Topic: Education and Child Policy

College: Ragnarok

For the second week in a row, Thor: Ragnarok was the big winner at the box office, pulling in $56.6 million in North America last weekend and bringing its worldwide take to more than $650 million. Ragnarok is the mythological destruction of Asgard and the Norse gods, but in real life it has been a huge, money-making win for Marvel Studios. Meanwhile, American higher education has been declaring that it is facing its own Ragnarok in the form of the House Republican tax plan. This end time, in stark contrast to Thor: Ragnarok, will come from a distinct lack of money. As a Washington Post headline asks, is this “The Last Stand for American Higher Education?”

What the Hela

I have qualms about some of the GOP proposals. For instance, the plan would tax “tuition discounts”—basically, prices not actually charged—for graduate students. That’s not technically income, so on normative grounds I’m not sure it should be taxed. The plan also calls for an “excise tax” on the earnings of endowments worth $250,000 or more per student at private institutions. It would impact but a nano-handful of institutions—around 50 out of thousands—and amounts to little more than a politicized, “Take That, Harvard!”

That said, the idea that higher ed is somehow teetering on the edge of financial destruction is ludicrous.

Consider revenues at public colleges since the onset of the Great Recession, during which we supposedly saw massive “disinvestment.” While it is true that total state and local appropriations dipped, total public college revenue rose markedly, from $273 billion in academic year 07-08, to $347 billion in 14-15, a 27 percent increase. Even on an inflation-adjusted, per-pupil basis revenue increased: From $31,561 per student in 07-08, to $32,887 in 14-15, a 4 percent rise. To put that in perspective, per-capita income in the United States is $28,930.

Federal data on private colleges is pretty volatile—it’s not clear why, for instance, between 07-08 and 08-09 total revenue dropped from $139 billion to $69 billion—but it, too, shows little sign of penury. Between 07-08 and 14-15 total revenue rose from $139 billion to $200 billion, a 44 percent increase, and inflation-adjusted per-pupil revenue went from $51,629 to $59,270, a 15 percent increase.

20% of College Students Say College Faculty Has Balanced Mix of Political Views

The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds only 20% of current college and graduate students believe their college or university faculty has a balanced mix of political views. A plurality (39%) say most college and university professors are liberal, 27% believe most are politically moderate, and 12% believe most are conservative.

College Democrats Less Likely Than Republicans to Think Faculty Is Liberal

Democratic and Republican students see their college campuses very differently. A majority (59%) of Republican college students believe that most faculty members are liberal. In contrast, only 35% of Democratic college students agree most professors are liberal. Democratic students are also about twice as likely as Republican students to think their professors are moderate (32% vs. 16%) or conservative (14% vs. 9%).

Full survey results and report found here.

College Students Agree Student Body is Liberal

Current students believe that most of their campus’ student body is liberal. Fifty-percent (50%) believe that most students at their college or university are liberal, 21% believe most are moderate, 8% believe most are conservative, and 19% believe there is a balanced mix of political views.

Democratic and Republican students largely agree on the ideological composition of their campus student body.

Consequences of Campus Political Climate

These perceptions of ideological homogeneity on college campuses may explain why 72% of Republican college students say the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. About a quarter (26%) of Republican college students feel they can share their political views.

Public Schooling Battles: October Dispatch

As you may or may not know (I hope it is the former) Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom maintains the Public Schooling Battle Map, an interactive database of values and identity-based battles—potentially the most wrenching of all conflicts—in public schools. To get a sense for specific topics that appear to be roiling people not just in particular districts, but perhaps across the country, we at CEF thought it might be worthwhile putting out a little summary of what we’ve observed each month.

