Topic: Education and Child Policy

Will 2017 Be Another Year of Educational Choice?

It’s National School Choice Week, so it’s a good time to survey the countryside and see what’s in store for the year ahead.

Last year was relatively quiet in terms of school choice legislation. South Dakota enacted a relatively limited tax-credit scholarship program and Maryland enacted a small voucher program, but there wasn’t much progress otherwise. 

By contrast, 2015 was the Year of Educational Choice. Not only did 15 states adopt 21 new or expanded educational choice programs, three of them enacted education savings account (ESA) laws. As I’ve noted previously, ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Already, several states this year are considering ESA legislation. Last week, legislators in Arkansas introduced a universal-eligibility, tax-credit funded ESA similar to what Jonathan Butcher and I described in our report last year, “Taking Credit for Education.” Donors would receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that would fund the ESAs. According to a just-released study from Julie Trivitt and Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas, if enacted, the ESA would expand educational choice while saving taxpayers an estimated $2.8 million.

This week, the Missouri Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to create tax-credit funded ESA, similar to the Arkansas bill described above. Missouri will also consider publicly funded ESAs, as well as other choice proposals.

Other states considering publicly funded ESAs include Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas. I’ve also heard that Arizona legislators are considering expanding their ESA, possibly to include all Arizona students. Meanwhile, in Nevada, Gov. Sandoval is looking to find ways to fund his state’s ESA after the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the program but struck down its funding mechanism

Several states will also be considering tax-credit scholarship programs, including Kentucky, Nebraska, and (likely) Texas. In addition, South Carolina is looking to expand its tax credit.

I’m likely missing a number of proposals, and it will be tough to top 2015, but 2017 very well might be the Year of Educational Choice, Jr.

Fed Ed Failure File Just Got Fatter

In the aftermath of Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing—but really, anytime someone’s talking about federal education policy—it is important to look at evidence. Today we’ve got several items to add to the evidence pile, none of them good for fed ed.

The first is a new report on the School Improvement Grants program, an initiative aimed at turning around troubled schools with various possible interventions ranging from replacing principals to closing schools. What did the report find? The multi-billion dollar undertaking “had no impact on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

Next, to higher education. A Wall Street Journal article today reports that the U.S. Department of Education widely overstated the repayment rate of student loans. Indeed, when the Journal recalculated the numbers, “the data revealed that the Department previously had inflated the repayment rates for 99.8% of all colleges and trade schools in the country.” The problem, according to an education department spokesperson cited in the article: a programming error.

Finally, we come to Navient, a company that exists largely on a contract to service student loans for the U.S. Department of Education. Yesterday the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)—itself a big federal fiasco—announced that it was suing Navient for deceptive and exploitative practices it allegedly undertook to cut costs and maximize revenues.

The CFPB isn’t entirely known for its own straight shooting, so Navient should get the benefit of the doubt. But it is certainly plausible that this government-privileged company takes advantage of its largely captive clientele. And who is Navient’s mother, by the way? Why none other than Sallie Mae—the company was spun off from Sallie in 2014—which was originally a government-sponsored enterprise like Fannie and Freddie, created by Washington to buy and service student loans in 1972.

In her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos pretty consistently indicated an aversion to federal power. The evidence is on her side, and growing every day.

(In)digesting the DeVos Confirmation Hearing

I got my dinner and a show last night. The dinner was fine, but the show? Not so great. Not much substance was covered in the DeVos confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, and when meaty issues were brought up they were too often smothered in gotcha questions and commentary rather than meaningful discussion.

A good part of the hearing was occupied by bickering over each committee member only getting one, five-minute questioning period, and whether or not that was committee tradition or an effort by the GOP majority to protect the witness. Maybe that’s insightful stuff if you care about the politics of all this—though I doubt it—but it doesn’t tell us one whit about where the nominee stands on the federal role in education.

The good news is that when DeVos was asked about her views on federal policy, she was deferential to states and districts. I don’t recall her stating resolutely that the Constitution leaves ed power to the states and the people—she stated little resolutely—but she hit the right notes. Included in that was telling committee chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that she would not use the power of her office to try to coerce school choice. She said she would try to convince Congress to push choice—an unconstitutional goal, but at least using the constitutionally correct process—but she would not try to do it unilaterally.

Victory for Kids: School Choice Safe in Florida

This morning the Supreme Court of Florida declined to hear McCall v. Scott, the Florida teachers’ union lawsuit against the state’s popular scholarship tax credit, which helps nearly 100,000 low-income students attend the school of their choice. That means the lower court’s decision dismissing the lawsuit stands, and the law is safe from further challenge on these grounds.

As I wrote back in August, the union and its allies had alleged that the scholarship program unconstitutionally supported a “parallel” system of public education and violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits publicly funding religious schools. However, the trial court judge rejected this claim, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because the scholarships were privately (not publicly) funded and that they were unable to prove that the scholarship program adversely impacted the district school system. The union appealed but the appellate court unanimously upheld the lower court decision. (For a more detailed explanation of the history of the case and the tax credit, see here.) Today’s state supreme court decision is the proverbial nail in the coffin for the union’s legal challenge.

Supporters of the scholarship program expressed their satisfaction this morning:

“The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children,” Doug Tuthill, [president of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization], said in a statement. “We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”

After the lawsuit was filed in 2014, supporters of the program — including parents and clergy members — waged a full-court press supporting the program. Almost exactly a year ago, they staged a massive rally in Tallahassee.

“On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law,” Reverend R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with all parties to improve the educational outcomes of low income children in our state.”

