29 June 2006

Debating Vouchers

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

There are only three types of people who oppose vouchers: those who are beholden to the teachers’ unions, those who don’t know the facts, and those who hate children, especially black ones.

It has become an unchallenged fixture in the political landscape that some persons should be forced to pay for the education, arts, and sports of other people’s children. I can understand why this might be the case for the poor, but not for others. But let’s put aside the antiquated notion that persons should pay for their own children.

The public schools spend money like drunken sailors. According to government figures, as reported by David Salisbury of the CATO Institute, the average per pupil spending for public (government) schools is $9,354 per year. This underestimates the amount since reported costs typically leave out such things as capital outlays and pension liabilities. Almost 22% of state budgets went to K-12 education and the states provide less than half of K-12 spending. In New York, even drunken sailors would stare in disbelief at the $16,469 per pupil spending orgy ($14,870 in Fredonia and $15,165 in Dunkirk). These figures come from May 14, 2006 article in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer on the proposed 2006-2007 school budgets that were submitted for voter approval and reflect a report by The Public Policy Institute.

What have we gotten in return for this war on the taxpayer? Lots of administrators and staff. According to Salisbury, teachers now make up only 40% of total school employees. We also got well-paid teachers. The average public school teacher gets 35% more than that of the average private school teacher and much better benefits (benefits are worth 31.3% of the former group’s salary, 15.8% of the latter’s). Despite spending more per student than any other country, we get poor results. In math, U.S. students do worse than most of their peers and their comparative performance worsens as they advance through grades. In reading, the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 30% of fourth graders were proficient and not one state had even half reaching this level.

Vouchers would save the taxpayers megabucks. According to government figures, the average private elementary school tuition is less than $3,500 and the average private secondary school tuition is $6,052 (1999-2000 figures). A voucher amount of $5,000 would thus give students access to most private schools and still allow for at least a couple of thousand dollars in savings that could be split between the taxpayer and the public schools. Even if vouchers produced no educational improvement, the money saved is justification enough. It is worth noting that even the sworn enemies of vouchers, the NEA and AFT, don’t claim that voucher beneficiaries learn less.

Vouchers probably benefit students. One 2002 study was done by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and Mathematica Policy Research on the effects of voucher-like scholarships on low-income black student achievement in New York City. The way in which scholarships were handed out allowed for a randomized study, the gold standard of research protocols. The researchers found that black students who used the scholarships to attend private schools for three years had standardized math and reading scores 9% higher than comparable black students who did not attend private schools. There was also substantial achievement among black students who attended a private school for only one or two years. Researchers from Harvard and the University of Houston looked at the effects of private school vouchers for families near or below the poverty level in Milwaukee. Again they found significant increases in math and reading scores. Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby found that the competition from vouchers and charter schools correlated with statistically significant improvements in the scores of students who remained in the public schools. She attributed this effect to competition.

It should be noted that the evidence for charter schools (a government school-voucher hybrid) is weaker. One government study found that these schools did worse than public schools.

The failure of public schools is unsurprising. Human history has repeatedly shown that government monopolies produce worse goods at greater cost. This is why no one wants to nationalize the car, food, and movie industries. There are only three types of persons who oppose vouchers…


The Constructivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

There he goes again. The Objectivist’s case for implementing Milton Friedman’s idea of replacing direct state funding of public elementary and secondary schools with vouchers to parents of school-age children depends on his dramatizing the costs and minimizing the benefits of state investments in public education. It’s not just that he leaves out inconvenient facts like the relative strength of New York public school students’ performance--at or above national averages, with marked improvements in almost every category assessed--particularly noteworthy results given Albany’s foot-dragging at remedying the unconstitutional disparities in the funding of school districts across the state. He also assumes that private schools--most of which do not have as strong accountability measures in place as do public schools--have the capacity, ability, and desire to educate more students well.

But let’s give The Objectivist the benefit of the doubt this time. After all, whereas U.S. academia is the envy of the world, our primary and secondary schools do not stack up as well against international competition. Given that roughly as many American students fail to graduate from high school as graduate from college each year, there is plenty of room for improvement. Can shifting tax dollars from schools to students aid this effort? So far, the record has been mixed and the controversies over interpreting it have generated far more heat than light (compare the positions of rival school reform organizations: Alliance for School Choice and Rethinking Schools). I propose two new ways of finding out how well vouchers can work.

