The Legacy of Andrew Coulson

February 8, 2018

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the tragically early passing of Andrew J. Coulson, the brilliant and (in the words of his beloved wife, Kay) “happy, effusive, relentlessly upbeat” education reformer, policy analyst, and director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

IMHO, the best tribute we can pay to Andrew is to reflect on his ideas. Although he didn’t live to see it, PBS ran his magnum opus documentary, School, Inc., about how and why our education system lacks the progress, innovation, and efficiency gains seen in nearly every other industry. Last year, the Friedmanesque three-part series won the Anthem Film Festival’s award for Excellence in Filmmaking – Documentary Feature, and now Free to Choose Media is making the documentary available to view for free online.

The Cato Institute has also made Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas, available to download as a free e-book.

Andrew’s voice is greatly missed in today’s debates over education policy, but as Neal McCluskey wrote, “Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward.”

 

NOTE: This post has been updated to clarify that it is Free to Choose Media that is making School, Inc. available to watch free online.

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Sweet Victory in the Peach State

February 8, 2016

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Image: Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice, right, wields his legal fiddle to defend school choice.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Great news from the Peach State, where a superior court judge dismissed a constitutional challenge to Georgia’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law. The Institute for Justice intervened to defend the law on behalf of five tax-credit scholarship recipients. Currently, more than 13,000 Georgia students receive tax-credit scholarships to attend the schools of their choice.

School choice opponents alleged that the STC violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the state from publicly funding religious schools, among other provisions. However, citing precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court and several state supreme courts, Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams held that tax-credit eligible donations constitute private funds, not public expenditures:

Courts that have already considered whether a tax credit is an expenditure of public revenue have answered this question in the negative. Of particular importance is Arizona Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 131 S. Ct. 1436 (2011), where the United States Supreme Court found that taxpayers lacked standing to challenge a scholarship tax credit program under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution that was almost identical to the Program at issue here. Like Georgia’s Program, the Arizona program provided that taxpayers could receive a credit for donations made to independent scholarship organizations which then provided scholarships for students to attend private schools. […] Plaintiffs have not presented any arguments for why this Court should not follow this persuasive authority.

The fact that tax-credit eligible donations are private funds is the primary reason that STC laws have a perfect track record in the state courts thus far. It’s also why tax credits are the most liberty-friendly means of financing educational choice, as the late, great Andrew J. Coulson never tired of reminding us (much to Greg’s chagrin). In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s similar ruling five years ago, Andrew wrote:

The rationale underlying the Court’s ruling highlights a unique advantage that tax credits have over other ways of funding education: they expand both freedom of choice for parents and freedom of conscience for taxpayers.

Plaintiffs had argued that cutting a person’s taxes is equivalent to spending government money, and so taxpayers were being compelled to support religion when credits were used for donations to religious [scholarship organizations]. The Court said, “that is incorrect.”

Unlike the funding of public schools, which is compulsory for all taxpayers, participation in [a] tax credit program is voluntary. If an individual chooses not to donate to [a scholarship organization], his taxes are collected just as they have always been, and those dollars cannot be used for any sectarian purpose. Furthermore, if a taxpayer does choose to make a donation, he is free to select the STO most consistent with his own values. […]

There are other ways of funding universal choice in education, but only tax credits (either for parent’s own education expenses or for donations to [scholarship organizations]) respect the freedom of conscience of taxpayers as well as the freedom of choice of parents. If we truly wish our schools to help build strong, harmonious communities, there is no better way than to adopt such programs at the state level on a grand scale.

The opponents of educational choice are likely to appeal the judge’s decision. Let us hope their appeal meets the same fate as all of its predecessors.


It’s Not Just Government, It’s Schools, Too

January 15, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Responding to Fordham’s latest straddle, here on JPGB Matt has pointed out that we shouldn’t trust the job of judging school quality to government, and no one knows this better than Fordham (some of the time, anyway). At Cato, Andrew Coulson and Jason Bedrick point out that the existence of school choice programs inevitably crowds out non-choice-participating private schools, so if choice programs become engines of uniformity, we can kiss educational entrepreneurship and innovation goodbye. First Fordham demands state tests must bow to Common Core, then it demands private schools must bow to state tests, all the while insisting Common Core both is and is not a powerful tool for reshaping curriculum!

At the Friedman Foundation’s blog, Robert Enlow points out that Fordham is also playing both sides of the fence on whether the tests will have to be given only to choice students or to all students in the school:

Fordham even implicitly shows how its testing approach will eventually impact non-voucher private school students: “[i]f a private school’s voucher students perform in the two lowest categories of a state’s accountability system for two consecutive years, then that school should be declared ineligible to receive new voucher students until it moves to a higher tier of performance (emphasis added).”