School choice is safe in Florida. But just north of the panhandle, Georgia’s scholarship tax credit faces a similar legal challenge. Oral arguments in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue are scheduled for next week, which just happens to be National School Choice Week. For justice to prevail, the Georgia Supreme Court should dismiss that case as well. 

Education for American Indians

Among the many failures of federal policies over the decades, the failures of Indian policies stand out. The government has deprived American Indians of their lands, resources, and freedom in many ways. It has failed to create an institutional structure supportive of prosperity on reservations. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been mismanaged for two centuries, as I discuss here.

Naomi Schaefer Riley addresses the failures of Indian policies in The New Trail of Tears, which she will discuss at an upcoming AEI forum. I will be commenting on Riley’s book at the forum.

One of Riley’s themes is the failure of federal and tribal efforts to provide a decent education for children on reservations. Riley visited numerous schools, and she reports on the disheartening conditions that she saw.  

Last week the Washington Post reported:

The federal government has repeatedly acknowledged and even lamented its failure to provide adequate education for Native American children. Now, nine Native children are taking to the courts to force Washington to take action.

The children are all members of the Havasupai Nation, whose ancestral homelands are in and around the Grand Canyon. They attend an elementary school that is run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education and is, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday, hardly recognizable as a school at all.

Havasupai Elementary School does not teach any subjects other than English and math, according to the complaint; there is no instruction in science, history, social studies, foreign language, or the arts. There aren’t enough textbooks or a functioning library or any after-school sports teams or clubs, according to the complaint. There are so many and such frequent teacher vacancies that students are allegedly taught often by non-certified staff, including the janitor, or they are taught by a series of substitutes who rotate in for two-week stints. The school shuts down altogether for weeks at a time.

The Obama administration has been candid about the federal government’s failure to meet the needs of nearly 50,000 Native young people in nearly 200 schools the Bureau of Indian Education oversees.

“Indian education is an embarrassment to you and to us,” [Interior Secretary Sally] Jewell told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2013.

The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) oversees 183 Indian schools with 41,000 students, as I discuss in this study. The BIE operates about one-third of the schools, and tribal governments operate the other two-thirds.

The poor performance of the schools does not seem to be caused by a lack of funding. The schools received $830 million of federal aid in 2014, which is $20,000 per pupil. The GAO reports that “the average per pupil expenditures for BIE-operated schools—the only BIE schools for which detailed expenditure data are available—were about 56 percent higher than for public schools nationally.”

If more money is not the answer, what is? How about private management and school choice? Rather than running schools, the federal government could provide education block grants to the tribes, who would then outsource school management to expert education firms. Even better, federal funding could flow directly to Indian parents in the form of vouchers to be used at schools of their choice. I’ll be interested to see what former BIE head Keith Moore says about those options at the AEI forum.

More on school choice here.

Prepping for DeVos Confirmation Hearing

At 5:00 this afternoon—almost guaranteeing it will interrupt my usual dinner time—the confirmation hearing for education secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos will take place. With my Hungry Man “Gamer Grub” on a tray and my laptop right next to it, I’ll be live-tweeting the proceedings. So, too, will Jason Bedrick, though I have no idea what he’ll be eating if he’s dining at all. One can easily lose one’s appetite while witnessing political theater.

Here are the things I’m hoping to hear discussed:

  • Broadly speaking, what does DeVos think is the proper federal role in education? I know my—and the Constitution’s—answer.
  • What role, if any, should the federal government have in advancing school choice? For my answer, see the point above. And this. And this.
  • Does school choice work? Dems are likely to point to Michigan—DeVos’s home state—to answer “no.” In contrast, Jason and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden show that a fair reading of the Michigan research indicates the answer is “yes.”
  • President-elect Trump talked about getting rid of the Common Core. How would DeVos do that? Here’s what I think.
  • How should the Every Student Succeeds Act—the more hands-off successor to No Child Left Behind—be implemented? I say follow the spirit and letter of the law.
  • How do we get control of skyrocketing college prices, not to mention massive noncompletion? It is unclear what DeVos will say, but the evidence is powerful that Washington must do the opposite of what it has been doing.
  • What will be DeVos’s approach to for-profit colleges? I hope she’ll put them in the full higher education context.
  • What is the federal role in enforcing civil rights? My answer here.
  • Finally, won’t school choice—educational freedom—destroy the “cornerstone” of democracy, or America, or something else equally foundational? The answer—despite decades of rhetoric—is crystal clear: Quite the opposite.

There could be a lot of substance to chew on if the hearings stick to issues and not political theatrics. But if we mainly get the latter, at least I’ll have my frozen Salisbury steak, or some other grub, on which to chew.

The New York Times Continues to Mislead About School Choice in Michigan

Another day, another distortion from the Grey Lady on school choice.

In its quest to build a false narrative about Betsy DeVos, nominee for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, the New York Times has continuously misled readers about the effects of charter schools in Detroit. The latest example comes from today’s editorial:

[DeVos] has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers for private schools. In that city, charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse.

The NYT editors based their claim on a (faultyTimes op-ed from November in which Douglas Harris made the following claim:

As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, [DeVos] is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country. […] One well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools.

At the time, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review called out Harris for misrepresenting the Stanford CREDO study he had cited: “Follow the link to that ‘well-regarded study,’ and the results of Detroit’s charter schools do not sound nearly as helpful to Harris’s case as he suggests.”

Back in July, I highlighted the same report’s findings to dispel a similarly misleading description in the NYT:

As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.

CREDO 2013 Michigan Charter School Study