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Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is the director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom. Prior to arriving at Cato, McCluskey served in the U.S. Army, taught high-school English, and was a freelance reporter covering municipal government and education in suburban New Jersey. McCluskey holds an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, where he double-majored in government and English, has a master’s degree in political science from Rutgers University, and has a PhD in public policy from George Mason University.

Articles by Neal McCluskey

School Choice Is on The Move. Is It Too Late?

March 30, 2021

School Choice Is on The Move. Is It Too Late? | Cato at Liberty Blog

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Taking Stock of America’s Public Schooling Battles

January 15, 2021

It is probably fair to say that Americans are highly polarized right now. Public schooling is likely a reflection of, and contributor to, that division. A reflection, because political control of schools is likely to replicate the divisions and animosities of the electorate. A cause, because public schooling requires people with diverse views and backgrounds to engage in political combat to determine whose values, views on history, and more, will be taught.
Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map catalogues values and identity‐​based conflicts – highly personal battlegrounds versus, say, fights over school budgets – in public schools. We started documenting such conflicts in the 2005-06 school year, but it was a few years later that we started regular, consistent collection and

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A Brief Assessment of DeVos’s Ed Sec Tenure

January 8, 2021

Betsy DeVos resigned last night as U.S. Secretary of Education. She cited this week’s storming of the Capitol, which she wrote was fueled by President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and was an “inflection point” for her.
Whether DeVos should have left the administration sooner, especially as her boss became more dismissive of electoral reality, may weigh heavily on her legacy. But based on education policy, DeVos’s tenure overall was a good one. Not great – the administration did not work with Congress to substantially shrink the largely unconstitutional federal presence in education – but DeVos recognized federal excesses and launched no grand scheme, like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, to enlarge them.
She, of course, also strongly supported school choice, which is

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Resurrected Schools, and More COVID-19 Private Ed News

September 10, 2020

Bad news grabs a lot more attention than good, and Cato’s COVID-19 Permanent Private School Closures tracker mainly communicates bad – private schools going out of business, leaving thousands of children educationally homeless. But today we offer some good news, coupled with some news of less clear character.
The good news is that 3 schools have been removed from the tracker, bringing closures down from 118 to 115.

On September 1 it was announced that the Crotched Mountain School in New Hampshire, which serves students with disabilities, was revived after being acquired by an organization called Gersh Autism. After hearing that news we reviewed the tracker and found two more schools had been saved. At the end of August it was reported that Saint Joseph High School in New Jersey

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Happy New School Year? Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom Has You Covered

September 8, 2020

Ordinarily, the end of Labor Day weekend signals the return to school for the vast majority of American children. And while most kids will have resumed their K-12 education by today, this is not ordinary: millions will not be returning to school buildings even if their parents desperately want them to, while many in buildings may much prefer to be learning elsewhere.
Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom has been closely analyzing the transition from surprise lockdowns last year, to the muddled, volatile start of the new school year. Of course, our focus is always on freedom in education, and if anything has proven how desperate the need for freedom is, it has been COVID-19. Different communities, families, and educators face different disease threats, have different tolerances

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Private Schools: COVID Enrollment Winners or Losers?

September 2, 2020

As you’d expect with the arrival of a new school year, increasingly people have been asking me how things are looking for private schools. Are they getting clobbered, as I feared they might back in the early lockdown days, or gaining students, as more recent anecdotal evidence has suggested? The answer is there is a Grand Canyon‐​wide range of estimates, the ground is still moving, and we could be seeing anything from disaster to boom‐​time for private schools.
The worst‐​case estimate I have seen is from the Gallup poll I tackled last week, with data suggesting that private schools (“private” and “parochial”) would go from an 11 percent share of students last year to just 8 percent in 2020–21. In terms of total enrollment, that would be a drop of 1.5 million students: from roughly 5.7

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Private School COVID-19 Permanent Closure Tracker: New Home, New Data

June 5, 2020

Due to its growing size and increasing visibility of the issue, we have moved the private school permanent closure tracker to its own, permanent page. We will try to update it every weekday by 5:30 pm ET.
The tracker page features summary information about permanent closures at least partially connected to COVID-19, and a link to the full list of schools and some other data we have collected but not summarized largely due to difficulty finding it for many schools.
We will be analyzing the data in further depth soon, but one thing to note right away: It appears to be private schools serving less‐​wealthy communities that tend to be the ones closing. We do not have direct measures of wealth, but these schools have much lower estimated tuition than the average private school: $7,575 versus

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Private School COVID-19 Permanent Closure Tracker — May 29, 2020

May 29, 2020

44 private schools have announced that they are closing permanently, at least in part due to the COVID-19 economic downturn, up from 33 in last week’s update. Enrollment in the closing schools, which in a few cases is estimated, is 6,204, up from 5,690 last week. Were all of these students to go to public schools, and had none been part of publicly connected school choice such as voucher programs or scholarship tax‐​credits, the new cost to the public purse would be roughly $96,000,000 ($15,424 per student multiplied by 6,204).

