Category Archives: Education Policy

Roundup on Jeffco Schools

jeffco-protestI’ve written four articles (three for other sites) about the protests and union-board fights in Jefferson County, Colorado:

1. Jeffco’s Julie Williams Seeks to Replace One Brand of Activist Teaching with Another

2. Political Chaos in Colorado’s Jefferson County Schools Illustrates Problems of Government Control

3. The Leftist Biases of the AP U.S. History Course

4. A Lesson on Censorship and Civil Disobedience for Jeffco Students, Teachers and Observers

What’s more, I interviewed three participants in an October 3 protest in Westminster; here’s the video:

In other news, a video from an outfit called “Jeffco Truth” indicates that at least some of the protesting students had no idea what they were protesting. And a video from Corey Scott shows that at least one of Julie Williams’s supporters wished to use the proposed review curriculum to promote religious ideology.

Jeffco’s Julie Williams Seeks to Replace One Brand of Activist Teaching with Another

julie-williamsRecently in Jefferson County, Colorado (my home county), teachers have staged “sick outs,” and students have staged walk-outs, largely to protest a proposal by school board member Julie Williams “to create a Board study committee on Common Core Standards, PARCC assessments and Advanced Placement U.S. History.” The board met on September 18 to discuss the proposal; see the “Agenda Item Details” for that meeting. (Williams’s proposal was just that, a proposal; on September 23, Jeffco schools superintendent Dan McMinimee stated that “no decisions have been made regarding the curriculum committee.”)

Unfortunately, many of Williams’s critics have badly misrepresented what her proposal states and implies (more on this below). That said, what it states and implies is highly troublesome for anyone concerned about political propagandizing supplanting a sound education in tax-funded classrooms.

Here is what the proposal actually says about how the committee should handle its curricula reviews, starting with “a review of the AP US History curriculum and elementary health curriculum”:

Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

Aspects of these statements are unobjectionable (and pointless); for example, who would disagree that a presentation of history should be “accurate” and “factual”? It’s not as though anyone is chanting, “Hey, ho, factually accurate history has got to go!” Of course, the questions of which facts are accurate, and how facts should be interpreted, make for rougher going.

Other aspects of Williams’s statements are nonsensical. For example, what does it mean that “theories should be distinguished from fact?” No one confuses a broad theory, which integrates many facts, with an isolated fact. Perhaps what Williams has in mind is that she wishes the committee to distinguish true theories which are supported by facts—as examples, the theory of gravity and the theory of evolution—from propositions or hypotheses which are not supported by facts or which are only partially supported by them. But there is the rub: Why should anyone expect a board-appointed committee to rationally evaluate such things? A controversial proposition is not going to become less controversial because some committee blesses it as a “theory” or a “fact.”

Consider another example: What does it mean for materials to “promote citizenship?” Legally, either you are a U.S. citizen, or you are not. I take it that Williams is not here concerned with persuading people without U.S. citizenship to seek such citizenship, nor with promoting legal changes that would grant U.S. citizenship to more people. What, then, is she proposing? Apparently by “citizenship” she refers to certain attitudes and beliefs that typify a citizen. But what might those be, and, again, why should anyone expect a government committee to rationally determine such things?

Other aspects of Williams’s statement clearly call for advocacy “teaching”; that is, the promotion of ideological views over the presentation of historical facts. Specifically, “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”

So here we have a “conservative” school board member asking a government-appointed committee to instruct government-funded teachers to “promote . . . respect for authority” among their students. Students are supposed to respect the “authority” . . . of what? This niggling detail is left to the imagination, but the most straight-forward reading is that government schools should promote “respect” for the authority of government. Remarkable.

Consider another aspect of the proposal. I am a full-blown capitalist, but I do not want teachers in government schools “promoting”—and what can this mean other than propagandizing in favor of?—the “free enterprise system.” Even to the degree that teachers correctly identify what the “free enterprise system” is, history teachers have no business promoting one ideology over another. Instead, history teachers should concern themselves (and I know this is controversial) with teaching history.

Of course, part of teaching history, depending on the era at hand, involves discussion of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, and the social and economic effects they have had. The problem is that how one evaluates such things, and what facts one sees as relevant in considering them, depends very much on one’s ideology. This is obvious; to see the point one need only contrast the writings of Marx and Mises on the matter. In such cases, what I hope for in teachers, whether they work in government or private schools, is that they fairly present the major lines of thought in the field, along with the relevant facts. For example, it would be wrong of a teacher to discuss only the pollution caused by the Industrial Revolution, without also discussing industry’s profound effects on rising standards of living.

Although teaching is a complex art, the basic point here is that history teachers should teach history, not promote their own (or the school board’s) particular ideological views (beyond the broad views that facts and intellectual honesty are paramount).

If there is to be a committee to review curricula, then, its purpose should be to weed out indoctrination in tax-funded classrooms, not to impose some new type of indoctrination.

Although I oppose Williams’s proposal, some of the criticism of it are far off base. Consider three examples. Jefferson County PTA President Michele Patterson said of the proposal, “Does that mean we’re going to eliminate slavery from class discussions, because that wasn’t a particular positive time of our history? Hiroshima didn’t necessarily look great.” MoveOn.org urged people to “stop public school boards from outlawing historical events such as the Civil Rights Movement, Native American genocide, and slavery.” And Caitlin MacNeal claimed at TPM that Williams’s proposal would “remove the teaching of ‘civil disobedience’ in the AP U.S. History curriculum.”

Those are ridiculous misreadings of what the proposal says. The proposal does not say that materials should not cover historical episodes involving “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law”; it says “materials should not encourage or condone [among students] civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” Further, the proposal says that “instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage,” not that they should exclude negative aspects of them.

It should be needless to say, but obviously the point needs to be explicitly stated here, that misrepresenting what Williams’s proposal says does not promote rational discussion of the matter.

Williams’s proposal is bad enough when read straight; why many of Williams’s critics also feel compelled to fabricate “facts” about it is beyond me. Political activists have no more business fabricating “facts” than history teachers do.

Of course, if we employ the “critical thinking” skills the College Board (the creator of the AP history test) is so eager for us to employ, we will note that, just because Williams’s proposal is substantially misguided, doesn’t imply that all of Williams’s concerns are misplaced or that either the College Board or the teachers’ unions are guided exclusively by the angels. But those are topics for another day.

Another Day, Another Koch Hit Piece

As I’ve written, I was once a Koch Fellow, and I’m proud of that. I spent Charles Koch’s money (among other things) researching the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine (you can find details about my related Washington Post op-ed).

But leftists hate the Kochs, or at least love to pretend they hate them. They make a convenient demon: They’re wealthy—automatically a sin for today’s nihilistic egalitarians—and they work in the energy industry—a sin for today’s nihilistic environmentalists.

The latest in an endless stream of hit pieces against the Kochs comes from Chris Young, writing for Slate. Young’s basic complaint seems to be that, because of the Kochs, it might be the case that a tiny few American students might very occasionally be exposed to ideas other than leftist ones in tax-funded schools.

Hat tip to Jeffrey Tucker (with whom I have many disagreements), who tweets about the article, “Happy day! I make an appearance a Slate hit piece. How long I’ve waited for this day! Patience pays off.” Congratulations, Jeff.

Incidentally, Charles Koch published a self-defense earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal titled, “I’m Fighting to Restore a Free Society.”

Student Arrested for Writing about Killing a Dinosaur with a Gun

Here is today’s not-an-Onion story: “A 16-year-old Summerville High School student says he was arrested Tuesday morning and suspended after writing about killing a dinosaur using a gun,” WCSC reports (hat tip to the Daily Caller). As Abby Ohlheiser reports for the Washington Post, police claim the student became “irate” when they questioned him and searched his belongings. But getting angry at such an absurd abuse of police power is entirely warranted. Who should be suspended in this case isn’t the student, but the administrators and police officers responsible for the boy’s unjust persecution.

The “Lower Expectations” of Common Core Math

Berkeley mathematics professor Marina Ratner writes for the Wall Street Journal that California’s Common Core standards “were vastly inferior to the old California standards in rigor, depth and the scope of topics. Many topics—for instance, calculus and pre-calculus, about half of algebra II and parts of geometry—were taken out and many were moved to higher grades. As a result, the Common Core standards were several years behind the old standards, especially in higher grades.” Ratner goes through several examples of absurd problems and approaches that are part of the Common Core approach. Hat tips to Breitbart.com and Warner Todd Huston. See also my article for the Objective Standard, “Common Core’s Nonsensical Math Problems Undermine Students’ Confidence.”

Will Low-Cost College Degrees Be a Game-Changer?

