Topic: Education and Child Policy

Statement on Confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education

It is gratifying to see Betsy DeVos confirmed as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. This is not because the federal government should attempt to push school choice—it should not, except in the District of Columbia and for families connected to the military—but because the opposition to now-Secretary DeVos was so unfair to her, and to the research on educational freedom. The reality is that research indicates charter schooling works in Michigan, DeVos’s home state, and specifically in Detroit. It shows that families of students with disabilities, rather than somehow being victimized by school choice, are empowered and immensely satisfied with it. And logic and evidence show that private school choice, rather than imposing ideas on people, frees them to get what they want for their children without forcing it on others.

It is also gratifying to see DeVos approved because she stated repeatedly in her confirmation hearing that education decisions should be left to state and local governments. Constitutionally, that has things absolutely right: the Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern or “oversee” American education, as Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) put it, which means such rights remain with the states, or with the people. And 50-plus years of increasingly intrusive federal meddling in education, with ultimately no visible academic improvement to show for it, brilliantly illustrates the wisdom of that decision.

Now let us hope that the Trump administration sticks to the constitutionally-constrained federal role—even on school choice—that Secretary DeVos has repeatedly endorsed. 

A Year Gone by Since Andrew Passed, a Big Year to Come for His Ideas

Today marks one year since the death of former Cato Center for Educational Freedom director, and later senior fellow, Andrew Coulson. Many friends and colleagues had wonderful things to say about Andrew upon his passing, and we invite you to read all the testimonials that we were able to assemble.

Today, however, is not only a day for looking to the past, but to the future. Because Andrew’s ideas are about to enter their biggest stage yet. The project to which Andrew devoted most of his final years, and that encompasses the heart of his thought on education, has been accepted by PBS. School Inc., Andrew’s three-part documentary series on how free markets bring transformative innovation to countless parts of our lives, and how to achieve such dynamism to the world of education, will air on WNET in New York in June, and may begin airing on PBS stations around the country as early as April. We’ll keep you posted on all stations and times as soon as they are available.

As a supplement to the documentary—and for anyone who wants to explore the ongoing debates about Andrew’s ideas on education—Cato will soon be publishing Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas, a free ebook that will be available on the Cato website, featuring essays by many education thinkers who knew Andrew and his ideas well.

As we said last year, “Andrew Coulson is no longer with us. Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward.” Indeed, they will.

Democrats Should Be Heartened by Betsy DeVos

Unless something unexpected happens, tomorrow the United States Senate will vote on Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. And if you are a Democrat sweating through nightmares over what a Trump administration will do to education, you should be pretty comfy with what DeVos has said she’d like to see happen under her watch. As she stated repeatedly in her confirmation hearing, she would not use federal power—and certainly not secretarial power—to impose anything, including school choice, on unwilling states and districts.

But isn’t the vote expected to be as close as last night’s Super Bowl at the end of regulation, with all Dems voting against DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence delivering the final, overtime vote for her? Yup.

You see, over the decades, Democrats, with copious help from Republicans, have tried to make the U.S. Department of Education what it was not originally intended to be, and what with absolute certainty it cannot constitutionally be: a national school board. This vision was exposed in a comment by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, when she warned all who were suffering through the festival of misinformation and grandstanding that was DeVos’s confirmation hearing, that if approved DeVos would “oversee the education of all of our kids.”

This did not elicit the manufactured giddiness that met DeVos’s suggestion that a school with a grizzly fence might have a gun, and that such decisions should be left to states and communities who know their needs better than Washington. But Murray really ought to know that the Constitution and several laws give the feds no authority to “oversee” American education. Moreover, she had only about a year earlier voted for a law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—intended to cage the education secretary after the Obama administration had employed the position to illegally micromanage American education.

Sen. Murray was, though, soon outdone in her hyperbole. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took his rightful position in the front of the overstatement pack, declaring that DeVos “would single-handedly decimate our public education system if she were confirmed.”

How, exactly, would she do that?