Keep in mind that the Battle Map is primarily populated with events reported in major media, so there are likely lots of fights we never find out about. (If you know of one, email it!) Based on what we found reported, here were the big conflicts in October:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird: Tussles over the propriety of books on reading lists or in school libraries are constant, but a Biloxi, Mississippi school ending an 8th grade reading of Mockingbird over a family’s concerns over the frequent appearance of the N-word created a national sensation. The family found the use of the word—and some students’ reactions to it—inappropriate and disturbing, while the book’s defenders said it is precisely Mockingbird’s unsettling portrayal of injustice that makes it not just an important read, but maybe one that should be mandatory. It is not, however, just one family in Biloxi that has objected to Mockingbird in public schools—it is one of the most challenged classic books on record.
  • Anthem and Pledge: With National Football League players, Donald Trump, and lots of other people sniping back-and-forth over kneeling during the National Anthem, it is not surprising that fights over standing for the Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance have also been fought in the schools. Indeed, standing for the Pledge is a seemingly timeless battleground. Ultimately, the conflict is one of freedom of speech we’re all supposed to have against the unity and love of country that, historically, public schools were supposed to inculcate. In October we saw such conflicts in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas.
  • Halloween: This holiday tends to generate fights because of its connection to religion, and the potential dangers of costumes offending or even threatening others. We found conflicts over what costumes, if any, kids could wear in California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin.
  • “Immersion” Assignments: I made up the term “immersion” for this, but there was an unusual spate of conflicts over assignments that basically asked students to immerse themselves in something historical in order to get a deeper understanding of it, but that seemed to many people to either trivialize, glorify, or impose something evil or disturbing. These included an assignment to create a Nazi mascot in Georgia; a Civil War dress-up day, also in Georgia; and a Pilgrim dress-up day in Massachusetts.

There were other battles begun or continued in October, of course—conflicts over President Trump, dress codes, and offensive expression—but these are the ones that stuck out as either constituting trends or attracting significant national attention.

For daily updates on conflicts in the public schools for which all, diverse people must pay, but only those with the most political power control, follow the Battle Map Twitter feed, Facebook page, and, of course, dive into the Battle Map itself

Good Intentions, But No 529 Plans for K-12, Thanks

It sounds like school choice fans are pretty happy to see the GOP tax plan allowing up to $10,000 per year from tax-favored 529 savings plans to be used for elementary and secondary expenses (though the much smaller Coverdell would go away). Previously, 529 funds were just applicable to postsecondary education. But happy or not, for several reason this is probably bad policy. Here’s a quick list:

  1. Regulation: Current 529 plans allow earnings to be used tax free only if spent on accredited institutions. But accreditation has been a backdoor way through which the federal government has regulated colleges. We don’t want to see private K-12 schools similarly subjected to federal control, greatly constricting the extent to which they can be real choices.
  2. Complication: A complicated federal tax code is an efficiency drain on the economy, but wealthier people able to pay for financial advisors, or who have the time to become well versed in the code, can game the system. Ditto student aid. Not so much the poor or average person. The 529 thumb-on-the-scale for education would seem to favor the wealthy who already have choice. Much better would be to just get rid of this kind of distorting, complicating incentive.
  3. Price: The evidence is powerful that student aid programs—including, though not primarily, tax incentives—help to fuel extraordinary price inflation in higher education. Better to not have the feds inject this further into K-12 education.
  4. Constitution: Outside of prohibiting discrimination by state and local governments, the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to meddle in education. This includes through the tax code.

Worse things, certainly, could have come from Washington. School choice is, after all, generally a policy well worth pursuing. But so is federalism, and states have been doing pretty nice work expanding choice by themselves. Why introduce these unconstitutional dangers?  

Is Supporting Racists’ Free Speech Rights the Same as Being a Racist?

Student protesters at the College of William and Mary recently shut down a campus speaker from the ACLU invited (ironically) to speak about “Students and the First Amendment.” Students explained their shut down was in retaliation for the ACLU’s defense of white nationalists’ free speech rights in Charlottesville, Virginia where a white nationalist rally recently took place. What motivated the students?

The Black Lives Matter of William and Mary student group wrote on their Facebook page, where they live-streamed their shut down of the event: “We want to reaffirm our position of zero tolerance for white supremacy no matter what form it decides to masquerade in.” From these students’ perspective, the ACLU supporting someone’s right to say racist things was as bad as being a racist organization.