The University of the People’s model for low cost, online higher education could be a game-changer for high school graduates throughout the developing world, as well as for financially strapped students in wealthier nations. Students who enroll at this university don’t acquire useless humanities degrees in leftist studies; they study one of two things, business administration or computer science.

(That said, the university “is based on the [false] belief that education at a minimum cost is a basic right for all suitable applicants”—there is no “right” to other people’s resources—and I wouldn’t be surprised if students have to sit through some politically charged material despite the classes’ practical orientation.)

To date, more than 2,000 students from over 140 countries have been admitted,” the school reports. I first heard of the university today, when Ted released the video of a talk by Shai Reshef (shown in the photo), the institution’s founder.

Americans had better get real about education: Students with worthless degrees, huge student loans, and an entitlement mentality may soon face considerably stiffer competition. Over the coming decades we could witness some spectacular advances in various regions of the world, wherever people can establish governments stable enough to protect property rights and not pillage what people earn.

In related news, Michael A. LaFerrara discusses Lumni, a program that pays for students to attend traditional colleges when those students agree to repay the program a set portion of their income for a set period.

The “Common Core” Subtraction Technique Caleb Bonham Criticizes is Actually Useful

I’m a fan of Caleb Bonham’s work. However, in his recent video on Common Core, he gets a little off-track. The subject is a technique for subtracting one number from another. Bonham claims the technique in question was imposed by a Common Core curriculum and that it is overly complicated. In fact, the technique is very old and very useful. The fact that a Common Core program happens to use it is no cause to damn it.

As Bonham explains, the traditional solution to the problem, thirty-two minus twelve, is to first subtract “two minus two” in the “ones” column, then subtract “three minus one” in the “tens” column, for the correct answer of twenty.

The approach used by Common Core, by contrast, asks a student to see the following:

32 – 12 = ?
12 + 3 = 15
15 + 5 = 20
20 + 10 = 30
30 + 2 = 32
The sum of the 3, 5, 10, and 2 is 20.

Bonham thinks this approach is overly complicated, and, in some situations, he’s right. But the approach indicated is, in fact, how I often do subtraction problems in my head (except that in this case I’d jump straight from twelve to twenty, and so get eight plus ten plus two), and it’s a perfectly legitimate approach. It is also an approach that helps students reach a conceptual-level understanding of addition and subtraction, rather than merely learn rules of subtraction by rote.

Of course, in this case, because we’re dealing with two, two-digit numbers that end in the same digit, adults and more-advanced students can easily see that the difference between the numbers is some increment of ten (in this case twenty). But what to do in other cases?

To illustrate the advantage of the approach given, consider the problem thirty-one minus twelve. In this case, the rule-based approach requires that a student “borrow” from the three. It’s much easier to solve the problem in your head by saying, “eight plus ten plus one equals nineteen.”

Or consider the problem seventy-three minus twenty-eight. A good way to do this problem in your head is to think, “To go from twenty-eight to thirty I need to add two; to go from thirty to seventy I need to add forty; to go from seventy to seventy-three I need to add three. The total is forty-five.” There are other good ways to find the answer, of course, but, for me, the way I described is the easiest way to do it in your head.

The broader lesson here is that, just because something is associated with Common Core, doesn’t mean its bad.

Update: I’ve also written about a vague, nonsensical problem from a Common Core-approved test.

The Real Story of Caprock Academy

Caprock AcademyA student at Caprock Academy of Grand Junction, Colorado, shaved her head to show solidarity with a friend fighting cancer. On that part of the story, everyone agrees.

Then, as the story goes in many popular accounts, the school callously kicked the student out of school, relenting only after media exposure and nationwide outrage forced it to. That part of the story is false.

Those interested in the real story—and that seems to be very few people indeed—may read on. Part of the real story is how irresponsible reporting fed a despicable witch hunt.

True, part of the real story is how a young charter school wrote an ill-planned dress and hair code and then substantially botched a public-relations crisis.

Let us begin with Caprock’s rules. Caprock has an extensive and rigorous dress code. It states, for example, “Clothing should not be excessively tight, or body hugging.” Although the school doesn’t require official uniforms, it does require uniform dress, specifying even the color and type of clothing that may be worn at school. The section on hair reads:

Ladies’ Hair: Should be neatly combed or styled. No shaved heads. Hair accessories must be red, white, navy, black or brown. Neat barrettes, headbands and “scrunchies” are permissible. Hair should not be arranged or colored so as to draw undue attention to the student. Hair must be natural looking and conservative in its color. Radical changes in hair color during the school year are unacceptable.

Personally I think this is overly demanding; if a girl wants to die her hair bright orange, I have no problem with that. But it’s not my school, and, within reason and within Constitutional limits (it is a government-funded school, after all), I think Caprock should be able to formulate its own policies.

The intent behind the “no shaved heads” rule seems to be to prevent shocking or gang-like behavior. Surely I do do not need to point out that head shaving is also part of the ritualistic practices of some very nasty sorts of people (hence the term “skin heads”).

But the rule does not adequately take into account the fact that people can shave their heads for perfectly reasonable reasons—as to undergo cancer treatment or to support a friend with cancer.

The rule book does take this into account to a degree. The rules (of which I have a copy) explicitly mention the concern with gangs—and they also explicitly allow for “medical or religious” exemptions:

Apparel advertising tobacco, alcohol, illegal substances, and/or offensive slogans are not acceptable attire at school- sponsored activities. Clothes making statements with sexual innuendoes are not allowed. The wearing of clothing, jewelry, or a style of grooming that is identified with membership in a gang will not be tolerated in school or at any school-sponsored activity. Apparel that interferes with or endangers self or others while participating in school or school sponsored-activities is not allowed. Dress will not be worn that causes or is likely to cause disruption of the educational process. The final decision as to the safety or unsuitability of the clothing, hair or jewelry will be left up to the Deans of Students. Anyone who cannot follow the dress code for medical or religious reasons should contact the Headmaster.

As has been correctly reported, the school issued a waiver to the student in question on precisely these grounds. The problem is that the rule’s default position is to allow no shaved heads; the default position should be that a “religious or medical” condition is presumed in cases of shaved heads (I mean, it’s not like there’s a racist “skin head” problem among young Grand Junction girls). The school should change its rules to explicitly allow for religious and medical exceptions, sans waiver. [March 27 Update: After more consideration, I think the school should add the following line to its rules: “Exceptions to this dress code may be made for bonafide religious, medical, or humanitarian reasons, as evaluated by the headmaster, acting headmaster, or school administrators.”]

It might come as a surprise to many reading about the story to learn that the mother of the student in question is quite supportive of Caprock—although she sensibly argues the school should tweak its rules. Yesterday that woman, Jamie Renfro, posted the following on Facebook:

I would just like to say, from the bottom of our hearts…thank you! We never expected any of the support that we have received regarding Kamryn and Delaney. We are pleased with the decision that our school made to let Kamryn back in school today. She got up, got ready, and held her head high as she walked into her classroom this morning. To say her dad and I are proud, is a total understatement. Nate and I are so humbled from the outpouring of love and support from family, friends, and strangers. Our goal was just to get the shaved head policy at Kamryn’s school revised, and let her back in the classroom. That goal is on it’s way to being reached, with a meeting by the board being held this evening, as well as an invitation for Kamryn to return to school today. At no point during this ordeal was Kamryn’s school not supportive of her decision, nor show compassion…they just made a decision to enforce their dress code, which we were asking to be changed. They responded to all of our requests, and have treated us with nothing but respect the whole time. Now that we have seen just how much 2 little girls can change the world and touch so many hearts, we are asking for all of this attention to embrace awareness of childhood cancer. There are so many blessings that have come to light for our family the past couple of days, and we would like to use this as a platform, along with our best of friends…Delaney and Wendy, to remind everyone that Delaney is still in the fight of her life, and needs as much love, support and prayers as she can get. Thank you! Love, prayers, and hugs from the Renfro’s

Contrary to various media reports, at no point did Caprock try to deny the student a waiver. [January 27 Update: On Sunday, March 23, Jamie Renfro claimed that “the school” forbade her daughter to return to school until she grew her hair out. It is unclear to me whom Renfro contacted or what those parties discussed. On Monday the school’s administrators announced the exemption hearing; it is unclear to me when precisely they reached the decision to hold a hearing. See the notes below.] Indeed, as Renfro points out, the school was consistently supportive of the student. What the school did do is follow its stated policies and pursue a waiver.

