October 31, 2008
Schools and Vouchers
A reader writes:
Three points in response to Susan Stabile’s point that solving the problems in education will require much more than vouchers.
1. One significant reason why the school choice movement hasn’t made more progress is the near obsessive focus on vouchers by their advocates. The fact of the matter is that there are nowhere near enough seats available in private schools across the country to absorb a large block of public school children. I realize advocates claim that you don’t need to move all of the kids because losing some of the kids will force the public schools to compete and that will make them better. But even if competition was effective, you would need a big enough block of kids who might move to make public schools feel any competition. It’s not at all clear to me there would be enough space in private schools to get to that number. Nor is it at all obvious to me that the problem with public schools is lack of competition. Certainly there are problems in many public schools. Teachers are often under-qualified and are too hard to fire. In many districts there is excess bureaucracy (a problem made worse, not better, by No Child Left Behind). But most of the problems of (at least urban) public schools are problems of the community. Their students do not live in stable homes and therefore most schools have transient populations; students are often food insecure; they are not around educated adults very much; and there is no parental involvement in their educations. Not one of those problems is helped by vouchers. This does not mean that the exceptions – the kids whose parents are involved and provide a stable environment – should be stuck in schools with all of those problems. But it does mean that vouchers could only be a small part of the solution – helping those kids get out but not doing much to solve the underlying problems faced in the public schools left behind.
2. My experience, and that of many other voucher skeptics, is that voucher advocates tend not to support many of the things that would help resolve those community issues in the schools left behind. They don’t want to support programs that improve communities or get parents more involved in the schools because those cost a lot of money. Now I know that money isn’t everything, and that’s the retort you always get from voucher advocates. But the data clearly shows that educating children in poverty is much more expensive, particularly when those children have not had any early childhood education. When I see a vocal voucher advocate who has an education plan that addresses those other issues rather than treating vouchers as a silver bullet, I’ll start listening more.
3. Finally – and I think this point is actually wrapped up in the first two – I have my doubts that most voucher advocates support them because they really think they will change education for poor kids. Don’t get me wrong, there are some well-intentioned people who certainly do believe that (even if, in my view, they’re misguided). But here’s an anecdote that colors my view, and that I think resonates with lots of voucher skeptics. In one community where I used to live the parents at a local catholic school outspokenly opposed funding for the local public schools. Many of them said – without any apparent shame – that they hoped denying funding would result in the public schools’ failure, because then the state would be forced (under state law) to provide residents with vouchers, which (surprise surprise) they really wanted to help pay for the schools they were already using. I get this sort of sense (anecdotally, of course) from lots of voucher advocates – what they really want is a subsidy for their kids to go to school. Now it’s a separate question whether people who want to send their kids to catholic schools should get a subsidy so they can, as I’ve seen many on this site describe it, “make a meaningful choice.” [I happen not to buy that argument. I think all community members get lots of value from a good public school system (whether or not their kids go there), so it’s wrong to say that parents who send their kids to catholic school are “paying twice.” I also wonder whether the conservatives who make the “choice” argument would be willing to generalize their point to a principle that the freedom to do something is not meaningful unless the government subsidizes the choice so people can afford it. No one is stopping people from sending their kids to private schools.] But it seems to me the religious freedom point is a separate point that, even though it’s really driving many supporters views, is obscured behind claims that the vouchers are good for the poor kids.
A Further Response to Cafardi, Kaveny and Kmiec (Part 1) –The Purported Inability to Overturn Roe as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
George Weigel is more than capable of defending himself in print, and he recently published an excellent reply (here) to Nick Cafardi, Cathy Kaveny and Doug Kmiec’s response (here) to his original Newsweek essay (here) criticizing self-identified pro-life Catholic support for Obama. Several MOJ commentators have also usefully contributed to this discussion. I believe, however, that several points deserve more attention than they have received. I propose to address these points in this and in two subsequent posts.
Cafardi, Kaveny and Kmiec say that they “have no objection” to efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they clearly see this as a futile exercise. They assure us that “[t]he legal path has not worked to date, and it may never work.” They fail to acknowledge, however, how their support for Senator Obama will turn this prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If Cafardi, Kaveny and Kmiec were honest in their assessment of Senator Obama, they would acknowledge that his pro-choice credentials go far beyond not being “the perfect pro-life candidate.” He is thoroughly committed to an expansive reading of the abortion license and as president will certainly make appointments to the Supreme Court that will continue to frustrate efforts to overturn Roe and its progeny.
While it is possible that legal challenges to Roe may never succeed, the faith teaches us to be hopeful, and history gives us reason to be optimistic.
