Topic: Education and Child Policy

Common Core? Agency Fees? No Thanks!

Yesterday the 10th annual Education Next survey of American opinion on K-12 education came out, and right away Jason Bedrick deftly distilled the school choice findings. I want to quickly discuss two other, ripped-from-the-headlines subjects: opinion on the Common Core national curriculum standards, and agency fees charged to teachers who don’t want to join a union.

As perhaps reflected in the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—many Americans across the ideological spectrum are none too pleased with the Common Core, which the ESSA goes so far as to mention by name as off limits to further federal coercion. According to the survey, federal politicians read the tea leaves correctly when they took off against the Core. Despite the survey using a wording likely to bias respondents in favor of the Core—saying it will be used “to hold schools accountable for their performance”—the general public was evenly split: 42 percent supportive and 42 percent against. Even more telling has been the Core’s trajectory since first being addressed in the 2012 survey. The trend data do not include people who were neutral on the Core, but among those who offered opinions for or against, support plummeted from 90 percent to just 50 percent.

That said, the survey’s overall message is not entirely hopeful if you aren’t fond of centralized standards and testing. Among other things, 55 percent of the general public supports generic, identical state standards in reading and math used “to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” Of course, that wording makes it impossible to know if respondents are mainly reacting to uniform standards, accountability, or both, but the uniformity inclination does not bode well for fans of local control of public schools. Then again, the public opinion trajectory is similar to what we saw when the Common Core was mentioned by name: support dropped from 92 percent of people who offered an opinion in 2012, to 66 percent today.

Scholarship Tax Credits: Still the Reigning School Choice Champion

Today, Education Next released the results of its annual survey of public opinion on education policy. The 2016 results are somewhat disappointing for advocates of school choice because support for some types of choice programs has diminished over the last decade, particularly for voucher programs targeted to the poor. However, support for scholarship tax credit (STC) programs – once again, the most popular type of school choice program – has remained high and steady.

When asked whether they favored or opposed a proposal to offer a “tax credit for individuals and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools,” 53 percent responded favorably while only 29 percent expressed opposition. Respondents were nearly evenly divided over universal vouchers, with 45 percent in support and 44 percent opposed. However, nearly half of respondents opposed targeted vouchers while only 37 percent supported them. Charter schools fared better, but many people don’t know what they are. When the survey asked about charter schools without defining what they are, nearly half of respondents were neutral. However, when the survey defined them as “publicly funded” schools that are “not managed by the local school board” that “are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations,” the amount of respondents who expressed no opinion dropped to 21 percent while support increased from 34 percent to 51 percent and opposition increased from 17 percent to 28 percent.

2016 Education Next Survey: Support for Various Types of School Choice

2016 Education Next survey results.

Unfortunately, once again the survey failed to ask about education savings accounts.

Support for STCs was even higher among parents (60 percent), African-Americans (64 percent), and Hispanics (62 percent). This is not surprising since minorities are more likely to be low-income and therefore choice deprived. Interestingly, support for STCs was higher among self-described Democrats (57 percent) than Republicans (49 percent), although the GOP has generally been more supportive of school choice than the Democratic Party. Democrats were also more likely to support both universal and targeted vouchers (49 and 42 percent, respectively) than Republicans (41 and 31 percent, respectively). 

Previous Education Next surveys also found that STCs garnered the highest amount of support from among the various school choice policies. Since 2009, support has increased from 46 percent to 53 percent, although it is down from a high of 60 percent in 2014. However, at 29 percent, opposition to STCs is also at its highest level since EdNext began including the question in their survey. Neverthess, there is a 24 percentage point advantage for those who favor STCs. (Note: EdNext did not ask about STCs in their 2013 survey.)

Education Next Surveys: Support for STCs

Education Next survey results, 2009-2016 

With the addition of South Dakota earlier this year, there are now 17 states that have 21 STC programs. Last year, more than 230,000 students used tax-credit scholarships to attend the private school of their choice, compared to about 150,000 students who used school vouchers and about 6,000 who used education savings accounts ESAs. Their high level of public support makes them the most politically viable form of school choice and because they are privately (rather than publicly) funded, they have a perfect record of being upheld as constitutional, making them the most constitutionally viable form of school choice yet devised as well.

Although ESAs have some advantages over both vouchers and traditional STC programs because they allow for greater customization, it is possible to combine the advantages of ESAs and STCs by privately funding the education savings accounts with the assistance of tax credits. For more information, see the report I coauthored with Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute and Arizona Justice Clint Bolick (then of Goldwater): “Taking Credit for Education: How to Fund Education Savings Accounts through Tax Credits.”

The EdNext survey also covered topics such as Common Core, testing, merit pay, tenure, teachers unions, blended learning, and more. You can find the full results along with ten-year trend data here.