As always, the list is expected to grow as schools learn more about the impact of the economic downturn on enrollment and income for the coming school year. We will ordinarily post an update on Cato’s blog every Friday, but if the list reaches 100 schools

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Elizabeth Warren: Taxpayer-Funded Student Debt Jubilee, Meet Pen and Phone

January 14, 2020

We already know that Elizabeth Warren’s massive student loan forgiveness proposal is atrocious policy that would saddle taxpayers with at least $640 billion in debt that millions of students freely accepted to greatly increase their lifetime earnings. That’s private profit, socialized cost. Now Warren is declaring that she’ll combine bad policy with even more dangerous government, promising to start forgiving student debt “on day one” of her presidency, as she declares in the tweet below. She offers a justification we’ve seen before: Congress isn’t moving fast enough. She does not, however, cite where the Constitution says Congress shall have the power to make law, unless the president decides it is taking too long.

We have a student loan crisis—and we can’t afford to wait for Congress

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Upon Further Review, the Spending Stands as Called

December 18, 2019

Last week I wrote about an op-ed in the Washington Post claiming that “public funding for schools has actually decreased since the late 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars.” I furnished the graph below illustrating how completely that flew in the face of available evidence, and folks like Reason’s Corey DeAngelis and Heritage’s Lindsey Burke did the same, and much more.

Well all the scrutiny to the claim (and some dogged prodding by Corey) paid off: the Post issued a 180-degree correction this morning. (The picture below is courtesy of Corey’s incredibly energetic tweeting.) Hopefully word will quickly reach any readers who simply accepted the spending-cuts assertion:

There is lots of room for interpretation in many public policy debates, including assertions of fact. But the idea

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Absent Further Review, the Spending Stands as Called

December 11, 2019

In a new Washington Post op-ed, University of Virginia Curry School of Education dean Robert Pianta offers an assertion that is shocking, at least if you follow education policy: “public funding for schools has actually decreased since the late 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars.” It is shocking because federal, inflation-adjusted data show nothing even close to that, as you can see in the chart below.

This spending data is well-known among wonks, and while it is open to some interpretation, I can find nothing supporting Pianta’s claim. His piece includes a link to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, but I found nothing in it backing up his assertion. Bruce Baker of Rutgers, who is a supporter of Pianta’s argument that spending more on education would make a big difference, has

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DeVos Proposes “Government Corporation” Handle Student Aid. Color Me Dubious

December 4, 2019

The U.S. Department of Education was not created to be a giant lending institution. But that is what it has become, overseeing nearly $1.5 trillion in federal student loans. At a meeting of college financial aid administrators in maybe-symbolic Reno, NV, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed to change that by turning the department’s student aid offices into an independent “government corporation.” It would have its own governing board that would, she suggested, be freed of political meddling and motivated to “deliver world-class service to students and their families.”
Color me dubious.
For sure, it is hard to imagine an independent agency running less efficiently than the U.S. Department of Education, though that is mainly because the bigger the organization, the greater the red

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Latest Exams Say Something Definitive: There’s Little That’s Definitive

December 3, 2019

I dread the release of national standardized test scores because there is always big pressure to pull something out of them and declare, as quickly as possible, that they show your favorite reform works. In my younger days I’m sure I succumbed. But as time has gone on, I’ve concluded that any given year’s big release is just one year of new data from which nothing can be definitively determined about why scores have moved as they have. There are simply too many variables at play, from family wealth, to spending, to school choice, to what any given test asks, to conclude very much. So I hope you’ll bear with me while I throw all that out the window. The latest scores from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) do reveal something conclusive: It’s dangerous to look at one

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Thankful for More Educational Freedom (Hopefully) On Its Way

November 27, 2019

If you know your United States history, you know that the Pilgrims came to North America seeking to practice their religion free from the constraints of the Church of England. If you know your U.S. history well, you know that what many call the beginning of public schooling was the Massachusetts Bay colony’s law of 1647 requiring towns to supply some form of education, lest children fall victim to “that old deluder, Satan.” And if you know your history really well, you know that as public schooling developed it was repeatedly beset by religious conflicts, first as the schools were de facto Protestant, then as they became de facto agnostic.