It took fifty-eight years to overturn the doctrine of “separate but equal” established by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. So we should not be discouraged that thirty-five years out, Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. Like the NAACP’s litigation against state-sponsored segregation, the pro-life movement’s legal challenges to the abortion regime have enjoyed their share of successes along the way, but the path from Plessy to Brown v. Board can hardly be described as a straight line. (For an excellent source on this matter, see the documentary The Road to Brown). We should expect a similar winding route from Roe to its eventual reversal. That the Court is a more politicized institution now than it was in 1954 will make this goal even more difficult to realize, but not unattainable. Indeed, when the Court says, as it did in Casey, that it must sustain its precedent because it is precedent (and not because of the merits of the original decision), the ultimate collapse of the Court’s abortion jurisprudence can already be glimpsed.
Many point out that the demise of Roe will “only” return the issue to the states. At this stage the fight over abortion will turn from a largely legal battle to a largely political one. Still, overturning Roe is a necessary first step in the larger process that seeks to end the practice of abortion in this country. Cafardi, Kaveny and Kmiec’s support for Obama and (at least implicitly) his pro-choice Supreme Court nominees promises to delay this process for years to come.
A Thought on Greenspan for Elizabeth
Without getting into Elizabeth's main point about behavioral economics, let me say how I read her quotation from Greenspan: "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”
It seems to me that Greenspan is pointing out that businesses have not acted in their long-term corporate self-interests. This does not mean that the individiuals within them have not been maximizing their individual self interests. Witness the incredible golden parachute for the CEO of bankrupt Lehman.
The fundamental problem here (it seems to me) is that businesses may be immortal, while those who run them plan for a shorter lifespan.
Behaviorial Economics as "Personalist" Economics?
David Brooks suggests in a column in the NYT that one of the things the financial meltdown reveals is the inadequacy of economic and social theories based on the assumption that man does actually engage in rational calculation and maximizing self-interest. He cites Alan Greenspan:
As Alan Greenspan noted in his Congressional testimony last week, he was “shocked” that markets did not work as anticipated. “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”
Brooks goes on to argue that the fallacy in the economic models based on rational decision-making is their failure to consider the very first step in the decision-making chain -- our perception of the situation. He continues:
My sense is that this financial crisis is going to amount to a coming-out party for behavioral economists and others who are bringing sophisticated psychology to the realm of public policy. At least these folks have plausible explanations for why so many people could have been so gigantically wrong about the risks they were taking. . . .
And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters. . . .
If you start thinking about our faulty perceptions, the first thing you realize is that markets are not perfectly efficient, people are not always good guardians of their own self-interest and there might be limited circumstances when government could usefully slant the decision-making architecture (see “Nudge” by Thaler and Cass Sunstein for proposals). But the second thing you realize is that government officials are probably going to be even worse perceivers of reality than private business types. Their information feedback mechanism is more limited, and, being deeply politicized, they’re even more likely to filter inconvenient facts.
Over the past couple of years, I have thought that some of the most perceptive work being done in the area of consumer regulation is the application of behaviorial economics. See, e.g., "Consumer Contracts: Behavioral Economics vs. Neoclassical Economics", Oren Bar-Gill & Richard Epstein.
It also strikes me that behaviorial economics could almost be characterized as a personalist approach to economic theory -- trying to figure out how the individual human person actually reacts in the economic market, versus assuming rational self-interest. Does this make sense to any of you law and econ types?
October 30, 2008
Education: Not Neglected on Mirror of Justice Any Longer
My colleague, Susan Stabile, reminds us (here) that the issue of education is not only about educational choice. For Mirror of Justice readers looking for more on education policy questions in the current campaign, I've posted several such messages in the past three weeks, some on the lengthy side for a blog, about education as a largely neglected issue in this presidential election (for a sample, see here and here). Even when education issues have been raised by the candidates, the talking points usually have been general in description and one-dimensional in character. And the media has failed in its journalistic responsibility to examine the actual record of the candidates on educational initiatives and their success (or lack thereof).
More specifically in response to Susan on educational choice, I would emphasize that while it may not be the only issue, it is a central issue. It is not simply a matter of allowing more families to choose Catholic schools, although that is a worthy cause in itself because it empowers families to take their own educational destiny into their own hands. It also promotes religious liberty by allowing Americans to freely choose a faith-based form of education. From an educational reform perspective, school choice is important as well by creating competition and diversity in educational methods and breaking the strangle-hold on education policy by the public school establishment and the teacher's unions. Placing educational choice at the center of our discussion is well-justified.
