Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Real Educational Choice Debate

The core issue of the public-policy debate about school choice is not money. It’s the competing visions over who has the right and responsibility for the education and upbringing of children. The premise of the U.S. Department of Education, which was restored to a Cabinet-level department in 1979, is that the government knows best.

That is not a new idea. Speaking a year before the department was originally created in 1867, Rep. Samuel Moulton of Illinois said it would be “a pure fountain from which a pure stream can be poured upon all the States. We want a controlling head by which the conflicting systems in the different States can be harmonized, by which there can be uniformity. ... I take the high ground that every child (is) entitled to an education at the hands of somebody, and that this ought not be left to the caprice of individuals or (the) States so far as we have any power to regulate it.”

Flash forward more than 150 years. On April 7 Arizona enacted what is being hailed as “the most expansive choice program in the country”: a universal education savings account (ESA) program that will be phased in over the next few school years to include all students.

The concept behind the program is simple. Parents who don’t want to send their children to public, district or charter schools can simply inform the state of their preference, and 90 percent of the state base funding that would have gone to one of those schools is deposited into their children’s ESAs instead. That would be approximately $5,600 for each non-disabled student. Students from low-income families would receive 100 percent of the state base funding.

ESA funds may be used to pay for tuition, textbooks, online courses, tutoring, special-education therapies and other educational expenses. Parents can roll over unused funds for future educational expenses. Regular expense reporting and auditing will help ensure that parents use the money as intended.

Most important, putting parents in charge will empower them to choose not just where but how their children are educated, which will allow unprecedented customization of education.

This is a far cry from the one-size-fits-all vision animating the Department of Education. Parental choice challenges the reigning notion of who the real education experts are: it favors parents over far-off government bureaucrats. That in a nutshell is the real education debate—not money, since parental choice programs offer families options that are far less costly than public schools.

Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb exposes as smoke and mirrors the doomsday predictions that parental choice programs would “starve” public, that is, government-managed, schools. In fact, Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates that the newly enacted ESA program will save the state $3.4 million in fiscal year 2021. Robb’s column is particularly timely since Arizona is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its flagship tax-credit scholarship program, which also makes all Arizona students eligible for privately financed tuition scholarships.

As Robb explains, the arguments over money have always been a “diversion.” He writes, “Instead, the debate is rooted in different views of the role of government in educating children. The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.”

Those who favor parental choice “believe that the pool should be used to provide the best educational opportunity for each child as determined by their parents. ... The focus should be on what is best for each child individually.”

In contrast, Robb writes, parental choice opponents “believe that some children should be used by the government as sociological chess pieces. Their access to the common pool should be limited to the schools ... opponents believe they should be attending, even if their parents believe (those schools are) suboptimal.”

In other words, government control at all cost.

But if quality education is the priority, then we need to put the real experts back in charge—children’s parents.


Trump Education Secretary DeVos Says It’s Time to ‘Start Fresh’ on Higher Education

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated during a speech in Salt Lake City on Tuesday that instead of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, lawmakers should consider a “fresh start.”

Yes, Congress should consider alternatives to the Higher Education Act, which authorizes all federal higher education spending such as student loans and grants.

Enacted in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson, the Higher Education Act has undergone countless amendments that pass problems on to future generations. As the secretary said, “Why wouldn’t we start afresh and talk about what we need in this century and beyond for educating and helping our young people learn?”

Indeed, higher education badly needs to be adapted to the changing requirements of the American workforce. Here are just a few ways that Congress can give the higher education sector the fresh start it so badly needs.

Decouple Federal Financing From Accreditation

The federal government’s control over our accreditation system is not a particularly popular topic, but it has dramatic consequences on the ability of American universities to thrive and innovate.

The federal government currently has sole discretion in the recognition of accreditors, who then serve as gatekeepers of federal student aid and other institutional financing. This solidifies the federal government’s ability to determine which education is worthy of accreditation and which is not. Unfortunately, this de facto federal system of accreditation has limited the ability of the higher education sector to grow and adapt to the changing needs of our workforce and the economy.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., have put forward the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act (HERO), which would allow states to opt out of the current federal accrediting structure.

States could recognize their own accreditors, including members of the business community. The legislation would also allow states to break apart the current binary accrediting model, and let the business community, trade groups, nonprofits, and other entities to put their stamp of approval on individually credentialed courses or curricula.

