School Choice: Wyoming vs. Wisconsin

By Ivan Larson

Education is important. It helps us learn how to think, and readies us for the workplace. This is something recognized in Wyoming, as demonstrated by our willingness to pay a great deal for our public education system. In fact, the 2010 census found that Wyoming spends $15,169 per student on education. $15,169 is a lot of money, and it never seems to earn Wyoming a significantly better-than-average ranking on the actual quality of education. Clearly, at some stage, we’re wasting a great deal more money than other states.

One perhaps surprising place to find a lower cost is with private schools. While a common stereotype of a private school is of a place where the rich send their kids by paying obscene amounts in tuition, it is not necessarily the case. A good example of this is the Milwaukee Voucher Program. Implemented by the state of Wisconsin, this program lets parents send their kids to private schools and have it be paid for by transferring funds from where the child would otherwise have gone. The program sends up to $6,442 per student. The private school is not allowed to charge the parents anything on top of that for grades K-8, and only under limited circumstances for grades 9-12. In effect, these private schools have to get by on two dollars for every five spent by a Wyoming public school.

This efficiency is not entirely reflected in the rest of the Wisconsin system. The Wisconsin public school system spends $11,364 per student. This means that when $6,442 is transferred away for the voucher program, the school is still left with almost half of the money they would have spent for that student. This means that at the same time that Wisconsin provides the option of a private education for low-income families, they provide in effect more funding for the students who remain in the public school system.

It’s worth noting that Wisconsin isn’t suffering due to lower education funding. In fact, Wisconsin consistently ranks above Wyoming in terms of education performance. We can do better. Implementing school choice and giving more freedom to parents could allow Wyoming to create a more efficient and more effective education system. If a voucher program would cost less than half of what we currently spend per student, leaving the rest of it where it is, what do we truly have to lose?

Arrested for Resisting Public Education

What price are we willing to pay to preserve the government’s monopoly on elementary education? The jury may still be out on the answer to that question, but an incident in a small Ohio village has given us a new perspective on this question. From the Columbus Dispatch:

Embattled police Chief Mike McCoy announced last night that he will soon resign from his village post, though he insisted it has nothing to do with the fact that one of his officers shocked a 9-year-old boy twice with a Taser last week. McCoy, who was placed on paid leave late last week after he did not tell Mount Sterling Mayor Charlie Neff of the incident, said he wasn’t pressured to resign. Instead, after an hour-long, closed-door meeting between his personal attorney and village officials, McCoy read a statement that said the village’s declining budget keeps him from doing his job. He said he did nothing wrong by not immediately telling Neff what had happened because, as chief, he felt he needed to check into the incident himself first.

And why was this boy tasered? The boy’s mother, Mrs. Perry, explains via her attorney that police had been sent to their house…

…to arrest her son for truancy [but] Mrs. Perry never expected that he would be subdued with a Taser. “She certainly never wanted this to happen,” Comisford said. Village officials released the police report yesterday. According to [officer] O’Neil’s written account: He went to the boy’s S. Market Street home about 8:30 a.m. to serve a complaint filed against Jared for truancy. Jared — listed on the report as between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-8 inches tall and between 200 and 250 pounds — refused to cooperate. He begged his mother to let him go to school rather than with the officer, but Perry told her son it was too late.

So the school, which is a government agency and the only provider of education in the village (except for home schooling), has the authority to send police after children who do not show up for school. If the kids refuse to comply with the police officer’s order to go to school, they get arrested for resisting a police officer (emphasis added):

O’Neil wrote that after repeated warnings, he pulled Jared from the couch, but he “dropped to the floor and became dead weight … flailing around,” and the boy lay on his hands to prevent being handcuffed. O’Neil demonstrated the electrical current from the Taser into the air “as a show of force.” Then, he wrote, Perry told her son to do as O’Neil said or he would be shocked. The report indicates that after being shocked once, Jared still didn’t cooperate and was shocked a second time. An ambulance was called, but Jared had no sign of injury; Perry signed a waiver for medical treatment. Jared was taken to the sheriff’s office, and a delinquency count of resisting arrest was added to his truancy charge.

So a 9-year-old boy is charged with resisting education. This charge leads to a second charge of resisting arrest. All because the government felt a need to assert its authority over the education of our kids.

It is entirely possible that this kid is so troubled that he cannot get his act together and go to school in the morning. If that is the case, he and his family need help. Instead of dispatching a police officer to forcefully take the 9-year-old to school, maybe the school should dispatch a therapist, a child psychiatrist or a social worker.

