Topic: Education and Child 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.

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.