WASHINGTON, April 2 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the fourth of eight wrap-ups for April 2.
The Heartland Institute
(HI is a libertarian think tank that aims to promote social movements in support of ideas such as parental choice in education, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation following the principle that property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies. Supported by private contributions, HI does not accept government funds or conduct "contract" research for special interest groups.)
CHICAGO -- D.C. vouchers return to front burner
by Don Soifer
The significance of the Supreme Court's historic Zelman decision last June was recognized immediately by elected supporters of parental choice in education. Representative Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was among those who mused on the enormity of the decision's impact.
"The best thing we can do to improve education is to expand parental choice and increase competition," he said at the time, "and today's ruling will allow that to happen."
In the opening weeks of his second term, Flake rose to his own challenge by introducing the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act. The proposal updates the plan championed in recent years by now-retired Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, offering vouchers for District of Columbia children in grades K-12 with family incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line.
The Flake plan allows poor families to receive scholarships of up to $5,000 ($3,750 for families within the limit but above the poverty threshold) or the cost of tuition -- whichever is lower. Students can choose to attend any public or private school in the District or in nearby Maryland or Virginia.
President George W. Bush's fiscal 2004 budget also includes a school voucher program for D.C. families. Education Secretary Rod Paige described the administration's proposal as one in which vouchers would be provided only if District officials agreed to opt into the plan. But an aide to the secretary later speculated to the Washington Post that vouchers could still be awarded through a non-profit scholarship organization in the event the District did not choose to participate directly.
Funding for District vouchers in the president's budget is provided through a proposed new $75 million Choice Incentive Fund to support expanded choice opportunities through competitive grants. House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised the new fund, noting the importance of advancing parental choice efforts in the midst of unprecedented increases in federal education spending.
"It's essential that some of those resources be used to provide new options for low-income parents, and new support for charter schools," he said.
In a December 2002 paper for the Cato Institute that said new options were needed in the District, policy analyst Casey J. Lartigue Jr. noted 36 percent of Washington public school students scored "Below Basic" in mathematics on the Stanford 9 achievement test in 2001. In reading, 25 percent scored "Below Basic." He also observed that in more than two-thirds of District high schools, 90 percent of students tested at levels of either Basic or Below Basic in both reading and math.
As expected, the voucher plans provoked a heated response as District officials --including Mayor Anthony Williams, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton -- all leaped to challenge the voucher concept.
"The failure of some public schools to offer even the semblance of an education seems to upset voucher critics less than the mere mention of vouchers does," observed a Feb. 12 Washington Post editorial endorsing Bush's plan.
Some expressed concern that the size of the vouchers would fall short of the full cost of a private education. Per-pupil public school spending in the District topped $9,900 for the 1999-2000 school year, the nation's third highest -- behind only New Jersey and New York.
"If the voucher program goes forward in the District, we hope it will contain enough funds to meet the cost of private tuition," the Post continued.
Bush's fiscal year 2004 budget also contains $226 million in refundable tax credits for parents who choose to move their children out of public schools identified as in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act. Those parents would receive a credit of 50 percent of the first $5,000 in tuition, fees, and transportation costs incurred in transferring to a private school or another public school.
The credit would be refundable, offering a direct pay-out to parents who owe no taxes because of their low income. No Child Left Behind requires public school districts to facilitate choice for families stuck with low-performing schools.
To date, the options made available to those parents have been very limited, as school districts have said better options simply do not exist. Many who supported last year's reforms see the Bush tax credit plan as representing a logical and powerful next step.
(Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute.)
The Buckeye Institute
(TBI is an independent think tank that analyzes state and local government programs in Ohio and offers practical market-oriented approaches to public policy consistent with a respect for individual liberty, private property and limited government. TBI says it is committed to non-partisan public policy research and advocacy through data-driven research and analysis that aims to elevate the policy debate beyond partisan interests. It research is produced with the assistance of 52 scholars from 23 Ohio universities and colleges.)
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- 10 ideas for improving Ohio's fiscal health
By Joshua C. Hall and Lawrence W. Reed
Ohio Governor Bob Taft and the General Assembly are grappling with a projected $4 billion deficit over the next biennial budget. Deep spending reductions will be required to meet the near-term shortfalls in revenue, but that also raises the question: What can be done to minimize the chances for similar crises in the future?
Make no mistake. Columbus needs to focus on more than short-term fixes. No one can precisely forecast when future economic downturns will occur or how deep and prolonged they will be, but state government can reduce their negative impact with some long-term structural changes in the way it conducts its budgetary affairs. Here are a few ideas worth consideration:
1. Employ "sunset" provisions. Far too many budget items are introduced in one year and automatically included in subsequent years with little legislative scrutiny. If more line items automatically expired in one, two or three years, the legislature would be forced to take a hard look at them on a regular basis.
2. Consider a Tax and Expenditure Limitation, or TEL. TELs restrict government spending (and consequently, taxation) by restricting spending increases to a pre-determined formula, such as personal income growth plus inflation. States that have strong TELs such as Colorado, while not completely eliminating deficits, have made them more manageable by restricting government spending during economic expansions.
3. Freeze basic state aid to schools. Over the last seven years, state basic aid has more than doubled, increasing from under $2 billion in 1997 to nearly $4.5 billion this fiscal year. The state should do what it feels is necessary to meet its constitutional requirements but otherwise let local school districts raise additional revenue locally. Sending tax money to Columbus before it goes to schools allows money to be diverted away from classrooms into the pockets of bureaucrats.
