The Future of School Choice: Bickering about Words!

July 25, 2017

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Will Flanders is right that school choice is not welfare (you heard it here first) and more broadly that school choice has not benefitted from appropriating the Rawlsian language of fairness (ditto). But he is wrong to think we would be better off making big investments in the free market movement’s language of markets and competition. I’m as big a fan of Milton as anyone (proof) but that language has all the wrong non-cognitive associations for the present moment. Flanders cites Jonathan Haidt but doesn’t seem to have learned the biggest lesson Haidt has to teach, which is that the non-cognitive content of language is more politically important than its cognitive content.

What we need is a new language of justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom that both Rawlsianism and the free-market movement used to have, say, fifty years ago, but that neither currently has in a very robust form. Much, much more about that here.


The Beginning of the End for Blaine?

June 27, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from excluding otherwise eligible religious organizations from benefitting from publicly funded programs merely because they are a religious organization. (I discussed the implications here.) However, Footnote 3 said:

This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.

So, does the case have broader implications beyond playgrounds? Interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts “delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to footnote 3,” and two additional justices, Gorsuch and Thomas, concurred in the opinion but not in the footnote, explaining:

Of course the footnote is entirely correct, but I worry that some might mistakenly read it to suggest that only “playground resurfacing” cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in and faithfully applied by the Court’s opinion. Such a reading would be unreasonable for our cases are “governed by general principles, rather than ad hoc improvisations.” […] And the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.

Today, SCOTUS has indicated that its ruling in Trinity indeed does have implications beyond the playground. The Court has vacated the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision that struck down the Douglas County voucher program based on the state’s Blaine Amendment, and ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider the case “in light of [the] Trinity Lutheran” decision.

If Trinity Lutheran indeed does apply to school vouchers (Footnote 3 notwithstanding), then it could spell the beginning of the end for the odious Blaine Amendments.


Two Court Cases Plus Two Voucher Studies Equals Four School Choice Wins

June 26, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

There’s so much good news for school choice today, it’s hard to know where to begin.

A Legal Victory in the Peach State

I woke up this morning to the news that the Georgia Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that private donations to private nonprofit scholarship organizations that help children attend private schools are (shocker!) private funds, even if the donors receive a tax credit:

We also reject the assertion that plaintiffs have standing because these tax credits actually amount to unconstitutional expenditures of tax revenues or public funds. The statutes that govern the Program demonstrate that only private funds, and not public revenue, are used.

I discuss the case and its implications in greater detail here.

SCOTUS Strikes Down Discrimination Against Religion — But Saves Blaine for Another Day

A couple hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri that it is unconstitutional to exclude religious organizations from benefiting from secular aid programs that are otherwise neutral with respect to religion. As Neal McCluskey explains, the court didn’t go as far as many school choice advocates would have liked, but it is unambiguously a step in the right direction. Writing for the majority, Justice Roberts wrote:

It is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel. But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” […] As the Court put it more than 50 years ago, “[i]t is too late in the day to doubt that the liberties of religion and expression may be infringed by the denial of or placing of conditions upon a benefit or privilege.” […]

Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character. The “imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deter[s] or discourage[s] the exercise of First Amendment rights.” […] The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant. [citations removed]

The Court made sure to note that it was not overturning Locke v. Davey, in which the Court held that it did not violate the Free Exercise Clause for the state of Washington to deny funding to a student who was attending a post-secondary religious school to pursue a “devotional theology degree.” Although the “selective funding program” generally allowed students to attend both religious or secular colleges, the funds couldn’t be used to pursue a purely religious education for the purposes of becoming a religious minister. In Trinity, SCOTUS clarified that “Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do—use the funds to prepare for the ministry.”

Left open is the question of whether the state can prohibit families from using school vouchers at religious schools. If the voucher program is intended to give parents more choices among schools that teach reading, math, science, etc., then seemingly it shouldn’t matter whether school that teach those subjects have a religious affiliation. Indeed, Justices Gorsuch and Thomas clearly indicated they wished the majority had gone further (“the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else”), while Justice Breyer likened the playground resurfacing program at issue in the case to churches benefiting from police or fire protection, but saw no need to address the question of private school tuition. Tomorrow SCOTUS will announce whether it will consider the Douglas County, Colorado voucher case, which would give it the opportunity to answer that question.

Louisiana and Indiana Voucher Studies: Neutral to Positive Outcomes After a Few Years

I’ve already run long and I know that others will be writing about them soon, so I won’t dive deep into the Louisiana and Indiana voucher studies today. In short, they each find that the negative impacts on test scores that voucher students experience in the first couple years of participating in a voucher program disappear by the third year. Indeed, Indiana finds some positive effects in years three and four.