Following is the statement that Caprock sent out March 24:

It has come to our attention that reports have been circulating concerning a Caprock Academy student who has shaved her head to show solidarity with a friend who is fighting cancer. Caprock Academy does have a detailed dress code policy, which was created to promote safety, uniformity, and a non-distracting environment for the school’s students. Under this policy, shaved heads are not permitted. Exceptions, however, are sometimes made under exigent and extraordinary circumstances. While we cannot discuss the specifics of this situation, the Caprock Academy Board of Directors is calling a special meeting March 25, 2014, at 6:00 PM. The Board is expected to discuss this matter in executive session (discussions concerning individual students are conducted in executive session). We expect the Board will vote regarding a waiver of the policy following that executive session.

Catherine M. Norton Breman,
President and Chair of
Caprock Academy, Board of Directors

Although inanrtful, Breman’s remarks distinctly point to the waiver process already underway.

Unfortunately, various “journalists” quoted Breman out of context.

For example, a New York Daily News story from yesterday quoted included only this much: “In a statement released Monday, administrators said ‘shaved heads are not permitted.'” Okay, but the statement also discusses the exception waiver. Such “creative editing” is simply bad journalism. (The News‘s opening paragraph also wrongly implies that the school relented only in response to national outrage.)

Likewise, a story in USA Today quotes only part of Breman’s remarks, ignoring the part about the exception process already underway.

There is a lesson here for consumers of media: Do not assume that the story told by newspaper is the complete (or even an accurate) story, even if it appears in one of the most prestigious papers in the world. It is said that “half the truth is a great lie,” and the reporters for the New York Daily News and USA Today (among others) told only half the truth.

Thankfully, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel has been basically responsible in its reporting; see a first and second article there.

It is worth relating Caprock’s second statement, released yesterday:

Compassion and selfless acts of courage are to be commended and encouraged – in children and in adults -and we apologize that our policies and following our process for exceptions to those policies has, in any way, suggested that supporting any one’s but particularly a child’s, brave fight against cancer is anything less than an extraordinary cause worthy of our highest regard.

The Caprock Academy Board of Directors held a special meeting tonight to discuss a waiver to the dress code policy per the parents’ request. The Caprock Academy Board of Directors voted to approve the waiver to the dress code policy.

Although Caprock needs to tweak its policies, nothing the school did justifies the seething rage directed at the school by swarms of social media personalities. Some people literally called the school to threaten its teachers and the teachers’ children. Such behavior is reprehensible. Shame on the people conducting themselves in such a way, and shame on the “journalists” who are irresponsibly fanning the flames of this witch hunt.

To summarize, Caprock acted within the constraints of its written policies to expeditiously grant an exception to the girl who shaved her head for a good cause. This incident illustrates the need for Caprock to tweak its policies so that, in religious or medical cases, a waiver is not required. That is obvious.

Unlike almost all of the critics of Caprock, I actually know something about the school. Someone I know teaches there, and my nephew goes there. I have been to his basketball games at the school. I have seen his hand-written letters and heard his reviews of his classroom exercises that assure me he is getting a good-quality education.

Caprock certainly deserves criticism over its ill-thought-out rules, and it should fix its rules as quickly as possible. Caprock also deserves praise for acting quickly to grant an exception to its big-hearted student and for offering an exceptional-quality education to its students. As always, a sense of context goes a long way.

5:22 pm Update: As the Denver Post notes, the girl with cancer at the base of this story, Delaney Clements, is receiving care at Children’s Hospital. That facility has treated a number of children whom I personally know, and it is excellent. Please donate now.

Contra Amendment 66 Supporters, CO Doesn’t Lag in Education Spending

According to supporters of Amendment 66, Colorado “isn’t keeping up” with education spending relative to “nearby states.” But these supporters have a funny idea of which states are “nearby” and which are not. They also use a dubious “adjustment” for “regional cost differences.”

When you look at actual per-pupil spending, Colorado spends more than do most other “nearby” states. Read my entire article over at Complete Colorado.

Of course, in this article I address only one tiny sliver of the debate over Amendment 66. Even if Colorado spent radically less per pupil on government-run schools, that would hardly count as a reason to spend more money on them. That’s a discussion for another day. But, at a minimum, I figured, those advocating higher taxes for government-run schools ought not use misleading statistics to make their case.

A Conversation with State Senator Nancy Spence

Last week I saw State Senator Nancy Spence at an Independence Institute event. She agreed to sit down for a video interview. Mostly we discussed “public” education and Colorado politics.

Obviously I don’t always agree with Spence—and there are quite a few tough questions I did not ask during this interview—yet I appreciate Spence’s long-standing commitment to Colorado politics. I wish her well as she leaves the legislature and begins new projects.

The Student Loan Bailout

The Objective Standard has published my latest article, “Student Loan Scheme Just Another Rights-Violating Bailout.”

I review the basics of President Obama’s plans for student loans and point out they would put taxpayers on the hook for part of the debt. I also found some interesting statistics about the skyrocketing costs of higher education — caused predominantly by federal meddling.

I write, “[A]t issue is not the size of the bailout, but the fact that it forcibly transfers wealth from some people to others, violating the rights of the first group and turning the second into parasites. The more government acts on the notion that it is acceptable to bail out some at the expense of others, the more we will see injustices enacted into law.”

Check out the entire article!

Free Market Arguments Against Vouchers

This past weekend I attended the Free Minds Film Festival in Colorado Springs, and it was fantastic. Among the great documentaries we saw wasThe Cartel, a film by Bob Bowden about the shocking corruption in the New Jersey government schools.

I spoke on a panel following the film with Bowdon and Ben DeGrow.Following are my remarks. (I believe the organizers of the film fest will publish video of the entire panel.)

Listeners might be confused as to why I oppose vouchers and yet support tax credits and charter schools (as interim reforms). I think any political reform needs to pass a two-part test.

1. Does the reform expand or weaken protections of individual rights? Liberty activists should support reforms that obviously expand individual rights and oppose reforms that obviously weaken them. If a reform is neutral with respect to individual rights, then move to the second test.

2. Does a reform improve results? If so, support it. Remember that we’ve already decided the reform does not further weaken individual rights. If a reform strengthens individual rights, it necessarily improves results; the moral is the practical.

In light of that test, I’ll briefly review the three sorts of reforms.

A charter school does not increase taxes levied. Instead, it offers families and educators a means to escape some of the worst problems of the teachers’ unions and political education controls. So I think charters pass the second test.

A tax credit, as I’ve reviewed before, threatens to bring new political controls to nominally private schools. For that reason tax credits may weaken individual rights, which is why I’ve always been nervous about them. On the other hand, a tax credit would not increase net taxes levied, while it would offer tax payers significantly more choice in how to spend their education-directed dollars.

A voucher program suffers two problems. It brings new controls to nominally private schools, and it also forces some taxpayers to finance religious institutions against their will, in violation of their freedom of conscience. So I think vouchers clearly fail the first test.

In watching Bowdon’s film, I realized that charter schools and vouchers largely end up in the same place: schools still controlled by politicians but with significantly greater parental control. But there are two important differences. First, charter schools simply cannot be religious in nature. Second, there is no confusion about charter schools being “private.” The proponents of vouchers explicitly call schools “private” which receive voucher funds, and that destroys the very distinction between political force and the genuinely free market.

I think the best set of interim reforms, then, consists of charter schools in conjunction with universal tax credits in which tax payers are restricted to giving their forcibly confiscated funds to charter schools. I also think charter schools should be very easy to start, with clear and simple rules and evaluations. This expands the options of parents and expands the choice of those footing the bill, but it retains the important distinction between government-financed education and free-market education.

In a free market, people without children may decide whether to contribute their funds to education, and if so in what way and in what amount. Parents, educators, and voluntary organizations bear responsibility for organizing and financing education. By the standards of free markets and individual rights, that remains the ultimate goal. A free market is the only system in which “education choice” fully becomes reality.

Another Look at Education Tax Credits

Earlier this year Michael LaFerrara advocated education tax credits in an article for the Objective Standard. I criticized a number of his important assumptions. He responded. So that would seem to put me back at bat.

As much as I appreciate LaFerrara’s enthusiasm for tax credits and for trying to move education in a better direction, I continue to think he overstates the potential of tax credits for advancing liberty, understates their inevitable problems, and fundamentally misunderstands the alternative.

My Position

LaFerrara claims I initially “leaned in favor of an education tax credit plan,” then “moved in the opposite direction,” concluding that “tax credits… must be rejected.” That’s not quite right.

In the February 4 article I coauthored with my dad Linn, we built on the idea of “choice” in education. We progressed from vouchers to tax credits for parents, then to more-ambitious universal tax credits.

