Topic: Education and Child Policy

When’s The Student Loan Money Coming Back?

A new report on federal student loans from the National Center for Education Statistics came out today, and it is troubling. Much of the media attention is likely to focus on the default rates of borrowers who attended for-profit colleges—and they are atrocious—but the report’s contents condemn the entire system.

Delving into the data reveals that there is a whole lot of defaulting going on—among first-time students who began school in 1995-96 and took out federal loans, 13.7 percent had defaulted on their most recent loan—but there’s been a whole lot of deferring payment, too. The share of borrowers who were deferring or in forbearance stood at 13.3 percent. 31.8 percent were still repaying. And the 41.3 percent listed as “paid or closed without default” hadn’t necessarily fully paid off their loans, either. No, “this includes either loans that are paid off by the borrower or forgiven [italics added].”

As for students attending for-profit schools, yes they had the highest default rate. But, remember that for-profits take on the students with the greatest obstacles to success while receiving essentially no state subsidies or tax-preferred donations. Indeed, they pay taxes. Their default status for students starting in 2003-04—during the for-profit boom—is terrible at 34.8 percent. However, community colleges came in at 15.7 percent, which is also awful, given their low, directly subsidized prices and considering that, while their students often have significant obstacles, students at for-profit schools tend to have bigger ones. Of course, a smaller percentage of community college students borrow. And default rates at about 9 percent at public and private, nonprofit, 4-year colleges is hardly anything with which to be impressed.

The higher education system is flooded with taxpayer money producing oodles of negative results, including skyrocketing costs, credential inflation, and increasingly anemic learning. The federal loan story told by these data reinforces how much draining needs to happen, and a good place to start is phasing out federal loans.

Is It “Banning” To Reject the Book in the First Place?

We hear a lot about book “banning,” especially when “we” maintain Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, but probably lots of other people hear it, too. Indeed, it just so happens that we are in Banned Books Week right now, an event that highlights challenges to books stocked by public libraries, including in public schools. But what is suddenly getting attention is not the Week, but a Cambridge, Massachusetts public school librarian rejecting a bunch of Dr. Seuss books that First Lady Melania Trump selected the district to win. Which raises two questions: Is it not just as much “banning” when public librarians choose not to stock books as when parents or citizens ask that those already stocked be removed? And isn’t it a threat to basic freedom to have librarians or anyone else decide for taxpayer-funded institutions—government institutions—what constitutes acceptable art or thought?

The first answer is of course it is just as much “banning” for public institutions to reject books in the first place as to remove them later on. The ultimate result is the same: not making a book available for the public to borrow. Of course, this is not really banning, which would be to prohibit people from reading a book at all—making it illegal to purchase or possess—not refusing to let people borrow it for free. But if people want to misapply the term, they should misapply it equally.

Which takes us to the root problem: Public institutions force all taxpayers to fund decisions by other people about what books are valuable, or age appropriate, or just plain morally upright. We are forcing them to fund someone else’s speech and opinions, even if they find that speech or those opinions offensive, or just wrong, and even if their views are rejected.

K-12 Schollies = More College

Want to increase college-going while saving some dough? Scholarship tax credit programs may be for you, or so indicates a new report from the Urban Institute.

The report, from co-authors Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn, finds that the low-income students who enrolled in private schools via the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program were about 15 percent—or 6 percentage points—more likely to enroll in college than statistically matched public school students. The effect was greater the longer kids were in the program. There was also a small, more tenuous positive effect on associate degree attainment for scholarship users. Topping it all off, while cost was not the focus of the report, the authors note that the superior outcomes were achieved at a saving to the state: “The positive effects are noteworthy in light of the evidence that the FTC program more than covers the foregone tax revenue through reduced spending on the public schools many participants would have attended.”

There are, of course, important caveats to the findings. First, this was not a random assignment study, so unobserved characteristics such as differing degrees of motivation between scholarship users and matched public school students could not be well controlled for. Next, the study only looked at students entering Florida public colleges, though this might have underestimated the program’s positive effects due to low-income private school students tending more to attend private or out-of-state colleges than their public school peers. Finally, there is good reason to question whether credentials represent much increase in real, useful, learning.

Even with these caveats, this is clearly encouraging evidence for school choice. Alas, some of the early media reports about the study seem to want to temper it with mentions of a few recent choice evaluations, focused on standardized test scores, that have not been so hot. Of course, those studies have important caveats too, but more important, the articles I have seen about the Urban report have mentioned the recent spate of negative reports while ignoring the many positive studies that preceded them. Fortunately, the Urban authors give readers one more useful nugget, noting, “Until recently, this research showed neutral to positive effects of private school choice on student achievement.”

The choice debate will continue, but most of the evidence remains on the side of freedom.

From Little Rock to Trump, Are There Lessons To Be Learned?

Today is the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, a deeply disturbing event for the explosive racism it revealed, but also an inspiring episode for the courage displayed by the children who braved it.

One thing for which it serves as a reminder is that it was public schooling and government generally that for decades forced segregation. Recent attacks against school choice have glossed over this fact, as well as that the absence of choice meant even those who wanted something different were almost certainly hard-pressed to get it.

The anniversary also reminds us that repairing race relations that have been poisoned by centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and still-present hate, racism, and racial suspicion, is not likely something that will happen quickly—would it were otherwise—including with any kind of public policy panacea. Too much history, too many emotions, and increasingly, diversity that makes race relations more than black and white, are all in play. Which may be another argument for school choice: we need to let myriad educational arrangements be offered because no solution might be right for any two people, much less the entire country. Different individuals—and that is what we are, though race is an often crucial component of our identities—may desire different discipline policies, or curricula, and by allowing numerous arrangements to proliferate we can discover which ideas work best, for whom, without education being a zero-sum, winner-take-all contest.