Better still, instead of putting a kid like this on a downhill slope with criminal charges, the school district should offer to support alternative forms of education. How about giving parents the choice of home schooling, where the parents get compensated with the same amount that the school gets per student? With a voucher model like this, it is entirely possible that several families could get together and pool enough money to pay someone to teach their kids at home.

Apparently, no one has pushed for these alternatives. Instead, a kid was tasered and arrested for resisting public education.

Is government really that important in our lives?

School Choice Works: More Evidence from Milwaukee

Enjoy another important piece from the American Federation of Children, one of the frontline groups on school choice and educational freedom:

Students enrolled in the Milwaukee voucher program are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their public school counterparts, boast significantly improved reading scores, represent a more diverse cross-section of the city, and are improving the results of traditional public school students, according to a comprehensive evaluation of the program released today. The American Federation for Children—the nation’s voice for school choice—praised the positive results as the most recent proof of the success of publicly funded private school choice programs, which currently educate more than 210,000 children nationwide and more than 23,000 students in Wisconsin.

The Federation for Children is right. What matters at this point is the choice of education provider. The Federation does not advocate private school funding, but those of us who do should line up behind a transitional model that puts school choice before private funding. You have to establish a market before you can make private funding the norm (and public funding the exception).

Among the new findings are that students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)—the nation’s oldest private school choice program currently in operation—not only graduate from high school on time by seven percentage points more than students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), but they are also more likely to enroll in a four-year college and persist in college. Tracking of both MPCP and MPS students over a four-year period reveals significantly higher achievement growth in reading for MPCP students, as well as higher levels of science achievement in upper grades. The study, released today by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas, comes a year after data showed higher graduation rates for MPCP students. The new study is the most comprehensive look yet at the MPCP, which was expanded and strengthened during last year’s legislative session.

Go here to read the rest of the article.

Friends of Educational Freedom Campaign in New Jersey

More news on the educational freedom front. The American Federation for Children reports from New Jersey:

Over 2,500 students, parents, education reform advocates, and legislators rallied outside a chilly State Capitol yesterday, demonstrating the overwhelming support for school choice and urging the state legislature to pass a plan that would create a scholarship tax credit program for students in the state’s worst performing school districts. Supporters called on lawmakers working in the Statehouse to pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), a bipartisan bill that would allow thousands of children from low-income New Jersey families in the state’s most disadvantaged school districts to attend the schools of their parents’ choice. Organized by a coalition of New Jersey school choice advocates that includes We Can Do Better New Jersey and Excellent Education for Every (E3), the rally attracted champions of the legislation from cities all across the state, as well as national education reform supporters and elected officials from around the country. Among the speakers were State Sen. Thomas Kean, Jr. (R) and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D), sponsors of the OSA legislation in their respective chambers.  … ” Supporters of the OSA called on lawmakers to quickly move the bill in the post-election legislative session which ends January 9.  The OSA also enjoys the strong backing of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has made expanding educational options for children in low-income families a top priority.   

Since he was elected, Governor Christie has been under constant fire from the left on school funding among other things. The argument has been, typically, that budget cuts hurt the kids in New Jersey’s schools. But at no point have his critics suggested school choice as a way to improve education in the state. Since school choice is an excellent way for parents to improve their children’s education, the left’s priority for more spending over school choice is a clear message on what really matters to them. Teacher compensation and maintenance of administrative ranks supersede the interests of the children in failing schools.

Governor Christie has thus far proven to be a capable leader, with a decent fiscally conservative slant, of one of the nation’s most liberal state. He has resisted attempts to draft him for a presidential run in 2012. Let’s hope he not only stays the course but also takes on the liberal school lobby on the issue of educational freedom.