Then we concluded that real choice consistent with individual rights means leaving people free to spend their resources however they want, consistent with other people’s rights. We wrote that even a tax credit plan “falls short of the standard of individual rights and free markets, for it requires people to direct a portion of their resources to schools. Real liberty means people can spend their earnings however they wish, whether for schools, medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas.” (Note that parents do have a responsibility, and a legally enforceable one at that, to provide for their children’s intellectual development; however, Laferrara goes far afield in attempting to link this to possible “standardized testing.”)

In my June 18 reply to LaFerrara, I did not conclude that tax credits “must be rejected;” as LaFerrara notes, I wrote, “There might be other good reasons for promoting universal tax credits for education, but tax credits will not eliminate government controls over education spending.”

If it seems like I’m taking an ambiguous position on tax credits, it’s because I am. My position is this. Because tax credits fundamentally presume the government’s authority to forcibly transfer wealth for education, I do not believe they are worth the investment of resources necessary to achieve them. At best, tax credits threaten to muddy the ideological waters.

Am I going to morally condemn people who advocate tax credits? No. Am I going to help finance their campaigns? No. Will I endorse and vote for a decent tax-credit proposal? Yes. Am I going to point out the inherent and potential problems with tax credits? Yes. Doing so keeps the debate focussed on the fundamental issue of individual rights, and it helps ensure that, if a tax credit proposal comes about, it will be a relatively better sort.

Principles and Incrementalism

On one hand, LaFerrara suggests I want to achieve the “ideal of free market education… in a single sweeping transformation”; on the other hand he claims I support “a much more subdued reform agenda” than tax credits. Neither claim is accurate.

Advocating the complete separation of school and state may be called many things, but I do not think “subdued” makes the list. I regard the agenda as rather ambitious.

But ambitious, principled reforms can (usually) only be achieved incrementally. Contrary to popular myth, there is no inherent clash between principles and incrementalism. The enemy is unprincipled incrementalism.

In the modern American context, any deep reform of education must be achieved over a span of many years. I advocate, primarily, making the intellectual case that individual rights (including rights to one’s own wealth) apply in the field of education. This involves many concrete political strategies, including fighting tax hikes for education, phasing in means testing (with lower taxes), and supporting real market alternatives. I do not advocate merely making a few marginal reforms and then giving up, as LaFerrara seems to assume, but instead systematically building on previous reforms until attaining a completely free market in education.

Tax credits in any sort of ambitious form could only be achieved through a long-term political battle as well. But my worry is that the fight for tax credits will ultimately undermine real liberty in education, precisely because they entrench the notion that government properly forces wealth transfers.

LaFerrara, then, basically misunderstands my position when he claims I seem “content to stop well short of taking the political offensive.” I’m all about taking the political offensive! (I do not personally want to spend my life specifically on reforming education, though I’m pleased to spend some of my time doing that and supporting the efforts of others.) I simply wish to avoid mistaking the “political offensive” for a circular firing squad (i.e., a strategy that ultimately undermines rather than achieves individual rights and economic liberty).

Because LaFerrara confuses the relationship between principles and incrementalism, he misattributes to me positions I do not hold, and he advocates one policy that clearly violates rights. He suggests that, by the logic of my argument, I should also oppose such “incremental” reforms as Health Savings accounts and a flat[ter] tax. But that’s just not so: I advocate both those reforms precisely because they unambiguously move us toward liberty. But LaFerrara also throws mandatory savings accounts in the mix of allegedly “incremental ‘free market reforms'” — even though those unambiguously move us in the direction of greater statism.

The essential in evaluating a political proposal is not whether it is incremental or far-reaching or whether it is implemented slowly or quickly. Those are contextual and strategic matters. The essential is whether it in fact advances individual rights.

So do tax credits advance individual rights? I think the answer is yes, because at least they expand the individual’s control over his own resources. But they still mandate the money be spent in a very narrow way (for education). The real risk is that tax credits will become yet another tool for Republicans to basically argue, “Forced wealth transfers? Of course I’m for that! I advocate a massive welfare state! Only I do want individuals to have a bit more choice within the context of the government setting the basic terms.”

The Inherent Controls of Tax Credits

LaFerrara’s basic case is this: “Once the choice of how their education dollars can be spent is relegated to the taxpayer, we will be closer to the day when it will be politically feasible to question why he or she must be forced to pay any government-mandated sum.”

I think that could be the case, so long as advocates of tax credits keep focused on the underlying principles. (I note merely that practically all conservatives who advocate tax credits systematically ignore those principles.) If the advocates of tax credits treat them as a means toward achieving liberty, rather than an alternative way to forcibly redistribute wealth, then they may well do some good ultimately.

Unfortunately, LaFerrara largely misunderstands my point about the inherent controls of tax credits. The whole premise of tax credits is that politicians will force you to finance education, only you get much more leeway in how to do that. But obviously there will be limits. As I’ve pointed out, tax credits for “My Family’s Vacation to Disneyland” or “The School for Satanism and the Occult” or “The School for Shopping at the Mall” would be politically rejected. What is allowable and what is forbidden will depend on how a particular tax credit proposal works itself out in a legislature and court system. I predict that any actual tax credit system will in fact place very tight controls on how the money is spent.

LaFerrara points out that free-market elements of the economy routinely fall under increased political controls, too. But this misses the fundamental difference. In the market segment, the default is that the individual owns his own resources, and the government then overrides his rights for some alleged greater good. With tax credits, the default is that the individual does not own the resources in question, and the government is merely setting limits on how to allocate the government’s money. With tax credits, the default and the inexorable condition is control.

The idea that that an actual legislature would institute a universal tax credit program with absolutely no controls is pie-in-the-sky, rationalistic, detached-from-reality, utopian thinking.

If you think advocating tax credits will open people’s minds to the idea that they actually own their own wealth, then I wish you well in that endeavor. But, in the interim, let’s recognize tax credits for what they are: political controls on how people spend their money.

***

Anonymous published the following comment on August 20, 2011 at 10:24 AM:

Hi Ari,

An amendment to abolish Federal, taxation collection and taxation expenditure, for education purposes.

An amendment to abolish State, taxation collection and taxation expenditure, for education purposes.

Ari, when and where are you collecting signatures?

When will your Representatives present these measures?

Thanks,

Jeff

Mike LaFerrara posted the following comment on August 21, 2011 at 5:24 AM:

Ari,

I appreciate your attention to this subject. Most of what you’ve said here I have already answered in my 8/11/11 post, and I refer the reader to that: http://principledperspectives.blogspot.com/2011/08/education-tax-credits-taking-political.html.

But, let me state that we are in complete agreement in regard to principled incrementalism. There is no confusion in my mind about “the relationship between principles and incrementalism”. That was the main point of my recent essay. However, people who agree on basic principles can differ widely on their application to practice – ex. personal accounts within SS.

Yes, they are government-enforced savings. But, what we have today is forced redistribution backed only by hollow promises of old-age benefits, rescindable at any time by congress (http://www.socialsecurity.org/daily/01-13-99.html). At least the taxpayer would have possession of, and a right to, his/her own money, rather than the politicians. I consider SS personal accounts to be a step toward individual rights, especially property rights – preferably without, but even with, basic investment controls. They can be advocated as a step in the phase-out process. Personal SS accounts are consistent with your statement that “tax credits advance individual rights … because at least they expand the individual’s control over his own resources.” Incremental reforms must certainly be anchored to explicitly proclaimed principles, lest we advance statism. On that we agree. As I’ve said before, I have yet to see an education tax credit program that meets the test of (free market) principled incrementalism – certainly not ones advocated by conservatives and Republicans!

This brings me to my “misunderstandings” about your positions. Any assumptions I’ve made are rooted in my analysis of things you wrote. Without going into too many details, let me just say in my defense that, as you acknowledge, your tax credit position is ambiguous. I’m still not clear on exactly where you come down on them. Your strenuous objections in your last piece seemed to preclude any support for tax credits, yet now you say you’d support “a decent tax-credit proposal”. Here we seem to agree again: A properly structured tax credit program would be a step in the right direction. What would a “decent proposal” include, in you view? Otherwise, I think you confuse “misunderstandings” with disagreement, such as on the issue of “inherent controls of tax credits”. If – and I can’t resist repeating myself here – “a universal tax credit program with absolutely no controls is pie-in-the-sky, rationalistic, detached-from-reality, utopian thinking”, then how on earth can anyone believe that “an actual legislature would [ever] institute” the complete separation of education and state?

By the way, what do you mean by “phasing in means testing (with lower taxes)” as one of “many concrete political strategies”?

Best to all,
Mike “Zemack” LaFerrara

Do CO Vouchers Pass the Constitutional and Moral Test?

