Topic: Education and Child Policy

Common Core: Election Bellwether, and What Trump May Do in Education

If you work in education policy, you maybe should have seen Donald Trump’s monumental upset coming. I didn’t, and I would guess most other wonks didn’t either. But we all saw populist frustration boil over with the federally coerced Common Core national curriculum standards. Average Americans rejected the Core over the paternalistic, “you just don’t realize this is good for you” objections of establishment types on both the left and right, just as seemed to happen with Trump’s campaign that defied establishment predictions—and disbelief—almost from day one.

Of course, popular rejection of the Core does not capture nearly all that seems to have driven Trump’s support—immigration, dwindling manufacturing jobs, plain old fear—but it does capture a seeming disdain for elites.

What is this likely to translate into in education policy, especially with a Republican controlled Congress?

Let’s start with the Core. Candidate Trump, without specifics, indicated on the campaign trail that he would get rid of it, seeing it as an unacceptable federal intrusion. And it was federally coerced. The problem is that the main levers of coercion—the Race to the Top contest and waivers out of the No Child Left Behind Act—are gone. Race to the Top is over, and No Child has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Unless Trump tries to coerce states to dump the Core—make receipt of funds or regulatory relief dependent on ditching it—he can’t end the Core.

School Choice Is Just Peachy

In 2008, Georgia’s General Assembly enacted the Qualified Educational Tax Credit Program in an effort to expand educational opportunities for schoolchildren and provide alternatives for parents concerned about underperforming public schools. Under the program, individual and corporate donors can receive a credit against their state income tax liability in exchange for contributions to qualified, nonprofit Student Scholarship Organizations that aid Georgia families in paying tuition at qualified private schools of their choice.

Unfortunately, opponents of school choice are once again trying to restrict parents’ ability to select the best education for their children. Because many of the scholarship students use them to attend religiously affiliated schools, the plaintiffs in this case argue that the tax-credit program entangles government in religion. Specifically, they claim that the program violates the Georgia constitution’s No-Aid Clause—one of the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments—which forbids the taking of money “from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.” They also allege a violation of the Gratuities Clause, which says that “the General Assembly shall not have the power to grant any donation or gratuity or to forgive any debt or obligation owing to the public.” Several families who have benefitted from the program, represented by the Institute for Justice, have intervened to defend the law.

The trial court held that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the tax-credit program. It further ruled that, even if they had standing, plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments failed because tax credits are not government funds. Violations of the No-Aid Clause require that public funds be spent in aid of a sectarian institution, and the Gratuities Clause could not have been violated because “the General Assembly cannot donate or give what it does not own.” Plaintiffs appealed and Cato has now filed an amicus brief, in collaboration with Neal McCluskey and Jason Bedrick of our Center for Educational Freedom, before the Georgia Supreme Court.

We urge the court to affirm the determination that the tax-credit program does not violate the state constitution, focusing on the fact that it does not involve spending public funds for any sectarian purpose. Because the program makes no expenditures from the public fisc, it cannot violate the No-Aid Clause. Taxpayers choose to donate voluntarily using their own private funds and receive a tax credit for the amount of the donation; no money ever enters or leaves the treasury.

The challengers attempt to get around this fact by claiming that the credits constitute an indirect public expenditure, but this argument relies on a budgetary theory known as “tax expenditure analysis” that finds no support as a legitimate means of constitutional interpretation under Georgia (or federal, or any other state) law. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this type of reasoning in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011).

The argument that the program constitutes an unconstitutional gratuity is likewise incorrect because the tax credits are not public funds, and the government cannot give away that which it does not own. Even if Georgia were giving up something of value, it would not be a “gratuity” because the state receives a substantial benefit in return: increased educational attainment, plus the secondary effects that increased competition and a more educated citizenry create.

The Georgia Supreme Court should affirm the lower court’s decision and uphold the state’s Qualified Educational Tax Credit Program—ensuring educational choice for Georgia families, regardless of how much money they make.

Fact-Checking the Dallas Morning News on School Choice

In a recent editorial, the Dallas Morning News inveighed against expanding educational choice in Texas, arguing that legislative leaders should “focus on improving public schools” instead. What the DMN editorial board means, of course, is “spend more money,” as they make clear in the penultimate paragraph. Yet although the national average annual expenditure per pupil for district school students has, after adjusting for inflation, nearly tripled in the last forty years, student performance remains flat. Moreover, there is little evidence that merely increasing spending improves school performance or student outcomes. Nevertheless, the DMN has reservations about the possible effects of expanding educational choice:

One proposal would create education savings accounts. If a parent decides against public schools, the money that would have gone with the student to the local school district would instead go to the account, for parents to use on private school.

That could decimate public schools. What about the quality of education for the students left behind?

Improving American Lab Report—Kinda

Some decent news to report: The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science results are in, and scores for 4th and 8th graders have improved since 2009, the first year of the test. Unfortunately, 12th grade scores remained flat. Sound familiar?