California: The Canary in the Fiscal Coalmine

California is the canary in the fiscal coalmine. If Sacramento can reform the welfare state in a sustainable direction, then so can the rest of the country. For a while things looked good: when Governor Brown took office almost a year ago, he seemed to be ushering in a new era of fiscal sanity. He whipped his own  party out of its spending-as-usual habits and put the state on a track of spending control. However, so far his approach to spending control has been fragmented and reactive. Instead of tackling the structural spending problems in the state budget, Governor Brown is using the cheese slicer method: he is taking a few percent from every share of the budget, not realizing that some spending programs drive costs more than others – and that some programs are more important than others. By using this reactive method, Governor Brown risks putting California on the same austerity train that most of Europe is on today. A story in the Sacramento Bee illustrates just how fragmented Brown’s approach is:

The state’s nonpartisan budget analyst on Wednesday [November 16] said California will fall $3.7 billion short this fiscal year, likely resulting in fewer public school days, cuts to libraries and further reductions in developmentally disabled services. Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers counted on that money – to be generated by projected tax revenues – in a fit of summer optimism when they drafted the state budget. But Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor now predicts California will land 4 percent shy of the $88.5 billion in revenues they banked on in their plan. Unlike previous years, when the analyst’s forecast was advisory, his report this time could trigger automatic cuts. Brown and lawmakers designated $2.5 billion in midyear reductions dependent on the strength of revenues as determined by the analyst and the Department of Finance.

The state, of course, has no one but itself to blame for its fiscal problems. Education spending is an excellent example of this. The state government is paying for 54 cents of every dollar spent in California schools, up from 46 cents in the mid-’90s. California has also been very eager to accept federal education dollars, which now pay for 16 percent of all elementary and secondary education in the state. (In 1994 that share was 7.6 percent.) With the federal funds come mandates that force the state to even higher levels of spending.

If the state government had not taken on responsibilities for education spending, but left that responsibility in the hands of local governments, it would have avoided creating one of its major sources of fiscal problems. In a sense, California voters created this situation: first they turned Proposition 13 into a constitutional amendment, thus putting strict limits on property taxes; then they avoided putting the same tabs on education spending, thus creating a cash flow problems in their school districts. They then solved this by giving the state more and more responsibilities for funding schools.

With this in mind, it would be a lot more reasonable if Governor Brown initiated reforms that changed the permanent funding model of California’s education system. Instead of keeping the state’s share where it is today, it would make a lot more sense to re-direct funding responsibility back to the school districts. Coupled with genuine school choice, such a reform could very well result in new, innovative models for educating California’s children that would fit the budgets that middle-class families in California can afford.

Structural reforms like this one require long-term thinking and a visionary mindset. Governor Brown has a chance to show the rest of America that such reforms can work. He has given away hints that he has the right mindset. It remains to be seen if he has the fortitude to deliver.

California badly needs those reforms. The state is out of time already. And America is not far behind. If California sets a good example, with good, stable, structural reforms to government spending, then America will have a good example to follow. But if no one takes the lead – well, we are in very big trouble.

Indiana Advances Educational Freedom

The American Federation for Children reports more good news on the educational freedom front:

The Indiana Department of Education (DOE) announced that the state’s new voucher program approved nearly 4,000 students for participation in 2011-12, making the Choice Scholarship Program the biggest first-year voucher program ever. American Federation for Children, the nation’s voice for school choice, salutes Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett, and state legislators for giving Hoosier parents this tremendous opportunity to choose a school that best meets their child’s individual learning needs. A total of 3,919 students were approved for participation, drawing families from every corner of the state. Nearly 85 percent, or 3,326, of voucher recipients are on the free and reduced lunch program. Fifty three percent of program participants represent minority families, including 24 percent African-American and 19 percent Hispanic.

The school choice issue is alive and kicking, not only in Indiana but in, e.g., Pennsylvania and Florida. What is so encouraging is that it is the low-income families that benefit the most from the program. Eventually, the success of parental choice will swing the political momentum against a stale, rigid government monopoly on children’s education, and for educational freedom.

Pennsylvania Closer to Educational Freedom

Congratulations, Pennsylvania – you are one step closer to educational freedom:

The Pennsylvania State Senate today took a significant step towards expanding educational options to low-income children and kids in failing schools, passing legislation that would create a new voucher program and increase funding for the state’s existing scholarship tax credit program. The American Federation for Children—the nation’s voice for school choice—calls on the House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and pass the plan, which is an amended version of Senate Bill 1, a proposed school choice expansion introduced earlier this year. The bill, which passed 27-22 today with bipartisan support, would grant scholarships to students in the bottom five percent of Pennsylvania schools and also increase funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program by $25 million next year and an additional $25 million in 2014. Championed by Sens. Jeffrey Piccola (R) and Anthony Williams (D), the legislation now moves onto the House for consideration. If passed in the lower chamber and signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett—who unveiled a similar education reform plan earlier this month—it would give thousands of additional Pennsylvania students the opportunity to attend the school of their parents’ choice.

Click here to get the full press release from the American Federation for Children.