Douglas County passed a voucher program, prompting a (predictable) lawsuit from the ACLU. The Institute for Justice (IJ) has intervened on behalf of the school district. And the Independence Institute of Golden has taken up a public-relations campaign for the voucher program.

The first question is this: does this or any voucher program in Colorado pass Constitutional muster?

The First Amendment of the federal Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” As I’ve summarized, the Supreme Court has ruled that the establishment clause does not rule out vouchers for religious institutions; in certain circumstances they are permitted.

My own view is that there should be an absolute prohibition of any tax funding of any religious group, whether or not the First Amendment requires that. Forcing people to finance religious organizations violates their freedom of speech and economic liberty. (Of course, I oppose forced wealth transfers per se.) But let us grant that the federal Constitution (as now interpreted) does not invalidate the voucher program in question.

The more important language comes from Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…

This is the the most clear, absolutist language I can imagine. It prohibits tax funding of any religious group.

Ah, but you see, that language does not actually mean what is says, so we may simply ignore it. At least that is the upshot of IJ’s position:

IJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer said, “This challenge to Douglas County’s innovative program will fail for one principal reason: It is parents — and not government officials — who are deciding what school a child attends. No educational money will be spent at any school through this program — be it secular or religious — without a parent making that free and independent choice. The provision of the Colorado Constitution on which the opponents of school choice rely has already been interpreted by the Colorado Supreme Court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to permit Colorado students to use state-provided financial assistance at religious schools, so long as the program is religiously neutral (meaning it doesn’t favor or disfavor religion) and the choice is made by the students and their families. Those who challenge school choice always disparage the key role played by the parents in selecting the schools their children will attend, but the Institute for Justice will defend the parents’ rights to choose the best available education for their children.”

I have not reviewed the legal decisions invoked by Komer. But the Colorado Constitution does not say that school districts can subsidize religious institutions so long as it’s done indirectly through a citizen-directed voucher. Whether or not the courts will allow it, directing vouchers to religious schools obviously violates the Colorado Constitution, and any other reading is convenient legal fiction.

Whether the relevant section of the Colorado Constitution was badly motivated is beside the point legally speaking. We can’t just ignore Constitutional provisions because we don’t like them. Instead, the proper move for those who dislike the provision is to seek its repeal.

That said, a few years ago Rob Boston questioned whether the prohibition of religious subsidies arose from anti-Catholic bigotry, as its opponents allege.

I have not looked deeply into the historical question, because frankly it doesn’t much matter to me. Is the Colorado language inherently biased? No, it is not. It does not target one faith, but rather prohibits tax subsidies of all faiths.

The relevant moral question is this: does the prohibition of tax subsidies for religious institutions protect rights or violate them? The obvious answer is that it protects people’s rights. People have the right to control their own resources. They have the freedom of conscience, which entails the freedom of speech, which entails the right not to support ideas they oppose. People have the right not to finance religious organizations if they don’t want to, and it is wrong to try to force them to.

Now, as I have argued, it is also wrong to force people to subsidize nonreligious ideas they oppose, such as the environmental indoctrination so prevalent in today’s “public” schools. But the solution to that problem is not to universalize the rights violations! Instead, we should seek to protect individual rights across the board. (See also my article,“Rethinking Education Tax Credits.”)

On the PR front, the Independence Institute (II) has released a video to the effect that the voucher funds are useful to students and their families. Well, the same could be argued for the recipients of any subsidy.

While the II and IJ talk about “choice,” they forget about the most fundamental choice involved here: the choice of how to spend one’s resources. Outside that context, we’re merely discussing some alleged “freedom to choose” how to spend other people’s money.

Now, Douglas County could start a voucher program that excluded religious schools. But that would also generate some problems. What if a basically religious school nevertheless claims to be secular or nonreligious? Why should religious schools be punted from the program, but not, say, the Al Gore School for Environmental Propaganda, or the Che Guevara School for Socialism?

Vouchers must go in one of two directions. Either they must be neutral to ideology, in which case they force taxpayers to finance institutions they may find abhorrent. Or they must discriminate on the basis of ideology, which is not obviously better.

The third option is to forget about vouchers and focus on establishing real, free-market education.

***

Anonymous commented on July 19, 2011 at 3:02 PM
Hi Ari,

I always thought vouchers as my first step to accomplishing your challenge of creating a free market for education. I figure the competition will create clear winners. These winners will produce educated students, efficiently. Ultimately these better schools will dominate the market. Maybe, just maybe a sensible body of representatives will recognize this success of a nearly free market and take the final plunge. They will say, hey, this is so stream lined and affordable, citizens should just pay for this themselves. We hereby no longer collect or expend revenue for education. I fear the current system moves us the exact opposite direct. Education becomes more bloated and expensive. Government subsidy or insurance are the only way to “fund” education.

Please explain why my first step is not an acceptable first step to free market education. Also please provide your first step. Certainly blogging is a nano start but what type of legislation, (even if it is legislation that deregulates), would you like to see?

Thanks,

Jeff

Anonymous commented on July 19, 2011 at 3:09 PM
Hi Ari,

I forgot to mention this point in my previous post. It is regarding a different area so a separate post may be appropriate. The Colorado Constitution uses the word “sectarian” 3 times when refereeing to prohibited education. I did a quick search on sectarian and there is much disagreement to the actual meaning. Many believe it is not just religion. For example Denver Green School would be considered sectarian when compared to alternate definitions of sectarian. Any education other than core may be sectarian?

Thanks,

Jeff

Why Rosen is Wrong about Vouchers

Does the U.S. Constitution support the Douglas County voucher program?

Ed Quillen and Ben DeGrow have fought it out on the origins of the so-called “Blaine Amendments,” which inspired Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution prohibiting tax funding of religious institutions.

But here my purpose is not to try to sort out that history; as I’ve written,“Those who do not like that language [about tax funding], it seems to me, should seek to repeal it rather than ignore it.” Nor is my main goal here to discuss the propriety of vouchers, which I’ve done before.

Instead, I want to determine whether the U.S. Constitution trumps the Colorado Constitution in legalizing vouchers within the state. It does not.

This morning on 850 KOA, Mike Rosen offered the following argument. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) does not rule out voucher programs that direct tax money to religious schools, so long as the government does not favor certain religious schools and makes the program available to a general class of citizen. Therefore, argued Rosen, the First Amendment trumps Colorado’s Article IX, Section 7, rendering vouchers legally permissible within Colorado.

But Rosen’s logic is faulty. The Supreme Court merely ruled (or so I understand) that a voucher program does not necessarily violate the First Amendment; whether a voucher program violates a state constitution is another question entirely.

The only way Douglas County’s voucher program could be tossed out federally is if it were deemed to violate some aspect of the federal constitution. Nobody is arguing that. (I think a good case can be made that forcibly redirecting funds to religious institutions does violate the establishment clause, but I don’t get a legal say in such matters.)

But the U.S. Constitution’s relatively weak establishment clause does not prohibit states from enacting stronger rules. The proper test is as follows: Does the voucher program violate the establishment clause? If no, then does it violate the Colorado Constitution? If yes, then it is invalid. (I predict the Colorado Supreme Court will side with the ACLU in this case, and I think it will be right to do so.)

Only if Article IX, Section 7 were ruled to violate the U.S. Constitution would the latter trump the former. To my knowledge, nobody has proposed a plausible case that that is so.

Contrast the case of vouchers with that of the campaign laws. I have argued that Colorado’s campaign laws violate our rights of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, the Colorado laws, though part of the state constitution, should be invalidated by trumping federal law.

But, unless Article IX, Section 7 also violates the First Amendment — and I don’t see how it could — then it constitutes the deciding law.

As I have suggested, the legal dispute aside, vouchers in fact violate people’s basic rights of economic liberty and freedom of conscience. It is wrong to force someone to finance any religious institution against his will. And until conservatives recognize that basic point, they will at best dawdle at the edges of education reform, and they most likely they will further entrench the core injustices of “public” education.

***

Rob commented June 28, 2011 at 1:10 PM
I’m glad to see this discussion of the so-called “Blaine Amendments” and the potential impact of vouchers on the separation of church and state.

Oklahoma’s Constitution has a similar clause – Article 2 Section 5 – which was the target of a potential state question in this year’s session of the legislature, as it is viewed by religious conservatives as an impediment to getting their hands on tax money, primarily through the Governor’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives.

For this reason it has been near and dear to the hearts of supporters of the separation of church and state here in Oklahoma, and I was dismayed to see it coming under attack when word of SJR23 got out at the local AU chapter’s legislative preview in January.