Given that states spend significantly less per pupil on voucher students than at district schools, performing as well or better after just a few years in the program should be exciting news for choice supporters. However, I confess that I am uneasy. Both Indiana and Louisiana mandate that private schools administer the state test to voucher students and I am concerned about how that mandate might warp how schools educate children — a concern I have about both district and private schools. Test scores measure only a small slice of the value that parents want schools to provide their children, and as Jay pointed out yet again yesterday, there’s a disconnect between educational measures and life outcomes. It’s great if school choice improves test scores, but the ability to choose shouldn’t be predicated on raising test scores — especially if doing so creates perverse incentives that distort education.

In summary: Three cheers for the court victories and one cheer for the voucher studies.

 

 


“Public Schooling” Is a Myth

June 5, 2017
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The answer is the same for the question: “Do ‘public schools’ serve all students?” Image credit: Snopes.

(Guest Post by Robert Enlow)

Some urban legends just won’t die no matter how many times they are disproven. My favorite is the one that sucked me in during college—the one where Phil Collins wrote the song “In the Air Tonight” after watching a friend refuse to help someone drowning. I admit that one had me going for a while.

In K-12 education, there is an even greater urban legend: that public schools accept all students. This legend is a huge porker that has been repeated so many times that almost everyone believes it is true.

But it isn’t, and it never has been.

First, people in power have always gamed the system. The powerful do it in our nation’s capital, according to a  report released recently by the U.S. Inspector General. The report found that the former D.C. Public School Superintendent, Kaya Henderson, regularly helped her wealthy constituents and friends game the public school lottery.

They do it in New York, where Deputy Mayor Richard Buery used every trick in the book to get his son into a prestigious public school.

And they are doing it like crazy in Chicago, where some public schools regularly over-inflated their enrollment numbers so they could get more money.

I can hear the wailing chorus now: There may be problems with some schools showing favoritism, but every public school really does accept every kid who comes to their doors. That’s the public school way.

But is it? What about the massive increase in selective admission public schools or magnet schools? In Chicago, selective schools enroll kids based on test scores, and they are now a huge chunk of the high school marketplace. Across the country, according to data at the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of selective enrollment magnet schools grew from 2,722 in 2010-11 to 3,254 in 2013-14. That is an increase of more than 500 schools in just three years.

And what about some of our most vulnerable special needs students? Surely, every single public school accepts every single student with disabilities. Think again. Public schools often contract with private schools or private companies to serve children who they can’t serve. According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics almost 260,000 children in America, or 4 percent of all special needs students, fall into this category.

Moreover, any quick review of the headlines will show numerous stories showing that not every public school is adequately serving every child with special needs even though they have a legal obligation to do so. The simple fact is that not every public school is equipped—or required—to serve every type of disability. Public school districts can build public schools that specialize in children with specific disabilities such as autism. Or they can create alternative schools.

So, let’s not forget what most of us know but won’t admit: that it’s okay to choose private schools as long as the public schools do the choosing.

The legend says that public schools accept all comers. That is simply not true, and it never has been.

In fact, the entire system is set up to ensure that public schools don’t really accept all comers. That’s because attendance in public schools is based on geography—on where people live. What this means in practice is that public schools accept all kids who look like each other or who live in similar types of houses and whose family income is the same. K-12 public schools are more segregated by race and income than ever before.

And do you know what happens when a parent tries to cross the public school line or lies about where they live to go to a better school? The school districts use public dollars to hire private investigators to tail parents to check where they actually live. Then they send them to jail.

Not every student can actually attend every public school, and not every public school accepts and serves every child.

It’s time for a serious debate on how we can best serve all kids, regardless of where they live or where they go to school. And it’s past time for the urban legend that public schools serve all to die.

Robert C. Enlow is President and CEO of EdChoice.


Against Federal School Choice (Even Tax-Credit Scholarships)

May 16, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective has posted the second of my two articles making the case against any federal school choice program that goes beyond D.C. schools – or other legitimately federal jurisdictions (other territories, military bases, etc.). This is only my own opinion; I recognize the reasons why others, including at EdChoice, are supportive of federal choice or are at least fed-curious. But I’m here to make the case in opposition.

Having already argued against federal vouchers, through Title I or by other means…

If we want to continue living in a democratic republic and not in a technocratic oligarchy, we should be fighting tooth and nail to resist the process of federal takeover, not strengthening it…[Moreover,] it would be the states, not the federal government, which would create systems for parents to access choice through Title I portability. And not just the states, but the education bureaucracies of the states. So the bureaucrats most directly threatened by school choice would be the ones designing the programs. In other words, these programs would be designed to fail.