In any event, as the recent set of additional postings now confirm, the subject of education is not neglected on the Mirror of Justice any longer.
Mirror of Justice and law-blog rankings
Prof. Paul Caron has posted the latest law-prof-blog rankings; unfortunately, because we were late getting our site-meter set up, Mirror of Justice was not eligible. However, it looks to me -- if one extrapolates from the available site-meter data -- that MOJ would rank somewhere around 22 in both "visits" and "page views". We'll see!
In the meantime . . . a request for readers: Take a brief break from thinking about Faithful Citizenship and, instead, send an e-mail to 5 friends who might not read MOJ and urge them to add it to their "bookmarks." Our motto can be "Beat the Wills, Trusts, & Estates Prof. Blog in 2009!"
It is Not Just About Educational Choice
The last several MOJ posts that have addressed the issue of education have focused on school choice, with both Greg and John's latest comments criticizing Obama's position on vouchers for Catholic schools.
I applaud a focus on education, but want to underscore that when we are considering what we think about the candidates' positions regarding education, a lot more than choice is involved. The New York Times reports this moring that the U.S., which once had the highest high school graduation rate in the world is not 13th, behind such luminaries as the Czech Republic and Slovenia. It also cites a report form the nonpartisan Education Trust that the U.S. is the only industrialized country where young people today are less likely to graduate high school than their parents. We have a failure here that has to be addressed and it is going to require a lot more than allowing some people to choose to go to Catholic schools.
I'm not here making a case for one candidate or the other. I simply want to remind us not to be too narrow in our identification of the relevent questions for purposes of evaluating the candidates when it comes to education.
October 29, 2008
Educational Choice, Catholic Schools, and Selectivity
Because educational choice has long been a central element of Catholic social teaching, for moral as well as educational reasons, I want to return to the thread about school choice and vouchers and continue our discussion about whether Catholic schools would offer an opportunity to disadvantaged students to receive an education superior to that provided in failing public school districts.
Following John Breen in his most recent post, I want to join him in responding further to the suggestion that the stronger academic performance of students in Catholic schools may be attributable in large part to the selectivity of Catholic schools in admitting students rather than to comparatively greater educational quality. At the end, and even more importantly, I also submit that whatever we as academics and well-educated and wealthy persons might conclude on the matter, we should respect the dignity of poor families in making their own educational choices about what is best for their children.
To the argument that Catholic schools are strictly selective in admissions and have high academic requirements for applicants, John has well explained that Catholic schools generally do not impose strict academic standards for admission. A few college-prep Catholic high schools do have stricter admission requirements (although most still admit the substantial majority of applicants). But my understanding is that the typical Catholic parish elementary school simply does not place academic criteria hurdles on students seeking to attend. Mirror of Justice readers might share with us their experiences about admission standards at Catholic parish schools and whether specific academic requirements for admission are set forth and enforced. But barring general evidence of a regular practice of imposing selective academic requirements for admission, the superior performance of Catholic schools cannot be dismissed on such grounds.
Nor do I think that Catholic schools can be characterized as meaningfully selective in ways other than academic factors. To be sure, nearly every Catholic parish school in the country has boilerplate admission rules giving priority to parishioners, siblings of current students, etc. Given that the average parish heavily subsidizes about the cost of the parish school, such preferences would be entirely appropriate. More pertinently for present purposes, through such parish investments, Catholic elementary schools are able to keep tuition lower and thereby make Catholic education more affordable. This in turn makes Catholic education more accessible to lower income families. Indeed, in most parishes, poor families in the parish who cannot afford even the reduced tuition are granted tuition discounts or waivers. As a matter of principle and social justice, most parishes do not allow ability to pay to prevent any family in the parish from obtaining a Catholic education for their children. Thus, by embedding the parish school within the parish itself and tying the two together in admissions rules, the result is not to make Catholic education more selective but exactly the opposite.
Moreover, based on my admittedly anecdotal experience (and here too readers could share with us their own experiences), such parish family and sibling preference rules tend to exist only in theory because there are ample openings available for new students in the majority of Catholic parish schools. Priority rules for admission only come into play when students are competing for limited openings, which simply is not the case for most Catholic parish schools. (By way of personal example, when we moved to Minnesota and were searching for Catholic elementary schools in the western part of the Twin Cities for our daughter, we had not yet joined a parish or satisfied any preference requirements. We decided to apply to three Catholic schools, only one of which turned out to be at full enrollment and even that school eventually granted admission after a two-year delay.) In sum, the typical Catholic parish school does not select its students. Rather the families of those students select the Catholic school.
