Topic: Education and Child Policy

Maryland’s Governor Is Giving People More Time for Walley World – Like It or Not

Maybe because Chevy Chase is in his state—the town, of course, not the actor—Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) yesterday signed an executive order essentially forbidding any school district in the state from starting the academic year before Labor Day, or from ending after June 15. That he announced it at an event in Ocean City, Maryland—a big summer beach destination—left no question that this was largely at the behest of the state’s tourism industry.

Marylanders, you will have more vacation time.

But what if you don’t want to travel the holiday road right up to Labor Day? What if you’d like to start school a week or three early, and maybe trade some summer days for a longer winter break, or heck, maybe some extra time off in April? Too bad: The governor knows what you need better than you do. Or, at least, he knows what other people—the tourism lobby—needs.

Of course this is a big violation of the local control many people think should be a hallmark of public schooling. It hasn’t been for a long time, but if you are going to have government schooling it makes sense for decisions to be made at the lowest levels possible so as to best serve the needs of unique communities. But what if your schedule doesn’t conform with a lot of people—maybe the majority—in your community?

All of this points to one solution if you want what you think is best for your family: educational freedom. Attach money to kids and let parents choose schools where educators might decide to start before Labor Day, or after Labor Day, or to have online content available 24/7, or to send you homeschooling curricula, or…you get the point.

Maybe you want to have your kids in school before Labor Day. Walley World shouldn’t get to tell you you can’t.

Is the Public Confused about School Financing?

After last week’s release of Education Next’s 2016 survey of education opinion (see Jason Bedrick’s and Neal McCluskey’s responses), Phi Delta Kappa yesterday released its own poll (see Neal’s take on that here). Once again, the poll sheds light on the public’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of school financing.

In an open-ended question, Americans for the 15th consecutive year designated “lack of money/financial support” the biggest problem facing public schools. Perhaps as a result, most Americans—53% in support to 45% opposed—favored increasing property taxes to boost school funding. However, there was broad skepticism (47% of respondents) that increases would spur quality improvements. What explains this apparent inconsistency?

It turns out support for increased property taxes is correlated with how respondents ranked local public schools. Those that viewed their public schools more favorably were more likely to support property tax hikes and be confident that increased funding would improve schools. Conversely, those that rated local schools lower were more resistant to hikes and skeptical that increased funding would result in improvements. While two-thirds of those that gave their local schools an A grade were confident that increased funding would help, only 17% of those that gave their schools an F agreed.

In what PDK calls its most “lopsided” result, Americans overwhelmingly preferred keeping a failing school open to closure, 84% to 14%, but 62% favored replacing teachers and administrators to increasing funding in the turnaround. Americans, it seems, agree that increased funding will not improve underperforming schools. Furthermore, 26% of those that gave their schools a failing grade thought school closure was the more appropriate response, compared to only 13% of the general public.

Listing funding as a problem also does not necessarily result in support for increased property taxes. In the latest poll, 19% of respondents cited school funding as the biggest problem, down from a record high of 36% in 2010 and 2011, the peak of the recession years. But the Education Next poll demonstrates that support for property tax hikes declined dramatically during those years.

Another reason so many respondents cited “lack of funding” as a major problem? The open-ended nature of the question allowed up to three responses, increasing the likelihood that many respondents would include school funding as one of their answers. That only 19% of respondents included it seems low given that that majority of respondents favored property tax increases. Moreover, the EdNext pollsters theorize that support for increases in funding rises in election years, when this issue is most hotly debated, and it’s therefore unsurprising that it was seen as the biggest problem in public education.

An important caveat to these findings is that support for increased funding dramatically drops when an individual is informed of real spending. In the EdNext poll, uninformed respondents estimated average per-pupil spending at $7,020, a little more than half the actual average of $12,440. When uninformed respondents were asked if they favored an increase in school funding, 61% supported the idea; when a separate group of respondents was told the actual per-pupil expenditure, support dropped to 45%.

These results lead to a number of conclusions. First, support for increased schooling taxation comes disproportionately from the wealthy, already well-performing public schools, where parents are confident that spending is put to good use. The poll results shouldn’t be seen as supporting property tax hikes in communities with failing schools where the effectiveness of more funding is suspect. Second, because the public appears uncertain about funding as a tool to turn around schools, perhaps a better alternative is to give parents more control over their children’s education via school choice policies, as minority groups favor. Finally, these studies together reinforce the importance of a well-informed public. Support for spending increases drops for all groups—teachers, Republicans, Democrats, and the general public—when given accurate information.

Despite large numbers of respondents favoring property tax increases, the PDK poll demonstrates a broad skepticism of more funding for failing schools. And there is no powerful  link between spending and academic performance, making it heartening that the public appears intuitively aware of this.

The Public Speaks on Curriculum Standards: “Meh”

Back-to-school season is also education survey time—Jason Bedrick and I examined the Education Next poll last week—and today we get the latest Phi Delta Kappa poll. For decades the PDK survey was done in conjunction with Gallup but is not this year. It also dropped questions specifically about such hot-button topics as vouchers and the Common Core. Maybe avoiding specific mention of the latter explains an interesting finding: the public’s response to curriculum standards is quite, well, blah.

The pollsters asked several questions about standards—especially an un-specified “new set of educational standards”—and inquired what parents thought of their effects.

First, when members of the public were asked if they thought the standards in their local public schools addressed “the things students need to succeed in their adult lives,” 27 percent answered that they addressed them “extremely” or “very” well, and 30 percent said “not so” or “not at all” well. 40 percent gave the middling “somewhat” answer. Ho-hum.

The University of Chicago Has No Room for Crybullies

I’m delighted to join the many people spreading the news today that the University of Chicago, my graduate alma mater, is bucking the trend at colleges and universities across the country by refusing to pander to the delicate but demanding “snowflakes” and “crybullies” who’ve tyrannized American campuses over the past few years. As the Daily Beast reports, Dean of Students John Ellison told the incoming class of 2020 “something they wouldn’t hear on most other liberal-arts campuses: ‘We do not support so called “trigger warnings”… and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces.”’” At Chicago, students are expected to live “the life of the mind.”

Just yesterday Nick Rosenkranz posted in this space about the efforts he and colleagues over at Heterodox Academy are taking to encourage greater ideological diversity in academia. On both of these closely connected issues I’ve spoken at some length and in detail—it’s not a pretty picture out there. But this silliness could not go on forever—not at these prices. Let’s hope that these are signs of changes in the offing.

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.