So much so that I posted at the blog of the Coalition for Secular Government on the possibility that this could be the opening round in a campaign to put ALL religious establishment clauses in state constitutions to the ballot.

While I’m glad to see that this has not happened – yet – I don’t think it can be ruled out and caution supporters of church/state separation to remain vigilant.

While clauses in state constitutions specifically targeting religious funding – a la the “Blaine” Amendment – may be relatively recent, religious establishment clauses predate the Constitution itself and are a crucial backup to the First Amendment. I’m sure you already know that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom inspired the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Rob commented June 28, 2011 at 1:57 PM
Quillen’s piece is EXCELLENT!

DeGrow makes some good points but basically drops context.

I am dismayed at the news from Florida! Obviously I need to catch up on what’s going on here.

Individual Rights and Vouchers

Recently Colorado’s Douglas County instituted a small voucher programredirecting tax money to parents and then, in some cases, to religious schools.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was joining a lawsuit against the program, declaring it “threatens church-state separation and public education.”

The Independence Institute fired back claiming the voucher program promotes “parental choice and educational freedom.” Moreover, the group claims, the state constitutional prohibition of spending tax money on religious schools stems from “anti-Catholic bigotry.”

Regardless of the motives for the measure, in fact Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution states the following:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…

I cannot imagine more clear constitutional language: Douglas County may not direct tax funds to religious schools. Those who do not like that language, it seems to me, should seek to repeal it rather than ignore it.

I suppose one could (implausibly) argue that, by sending the money through parents first, it is not the government itself spending the money on religious schools. But the county knowingly approved religious schools for participation in the program.

Or one could argue that Colorado’s language violates the U.S. Constitution, though that seems to me a rather difficult case to make — especially for conservatives who typically militate against “judicial activism.”

But let us for now set aside the legal question, and focus on the more fundamental question of rights.

Do religious schools, in fact, have a right to forcibly seize wealth from those unwilling to pay it, through the governmental agencies of Douglas County? For those who believe in property rights and economic liberty, the obvious answer is “no.” People have the right to fund religious schools, or not to fund them, according to their own conscience.

Of course, the same point could be made about existing government schools, such as the Denver Green School which propagandizes children about environmentalism, akin to a religion. It is as much a rights violation to force people to fund an environmentalist school as a Christian school. But, about that, the ACLU will utter not a peep.

As I have suggested, if we take economic liberty and freedom of conscience seriously, there is ultimately only one way to protect people’s rights: separate school and state.

***

Anonymous commented June 26, 2011 at 9:07 AM
Separate school and state, I like that.
Education is valuable and desired therefore there is no justification for State intervention or interference. The free market can and will beautifully deliver relevant and efficient education.

A question to all separation of Church and State, pro state education folks. Why do you think it is okay to confiscate taxes from religious folks and use them for your secular Darwin schools?

No more Federal or State funding for education.

Jeff

Ben DeGrow commented June 29, 2011 at 3:26 PM
“Do religious schools, in fact, have a right to forcibly seize wealth from those unwilling to pay it, through the governmental agencies of Douglas County? For those who believe in property rights and economic liberty, the obvious answer is ‘no.’ People have the right to fund religious schools, or not to fund them, according to their own conscience.”

Of course not, but that’s clearly not what is happening in Douglas County. Parents are directing dollars to schools — with a neutral opportunity to select religious or non-religious institutions — based on their free and independent choice. That’s where the Blaine Amendment and your argument fall down.

Ari commented June 30, 2011 at 10:20 AM
Ben, Is it not obvious that some of the tax dollars the parents are “directing… based on their free and independent choice” are forcibly seized from other taxpayers? What about their “free and independent choice?” That, I think, is where your argument falls down. -Ari

Rethinking Education Tax Credits

Should advocates of free markets and economic liberty promote such reforms as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits for education?

In an article for the Objective Standard — and a follow-up reply to critics– Michael LaFerrara argues that vouchers threaten to subject nominally private schools to government controls, whereas tax credits promise to “reduce government involvement in education immediately and lay the groundwork to eliminate it over time.”

LaFerrara grants that choice among government-run schools (such as the charter system) “may yield small improvements in the short term,” but without achieving long-term advances in liberty. I am somewhat more enthusiastic about charter schools; Colorado has done reasonably well under a robust system of choice among traditional “public” schools and charter alternatives. Two of my second-cousins attend a good charter school north of Denver, and I’ve been impressed by the Ridgeview Classical School in Fort Collins. However, such reforms apparently haven’t helped to improve Colorado’s worst schools. Do either vouchers or tax credits offer hope for more fundamental reform?

LaFerrara opposes vouchers for the basic reason that they act as government subsidies. Vouchers pass from the hands of taxpayers, to the government, then to parents for use in schools of their choice. This creates two major problems. First, it leads to more government controls of nominally private schools. As LaFerrara summarizes, “Whoever pays the bill ultimately has the power to set the terms” — and he gives concrete examples of how precisely this has happened with voucher programs. Second, vouchers entrench the welfare element of government education by forcibly transferring money to lower-income parents.

To LaFerrara, the key distinction of tax credits — and he promotes a robust reform allowing anyone who pays taxes for education to direct their money to the education of any child — is that the person earning the money spends it, and it never passes through the government. For this reason, he argues, tax credits do not inherently threaten market schools with more government controls, nor do they entrench forced wealth transfers.

However, I remain unpersuaded that a tax credit proposal such as LaFerrara proposes would remain immune from onerous government controls. Notably, the article from the Alliance for the Separation of School and State that LaFerrara cites favorably and extensively in his original article claims that “the drawbacks of vouchers are also inherent in universal tax credits.” This is an issue I’ve wrestled with; one of the first articles I wrote for my web page criticized vouchers and tax credits,whereas an article I coauthored earlier this year more seriously entertains the potential for tax credits even while acknowledging their drawbacks.

The fundamental weakness of LaFerrara’s argument is that, with tax credits, the government continues to forcibly transfer people’s money to education. Yes, you can choose either to pay taxes to standard “public” schools or redirect that money to the educational activities of your choice. True, under a tax credit system such as LaFerrara describes, the money goes directly from its earner to an educational activity, rather than first pass through the government. But still the person who earns that money is forced by law to transfer it to education, one way or another. You could not, for instance, spend that money on your own (noneducational) business, a vacation, or your retirement plan.

Thus, even though a tax credit does not funnel that money through the government, it still extends the government’s claims over that money. In a very real sense, the government continues to claim ownership of the funds in question. The difference is that, rather than forcibly seize those funds directly, the government directs those who earn the funds how to spend them (within broad limits). The money is not fundamentally owned by the person who earns it.

In his critical letter, Steve Plafker raises the possibility of parents spending “their” education money on going to the movies and sporting events. We can extend the examples: what about Disney Land? What about schools that teach Satanism or Islamic Jihad? LaFerrara replies, “[U]nder my proposed tax-credit program, parents would be within their rights to treat money spent on a child’s trip to a movie — or any other activity they regard as educational — as an educational expense.”

But there is simply no way a law such as LaFerrara describes would ever pass. Because tax credits in fact recognize government claims to the money in question, tax credits would inevitably extend government controls over the use of that money. Government would define acceptable uses of the funds, and the notion that a tax credit program could encompass a School for Watching Cartoons or a School of Islamic Jihad or a School for Christian Fundamentalism is a fantasy.

Consider also the rampant corruption a totally uncontrolled tax credit system would promote. Here is a hypothetical. A parent could claim the entire tax deduction, start a “school” that consists of watching free online cartoons, and then pay himself a “salary” for the entire portion of the tax credit. Again, it is simply a fantasy that a law allowing such a thing could ever pass.

A tax credit system may not threaten as severe of controls over nominally private schools, but certainly it would bring government guidance for the spending of those funds. There might be other good reasons for promoting universal tax credits for education, but tax credits will not eliminate government controls over education spending.

What, then, does real education reform look like? Advocates of liberty in education must protect and expand the liberties of homeschoolers and private schools. They must check runaway spending on government education and seek to disempower the teachers’ unions.

Beyond that, the basic effort must be educational and ideological. That is, people must advocate real liberty in education, including the individual freedom to choose not to fund any educational activity. (Please keep four salient points in mind. First, currently the government forces people without children to fund education. Second, in a truly free market, many people would willingly contribute huge sums of money to education. Third, parents who do not provide their children with a basic education, as with parents who do not provide adequate nutrition, may be charged with child abuse. But, forth, many parents could ably educate their children for much less than they’re forced to pay in taxes for education.) As LaFerrara recognizes, a truly free market in education remains a distant ideal. But we cannot move closer to that ideal without advocating the fundamental principles of liberty and individual rights.

