Signing one, vetoing other rebate bill aids public education
Those legislators with an interest in maximizing government control grumbled somewhat when state Rep. Kirk Talbot’s HB 969 got put into law, which would allow tax rebates for donations to organizations that would help pay for tuition of lower-income students to private schools. Some responded by getting behind HB 1106 by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, which would allow tax rebates for donations to all but the most successful public schools. Their discontent reached new heights when Gov. Bobby Jindal, in contrast to Talbot’s bill, vetoed Jackson’s – as it is, for very good reasons beyond what he stated.
That perturbed the bill’s author, among others, who declared, with a flair for the inaccurate and sanctimonious, that this had been the only bill out there “which truly helps our public schools to receive much needed resources.” Jindal’s veto message noted that the initial $10 million that the program could cost was unfunded (and by the bill could have created an unfunded mandate by escalating every year). That practical objection aside, there was a huge conceptual objection to it as well, related to the differences between the monopoly and market natures of the different approaches to providing education to the state’s children.
Talbot’s bill provides incentives to donate money to independent organizations although affiliated with private schools that could use the money only as direct awards to families for their children to attend those schools, with preference if demand exceeds supply given to those who would otherwise have attended an underperforming public school. Accountability measures put in place in the new law, which will be supplemented by departmental rules, minimize opportunities to subvert the system on the basis of favoritism to families for reasons of friendship, athletic ability, etc. (but does allow earmarking on the basis of disability). The schools do not get the money directly, which is capped at only 80 or 90 percent of the aid given to public schools for each child, and are not shielded in any way from market forces; you can have all the money in the world flowing into the organization but if families are turned off in having their children attend the associated school, it doesn’t get these funds (and donors who do not have their dollars used can request a refund minus the five percent allowed overhead charge), and donations would decrease to these organizations until the schools improved.
Contrast this with Jackson’s bill. In it, money goes directly to schools although they are restricted in the ways they can use so they don’t go out and do things like buy a fleet of luxury vehicles for their administrators. Regardless, it subverts the accountability mechanisms because it directs state dollars – 75 percent of the value of the donation that does not get collected in taxes that could have gone to other purposes – to schools without any connection to accountability at all. Recall that, unlike with private schools where the market provides built-in accountability and thereby moots the need for such state regulation, the state’s measures are designed to mimic in an indirect way the natural accountability afforded by the marketplace and apply that to the monopoly environment of public education.
Thus, under Jackson’s bill, a badly performing school could have, in essence, extra state money going to prop up a superstructure propagating failure, when, if that money were to be collected by the state on the basis of need and accountability, it should have gone to subsidize instead activities of demonstrated success. Naturally enough, the crippling theoretical flaw of this bill was that money solved all education woes. It does not, as any cursory look at statistics comparing financing and achievement shows. Much more important are factors such as a school’s leadership or a commitment by school boards and central offices to put, for example, academic achievement ahead of patronage.
It’s attitude that precedes money in understanding academic success. The market in which private schools must compete orders this properly: public money follows families who allocate it on the basis of school achievement. Thus, state dollars flow to their best and most efficient use in improving both private and public education: subsidizing the best of the former, and thereby forcing the latter to improve to keep its resources by preventing defection of its students to the private/nonprofit sector. The monopoly that government protects for public schools, ameliorated only somewhat by accountability measures, does not do this: public money follows the school regardless of its merit, with no guarantee that it is used best and most efficiently.
Turning Minimum Foundation Program funds over to schools largely unrelated to their merits is appropriate because its purpose is to provide the funds to cover a basic education. Then some schools will do that, others will go above the norm, while others will fail to meet it – and would regardless of how much money they get because the problem lies in the bureaucratic structures, organizational cultures, and attitudes of those governing and working in it. So if the state is going to commit extra money to education (regardless whether it is performed publicly or privately) beyond what, with competent use of it, should be enough to provide a basic education for all, it should do it in a way that maximizes enhancement of success and minimizes chances of failure.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 09:55