Trump, UC Berkeley, and the Federal Funding Whip

A President may not find it simple or straightforward to use direct executive orders to cut off funds to universities that tolerate disruption of speech or exclude speakers based on the content of their speech. (That’s this morning’s Presidential tweet story, if you slept in.) But the power that the Department of Education and allied agencies have gathered to themselves over university life has steadily mounted, often against feeble resistance from the universities themselves, as in the Title IX instance. That gives an administration plenty of handles to make its will known, a process previewed in October, as to Trump, by Chronicle of Higher Education correspondent Steve Kolowich, who also spoke to me for the story. He quotes Alexander Holt, an education-policy analyst at New America, saying: “I could see a Trump administration going crazy on these ‘Dear Colleague’ letters.”

Two years ago I cited several examples of rule by Dear Colleague letter, as I called it, in this area. (More here.) And I noted one big problem with invoking judicial oversight to check the federal government’s power:

It may be difficult to persuade a college to serve as a test case, given the annihilating possibility of a federal funds cutoff as the penalty of its presumption.

University administrators have submitted meekly for years now to rule by federal “Dear Colleague” letter. Now it will be Trump appointees writing those letters. If the administrators wish to retain some measure of independence from control by Washington, D.C., they may need to grasp that the hour is growing late – and that it wasn’t such a good idea to grow dependent on the federal dollar in the first place. (adapted from Overlawyered). 

Politicians: Hopelessly Naïve about Government

There are numerous causes of federal government expansion, including special-interest pressures and the ability to borrow-and-spend endlessly.

Another cause was highlighted in a recent story about a Bush-Obama education program: politicians are excessively optimistic and hopelessly naïve about their ability to solve society’s problems top-down from Washington.

Neal McCluskey mentioned the failure of the School Improvement Grant program the other day, but I wanted to highlight the Washington Post summary because this is such a classic failure:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday  hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

The School Improvement Grants program has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush, but it received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.

The school turnaround effort, he told The Washington Post days before he left office in 2016, was arguably the administration’s “biggest bet.”

He and other administration officials sought to highlight individual schools that made dramatic improvements after receiving the money. But the new study released this week shows that, as a large-scale effort, School Improvement Grants failed.

It is excessively optimistic and hopelessly naïve to think that a new federal spending effort would turn around the nation’s schools after that approach has not worked for five decades. But the Post reveals how deep the blind optimism was in this case:

Some education experts say that the administration closed its eyes to mounting evidence about the program’s problems in its own interim evaluations, which were released in the years after the first big infusion of cash.

The latest interim evaluation, released in 2015, found mixed results, with students at one-third of the schools showing no improvement or even sliding backward.

Even then, Duncan remained optimistic about the School Improvement Grants, which he said had — along with the Race to the Top grants — unleashed innovation across the country.

For more on the causes of government growth and failure, see here and here.

DeVos Moves On, and So Does Choice vs. “Accountability” Debate

In a committee vote the tightness of which surprised no one, this morning President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was approved on a purely partisan basis by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. DeVos’s nomination now moves to the full Senate.

While the rhetoric surrounding DeVos has been heavily targeted at her competence, the main issue seems to be that Democrats generally oppose private school choice programs while Republicans generally do not. Even questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at DeVos’s confirmation hearing—would she support attaching IDEA rules to public funding that disabled students could take to a chosen school?—were primarily about choice.

Choice is fundamentally different from public schooling. With choice, families have real power—the power to leave a school not serving them and take their education dollars elsewhere. This is why Florida’s McKay scholarship program for children with disabilities—which DeVos tried to defend before being cut off in questioning at her nomination hearing—has very high satisfaction levels among parents using it. Public schools, in contrast, get taxpayer money no matter what, and require seemingly endless political, bureaucratic, and legal combat to hopefully—just hopefully—get improvements made.

Of course, choice needs freedom from stultifying rules and regulations to be meaningful. Specialization, competition, innovation—none can meaningfully exist without educators having the freedom to engage in new and different ways of delivering education.

The powerful inclination to wrap programs in incapacitating layers of red tape…er, “accountability”…is a major reason that the federal government should not try to deliver school choice, or govern education at all. (The Constitution is the other big one.) It is simply too dangerous to have one government—the federal government—supply choice nationwide. But there is good reason to fear that the Trump administration will try to do it nonetheless, based on Trump’s promise to make a  $20 billion choice “investment.”

Empowering parents with choice is the right way to deliver education. But the clear and present danger of freedom-smothering rules and regulations, as we’ve seen brightly illustrated by the debate over DeVos, accompanies any government funds. Which is why choice must not be delivered by Washington.

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.