…in my latest article I argue against federal tax-credit scholarships:

The idea behind federalism is that governance should be kept as close as possible to local communities. That is partly because big, distant legislatures and bureaucracies are not likely to serve people well if they’re not directly connected to them. And that’s still going to be a problem even if you do find a clever way to circumvent the Constitution’s legal barriers to national education policy…

I never thought I’d live to see freedom-loving activists demanding to have the future of school choice put into the hands of the IRS. I feel like Rip Van Winkle. What did I miss here?

Federal choice of any kind also involves a sacrifice of moral legitimacy, which is destructive for any policy and fatal to a reform movement:

Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk from my conservative friends about how wrong it is when distant, powerful elites who are culturally alienated from the population at large shove laws down our throats that we regard as unjust. The question is, do we dislike that because we would rather it was our distant, powerful elites imposing our preferred laws upon populations from whom we are culturally alienated, and who view those laws as unjust? Or because elites shoving things down people’s throats is inherently wrong, whoever does it?

I also canvas the danger we run of a high-profile, national political loss should the bill fail, and other fun topics.

The school choice movement has gained enormous ground by focusing on the states. Let’s stick with what works and not sell our birthright for a D.C. mess.


Bedrick BOOOOM at Bradley

May 1, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As the inevitable breach between technocratic and choice reforms looms larger and larger, seems like a great moment for an ICYMI on Jason’s appearance at the 2017 Bradley Symposium. Jason argues that – well, that a breach between technocratic and choice reform is inevitable, and we ought to embrace choice fearlessly. Check it out!


Would School Choice Segregate Well-Off Students?

April 12, 2017

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(Guest post by Martin Lueken)

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the nation’s Secretary of Education is shining a national spotlight on educational choice. It has also drawn attention from school choice skeptics and opponents and a flurry of criticisms about choice with it.

A recent report by Halley Potter of the Century Foundation claims that educational choice increases ethnic segregation. Never mind that it misinterpreted a study on Louisiana by Anna Egalite, Jonathan Mills, and Patrick Wolf (you can find Egalite’s rejoinder here).

But ethnic segregation is not the only kind of segregation about which concerns are raised. Opponents also argue that choice policies will lead to “creaming,” in which well-off students disproportionately choose to participate in choice programs, leaving public schools worse off.

These claims are making a prediction about which students and families will respond more to the offer of an ESA or voucher. Economists use the term elasticity to describe this responsiveness. In the context of school choice, for a given change in the price of private schooling (which is what ESAs and vouchers essentially do), a higher elasticity means that a larger number of students will respond by enrolling in or leaving a given school.

The analytic challenges involved in estimating elasticities of demand for private schooling are substantial because it is difficult for researchers to obtain causal estimates. Fortunately, a team of researchers conducted a study which speaks to the issue of school choice’s probably effects on this kind of segregation, and its analysis produced some interesting findings.

Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan, Higgy winner Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Danielle Li of Harvard estimate the price elasticity of demand for private schooling. This team of researchers could observe differences in responsiveness to price among families with different backgrounds.

In a finding with huge relevance to the school choice debate, they conclude that families “with lower levels of parental education are about over four times as price elastic than other families.” In the words of the researchers:

The results indicate that vouchers would tend to increase the share of private school students who come from families with relatively low levels of parental education.

Moreover:

These results suggest that vouchers would increase the representation of low- and middle-income families at private schools.

Other model specifications “indicate that families with the highest predicted probability of private school attendance are the least sensitive to price” (p. 29).

The authors conclude:

These results suggest that a voucher program would disproportionately induce into private schools those who, along observable dimensions such as race, ethnicity, income and parental education, are dissimilar from those who currently attend private school. This is in marked contrast to the assumption made in previous studies… that the new students that vouchers would induce into private school would look demographically similar to current private school students.

…Overall, it is those families who (along observable dimensions) are least like the current population of private school customers that are most sensitive to price, suggesting that vouchers would substantially alter the socioeconomic composition of private schools.

While this study provides one useful data point for policy makers who are considering introducing or expanding educational choice in their states, policy makers should also consider information generated by studies that have already measured the impact of educational choice on segregation. The most rigorous studies available examined Louisiana’s voucher program, where researchers found that the program reduced segregation. Other studies found that school choice programs move students into less segregated schools in D.C. and Cleveland; results in Milwaukee either find no difference or suggest a positive effect. When one weighs the overall evidence about the impact of private school choice on segregation, a picture develops where findings from empirical research on school choice programs bolster the predictions suggested by Dynarski, Gruber, and Li’s findings.

These studies suggest that empowering parents to choose would change private schools. And empirical research on private school choice’s effects on segregation are largely positive. For those who value diversity and empowering parents, increasing educational options is a good thing.

Martin Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Education Finance and Policy at EdChoice.