If a private school accepting voucher students loses those students because of their low performance on state tests, how can it rejoin a school choice program without forcing all of its students to take, and perform well, on the state test?

Here’s another issue that I haven’t seen raised yet. Fordham backs up its position by pointing to the results of a survey of private schools that don’t participate in choice programs. State testing requirements came in seventh on the list of reasons why they don’t participate; demand for universal eligibility and higher choice payments were the top answers.

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

Basically the attitude revealed by the Fordham survey of non-choice-participating private schools is “we want choice, but only if it doesn’t require us to change.” Funny thing; the public monopoly blob gives us pretty much the same line.


Guest Post on RedefinED

May 21, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The RedefinED team asked me to write a response to my friends Howard Fuller and Andrew Coulson regarding the means-tested vs. universal choice debate.  Andrew and Howard, for different reasons, support a means-tested approach but I lay out my case as to why I think choice must be universal in scope and how we should approach equity and third-party payer concerns.

The issues raised by Howard and Andrew ultimately beg the question: just where is it that we are going with the parental choice movement? Success in passing some broad programs simply increases the stakes for being thoughtful about the details.

Check it out over at RedefinED.


Coulson Returns Serve to Dorn

March 19, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andrew Coulson has replied to Sherman Dorn on the productivity implosion chart. Turns out that I had been using an old version of the chart, and Professor Dorn has conceeded the larger point over the broad sweep of the spending and academic trends, but who doesn’t enjoy a tussle over methods?


Professor Dorn Dodges the Point

March 14, 2012

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(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Sherman Dorn takes issue with Andrew Coulson’s spending/NAEP chart and my use of it. Just a reminder, here it is again:

Professor Dorn infers that Andrew took a present inflation adjusted spending per pupil figure and multiplied it by 13 to arrive the inflation adjusted cost per pupil instead of adding 13 seperate spending per figure numbers.

Because we spent less in the past than we do in the present, such a proceedure would be more appropriate for a projection of the future (with an inflator) rather than a documentation of the past. Dorn correctly notes that the per pupil numbers double rather than triple as implied by the chart pointing to the NCES source data. Unless Andrew is calculating some sort of net present value type of cost, Dorn seems to be on solid ground so far.

After that, Dorn’s post gets silly by taking the log function of spending data, etc. in a successful attempt to create a far more troublesome chart based on the same data.  Dorn however is missing the forest for the trees, even if he is right.

First note the absurdity of the phrase “only doubles” in practical terms. Let it breathe a bit, twirl it around in your glass, sample the aroma of it. When you partake of it, let it set in your palate for a bit before moving on.

What does a doubling of effort look like? Well, fortunately, all the charts in the post that Dorn ignored answer that question. Here they are again:

 Yep, that looks closer to a doubling than a tripling all right, unless of course the real total cost of the average teacher has gone up rather than down over the decades. Teachers of course are a small issue compared to this:

Oh, but not to worry- all these extra employees per student have vastly improved the quality of learning for our students. Err, except…

Hey no fair! The reading scores for 17 year olds may have only gone up one point despite a doubling of spending, but the math score gains have been better!

Umm…like a two point instead of a one point gain!

Bottom line: we’ve bombed our students with extra school employees and have very little to show for it in terms of academic outputs.

Now you won’t be getting any “fake but accurate” arguments from me. Unless I get a solid explanation from Andrew, which I still might, I won’t make any further use of the chart. These other charts make the point just fine.


Charting the K-12 Productivity Implosion

March 8, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Previously on JPGB, I wrote about how the world is getting better all the time, with the notable exception of K-12 education. That post included the following chart from Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute:

So just how did we manage to pull this off? The Digest of Education Statistics illustrates how we managed it on the spending side. First, the number of teachers per pupil expanded substantially. Now I am writing this in my pajamas before having my morning caffeine, so feel free to double-check my numbers from the source.

The vast expansion of the teaching workforce is entirely overshadowed however by the truly mind-boggling expansion of the non-teacher workforce. Take special note of the ratios of teachers to non-teachers:

So the trend in the overall pupil per public school employee ratio:

So while the public school system has been busy vastly increasing employment, what has been going on with student achievement? The long-term NAEP reading trend looks like this:

 While the long-term NAEP math trend looks like this:

To sum up, we had a vast increase in the number of public school employees per student in the American public school system. In terms of outputs, we managed a two point gain in the average 17 year olds math achievement, and another point in reading. Mind you, that’s one point on a 500 point scale exam.

I’m ready to try something different.