A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 2

The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. Our initial comments were posted Tuesday. The next installment is here.


Rev. DarbyRev. Joe Darby

First Response

Since this is a “dialogue,” let me focus on something that Andrew said in his first installment – that public education “…has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field.” I take that as a defense of the “free market,” where competition allegedly leads to quality and success. I don’t think that the “free market” is the best model for education. To quote African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop John Hurst Adams, one of my mentors, “the free market has limitations when it comes to the human condition, because it’s an amoral concept that ‘lets the market decide’ who swims and who gets swept away.” That’s applicable to the standard argument that private school choice would improve public schools through “competition.”

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Public funds going to private schools would revive that tradition, for every tax dollar that “follows” a child to private schools in tough economic times will lead to understaffed and under-equipped public schools. Public school funding is set by legislators who are well aware that their constituents without children in the schools are loathe to fund them, and who’ve catered to those constituents by cutting funding for public education. There can be no true “competition” between public schools that only receive public funds and private schools that would have public and private funds at their disposal, for the free market turns on available capital.

The economic crisis now rocking markets in our nation and the world is also instructive. That crisis was, at least in part, created by policies that deregulated the free market and promoted not only innovation, but sheer greed which crafted a shaky, “house of cards” economy that has collapsed and taken people down with it. The lesson now, as it was during the Great Depression, is that unregulated free market activity can have disastrous results. I believe that the current financial crisis is also an element in the push for Private School Tuition Tax Credits. Many private schools are hurting because parents who can no longer afford high tuition are considering public school alternatives – private schools are hungry for the “bailout” that the pending South Carolina legislation would provide.

America makes the lofty claim in our Pledge of Allegiance to be “one nation under God.” If we’re serious about that, then we should heed the words of the Jesus who is seen as the Messiah by Christians and as God’s prophet by Jews and Muslims. He said that the Creator’s standard for right behavior includes equitable treatment for all people. That equity is at the heart of public education but is not a factor in free market competition, where the vagaries of the market decide outcomes and impact success in life. I said so six years ago in one of my conversations with my friend Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina. He laid out his argument for private school choice over more funding for public schools in familiar, logical and compellingly Libertarian free market terms, but he never answered one question that I asked – why can’t we provide good public schools because it’s simply the right thing to do?

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The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew CoulsonAndrew Coulson

First Response

Glad you brought up the objective studies, Joe, but you only mentioned one of them. I recently collected every scientific study I could find comparing outcomes between public and private schools (Journal of School Choice, vol. 3, no. 1). I came up with 65 studies that compare student achievement, cost-effectiveness, parental satisfaction and other measures. The results overwhelmingly favor private schooling. What’s more, the least regulated, most-market-like school systems stand out as the best of all (here’s an earlier version of the paper).

Interestingly, there’s one study I couldn’t include because it wasn’t released ‘til a few weeks ago. It’s the 3rd year DC voucher study (the successor to the one you mentioned), and it shows that students who’d been attending private schools for the full 3 years are 2 school-years ahead of their public school peers in reading! Even including the kids who’ve only been in the program for 1 year, the vouchers are now producing significant gains.

And there’s no evidence that school choice weakens the public schools. Professor Jay Greene looks at this question in his book Education Myths. He finds that public schools either improve under school choice programs, or are unaffected. So even the families that don’t choose to attend private schools will likely be better off, and certainly no worse off, than they are now.

Who would be the biggest beneficiaries of the SC education tax credit bill? Low-income kids. As noted in the preamble at the top of this column, only low-income families would be eligible for tuition aid from Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The amount of aid each family could receive from an SGO is not capped, so that assistance can be allocated based on individual need. Pennsylvania already has such a tuition-assistance program, serving over 40,000 students with bi-partisan support.

Parents who earn enough to owe state taxes would be eligible for direct tax credits to offset their own kids’ education costs, but those credits are explicitly capped (at around $2,800, if their kids are not zoned to attend a “failing” public school – more if they are).

It’s certainly reasonable to wonder how poor families would cope with transportation and any non-tuition costs, but we can just look at how scholarship tax credit programs are working in states like Pennsylvania and Florida: some schools provide transportation, some are within walking distance, some families form carpools, and others use public transportation. Tens of thousands of poor children manage to get to their private schools under these programs every day, and to obtain uniforms for the schools that require them. Many others do so even without scholarships.

As for wanting to start by fully funding public schools… we’re already there. The 2007-08 budget for Charleston public schools lists total expenditures at over $548 million (p. 21) for 40,202 students (p. 4). That’s $13,650 per pupil – more than the state and national averages, which are both about $12,000. These numbers are vastly higher than the median U.S. private school tuition, which the Department of Education reported as $3,500 in 2003-04 [the most recent year available]. And only about a fifth of private school revenue comes from sources other than tuition. Even if tuitions have doubled since then, they’d still be barely half of Charleston’s per pupil spending.

I’ll have to wait ‘til next time to address your concern about the history of school choice, since I’ve run out of word count. In the meantime, here’s a thought:

There’s nothing wrong with trying to fix the public schools. But you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

School Choice Going, Going, Gone Bipartisan (In Some States)

The USA Today takes note of the fact that support for school choice is growing among Democratic, often black, politicians:

While vouchers will likely never be the clarion call of Democrats, they’re beginning to make inroads among a group of young black lawmakers, mayors and school officials who have split with party and teachers union orthodoxy on school reform. The group includes Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams.