These reforms would give students a better idea of the market value of the education they are receiving, grant more flexibility with student loan dollars, and create a pipeline between the universities and the job market.

Consolidate Federal Lending

Under the Obama administration, the federal government dramatically increased its role in originating and servicing student loans. The near-monopoly that the federal government now has over the student loan market presents many problems, the most pressing of which is mounting evidence suggesting federal aid leads to increases in college tuition.

As my colleague Jamie Hall and I discuss in our recent report, the five current federal loan programs should be collapsed into a single loan option under the current terms of the Graduate Stafford Loan. Additionally, Congress should place an annual and lifetime cap on student lending, thereby restoring fiscal responsibility to the loan program. We anticipate such reforms would lead to savings of $33 billion over the next 10 years.

Remove Burdensome Regulations

Under the Obama administration, several burdensome regulations were placed on institutions of higher education, particularly those in the for-profit sector.

Regulations should at the very least be sector neutral in their application, but a better approach would be to remove these barriers to innovation altogether.

Borrower defense to repayment, for example, opens institutions up to being sued by students who feel they have been defrauded by their university (a potentially slippery slope in the future). While longstanding institutions with large endowments may be better insulated from this regulation, new actors who are trying to build their business will have trouble coming up with the line of credit required to protect against such suits.

This is just one example of the many ways that burdensome regulations drain resources from universities and distract from the business of educating students.

In considering the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, policymakers should follow DeVos’ advice and develop new policy proposals that will help improve the quality of higher education while putting downward pressure on prices. These reforms would be a significant step in achieving that goal.


School choice is the only real choice for states

By Natalia Castro

Democrats love school choice, that is, as long as only their students get to choose. Luckily, President Donald Trump is leveling the playing field for students in his backyard, with hopes that legislators around the country will do the same.

Trump and Congress acted early this month to increase funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program — the only federally funded voucher program in the nation and largely viewed as a case study for the success of school choice.

And we know it works, because even Democrats who traditionally oppose this legislation have skirted the rules to get their children into it. Two appointed officials working for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) are currently under investigation for providing the mayor’s office members preferential treatment to avoid the lottery system and attend voucher schools.

This is no surprise considering Vice President Mike Pence explained, “While only 69 percent of D.C. public-school students graduated from high school last year, a stunning 98 percent of scholarship recipients walked across the stage to receive their diploma. And 86 percent of those graduates were accepted into college to continue their education and to continue climbing the ladder of opportunity.”

The D.C. program has had resounding success, and it is not alone. Programs that incentivize school choice, from vouchers to charter schools, have had success in local districts across the country.

In Indiana, a state with one of the most accessible voucher programs for impoverished students, more than half of the states voucher recipients have never had to attend a public school. The Washington Post of Dec. 2016 found that, “Indiana’s program has succeeded in reaching children who otherwise would not have the chance to attend private schools,” noting its assistance particularly to students with disabilities who often fall behind in traditional school settings.

Indiana’s program has been consistently funded since 2011; allowing the state to provide vouchers to students with household incomes up to 150 percent of the free and reduced price lunch guideline, students with Individual Education Plans (IEP) and students whose neighborhood public school is assigned an F rating.

By providing greater choice to parents, Republican legislators in Indiana have vastly improved students access to quality education.

The Boston Globe provided a four-part series detailing the success of charter schools in Boston. The series found the success of these schools most startling; charter schools produced 11 percent more graduates than Boston public schools, with a student body made of 43 percent students in poverty.

Charter schools and voucher programs have broken the gates of generational poverty, while federal education policy affecting states has consistently fallen flat.

No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act both attempted to federalize education but only reduced parent, teacher, and students choice, thus, limiting access and control of education.

The answer is clear — let states handle education. And states should implement school choice policies.

It has worked in D.C., it has worked in Indiana, it has worked in Boston, and countless other districts across the country.

In 2016, the Fordham Institute published the worst cities in the country for school choice — ranking Albany, Austin, Pittsburg, and Charlotte as the worst.

With Republican state legislators in Texas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina there is no reason for these states to continue failing their students.

Charter schools and voucher programs work. The evidence is clear and the people want school choice, so these legislators need to provide it. A solution is not going to come from the federal government, state governments must accept their responsibility and follow the Presidents trend.


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