Why the increases at the lower levels? A lot of people will trot out their pet reform: the Common Core, the Next Generation Science Standards, some federal program—I’ll throw in school choice—but my suspicion is none of these had much effect. My guess is people are simply focusing a little more on science than they were in 2009, driven by their personal feeling that grasping science is important, and will be increasingly so as the economy evolves. At this point many folks have probably been exposed to the mantra “STEM fields, STEM fields, STEM fields” enough times that a new emphasis on science has seeped into their brains, even if they don’t explicitly think to yell at their kids, “Jane and Johnny, STEM is important, and there’ll be no Xbox tonight unless you make a volcano in the kitchen right this instant! I mean it! I’ll get the baking soda…”

Few people could probably tell you what STEM stands for (that would be science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) but they have a strong sense science needs learnin’!

Or that could be wrong, too. If nothing else, it fails to explain why no improvement was seen in 12th grade scores. The fact is, just looking at NAEP scores tells us very little about why we got them, and the best we can do is make educated guesses. There is, frankly, no exact science when it comes to interpreting NAEP—especially given only two or three years of data—even if people may talk like there is.

Record Grad Rates, Subprime Diplomas?

Today the White House is touting record-level high school graduation rates, and taking a bit of credit for them. But is this really good news, or are we maybe looking at artificially inflated, “subprime” diplomas?

Certainly, on its face, it is welcome news that the percentage of students who entered high school four years earlier and graduated on time rose from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 83.2 percent in 2014-15. (2010-11 was the first year that states were required to use a standardized graduation rate.) We definitely wouldn’t want to see that rate going down. But it does not necessarily indicate that students are better educated.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a federal test given to a representative sample of students, without high stakes attached—suggest that greater completion does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with greater learning. Both math and reading scores for 12th graders have dropped a tad during the Obama years, not risen. In addition, there is at least anecdotal evidence that districts have increasingly moved kids to completion with dubious “credit recovery” programs that sometimes involve very thin demonstrations of subject mastery. In other words, as seemingly happens so often, districts may be gaming the system, and many diplomas could be hollow.

This is not to say that the rising graduation rate is necessarily deceptive, and it is crucial to note that standardized test scores that seem so concrete may actually tell us little about whether we are getting what we want out of education. But we shouldn’t celebrate too lustily over the latest graduation news.

A Common Core Buyer’s Too Late Remorse

E.D. Hirsch—author of the lightning rod Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and a tireless advocate of content-heavy education—has just spoken truth about the Common Core. An Education Week article heralding his latest book reports that:

He calls the reading standards “empty” and “deeply flawed” because they teach all-purpose reading-comprehension strategies rather than facts and information. An entire chapter of his new book is devoted to what he refers to as “the tribulations of the common core.”

“The people who developed the common core had a choice. Either [the standards] were going to be educationally correct or they were going to be politically viable,” he said. “They chose the second.” Forty-six states agreed to adopt the standards right away, which he argues “could only be accomplished if you didn’t specify the content of the curriculum.”

The Core is indeed very light on content in English language arts, Hirsch’s primary concern. But it hasn’t changed between 2010 and today, yet Hirsch endorsed it—emphatically!—in 2013.

As I have pointed out, Hirsch’s endorsement is one of many pieces of Core support that have sewn major confusion about the Core, befuddlement that supporters have loved to pin on opponents. But the reality is that Core supporters, seemingly obsessed with getting standards nationalized, have tried to make the Core sound like all things to all people: national and comprehensive, locally controlled and minimalist. Couple that with federal coercion, and the Core has thrown schools nationwide into utterly avoidable disarray.

But there is a deeper reality illustrated here: It is very difficult, short of a dictatorship, to impose content both deep and broad on diverse people. Why? Because diverse people will not agree on what that content should be. Just evolution, or also intelligent design? The Bible, or I Am Jazz? Ethnic studies, or commonality? And the list goes on…and on. This is precisely why for the Core to be “politically viable” it had to be largely bereft of what Hirsch has spent decades crusading for: rich content.

If you want deep, robust content, the way to get it is the opposite of nationalization: educational freedom.

Carpe Diem: Fix the Nevada ESA Funding Issue

In 2015, Nevada lawmakers passed the most ambitious educational choice law in the nation: a nearly universal education savings account (ESA) program. The program was scheduled to launch this year, but it immediately drew two separate lawsuits from opponents of educational choice. Last week, the Supreme Court of Nevada upheld the constitutionality of the ESAs, but ruled that the program was improperly funded. Choice opponents were quick to declare that the ESA program is dead, but as Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice noted, the program is only mostly dead, which means it is slightly alive.

Whether the program is fully revived depends entirely on the lawmakers who won plaudits for enacting it in the first place. On Monday, the legislature will meet in a special session to consider whether to subsidize the construction of a football stadium for the Raiders. Fixing the ESA funding would be a much more productive and beneficial use of their time. Sadly, Governor Brian Sandoval announced this week that ESAs would not be on the agenda:

Passage of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) set a national precedent for school choice and symbolized a significant step toward education equality for every student. I recognize the magnitude of this sweeping policy measure and consider it a major component of the reform package ushered in during the last legislative session. Protecting this program is a top priority for me. There is simply not enough time to add it to next week’s Special Session with full confidence that a rushed outcome will pass constitutional muster.