I’d only add that this broadening support is hardly limited to black Democrats, and that support for education tax credits is spreading even more quickly among Democrats. And while choice might never become a Democratic “clarion call,” it just might become the new consensus among serious education reformers in both parties.

For instance, a Democrat-controlled and, I assume, mostly white legislature in Rhode Island passed a donation tax credit. And Democratic governor and legislature in Iowa raised their tax credit dollar cap by 50 percent in 2007. The paper mentions black mayor Corey Booker’s support for school choice in New Jersey, but the white, former Democratic state party chair, and current state Senator Ray Lesniak is also pushing for a donation tax credit bill.

The model case is Florida. When the Florida legislature passed its education tax credit program to fund private school choice in 2001, only one Democrat supported the measure. Last year, the state legislature expanded the program with the votes of one third of statehouse Democrats, half the black caucus and the entire Hispanic caucus.

In the past few weeks, nearly a third of Senate Democrats and half of House Democrats voted to significantly expand the program’s revenue base. Virtually all Republicans did the same, and Republican Governor Crist is expected to sign the bill soon. In all, 43 percent of state Democratic legislators in Florida voted in favor of education tax credits.

The toothpaste is out, and the teachers unions can’t put it back in with all the dues money in the world.

Obama’s Broken Toaster

APTOPIX ObamaRecently on Leno, President Obama compared some financial products to an exploding toaster. His words:

When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there’s a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there’s no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you’re going to be protected.

So this is – the need for getting back to some common sense regulations – there’s nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there’s enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren’t taken advantage of, and taxpayers, after the fact, aren’t taken advantage of.

While I think we would all like to get to “common sense” regulation – arriving at such is unlikely if one’s understanding of the very problem is flawed, as seems to be the president’s.

Unlike broken toasters, mortgages and credit cards do not fail to pay themselves – borrowers fail to pay, almost always for a reason that has little to do with the characteristics of the loan itself. There is a wealth of empirical data documenting the causes of bankruptcy, mortgage and credit card default – much of which has been assembled by those on the left (take a look at any of Professor Elizabeth Warren’s work on bankruptcy). The fact is that the number one cause of all of these events is job loss. If the president has a plan for a mortgage that protects you from losing your job, I would love to see how that’s going to work. After job loss, comes unexpected health bills and divorce.

My hope had been that Obama’s talk about broken toasters was just a little pandering and could be safely ignored. However, judging from the structure of his foreclosure relief plan, he appears to believe that if we just lower the borrower’s rate, all would be saved. The sad truth is that his foreclosure plan does nothing for those really in need – who have lost their job for instance – they are simply out of luck. But then helping people who have lost their job would undermine the argument that it is all the fault of the product.

Handicapping the Justicial Horserace

The increase in chatter in Washington about Justice Souter’s replacement is a clear signal  that pundits have gotten about as much mileage as they can over speculation and want to have an actual nominee to dissect.

Even though the administration has been evaluating candidates since the inauguration (and before), there’s no real reason for President Obama to announce a replacement before the Court’s term ends in late June.

The only limiting factor is that the president needs to have a new justice in place by the time the Court resumes hearing cases in October. So, clearly, this politically savvy president will be weighing his legislative priorities against the relative amount of political capital he’ll have to spend to confirm possible nominees. Similarly, Republicans seem to be keeping their powder dry, hopefully in preparation for a serious public debate of competing judicial philosophies and theories of constitutional interpretation.

As far as handicapping goes, the smart money is now on Solicitor General Elena Kagan—because she was recently confirmed by a comfortable margin, has significant support in the conservative legal establishment, and is young (49)—but don’t count out either Judge Diane Wood or Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Or dark horse candidates like Senator Claire McCaskill. It’s really any woman’s ballgame at this point, and will be until Barack Obama—who famously holds his cards close to his vest—announces his pick, on his time.

For a geometric discussion (X-axis = desirable criteria; Y-axis = confirmability) of the above political calculus, see here.

Do I Agree with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?

Well, sort of. From today’s USA Today:

Duncan recently acknowledged D.C.’s woes, calling its public schools “a national disgrace.” But he added: “We have to be much more ambitious for ourselves and have higher expectations — we have to help every child in D.C. The answer is not vouchers for a few. It’s massive change, massive reform for all, absolutely as quickly as possible.”

Yes! They are a disgrace, and we do need quick, massive change from the current government-run system!

So Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports broad-based education tax credits or a massive expansion of the DC voucher program, right? What radical change! He is the heroic reformer everyone says he is!

Oh … wait … by “massive reform for all, absolutely as quickly as possible,” he means another pipe-dream 5-year plan to brow-beat a huge, unwieldy, and ossified government school bureaucracy into thriving mediocrity while killing a voucher program that actually brings immediate improvements to the more than 1,700 students who won the lottery for educational opportunity in the District.

Way to set your ambitions so high, Arne!

We’re Not Talking about Socialized Medicine — I Swear

According to an unnamed “top White House official”:

It’s hard to talk about socialized medicine when the hospitals, doctors, insurers, the private sector players are working with us at the White House.

Let me get this straight.  A president who is ideologically committed to socialized medicine is negotiating with an industry that’s committed to making as much money as possible off of socialized medicine.

But don’t worry.  If there’s one thing they’re not discussing, it’s socialized medicine.