The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey helps shed light on these students’ reasoning. First, nearly half (49%) of current college and graduate students believe that “supporting someone’s right to say racist things is as bad as holding racist views yourself.” This share rises to nearly two-thirds among African Americans (65%) and Latinos (61%) who agree. Far fewer white Americans (34%) share this view.

65% Say College Students Should Discuss Offensive Halloween Costumes without Administrator Involvement

Two years ago at Yale, a controversy erupted over a series of emails about offensive Halloween costumes. A resident advisor and Yale lecturer pushed back against an email from college administrators advising students not to wear offensive Halloween costumes. The advisor emailed her students and expressed confidence in students’ capacity to discuss offensive Halloween costumes among themselves without administrators getting involved. Many students interpreted her email as an endorsement of offensive costumes, rather than of freedom of expression and the ability of people to discuss and resolve offense without oversight. What do Americans think?

The newly released Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds that nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans agree that “college students should discuss offensive costumes among themselves without administrators getting involved.” A third (33%) say “college administrators have a responsibility to advise college students not to wear Halloween costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups at off-campus parties.”

Full survey results and report found here.

A significant racial divide emerges about how to handle offensive Halloween costumes. A majority (56%) of African Americans feel college administrators should intervene and advise students against offensive costumes. Conversely, a strong majority (71%) of white Americans and a majority of Latinos (56%) believe that college students should discuss offensive Halloween costumes among themselves without administrator intervention.

A majority (54%) of college and graduate students agree that students should discuss offensive costumes without intervention from school authorities. However, students (45%) are 12 points more supportive than Americans overall (33%) of administrators advising about offensive costumes.

You can learn more about public attitudes about free speech, campus speech, and tolerance of political expression from the full survey report found here.

Sign up here to receive forthcoming Cato Institute survey reports

The Cato Institute 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey was designed and conducted by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov. YouGov collected responses online August 15-23, 2017 from a national sample of 2,300 Americans 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.00 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

 

Don’t Blame Us Libertarians for School Choice Disappointment

The headline of Megan McArdle’s latest Bloomberg View piece stings, at least for a libertarian whose job is to advance educational freedom: “We Libertarians Were Really Wrong About School Vouchers.”

Ouch! But to this I say: Speak for yourself!

To be fair, I don’t know how things work for big-time columnists, but there’s a good chance McArdle didn’t pen her own headline. Pubs need clicks, and the shrewd marketeers at Bloomberg were no doubt well aware that such an inflammatory header would draw in all roughly ten professional libertarian school choicers, boosting readership by huge hundredths of a percent. And it is worth saying: While I’m not sure you would call them libertarians, John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools was seminal in launching the modern choice movement, and they did assert that choice would be a “panacea.” If that is what libertarians expected from the tiny choice programs we’ve gotten so far, yes, we were wrong. But that is not what libertarians should have expected.

The fact is we have not even come close to getting what we need—real, broad freedom, which McArdle and lots of libertarians call “the market.” (I’ve decided, by the way, that a “market” is a horrible way to conceptualize what libertarians want, because it implies education is all about efficient financial transactions. What we want is full-on human freedom.) None of the voucher, charter, scholarship tax credit, or education savings account programs we have gotten have even come close to a free market, as many libertarians have been decrying for decades.

How far are we? Thankfully, you don’t have to dig into old books to find out—we give you the lowdown in Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas (available in free PDF version or wherever fine books are sold)! Andrew was a leading critic of the kinds of hamstrung programs many choice supporters lauded for years—a few thousand kids with small vouchers here, public charter schools there—and the book contains multiple chapters examining what is needed for a true free market. As the Heartland Institute’s George Clowes lays out:

  • Parental choice of school
  • Direct parental financial responsibility
  • Freedom for educators to establish different types of schools
  • Explicit competition among educators
  • The profit motive for educators (and the need for a reliable revenue stream)
  • Universal access (including low- and high-income families)
  • Per-pupil funding comparable to the public schools, with the funding following the child