Blog author: mvandermaas
by on Monday, January 9, 2006

Monopoly #1: I was somewhat shocked the other day when I heard a strong critique of the much-vaunted Canadian national health care system on NPR. I wasn’t dreaming – here’s the link to prove it. The report notes that “after 50 years, the Medicare dream has turned nightmare for many” – something that many advocates for socialized health care in the US would do well to take note of. It also takes note of the recent precedent-setting court decision in Quebec which gives residents who are on waiting lists that jeopardize their health the right to opt out of the public system. (You can listen to the report in Real Audio format by clicking here; previous posts on the topic here, here, and here.) Government health care in Canada seems to be teetering on the brink.

One facing a judicial red light; the other, green.

Monopoly #2: The same can not be said for the governmental education monopoly in Florida. Last Thursday, the state Supreme Court struck down Florida’s statewide voucher system.

In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the program undermines the public schools and violates the Florida Constitution’s requirement of a uniform system of free public education.

This is unfortunate, for the simple reason that the introduction of vouchers has been an effective education reform measure in Florida. The Wall Street Journal noted the positive effects of the program back in June:

The saga began in 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the first money-back guarantee in the history of public education: the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under the program, whenever a public school receives two failing grades on Florida’s academic performance standards, state educational officials come into the school with a remedial program, and the students are allowed to transfer to better performing public schools or to use a share of their public funds as full payment of private-school tuition.

Six years later, only 750 children are attending private schools using opportunity scholarships. But their footsteps have reverberated across the state, prompting failing public schools to reform. Steps taken by failing schools have included spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, hiring tutors for poor performing teachers, and providing year-round instruction to pupils.

Defenders of the status quo insist that such reforms were already under way. But a freedom of information request by the Institute for Justice from school districts that lifted schools off the failing list revealed ubiquitous reference to the dreaded V-word: Without such measures, school officials warned, we wind up with vouchers. The rules of economics, it seems, do not stop at the schoolhouse doors.

The results have been stunning. Even with tougher state standards, nearly half of Florida’s public schools now earn “A” grades, while a similar percentage scored “C’s” when the program started. A 2003 study by Jay Greene found that gains were most concentrated among schools under threat of vouchers.

Most remarkable has been minority student progress. While the percentage of white third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased to 78% from 70% in 2001, the percentage among Hispanic third-graders has climbed from 46% to 61%, and among blacks from 36% to 52%. Graduation rates for Hispanic students have increased from 52.8% before the program started to 64% today; and for black students from 48.7% to 57.3%. Minority schoolchildren are not making such academic strides anywhere else.

And so we revert to the status quo. Sadly, the ones most harmed by the status quo are the ones most in need of the reforms that school choice would bring – the poor.

My predictions: As Canada introduces more market oriented solutions to its health care problems, the quality of care that Canadians recieve will rise and fewer Canadians will have to head south of the border to obtain it; and until American public schools face genuine competition, the quality of the education they provide (especially in inner city and poor areas) will increase negligibly if at all.
Update: Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute details the threat that the Florida decision poses to other school-choice programs nationwide in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

Unlike previous school-choice cases, Bush v. Holmes did not hinge on the use of public funds at religious schools. Instead, five of the seven presiding justices ruled that school vouchers violate the “uniformity” clause of Florida’s Constitution. Far from being an arcane and forgotten technicality, this clause was amended and re-approved by voters just eight years ago: It mandates, among other things, “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.” If only wishing could make it so.

What the new wording fails to consider is that a homogenized government bureaucracy is not necessarily compatible with efficiency and quality. By this point in American history, we should know better. After more than a century of honing its public school system, Florida has managed an on-time graduation rate of just 57%, placing it third from last nationally. Its composite SAT score is the fourth lowest among the states. And it isn’t as though the rest of the country is excelling on the world stage.

When Americans took the International Adult Literacy Survey in the mid-1990s, nearly a quarter of 16-to- 25-year-olds displayed only the most rudimentary skills. In the decade since, the verbal ability of U.S. college graduates has declined, according to results released last month from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. On tests of mathematics and science, our high-school seniors are among the worst performers in the industrialized world. It is to this millstone of educational dysfunction that Floridians — and, to a lesser extent, the voters of every other state — have tied their children.

The full heft of that millstone can be gleaned from the oral arguments in Bush v. Holmes. At one point, an unnamed justice asked the attorney for voucher opponents: “You would agree, would you not, that whether [voucher schools] have been an overwhelming success or an utter failure, is, really, irrelevant to whether the program is constitutional.” The answer was a resounding “yes.” In other words, legislators may not consider alternative educational arrangements, no matter how effective they might be…

…Every other state with a school choice program and a uniformity clause untested in its courts can expect to feel the heat. Arizona, which has education tax credits and charter schools, is apt to be a prime target. Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon and North Carolina, among others, all have uniformity clauses and at least one school-choice program vulnerable to attack.