First, let’s see if vouchers can help improve the range and quality of day care and preschool options for parents of young children. While these parents spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on what Alissa Quart, in the July/August 2006 issue of The Atlantic, calls the “Baby Genius Edutainment Complex,” experts in cognition, neurology, and psychology increasingly question the value of educational television and favor the developmental benefits of interaction with adults and peers. What if New York state were to fund educational savings accounts for all young children, with $1,000 per year of age added to the account each birthday before the sixth? Parents could spend these funds only on accredited day care and preschool programs. Whatever they save from the $15,000 (plus interest) over the five years would be converted into a portfolio under New York’s 529 College Savings Program. Any funds unused by age 25 would be distributed equally among the state’s public primary, secondary, and higher education institutions.

If voucher proponents are correct, such a program would have numerous benefits. In response to a greater demand for day care and preschool, both supply and competition should increase. In response to the increased diversity of offerings, parents should scrutinize their options carefully, thereby providing incentives for institutions to minimize costs and maximize quality. The state can limit its role to setting accreditation and assessment standards, penalizing fraud and abuse, and publicizing reliable information and analyses. By providing “educational start-up capital” to parents and setting ground rules for “early education institutions,” the state can facilitate the formation of a public-private day care and preschool system on a quite different financial and infrastructural footing than the existing K-12 system. These investments in early education should increase performance levels and graduation rates, reduce the need for remedial education, and provide models for reform throughout the K-12 system, not to mention improve poverty, crime, and college graduation rates throughout the state over time.

To be sure, this early education investment program has significant start-up costs. To offset them, I propose making New York’s public high schools more like New York’s public colleges and universities. Right now, the typical New York public high school receives about 50% of its annual income from local property taxes, 45% from state funds, and 5% from federal funds, whereas the typical SUNY or CUNY college or university relies on tuition for about half its annual income and a mix of state and federal funding, donations, and endowment returns for the other half. Why shouldn’t local property tax income for public high schools be replaced by a mix of vouchers and tuition? What if elected school boards and voters were allowed to set and approve voucher and tuition levels for their local public schools? Communities would then decide through a democratic process how much to reduce local property taxes, how high to set vouchers, and how high to set public school tuition. Along with reforming labor law to allow all teachers to form or join unions, this local voucher experiment should improve educational options for all New York high school students.

If so, perhaps the more contentious debate over whether to distribute state and federal funds to students or schools may someday be resolved.

08 June 2006

Debating the Senate Immigration Reform Bill

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Even for the Senate, the current immigration bill (the Hagel-Martinez immigration bill) is terrible. It includes a guest worker provision, an amnesty for many illegal aliens, and a large increase in legal immigration. A quick cost-benefit analysis shows why it shafts the citizenry.

Since 57% percent of illegal immigrants are from Mexico, it is worth considering their effects (as a side note, 80-85% of Mexican immigrants are illegal and 1 in 10 persons born in Mexico live in the U.S.). The following information in this section comes from a 2001 study from the Center for Immigration Studies and relies on data from the Census Bureau. As a group, Mexican immigrants suck up welfare benefits like a Hoover vacuum. While approximately 15% of natives used a major welfare program, Mexican immigrants use it at more than twice that rate (31%). One study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that the average adult Mexican immigrant imposes a net loss of $55,200 on the U.S. (taxes paid minus services cost).

This tendency persists over time since 30% of Mexican immigrants who have been here for more than twenty years use welfare benefits. Even third-generation Mexican-Americans are more than twice as likely as natives to use welfare and almost twice as likely to be in poverty or near the poverty level. Thus, Mexican immigrants and their descendants continue to suck up tax dollars.

This study underestimates the danger since as medical costs spiral upward, the costs of these immigrants will likely explode. Since 53% of Mexican immigrants don’t have medical insurance, compared to 14% of natives, these costs threaten to break our ability to bail out Medicare and Social Security. Even legal Mexican immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than 20 years are disproportionably uninsured (more than 33% don’t have medical insurance).

Nor can we reasonably expect this pattern to change over successive generations. Education is an important indicator of how a group will affect others’ pocketbooks and Mexican immigrants as a group do poorly in school. While 9% of natives drop out of high school, a whopping 65% of Mexican immigrants do. Again this pattern is multi-generational. Third-generation Mexican-Americans are almost three times likely as natives to drop out from high school and less than half as likely to graduate from college.

Culturally, Mexican immigrants drag down standards. According to one study that used Bureau of Justice statistics, Hispanics are three times more likely than whites to commit violent crimes and three times more likely to be incarcerated. They also have a comparatively weak family structure in that 36% of Hispanic births in the U.S. are out of wedlock. The kicker is that large numbers don’t identify with the U.S. or even want to become citizens. In 1997, only 15% of Mexicans qualified for naturalization did so, versus 53% from Europe and 44% from Asia.