Finally, as John acknowledged in his posting, families that choose a Catholic school for their children presumably have education as a high priority. And positive family engagement with their children’s education may encourage greater educational achievement. But that hardly means that Catholic schools have an advantage over the public schools for a reason distinct and separate from educational mission and quality. The focus on parental engagement with the school is an attribute of Catholic schools. Along with the excellence and dedication of Catholic teachers, the quality of the Catholic curriculum, and the institutional environment, a welcoming attitude toward parents, regular communication with parents, an insistence that parents attend conferences, and a concerted effort to ensure that every family is fully integrated into the school community are central elements of Catholic education. In sum, parental engagement isn’t something ex ante to or separate from the educational opportunity offered by Catholic schools. A commitment to fostering family engagement is part and parcel of the Catholic educational choice.
In addition, I have every reason to believe that the substantial majority of families of children trapped in failing public schools in central city areas like Washington, D.C or Chicago likewise consider the education of their children to be a high priority. They often have been frustrated in trying to navigate the public school bureaucracy or have lost hope that parental involvement could make a difference. Many poor families find the public school system, with its huge bureaucracy and teacher-union cartel and protective rules, to be alienating, which suppresses both their willingness and ability to become more involved. And the fact that poor families have little or no choice in educational options simply adds to that sense of helplessness and alienation.
When it comes to school choice, we might give some attention to the actual choices—or wishes—of two groups of people who should be most informed about these matters and who have the most at stake by virtue of their concern for their own children:
First, when it comes to a choice between the Chicago or Washington, D.C. public schools and private school alternatives, prominent political leaders like every recent Democratic nominee for president—Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton—have made the presumably informed choice to eschew the public schools and enroll their children in private schools. Sadly, each of these politicians are determined to deny that same educational choice to poor families in America, leaving the disadvantaged as pawns subject to the choices or agendas of others.
Second, poor families in urban school districts would not apply for and obtain vouchers when available unless they saw some value in placing their children in alternative education. Many families may choose to remain with the public schools or conclude that private alternatives are unappealing. But for those who wish such a choice, why would we not give weight to those preferences when formulating educational policy? Doesn’t the preferential option for the poor encourage us to think not merely in terms of spending money on government programs but also to adopt policies and programs that respect human dignity and liberty? Why would we think it appropriate to allow government elites, entrenched school district bureaucrats, and the teacher’s union lobby to dictate the educational choices of poor families who have reached a different conclusion about what is best for their children?
The beginning of Cardinal Egan's Column
Richard S., thank you for linking to Cardinal Egan's column. It moved me, and I decided to include the beginnings of it here:
The picture on this page is an untouched photograph of a being that has been within its mother for 20 weeks. Please do me the favor of looking at it carefully. [you can click on it to enlarge it]
Have you any doubt that it is a human being?
If you do not have any such doubt, have you any doubt that it is an innocent human being?
If you have no doubt about this either, have you any doubt that the authorities in a civilized society are duty-bound to protect this innocent human being if anyone were to wish to kill it?
If your answer to this last query is negative, that is, if you have no doubt that the authorities in a civilized society would be duty-bound to protect this innocent human being if someone were to wish to kill it, I would suggest—even insist—that there is not a lot more to be said about the issue of abortion in our society. It is wrong, and it cannot—must not—be tolerated.
Abortion "Rhetoric": A Response to Eduardo
Two responses to Eduardo’s post, which suggests that calling abortion for what it is – the brutal and intentional taking of innocent human life – is overly simplistic.
First, it is a form of evasion employed by pro abortion rights advocates for decades (note, I am not saying that Eduardo is a pro abortion rights advocate) to avoid the typical case by moving to the extreme. Here, Eduardo combines three extremes: 1) an 8 celled embryo, 2) a rape victim, and 3) a mother whose health or life is endangered. My first response is to move back to the typical case and ask whether it is true or false that the typical abortion involves the brutal and intentional taking of innocent human life? If true, then this sort of rhetoric is a form of truth telling or truth reminding.
Second, I’ll engage Eduardo at the extremes to which he is drawn. Neither rape nor the health of the mother (interestingly, this is the term used by the Supreme Court in Roe) addresses the question of whether abortion involves the intentional and brutal taking of innocent human life. It places the decision to act within a particular context but it doesn't change the nature of the act. As for the 8 celled embryo, Eduardo concedes that it is the intentional taking of an innocent human life. His only quibble seems to be over whether the taking is brutal or not. I am glad that we have found so much ground for agreement even in this extreme case.