Insofar as tax credits further entrench the principle that government may force people to spend their earnings on other people’s education, they hinder, rather than hasten, the movement toward true freedom in education.

***

RussK commented June 18, 2011 at 3:39 PM
I enjoyed LaFerrara’s article in The Objective Standard very much, but, likewise, I was hesitant concerning the tax credit solution. Ever since I was introduced to the voucher versus tax credit debate–going back to the beginnings of the Florida voucher system–I have always been more open to tax credits; however, there is much that makes it a problematic solution for both freedom and education, of which you point out in your article. Simply put, the government will continue to define education, whether the money flows through vouchers or tax credits. Just as the Florida voucher system brought standardized testing to private schools, it is just as likely a tax credit system would do the same. Furthermore, on a more economic level, tax credits can have a negative or inflationary market effect, whether housing, green energy, or, in the future, education. Freedom and proper education should be promoted through principle. Flooding education with tax credits, the use of which would be defined by the government, would only skirt the issue of freedom and how to educate a child, as well as further destroy what is left of private education.

Brian T. Schwartz commented June 19, 2011 at 9:44 AM
For what it’s worth, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute (& author of “Market Education, The Unknown History”) has a working paper titled “Do Vouchers and Tax Credits Increase Private School Regulation?”

Abstract:
“School voucher and education tax credit programs have proliferated in the United States over the past two decades. Advocates have argued that they will enable families to become active consumers in a free and competitive education marketplace, but some fear that these programs may in fact bring with them a heavy regulatory burden that could stifle market forces. Until now, there has been no systematic, empirical investigation of that concern. The present paper aims to shed light on the issue by quantifying the regulations imposed on private schools both within and outside school choice programs, and then analyzing them with descriptive statistics and regression analyses. The results are tested for robustness to alternative ways of quantifying private school regulation, and to alternative regression models, and the question of causality is addressed. The study concludes that vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a substantial and statistically significant additional regulatory burden on participating private schools.”

The PDF is here: http://www.cato.org/pubs/researchnotes/WorkingPaper-1-Coulson.pdf

Anonymous commented June 19, 2011 at 11:13 AM
Reminds me a similar argument. Should we support or oppose tax loopholes? Some Libertarians claim tax loopholes are mini bits of freedom. I say we abolish all tax loopholes in favor of a much reduced tax rate for every producer.

Regarding charters and the destruction of private school? Reminds me of a conversation I had with 3 senior citizen limited government folks. I suggested vouchers and they about flipped. They said government control follows government money. I simply said, don’t accept the money if you don’t want it. Secondly, government education monopoly will destroy the private market eventually anyways.

At the end of the day, The Feds need to be completely removed from education. State education should be minimalized and county may fund some schools however there is absolutely no reason why education cannot be totally privatized. Sure some will not educate in the tradition of current standards. Put them to work, oh yea we also have to abolish child labor laws.

Go to Khan Academy if you do not believe me. Free, non government education is here. It is waiting for the Statist to get out of the way.

Jeff

Anonymous commented June 20, 2011 at 8:11 AM
More to the point,

So long as there is taxation for education, vouchers should be the norm. What better way to illustrate the benefits of choice and competition.

To ignore vouchers is to protect status quo. Status quo is the destruction of humanity.

Jeff

Ari commented June 20, 2011 at 9:42 AM
The alternate view, Jeff, is that taxation for education is the status quo, and vouchers are a meaningless variation of that.

Anonymous commented June 20, 2011 at 10:10 AM
Ari,

I see vouchers as an argument against education taxation. Many small schools will result, ultimately destroying the government monopoly.

Jeff

mike250 commented June 21, 2011 at 8:56 PM
quite the opposite, the vouchers will just result in a greater monopoly. its just a pragmatic approach and I think education philosophy comes first.

Vouchers Undermine Liberty

With Colorado conservatives all atwitter over Douglas County’s adoption of a voucher program (see the Denver Post and 9News), now might be a good time to pause and consider whether vouchers advance liberty or undermine it.

Recently Michael LaFerrara has argued that a voucher program “is a statist ‘Trojan Horse’ set to destroy the private nature of private schools,” whereas a good tax credit program (along the lines of Colorado’s bill 1048) “is a means to more parental choice and less government interference in education.”

I have three main concerns with vouchers.

1. Vouchers put otherwise-private schools under heavier government controls. To take but one example from the present case, “The district also added a provision… to allow students to opt out of religious instruction at religion-based schools,” the Post reports. But presumably many of the leaders of those schools regard the religious instruction as fundamental to their school’s mission. Parents and schools should be free to agree on the terms of a child’s education (within the bounds of that child’s rights) without political interference.

2. Vouchers force people to finance religious institutions against their will. Secularists are forced to subsidize religious schools, Buddhists and Muslims are forced to subsidize Christian schools, etc. That’s wrong. The freedom of conscience, of which free speech is an aspect, entails the rightnot to support, monetarily or otherwise, the propagation of ideas with which one disagrees.

3. Vouchers entrench the welfare state. Whereas a tax credit reduces a person’s tax burden, and thus involves that person’s own money, a voucher forcibly transfers wealth. Vouchers thus sanction the propriety of forcing some people to fund the education of others. Obviously this is a big problem for anybody who advocates the individual right to control one’s own income and resources. If we take property rights seriously, then we must recognize the right of each individual to voluntarily contribute funds to any educational program he chooses — or to no educational program at all. (Obviously parents have an obligation to provide for their own children’s education.)

For more on this issue, please see the recent article from my dad and me,“How About School Choice for Everyone?”

***

John Galt commented March 16, 2011 at 2:01 PM
Agreed. Vouchers are not perfect. And yes a completely voluntary system with no taxation is preferable. BUT.

Given that that just isn’t going to ever happen while people value slavery and altruism, working within the system is the only way to do so. And vouchers are as far as we’re going to get within a system that assumes that poor people must be assisted or their kids won’t go to school.

We have to remember that Obamacare simply steals the current education funding model: Have everyone pay in, regardless of if they use the system or not, thus making it more “affordable” for those that do use the system. It’s just clearly a tax and not a mandate with fines.

What vouchers do is create competition. They also break unions because there isn’t one source to deal with. Further, they break the corrupt system of electing your own employer.

What it doesn’t do is guarantee that the government is going to stay out. I would say that the only voucher system that will work, is one where schools can opt out of taking vouchers (stay completely private), can determine their own curriculum and simply have to meet minimum standards based on national standardized testing AND NOTHING MORE. (and opting out is not a pre-requisite for any of the above)

Perhaps the best way is that schools that want to opt out of vouchers result in the parents getting a tax credit for the entire amount that they paid in for education up to the amount of the voucher (i.e. the tax would have to be clearly earmarked and not allowed to be touched by anything else) which of course with the exception of all but the very most rich would be lower than the amount of a voucher. If the school chooses not to opt out, then they have to ahere to non-secular principles and not teach religion and would be subject to the constitution and the bill of rights as a result of taking public money.

By doing so, schools could opt out, have no government interference, and those parents would not be using tax dollars to fund a Muslim school for example, while still ensuring that socialists would be ok with it, because they could still “Take care” of the “poor kids”.

One thing is for sure though. Vouchers are better than the status quo, and the best we can hope for given the flawed (and stupid) value system of most of America. The question then becomes, do we want to force the system to blow up, or do we want to incrementally fix it over time? John Galt or Dagney Tagart up until the final act? And only your assessment of how far down the hell hole we have gone can determine your position on that…

Ari commented March 16, 2011 at 2:56 PM
Letting the system “blow up” is a false alternative to expanding political controls over education through vouchers. I’ve already indicated that tax credits, now on the table, are far superior to vouchers. Beyond that, there are many ways to incrementally reform education: disempower the teacher’s unions within existing tax-funded schools, promote home-schooling and private schooling, etc.

John Galt commented March 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM
Tax credits do not work. 50% of the population doesn’t pay any income tax. That same 50% don’t own homes, so giving property tax credits is pointless too. Thus this system only benefits the “rich” and puts the “burden” on the “poor” parents.

Given that essentially all of the American population believes in Altruism, you’re not going to get anyone to agree in any numbers that would pass the bill, to a system that does not pay 100% of the bill for every kid in the system. There is no chance and I’m sure you know it. (I’ll ignore home schooling because that’s just silly considering most families must have two incomes to barely get by, and private schooling for essentially the same reason)

Thus you have to decide to play with what you can get through (vouchers is the only alternative currently on the table that can pass a state legislature) or just throw up your hands, recognize that the legitement position is never going to happen unless everything collapses and then help it along.