What benefits outweigh these costs? Some Senate apologists claim that the amnesty is necessary to keep costs down. However, the Center for Immigration Studies suggests that Mexican immigration in the ’90s reduced prices between 0.08% and 0.2%. This is because unskilled labor accounts for a very small portion of economic output. Other Senate clowns claim that immigrants do jobs that natives won’t do. This is patently false since many of these jobs were done in the 1970s by non-immigrants. In 1970, for example, there were fewer than 800,000 Mexican immigrants in the country. Even if these benefits were real, they likely wouldn’t come close to outweighing the costs.

In addition, we still need to consider opportunity costs. Instead of amnestying millions of illegal aliens and letting in their families (the Congressional Budget Offices estimates that the Senate bill will increase the population by 8 million over the next 10 years), imagine we took in immigrants based on wealth, skills, and education. No one who isn’t a senator from Massachusetts could argue with a straight face that taking in largely uneducated Mexican immigrants is better for this country than taking in wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs, Pakistani doctors, and Indian engineers. The Senate is like the owner of an NFL team who uses its first round draft pick to take a player who couldn’t play for a college team. They must think we’re pretty dumb.


The Constructivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Over the next few weeks and probably months a conference committee made up of selected members of the Senate and the House will attempt to reconcile the Hagel-Martinez Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611) and the Sensenbrenner Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437). Americans should hope the cheap labor corporatists and nativist populists of the Republican-controlled Congress fail to reach a compromise. Otherwise, they will have locked us into a fundamentally flawed version of “comprehensive immigration reform” and missed another opportunity to develop a truly efficient, effective, fair, and just way of managing regional and global labor flows for the benefit of everyone in the Americas.

The ongoing debate between Congressional Republicans who emphasize punitive and militaristic solutions to the immigration “crisis” and Senate Republicans and Democrats who advocate comprehensive reforms to U.S. immigration policy avoids confronting the root causes of large-scale international migrations. What are these causes? First, consider “push” factors such as poverty, lack of economic opportunity, political repression, and social instability abroad that lead people to make the agonizing decision to leave their homeland. Next, consider “pull” factors such as demand by U.S. corporations for cheap and vulnerable workers, along with a higher standard of living, political freedoms, and social stability that make the U.S. an attractive destination for international migrants. Then, take into account the uneven effects of corporate globalization and the Washington Consensus on trade and development promoted by such institutions as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and World Bank and enacted in NAFTA and CAFTA. For example, the subsidies the U.S. offers to its own multinational corporations in agribusiness contribute to the impoverishment and bankruptcy of small farmers in Mexico and Central America, which leads them and their children to migrate to cities for work and, often, on to the United States.

By focusing on a limited version of “comprehensive immigration reform”--attending only to border and interior enforcement, visa reform and backlog reduction, and work authorization and legalization of undocumented workers--Congress fails to use key tools in aid, development, labor, and trade policy to provide disincentives for illegal immigration, mitigate the factors that lead to international migration, and recruit the most promising immigrants into our economy, society, and polity. What tools should Democrats and reasonable Republicans on the Congressional conference committee advocate adding to its legislative repertoire?

Aid: Incorporate the most promising proposals from the ONE Campaign and Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty into funding for field testing aid programs aimed at drastically reducing poverty around the world.

Development: Incorporate the most promising proposals from the World Social Forum and the International Forum on Globalization’s Alternatives to Economic Globalization into funding for field testing development projects that can help build a new Washington Consensus aimed at creating conditions for sustainable economic growth throughout the Western hemisphere.

Labor: Incorporate measures recommended by Amy Traub of the Drum Major Institute, who points out that “undocumented workers’ inability to defend their rights in the workplace contributes to a race to the bottom that hurts many Americans who aspire to a middle-class standard of living.” Recognize, with Sociologists Without Borders, that “workers who can work legally and workers who are undocumented need a living wage, safe working conditions, and pension and health benefits, and they need to be treated with respect and dignity.” Supplement funding for enforcement of laws forbidding employers from hiring and exploiting undocumented workers with recognition of workers’ right to free association and the benefits for everyone when they are free to form and join unions to improve the terms and conditions of their employment.

Trade: Turn NAFTA and CAFTA into truly cooperative programs that promote fair trade and globalization from below. Invest in transnational communications and transportation infrastructure to reduce the costs of international trade.

Given that the Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to follow even the common-sense principles driving the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights’s Fair and Just Immigration Reform for All program, Americans should hope that it fails to pass an immigration reform bill before the mid-term elections in November. Once Congress is in more responsible hands, it can develop a truly comprehensive immigration reform bill.