Case Dismissed in Lawsuit Against Florida School Choice… Again

In yesterday’s update regarding school choice lawsuits, I noted that a judge recently denied a request to fast-track one of the two anti-school-choice lawsuits (Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida Board of Education). Today, a three-judge panel unanimously dismissed the other lawsuit (McCall v. Scott), in which the state teachers’ union alleged that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program unconstitutionally supported a “parallel” system of public education and violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits publicly funding religious schools. Last year, a trial court judge dismissed the case, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case because the scholarships were privately (not publicly) funded and that they were unable to prove that the scholarship program adversely impacted the district school system. The appellate judges unanimously agreed with the trial court, as Travis Pillow of RedefinED explains:

“[D]espite arguing that public funds have been diverted from the public school system, [the plaintiffs] make no argument whatsoever that public school funding has actually declined,” they wrote. Further, the court called the diversion theory “incorrect as a matter of law.”

The appellate judges held the case centered on political questions about school choice and education funding, and wrote that the ultimate “remedy is at the polls.”

“This is precisely the type of dispute into which the courts must decline to intervene under the separation of powers doctrine,” they wrote.

Earlier this year, thousands of parents and students held a rally calling on the teachers’ union to drop the suit.

School Choice Lawsuits Update: Summer 2016 Edition

As school choice wins in the court of public opinion, opponents have resorted to fighting it in the courts of law. Here are a few brief updates regarding pending lawsuits against school choice programs around the country.

Colorado: Douglas County’s School Choice Grant Program

Last summer, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down Douglas County’s school voucher program with a plurality ruling that the law violates the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which forbids public money from being used at religious schools. District officials responded to the ruling by creating a new voucher program that excludes religious schools, which drew lawsuits from both opponents and supporters of school choice.

The Institute for Justice, which had previously defended the school voucher program, sued the county for unconstitutionally discriminating against religious groups. According to IJ, the “exclusion of religious options from the program violates the Free Exercise, Establishment, Equal Protection, and Free Speech Clauses of the United States Constitution, as well as the Due Process Clause, which guarantees the fundamental right of parents to control and direct the education and upbringing of their children.” IJ contends–correctly, in my view–that the First Amendment requires the government to be neutral both among religions and between religion and non-religion, but it may not actively favor nor discriminate against either religious or non-religious groups or institutions. This case is still pending.

In a separate lawsuit, opponents of school choice contended that the new voucher program was not materially different than the old one. Earlier this month, a district court agreed, striking down the program yet again. Although by excluding religious schools, the new program appears to be in compliance with the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling, the district court explained that the state supreme court did not rule on the merits of several other alleged violations of state constitutional provisions under which the district court had previously invalidated the program. This case is likely going to return to the state supreme court for resolution.

Florida: Tax-Credit Scholarships

There are currently two lawsuits pending against Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program. As RedefinED reports, a judge recently denied an attempt to fast-track one of the two suits, which primarily concerns the adequacy of the state’s funding of district schools. A judge dismissed the portion of the suit related to the tax-credit program but plaintiffs filed an appeal and asked for the case to skip the appellate court and go straight to the state supreme court. That request has been denied, so the case will go before the appellate court first. That means the program is likely to serve more than 100,000 students by the time it comes before the state supreme court.

New College Regs: Accusation = Sentence

It’s no secret that war has been declared on for-profit colleges. The question is whether the war is justifiable. I don’t think it is—the evidence strongly suggests that all of higher ed is broken—but I also think it is very hard for the public, in any individual case, to know whether a college accused of wrongdoing is really awful, or the target of politicians trying to make names for themselves. But just accusing a school of predatory behavior hurts it, generating lots of bad press, encouraging more suits and investigations, and usually resulting in schools settling with government accusers without admitting guilt, maybe to stop the PR and financial bleeding, maybe because they think they’re guilty and that’s the best they can get. Regardless, there is clearly an imbalance of power between taxpayer-funded accusers and the accused.

New federal regulations look like they’ll make the problem of accusation-equals-sentence worse. The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy piece looking at the broad potential ramifications of the regs, but one part of the US Department of Education regulation summary caught my eye: Schools would have to automatically “put up funds, in the form of letters of credit (LOCs), that total at least 10 percent of the amount of Title IV funds received by the school over the previous year” if “a state or federal government entity such as an attorney general, the CFPB, or the FTC brings a major suit against the school.” In other words, the moment any government entity, including the unchained Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, accuses a school of wrongdoing, the punishment begins.

This punishment could easily trigger a cascade of trouble, with the need for a letter of credit scaring off investors, bad publicity scaring off students, and a school suffering financially as a result. That school could then be targeted by the Department of Education for being even more of a financial risk, and the death spiral would become inescapable. This is not too far off from what seems to have happened to Corinthian College. Corinthian was, importantly, ultimately found guilty of fraud, but that rare guilty verdict was rendered after Corinthian was no more and had no one to defend it in court.

It is, to be sure, hard to feel too sorry for the for-profit sector. It does have poor outcomes, and is heavily dependent on students paying with government dough. That said, there is also a good bit of evidence that it is no worse, controlling for student challenges, than other higher ed sectors. And it is very easy to imagine politicians—human beings likely as self-interested as the average for-profit school owner or employee—going after for-profit schools because it is politically easy.