Alas, the Little Rock 60th anniversary has been eclipsed by President Donald Trump’s remark that National Football League owners should fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, resulting, in a few cases, in entire teams this weekend refusing to come out of locker rooms for the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Perhaps this too offers a lesson in the dangers to race relations posed by government, in this case highlighting how politics can amplify divisions and animosity. What had been an ongoing but relatively calm national debate about some players taking a knee during the anthem to protest what they see as racial injustice in the country exploded into a massive, headline-dominating demonstration by players and owners. This is partly because the current president seems to revel in aggravating people. But anytime a politician comments on something it almost inherently becomes a more political—and politicized—issue, and politics by its nature tends to make people act in ugly and divisive ways.

This, too, suggests that the nation would be better off if we looked not for sweeping government solutions to racial divides, but to the maximum extent possible left it to individual people and communities—to civil society—to do the complex, highly personal work of healing and uniting.

More School Competition, Better Citizens

One of the original arguments for establishing a system of common schools was that children from different backgrounds would learn to get along with one another and become proper citizens. However, when students throw rocks at a seven-year-old boy with a rare genetic condition, call him a monster on a daily basis, and push him towards contemplating suicide, we must wonder if our public schools are actually creating good citizens.

Over 90 percent of school-aged children in the U.S. attend public schools. While it is clear that government-run schools have a nearly perfect monopoly on education funding, they do not have a monopoly on producing tolerant citizens. In fact, it isn’t even close. According to the ten experimental or quasi-experimental studies that exist on the topic, none find that public schools outperform private schools on increasing student tolerance or civic engagement. As discussed in a recent Cato Policy Forum, and shown in table 1 below, a majority of the findings reveal that private school choice programs improve civic outcomes.

While the existing evidence may have surprised the father of the common school movement, Horace Mann, I am not all that shocked. Since it is highly costly for families to escape residentially assigned public schools that do not produce proper citizens, public school leaders do not have the incentives nor the information necessary to significantly improve character education. Alternatively, private schools must cater to families’ desires to have their children become functioning members of society.
 
When students engage in conversations about controversial subjects, they are more likely to understand and tolerate opposing views. But why would public school teachers – or anyone – spend much time fostering difficult debates about sensitive topics if they are incentivized to focus on standardized tests? 

I Hear You, Matt Damon

In school choice circles, a lot of people don’t much care for actor Matt Damon, at least his education politics. (I’m not sure where they stand on The Bourne Identity or Stuck on You.) Damon—son of education professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige—has been a vocal advocate for government schooling, and is the narrator of the documentary Backpack Full of Cash, which you might recall is the film those outraged over Andrew Coulson’s School Inc. say PBS must show to balance out perspectives. But here’s the thing: Damon sends his own kids to private school!

I am supposed to be outraged by the apparent hypocrisy, but I don’t think Damon’s selection falls under that heading. Damon and many progressives love public schooling but don’t like what it has become, especially under the standards-and-testing tidal wave of No Child Left Behind, and the only somewhat less inundating Every Student Succeeds Act. They don’t care for the reduction of education to basically a standardized test score. As Damon, who attended progressive public schools in Cambridge, MA, has said, “I pay for a private education and I’m trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It’s unfair.”

No doubt lots of people—choice fans and detractors alike—who want education to be more than a score sympathize with Damon’s frustration. The problem is that Damon champions exactly the wrong system to get sustainable change. By its nature, public schooling, if not doomed to reduction to simple metrics, is in constant, near-death peril of it.

When people can’t vote with their feet—which is very tough to do in a system in which where you go to school depends on where you can afford a home—their only hope to make schools do what they want is government action. But government is controlled by politics, which is itself driven by soundbites. And what is ideal for a soundbite on whether schools are “working”? Why test scores, of course! “The scores are up,” or “the scores are down,” or “25 percent of the kids are proficient,” and so on.

The key to escaping such peril is not hoping that nick-of-time, death-defying, Jason Bourne-esque political miracles will constantly save us, but basing education in freedom. Attach cash to students—via “backpacks,” if you must—give educators autonomy to teach and run schools as they see fit, and ground accountability in educators providing schools to which parents willingly entrust those backpack-bearing kids.

Of course, there is much more that is problematic about government education than just simplistic standardization. Far more deeply, if it is “unfair” that Damon can’t find the progressive schools he wants in the public system, it also unfair that many religious people—who by law cannot get the education they want in public schools—or Mexican Americans, or countless other people are also unable to access the education they want. Thankfully, the key to getting fairness for them is the same one to getting fairness for Damon: school choice.

Don’t blame Matt Damon for his choices. Blame the choice-killing system he defends.

Does School Choice Have to Wear Shades?

Few people probably remember the post-punk band Timbuk 3, but maybe they can recall that wonder’s one hit: “The Future’s So Bright,” about a kid who was doing so well his future required him to “wear shades.” If a new survey of Millennials is any indication, that song may well apply to school choice.

According to a survey of adults ages 18-34 from GenForward, a project based at the University of Chicago, a whopping 71 percent of Millennials “strongly” or “somewhat support” using “government funds in the form of vouchers to pay some of the tuition of low income students who choose to attend private schools.” Yes, even with the dreaded “v” word—vouchers—in the question, private school choice garners massive support. Unsuprisingly, when broken down by race, the highest level of support is among African Americans at 79 percent, and the lowest is among whites at 66 percent.

Support declines when the proposal opens vouchers to “all students” instead of just “low income,” but it is still pretty impressive. 57 percent of all respondents are at least somewhat supportive, with the range going from 69 percent support among African Americans to 49 percent among whites.

If this holds up as millennials age, and if such support is replicated in the generation to follow, school choice will, indeed, have to start wearing shades. Hopefully, those super dark eclipse ones…