4. Cut the pork. State taxpayers are spending $500,000 to help construct a minor-league ballpark in Eastlake. The state's capital budget is filled with similar pork projects. An ongoing, independent commission would be one way to blow the whistle when legislators go hog wild bringing home the bacon.
5. Scrutinize state departments. Michigan used to have something called the PERM process. This program required departments to analyze their work to determine which makes the most sense: Privatize, Eliminate, Retain or Modify. Ohio would do well to revive the idea. The best private businesses subject their work to such scrutiny every day.
6. Apply the "Yellow Pages test." If state government is doing an activity that can be found in the Yellow Pages, then government probably shouldn't be doing it.
7. Renegotiate labor contracts. Governors in other states are leveraging budget crises into a case for modifying overly generous contracts, saving millions in health care costs and outmoded work rules.
8. Shift away from highly unstable revenue sources. Ohio is more susceptible to economic downturns because it relies fairly heavily on revenues from income taxes, which vary significantly over the business cycle. Ohio should look to restructure its tax system to sources that provide stable revenues, such as sales taxes, without increasing the overall tax burden.
9. Don't crank up new initiatives. Any money spent on them means cuts in everything else have to be even deeper. Nix the new stuff and focus exclusively on the deficit just like families or businesses do when they overspend.
10. Eliminate corporate welfare. Ohioans pay millions of dollars to private businesses in the form of preferential tax treatment and direct subsidies. If businesses are leaving Ohio because of our high taxes, the solution is to lower the taxes for all, not choose favorites based upon who employs the most or who has the best lobbyists.
If Ohio is going to break out of the boom-bust cycle of the past three decades, policy-makers need to resist the temptation to focus on the current crisis and instead think about preventing tomorrow's.
(Joshua C. Hall is director of research at the Buckeye Institute. Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.)
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy
(MCPP is a nonpartisan research and educational organization devoted to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions through the objective analysis of issues. MCPP seeks to broaden the policy past the belief that government intervention should be the standard solution for various issues, and offers a comprehensive approach encompassing voluntary associations, business, community and family, as well as government.)
MIDLAND, Mich. -- Frivolous, trendy teacher training in Michigan
by Samuel A. Walker
On March 13, The Detroit News published a curious article by reporter Tony Manolatos, exposing the fact that an instructor at Michigan State University, Melissa D. Hasbrook, was offering extra credit to her students for attending rallies protesting the coming war with Iraq.
Hasbrook was sophisticated enough to recognize the realities of the situation and made clear to students that her offer was open to those who attended "pro-war" rallies as well, although Gisgie Gendreau, a spokeswoman for the university, told the News that "she didn't know of any."
The article was curious in that, while the paper's very reporting of the matter as "news" assumes that there might be something objectionable about such practices, its tone is one of praise, and quotes no one objecting to blatant politicizing of the curriculum at a respected university. The assumption implicit in the reporting of this matter -- that there might be legitimate objections to partisan political stands being offered as course material -- is correct.
In 1996, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy published "Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities" by Thomas F. Bertonneau, then an English instructor for Central Michigan University, and well-known critic of the very sort of teacher training he says "emphasizes emotion and subjectivity over rigor."
The result, he says, is: "Students in teacher education courses, who have not learned very much because of faulty instruction, take faulty instruction methods to their own teaching careers. They do not learn how to teach well."
In his summary of the study's findings, Beretonneau clarifies his point: "A preference for trivia is also part of the problem in today's teacher education courses. The curricula offered by university education departments are heavy on fuzzy 'self-awareness,' 'multicultural,' and other faddish or politicized material, and light on the hard knowledge of the subjects that teachers must eventually teach. One assignment, offered as a model to teaching assistants at CMU, asked students to watch and discuss TV talk shows like 'Oprah' and 'Montel' for two weeks of a 15-week semester."
The course in which students could receive university credit for taking the stand favored by the educational establishment at Michigan State was Teacher Education 250 or Human Diversity, Power and Opportunity in Social Institutions. The 3-credit class is taken mostly by sophomores who want to become teachers. This very course was singled out by Bertonneau as a perfect example of the kind of frivolous, and ultimately profitless, courses Michigan's teacher candidates are subjected to as part of their preparation for the classroom.
Bertonneau only needs to directly quote Michigan State's course catalogue to make his point.
"Using catch words from the theoretical discourse which one encounters frequently today in schools of education," he wrotes, "TE 250 aims at a 'comparative study of schools and other social institutions,' and includes material on the 'social construction maintenance of diversity and inequality (sic),' and 'political and social consequences for individuals and groups.'"
What sort of teachers -- and students -- does such "instruction" produce?
Bertonneau needs only quote the same newspaper only months before publication of his study: "The deterioration of teacher training has been closely linked with the erosion of a solid core curriculum in the state universities of Michigan. In January 1995, The Detroit News reported on its front page that 'there is trouble at the head of Michigan's classrooms, and it may get worse before it improves.' Remarkably, one-third of the prospective geography and health teachers 'flunked their certification tests,' and 'those taking biology and history exams fared only slightly better.' The article noted that 'while nearly all passed a basic skills test in reading, writing and math,' the test is 'so easy that it gives the public no assurance of any level of competency.'
"In September 1996, The Detroit News again reported that 'many Michigan teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects that they are assigned.' In a related story, the same newspaper reported how large numbers of Michigan high school students, taking the newly instated academic proficiency test, failed to demonstrate their academic proficiency."
It is significant that Hasbrook declined to comment, even for an article that treated favorably her teaching practices. What is far more significant, however, is that while tenured professors are permitted to indulge their political whims at the expense of their unsuspecting students, Michigan's K-12 children are being shortchanged.
(Samuel Walker is a communications specialist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)