participation in public life and success in private life, that schools should encourage harmonious relations among different ethnic and religious groups). We are ardent critics of “public schooling” precisely because it has proven itself so disastrously incapable of delivering public education.

Finn: “They believe in…”

Reality: We are not in the belief business. Our policy recommendations are grounded in domestic, international, and historical evidence regarding the best ways of meeting the public’s educational needs and aspirations.

Finn: “… private education, purchased in the marketplace by parents who want and can afford it for their kids from schools that are not accountable to anybody for anything except keeping those tuition payments rolling in the door.”

Reality: If Finn were familiar with the international evidence on the operation of education markets, he would know that fee-paying parents hold schools more effectively accountable for the quality of educational services than do government bureaucrats.

Finn: “They believe… [t]he heck with everybody else’s kids. The heck with an educated polity or transmitted common culture. Check out Neil [sic] McCluskey’s review of my book.”

Reality: Our model Public Education Tax Credit legislation would ensure universal access to the education marketplace while delivering a far higher quality and far more individually personalized education. And as I pointed out in my book Market Education, education markets have proven themselves perfectly capable of transmitting common culture. The classical Athenians, who not only transmitted but invented much of the Western culture Mr. Finn values, had no government education standards or government schools. Surely Mr. Finn’s alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy, taught him something of classical Greece? And even if Mr. Finn was absent during such lessons, surely he has come across a few of the 120 million McGuffey’s Readers printed during the 19th century while browsing New England’s used bookstores? Long before the rise of vast state school bureaucracies, the private sector was busily transmitting common culture all by itself. More than that, we have documented how state-run schooling Balkanizes American communities by forcing everyone to support a single official education system – a problem that Finn’s national standards would worsen.

And, finally, it is precisely because we do care about everyone’s kids that we recommend real market reform in education, and urge Americans to move past the calcified school monopoly that has so cruelly shortchanged so many children.

Any time that Mr. Finn would care to publicly debate these issues, either in person or in print, we will be happy to dispel his misapprehensions more thoroughly. Given that he recently declined just such an invitation from us, his acceptance of this one would be a pleasant surprise.

Robert Frank Inadvertently Makes the Case for School Choice

Matt Yglesias points to an article in Sunday’s Washington Post by economist Robert Frank that makes a strong case for school choice. Well, OK, he doesn’t explicitly talk about school choice, but he certainly does a good job explaining the problems caused by the absence of choice:

In the 1950s, as now, families tried to buy houses in the best school districts they could afford. But strict credit limits held the bidding in check. Lenders typically required down payments of 20 percent or more and would not issue loans for more than three times a borrower’s annual income.

In a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided move to help more families enter the housing market, borrowing restrictions were relaxed during the intervening decades. Down payment requirements fell steadily, and in recent years, many houses were bought with no money down. Adjustable-rate mortgages and balloon payments further boosted families’ ability to bid for housing.

The result was a painful dilemma for any family determined not to borrow beyond its means. No one would fault a middle-income family for aspiring to send its children to schools of at least average quality. (How could a family aspire to less?) But if a family stood by while others exploited more liberal credit terms, it would consign its children to below-average schools. Even financially conservative families might have reluctantly concluded that their best option was to borrow up.

This is an eloquent indictment of our perverse system of linking schools to real estate. We don’t generally limit access to hospitals, libraries, or colleges by geography, and there’s no good reason children’s schools should be determined that way either. People should be able to live wherever they want, and then they should be free to send their children to any school that meets their needs. There are a variety of ways to allocate space in the most sought-after schools—academic merit, aptitude in the school’s area of focus, demographic diversity, or by lottery—that would be more reasonable than our current policy of arbitrary geographic boundaries.

And yes, some schools would choose students based on their ability to pay. What Frank’s article nicely illustrates is that our current system of geographically-based school assignment already segregates children by their parents’ income, it just does so in an unnecessarily cumbersome manner. If we had a free market in education, parents who wanted to invest in sending their children to a better school would be able to do so directly, instead of having to buy more house than they might want just so they can get a spot at a better school.

The most important thing to note, though, is that the scarcity of good schools Frank identifies is not an inherent fact about the universe, but a consequence of the public school monopoly. In a competitive education market, a shortage of good schools in a given area would spur people to either start new schools or expand the best of the existing ones. But the public school system has few mechanisms for doing either of those things (charter schools are a very limited mechanism for starting innovative public schools). Which means that the supply of good public schools is artificially limited, leading parents to bid up their price. The way to alleviate the shortage of good schools is not to re-regulate the mortgage market, but to reform the education system so that it’s easier to start and expand high-quality schools. Few things would do that as effectively as a robust program of school choice.

No Student Is an Island

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Yesterday, Thomas Sowell struck a variation on this theme, reminding readers that no man is an economic island, and whatever aid government gives to college students it takes from other people, and whatever it subsidizes distorts the prices that keep us all connected:

The general thrust of human interest stories about people with economic problems, whether they are college students or people faced with mortgage foreclosures, is that the government ought to come to their rescue, presumably because the government has so much money and these individuals have so little.

Like most “deep pockets,” however, the government’s deep pockets come from vast numbers of people with much shallower pockets. In many cases, the average taxpayer has lower income than the people on whom the government lavishes its financial favors.

Costs are not just things for government to help people to pay. Costs are telling us something that is dangerous to ignore.

The inadequacy of resources to produce everything that everyone wants is the fundamental fact of life in every economy — capitalist, socialist, or feudal. This means that the real cost of anything consists of all the other things that could have been produced with those same resources.

Sowell’s is a lesson that everyone should learn who thinks that even the hint of a student-loan crunch means that government should come to students’ rescue. Perhaps even more importantly, as John Merrifield points out in his new policy analysis, prices are a crucial piece missing from our socialized K-12 education system—and many school choice programs—leaving us utterly unable to tell the relative value of any school, program, or teacher.

It’s absolutely true that no man is an island. Too bad no one in politics seems to read John Donne — or Thomas Sowell.

Better Weak than Worse

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposed a slew of regulatory changes to the No Child Left Behind Act she said would throw “families lifelines—and empower educators to create dramatic improvement.”

Reading over the proposals, one is thoroughly underwhelmed because, as is typical for federal education involvement, they’re big on paper compliance while leaving more space than exists between Mercury and Pluto for states and districts to avoid real “accountability.” Almost all the new regs rely on terms open to wide interpretation like “close scrutiny” or “significantly more rigorous,” and even if they were specific, they’d be very hard to enforce, especially if they proved politically unpopular.

This said, we are better off with the toothless regs the administration is offering than a counter proposal put forth by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. According to Congressional Quarterly, Emanuel said “we need bolder steps to make sure that Americans can compete. We should mandate a year of post-high school education for every American, while providing the necessary financial help. And we should institute a national policy…to suspend the driver’s licenses of teens who drop out.”

I guess things could actually be a lot worse than more regulations that no one is likely to follow. We could get laws that make everyone stay in our failing schools one year longer, and takes the keys from those who just want out.