Topic: Education and Child Policy

It’s DeVos for Boss! Hopefully, Just of the Education Department

Betsy DeVos, who has long championed private and charter school choice, has been named the next U.S. Secretary of Education. On the spectrum of education policy people, her support for choice puts her well on the correct side. But I have concerns: especially that President-elect Trump will see Ms. DeVos—or that she will see herself—not just as the education department head, but rather as the national education boss.

As I wrote yesterday, even though choice is great, it is not something people should want Washington providing. Nor—outside of the DC voucher program, military families, and maybe Native American reservations—is it something that the feds can constitutionally provide. My fear is that DeVos and Trump might not recognize the myriad problems with taking private school choice national. More concerning, the American Federation for Children, which DeVos chairs, has tended to favor more rules and regulations on choice than I would prefer. That could become a much bigger concern were rules and regs attached to national-level vouchers.

Then there’s the Common Core. DeVos has written that she does not support it, but some organizations she has backed have. She says she wants high standards, but indicates that she thinks they should be local, or at least “driven by local voices.” Assuming that means she will brook no federal influence over state standards—and I’m not sure her statement is entirely clear on that—that’s good news. The Common Core should thrive or die based on proving its worth, and people freely choosing it. You couldn’t get much further from that than the federal coercion used to get states to adopt it in the first place.

Another worry is that I have no idea where DeVos stands on early childhood or higher education issues, and the latter, especially, is gigantic, with Washington furnishing tens-of-billions of dollars in student loans, among other higher ed matters. DeVos will essentially be taking over a hugely bureaucratic lending company—with lots of regulatory power—that on a day-to-day basis could prove to be a far greater burden than she expected.

Finally, where DeVos could do immediate good is in rescinding—or something akin to that—“Dear Colleague” letters that have, for instance, pushed colleges to curb legal protections for students accused of sexual assault or harassment, or tried to force national decisions on controversial issues that involve competing rights and concerns, most notably bathroom and lockerroom access. Washington has a role in combatting discrimination by state and local governments, but should tread much more lightly.

It is good news that there will be a proven school choice champion holding the highest-profile education job in the land. But it needs to be absolutely clear that that does not make Betsy DeVos the national education boss.

What, Me Worry…about the Secretary of Education?

As it is for all areas in which the federal government trods—which seems to be, essentially, all areas of everything—in education the big worry right now is who will be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. I worry about that, too, but much more for what the selection will signal about the incoming administration than what the eventual secretary might choose to do.

The secretary—whoever he or she is—will almost certainly take their orders from people above them. Sure, the secretary will likely provide a lot of education guidance and advice to the president, but they will not—or at least should not—be the ultimate decision maker. Former Obama education secretary Arne Duncan, for instance, presided over deplorable baskets full of stuff I didn’t like, but I’ve never seen any indication he’d gone rogue, driving policies his boss did not support.

Whether President-elect Trump chooses hard-charging—but Common Core supporting and school-choice doubting—Michelle Rhee, or Core-despising transition team member Williamson Evers, the primary concern should be what the selection indicates about the administration’s priorities, not what the ed sec might personally like. Were a Secretary Rhee inclined to incentivize states to keep Common Core, but her boss opposed that, Rhee might not energetically do what Trump wants, but it’s hard to imagine her driving an opposing policy.

At Least as Good at a Fraction of the Cost? Some “Flop”!

A lot of well-intentioned people think it is not enough for families to be able to choose schools. They have to choose “good” schools. Those people often do not think private school choice programs that give parents a lot of control over which schools they select are up to par. Fine. But just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it a “clear flop.”

Writing at The 74, Richard Whitmire warns that we should beware Trumps bearing school choice gifts. He argues that President-elect Trump’s proposal to spend $20 billion on school choice could be dangerous not because of, say, federal rules that might be attached to unconstitutional largesse, but because the money might not be restricted to “great” schools. “Great,” presumably, should be defined by legislators or bureaucrats. After all, you don’t want to replicate the Milwaukee voucher program:

Those in the school reform movement learned the hard way that choice alone does not produce more seats in great schools. If that were the case, we’d all be praising the early voucher program in Milwaukee and the widespread charters in Ohio and Michigan. But in all those cases, choice alone produced nothing.

In Milwaukee, for example, which I visited repeatedly while researching my book On the Rocketship, about the creation of one best-in-class charter network, the more-than-two-decade-old voucher experiment proved to be a clear flop. (Note that I didn’t say unpopular. Who objects to free tuition for their kid’s parochial schools?)

Is For-Profit Higher Ed Horrible? Can We Talk, Please?

Obviously, numerous Obama administration policies hang in the balance with the coming of a new president and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Among them is an administration campaign that has been waged against for-profit colleges, a sector of higher education seen by many as uniquely predatory and, it is probably fair to say, uniquely awful. But is the sector so horrible? And horrible or not, does the election mean a reprieve is coming?

To answer these questions—and in the interest of having a real exchange of views—this Wednesday Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom will be hosting a Q & A-intensive forum on for-profit colleges featuring several of the sector’s most prominent critics and defenders, including former Obama administration member Robert Shireman and Center for College Affordability and Productivity director Richard Vedder. We’ll also be fielding questions through Twitter using #CatoHigherEd.

One lesson from the just-completed election seems to be that different parts of America have been talking about and past each other, but rarely to each other. At least when it comes to for-profit higher ed, at least for one morning, we plan to do something different. Register today to join us in-person, or watch online—and join us via Twitter—at 10:00 am ET, on Wednesday, November 16.

Talk with you then!

What Trump’s First 100 Days Might Mean for Education Policy

President-Elect Donald Trump has released his plans for his first 100 days in office. After outlining proposals for term limits, a trade war, and mass deportations, the plan includes the following paragraph on education policy:

School Choice And Education Opportunity Act. Redirects education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice. Ends common core, brings education supervision to local communities. It expands vocational and technical education, and make 2 and 4-year college more affordable.

The details are far from clear, but it appears that his education policy will focus on three areas:

1. School choice

Trump has the right instinct on school choice, but if he is planning to promote a national voucher program, then he’s going about it the wrong way. He has previously pledged to dedicate $20 billion in federal funds to school choice policies, and stated that he would “give states the option to allow these funds to follow the student to the public or private school they attend” as well as using federal carrots to get states to expand choice policies even further. Expanding educational opportunity is admirable, but using the federal government to do so is misguided. As David Boaz explained more than a decade ago in the Cato Handbook for Congress, the case against federal involvement in education:

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

A federal voucher program would very likely lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time, especially after a new administration takes over that is less friendly to the concept of school choice. As we’ve seen in some states, misguided regulations can severely undermine the effectiveness of school choice and induce a stifling conformity among schools. Moreover, as I’ve explained previously, those regulations are harder to block or repeal at the federal level than at the state level and their negative effects would be far more widespread:

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

That said, the Trump administration can promote school choice in more productive and constitutionally sound ways. The federal government does have constitutional authority in Washington, D.C., where it currently operates the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP should be expanded into a universal ESA that empowers all D.C. families to spend the funds on a wide variety of educational expenses in addition to private school tuition, including tutors, textbooks, online courses, curricular materials, and more, as well as save unused funds for later expenses, such as college. The Trump administration should explore similar options in areas where the federal government has jurisdiction, such as on Native American lands and military bases.

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.