These proposed regulations look like they will stack the deck even more against for-profit colleges.

Is Education “Privatization” Really Just Devious Deceit?

Education historian Diane Ravitch is against charter schools, voucher programs – any sort of education “privatization.” And that’s fine. I just wish she would bring more to bear in opposing such measures than accusations about privatizers’ hand-rubbing, dastardly motives, and unsupported assertions about what privatization has or has not done.

Here’s the part that really got to me in Ravitch’s latest writing on privatization:

A quarter century after privatization began in earnest, it is clear that its main effect has been to undermine the public schools. Actually, that has always been the goal of the privatization movement. Their propaganda campaign – which now spans from Kenya to the United Kingdom – blames public schools for the persistence of poverty and for the low test scores of children who grow up in poverty, without adequate food or medical care.

The privatization movement has cleverly and deceitfully branded itself as a “reform movement.” As they divert resources and students from public schools, which still enroll the vast majority of students, they congratulate themselves for leading a civil rights movement and introducing market discipline into what has traditionally been a government responsibility.

These are pretty tough accusations. But where’s the evidence? Ravitch offers basically none, save attacking the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” for overinflating the dangers posed to the United States by its education system. (A point, by the way, to which I am sympathetic.)

But demonstrate that the main goal—and effect—of privatizers has been to hurt public schools, not help kids? No evidence. That privatizers have “deceitfully” used the term “reform movement,” as if more school choice weren’t somehow a reform? No evidence. That they blame public schools, presumably exclusively, for the persistence of poverty? No evidence.

I can’t speak to the motivations of others, but my goal in supporting “privatization” is absolutely to reform the system and help not just children, but all of society. Not only do I think the evidence shows public schooling does not work as well as free-market education academically, government schooling is fundamentally at odds with basic American values, forcing social conflict and creating inequality under the law. And Ravitch herself has furnished a significant amount of the evidence that has led me to those conclusions.  

Those conclusions have, of course, caused me to believe that the government monopoly over education should go away, and that funding should follow each, unique child to the educational options chosen by his or her parents. The end of government schooling, however, is not my goal, but a consequence of achieving my desired goals: improving education and maximizing liberty.

There is also weighty evidence of the power of privatized—meaning, really, freedom-based—education. As James Tooley’s work has vividly illustrated, private, for-profit schools seem to be providing education, typically better than the public schools, to many of the poorest people in the world. And the cases of Sweden and Chile to which Ravitch points actually furnish far from damning evidence that choice fails.

Of course, Ravitch may not agree with the findings of Tooley and others, but she at least ought to deal with them. Instead, she brusquely dismisses privatization and impugns the motives of “privatizers.” To truly determine what’s best for children and society, that’s not a very useful argument.

Nevada Supreme Court Hears Education Savings Accounts Lawsuits

Today, on Milton Friedman Legacy Day, the Nevada Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two lawsuits against the state’s education savings account (ESA) law. Under the law, students who leave their assigned district school can receive a portion of the funds that would have been allocated to them in their district school (about $5,100 to $5,700 depending on family income). The parents can use those funds to customize their child’s education by purchasing a wide variety of educational good and services, including private school tuition, text books, online courses, homeschool curricula, and more. They can even save funds for future expenditures. A similar program in Arizona has proved highly popular among parents.

However, a group dedicated to protecting the district school monopoly is asking the state supreme court to strike down the program before it goes into effect:

“I fear that, because this is the most aggressive model for this program, the privatization of education … will spread like wildfire,” said Electra McGrath-Skrzydlewski, whose 12-year-old daughter is a student in the Clark County School District.

McGrath-Skrzydlewski joined several parents last October to sue the state in a Carson City court, challenging SB302 on the grounds that it diverts money meant “exclusively” for public schools to private schools and other private expenses. Their complaint also claims the bill violates a constitutional requirement that lawmakers create a “uniform” system of public schools.

As Neal McCluskey noted on Twitter, even the opponents of the ESA assume that parents want it. And they’re right: more than 8,000 eager families have already applied.

David Boaz on educational choice

In separate case, the ACLU claims that the ESA law violates the state constitition’s “uniformity” clause as well as a separate constitutional provision prohibiting the state funding of religious instititions. However, as I’ve discussed previously, these arguments do not hold water. The ACLU wants the court to interpret the constitutional mandate that the state create a system of “uniform” and nonsectarian schools to mean that it must exclusively fund those schools. Fortunately, the lower court rejected this strained interpretation, holding instead that “the Nevada constitution requires the state to establish a non-sectarian system of public schools, but it is also empowered to encourage education by other means that are not limited to non-sectarian schooling.”

Likewise, the lower court rejected the ACLU’s Blaine Amendment claim, holding that it “was not intended to preclude any expenditure that has an incidental benefit to religion, where such is made for a primary secular purpose,” and that the ESA “was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing financial assistance to parents to take advantage of educational options available to Nevada children.”

For more information on the two cases and to watch live feed of the oral arguments beginning at 1:00pm EDT, go to Choice Media’s website.