Come up with a system where 100% of all of the “poor” families have their kids’ education 100% paid for that isn’t vouchers, and you might have a winner. Until then, vouchers is it. Hence I push for vouchers because it’s better than nothing and hopefully will prove to people that competition is a good thing and that capitalism works. And that will get you to the next argument.

Ari commented March 17, 2011 at 11:35 AM
Dear “John Galt,” First, you’re nothing like John Galt. Second, I’m not going to post any more snarky, insulting messages from you. Third, you are fundamentally misrepresenting my position, which is not to “throw up my hands” and do nothing. Passing a voucher law that EXPANDS government control of education is not compatible with free-market competition or capitalism, nor have you even attempted to counter my arguments to that effect. There are many, many ways to advance liberty in education, but vouchers are counter-productive. -Ari

Anonymous commented March 17, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Ari,

Let us focus on your #2. I agree secularist should not have to fund religious schools but what about the opposite? Religious folk are forced to fund your secular schools.

Why does Ari consider forced taxation from secular folk given to religious folk less moral than forced taxation of religious folk given to secular people?

Both situations are equally reprehensible.

The pro abortion, pro secular report you helped create seems to advocate theft so long as it is used for secular education and not for religious education. Your # 2 issue reiterates your taxpayer funded secular education stance.

The taxpayer should fund neither or both.

Ari commented March 17, 2011 at 12:38 PM
Dear Anonymous, Whey are they suddenly “my” tax-funded schools? I do not advocate tax funding for any school. I advocate the complete separation of school and state. However, the First Amendment rightly precludes tax funding for religious purposes, so that is an additional barrier. But I quite agree it violates the rights of religious people to force them to finance a secular agenda. (I have no idea which “report” you have in mind.) -Ari

Anonymous commented March 22, 2011 at 8:44 AM
Nothing could be more against the free exercise of religion than forcing taxpayers to fund public schools, then forcing religious taxpayers to pay for education twice — if they want their kids in religious schools. Blaine Amendments cause subsidies for secularists, penalties for the religious.

Read more: http://www.gazette.com/articles/education-114813-bigotry-board.html#ixzz1HL7Rn0J4

AriM commented arch 22, 2011 at 8:48 AM
So your argument, Anonymous, is that two wrongs make a right?

cawrigh commented March 23, 2011 at 5:14 AM
Joh Galt wrote, “Tax credits do not work. 50% of the population doesn’t pay any income tax.”

This objection is easily overcome by allowing people and corporations that do pay income tax to claim the tax credit if they donate money to educate children.

Chuck Wright

How About School Choice for Everyone?

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published by Grand Junction Free Press.

While President Obama delivered the State of the Union address in the District of Columbia, pundit and author Michelle Malkin discussed school choice at Vanguard charter school in Colorado Springs. They had rather different ideas about the state of American education and how to improve it.

Obama pointed out that, even though many American schools lag in graduation rates and math and science outcomes, some politically operated schools perform relatively well. Obama mentioned Bruce Randolph school in Denver, where community involvement and administrative reforms dramatically improved performance in recent years.

Obama believes federal programs play a central role in the functioning of American schools. The president looks for marginal reforms within the context of the traditional public school system.

Malkin, whose mother taught in New Jersey public schools, moved to Colorado largely because of the strong charter system here. She told the crowd at Vanguard, “I am your neighbor, and I’m so proud to be a resident of Colorado Springs. But more importantly, [I am] an incredibly fortunate beneficiary of people’s commitment to excellence in education here in this city.”

Malkin painted a disturbing portrait of American education, saying, “One in ten high schools in America is a ‘drop out factory.'” Mind-crushing fads sweep through many of the rest. Despite some noteworthy exceptions, generally American schools suffer stagnant test scores even as their funding soars. Malkin said the typical leftist approach of throwing more money at education has bought us “cash for education clunkers.”

In response to Obama’s line about our “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the 1957 Soviet space launch, Malkin said the real similarity between us and the Soviets is that “we still have a Soviet-style, government-run schools monopoly.” So what do we do about it?

Many Colorado parents have turned to charter schools, still funded by taxpayers and governed by politicians but granted relatively more autonomy. Parents here can choose among all public schools relatively easily.

But the fundamental barrier to meaningful choice in education is that parents are forced to finance public schools. If they choose a private school, they must pay double: once for the public school they do not use, and once for the private school.

That is the reason why many conservatives, notably the late economist Milton Friedman, advocate vouchers. Recently the Douglas County school board caused a commotion by promising (or, as the left would put it, threatening) to study voucher programs.

A voucher allows a parent to direct a portion of the school tax funds to any school that qualifies under the program. The basic problem with vouchers is that they spend tax money on otherwise private schools, which might teach controversial ideas like religion.

An alternative to vouchers is a tax credit for education. This allows parents to enroll their child in any qualifying school and reduce their state tax burden by an amount determined by law. A more expansive tax credit allows any taxpayer to save on taxes by funding a scholarship for any child. This year Republican legislators Spencer Swalm and Kevin Lundberg introduced Bill 1048 to create such tax credits.

We propose giving taxpayers even more choice. Each taxpayer pays a certain amount for education through various taxes. Whatever that amount is, the taxpayer should be able to decide where that money goes. A taxpayer could decide to direct all the money to a single private school, a single public school, or any combination of schools.

Our plan would give people the incentive to evaluate schools and direct their money to wherever they think it will be spent most effectively.

For example, we are outraged that tax dollars support the Denver Green School, which indoctrinates children into the cult of environmentalism. As the Denver Post recently reported, teachers at this school led children in creating a power-point presentation condemning energy use. (Nevermind the fact that the presentation consumed electricity; this cult hardly values consistency.)

Under our proposal, those who wish to finance the leftist indoctrination of children could do so, while the rest of us could direct our resources to schools that teach children things like math and history.

Note that our proposal does not really give the taxpayer full choice over his or her resources. Even our plan falls short of the standard of individual rights and free markets, for it requires people to direct a portion of their resources to schools. Real liberty means people can spend their earnings however they wish, whether for schools, medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas.

The left recoils at the very mention of real liberty. Even legislation allowing taxpayers to direct all their school-related taxes to the schools of their choice would give the teachers’ unions heart palpitations.

Nevertheless, we’ll go ahead and say it: each individual has the right to control his own earnings, and he should be able to fund any school he wishes, or no school at all. Call it a Liberty Moment.

***

Anonymous commented February 4, 2011 at 12:12 PM
Vouchers are *anti*-liberty. It sounds good to say that people should be able to use their money as they see fit, but what does its use entail? More government control of private schools.

We already have school vouchers in a major sector of American education: higher education. Federal student financial aid, in the form of loans and grants, is now ubiquitous.

Once a school accepts federal aid, it is obligated to comply with a variety of federal regulations, everything from anti-discrimination requirements to Title IX athletic regulations, and everywhere in between.

At least in higher education, there is a tradition of “academic freedom,” which gives professors nominal control over the curriculum. But in publicly funded K-12 education, states have long exercised curriculum oversight. Do you really want to see that oversight extended to private K-12 schools?

The only hope for education in America is a competitive private K-12 alternative that is completely unfettered by the latest educational methodology fads, such as are usually mandated in public schools. We see this today in the success of schools like the Van Damme Academy and the LePort schools. This innovation would not last long if private schools began to rely on federal funding, and took the strings that would inevitably be attached.

Perhaps you mean only to be arguing for something like tax credits for education, which might not entail the same amount of likely government control over curriculum. But vouchers, at least as they are typically touted by conservatives, offer no barrier to the kind of abuse I cite above.

Indeed it is not characteristic of conservatives to tout anything other than vouchers, because mostwant to control schools in line with conservative–i.e., usually religious–ideology. Michelle Malkin is no exception.

NS

Anonymous commented March 17, 2011 at 12:40 PM
“The basic problem with vouchers is that they spend tax money on otherwise private schools, which might teach controversial ideas like religion.”

Controversial ideas such as evolution.

We will never agree so why not less us choose what is best for our children?

If you refuse to fund parochial education then please sponsor a bill that would allow me to opt out of your secular, satanic school system.

I pay for your hell school via property taxes, vehicle taxes and a myriad of other streams.

Please allow me to completely opt out.

Ari commented March 17, 2011 at 12:45 PM
Dear March 17 Anonymous, You might help your case by first not sounding crazy. My “secular, satanic” schools? Come on, dude. (I would not ordinarily have posted such a ludicrous comment, except I thought it worth illustrating how insane the religious right often sounds.) And, if you’d bother to actually read the article before posting a comment, you might notice that I do in fact want to allow you to stop funding secular schools. -Ari