What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? That we may be on the verge of tearing down barriers to people directing education funds to

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First Look at Latest National Test Scores: Is It Cultural?

October 30, 2019

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress—the “Nation’s Report Card”—scores are out, and they aren’t encouraging. But how discouraged should we be?
The main NAEP tracks national, state, and selected local scores back to the early 1990s, though there have been some changes that have affected comparability among years, and not all states have participated every year. As you can see below, this year saw average scores drop in 4th and 8th grade reading, and 8th grade math, since 2017, but rise a tad in 4th grade math. Over the years, math has seen much more encouraging growth than reading.

How about subgroups? Here, too, the latest scores have mainly dipped with the exception of 4th grade math, including for African-American, low-income, and Catholic school kids.
How worried

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Hot Take: Elizabeth Warren’s K-12 Education Plan

October 21, 2019

This morning, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released her plan, or at least its general contours, for K-12 education. There are a few marginal positives in it, but for the most part, at least based on my first, quick reading, it is exactly what you’d expect: spend a lot and attack school choice. All this while ignoring the Constitution, which simply does not authorize the vast majority of what Warren wants to do.
The Decent Stuff
Foremost among the decent things, Warren’s plan opposes high-stakes testing. Holding schools “accountable” using standardized tests has been central to federal policy since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2002, peaking with the Common Core around 2011. It took a hit with the reauthorization of No Child—renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act—which

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The College More of the Same Act

October 16, 2019

If you were expecting big steps forward on the Higher Education Act from the House Committee on Education and Labor, prepare to be disappointed. Yesterday, the Democratic majority released the College Affordability Act—which for some reason says “Est. 2019”—and it delivers pretty much what we’ve seen established since about 1969: A general conviction that what higher ed mainly needs is more government money…and no openly for-profit schools.
The centerpieces of the bill are federal funds to encourage states to make community colleges free, increases in Pell Grants, cheaper student loans, and cracking down “on predatory for-profit colleges.” Let’s look at each of these very briefly.
Free Community College
The nearly 1,200 page bill, which committee staffers estimate would cost about $400

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Why Would a Libertarian Want School Choice? Suppose Canned Peaches…

October 1, 2019

Peter Greene, an affable defender of public schooling and critic of most things “reformy,” is nonplussed: How could libertarians argue that religious freedom requires school choice? Writes Greene about “Libby folks”—presumably libertarians and not fans of canned fruit—“you have, of course, always been free to send your child to a religious school. What’s new here is the argument that the government should pay for it.” He goes on, “Libbys are saying that citizens should be taxed so that their children can practice their religion,” which doesn’t seem like a very libertarian thing to do.
I agree. It isn’t. Except for one thing with which Greene never seriously grapples: this is in a status quo in which everyone is taxed to support government schools, schools that, by law, must be secular. In

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School Choice Rules!

September 25, 2019

A new federal report on school choice has just been released, and it is full of good news about private schooling, except for one thing: its market share is small, and getting smaller. In large part this is because private institutions are competing against schools for which people must pay taxes and are “free” to users: public schools, including charter schools that people often see as private (minus pesky tuition, plus state testing and, often, other intrusive government rules). Still, chartering is better than simply being assigned to a school based on your home address. Which brings us to some highlights:
Decreased Government Assignment to Schools
Add together all the homeschooling, private schooling, charters, and choice among district public schools, and the percentage of families

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American Public on Education: “We Want It All”

August 21, 2019

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, back-to-school also means the release of lots of education polling, and Tuesday brought us the yearly Education Next poll, which is one of my favorites. (Of course, I love all you crazy polls!) The Education Next folks do a lot of interesting experimentation with their polls, especially when it comes to funding, and they keep nice longitudinal data. I don’t love every part of the survey—looking at you, Common Core question—but overall I think it is well done and highly informative.
As usual, you should read the whole thing, and I’ll just hit some highlights.
More, more, more!
If there is one repeated theme to the poll, it’s that people generally want more of whatever is being discussed: more spending, higher teacher pay, more school choice, more

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Why Public Schools Can’t Have Nice Values

August 7, 2019

It’s nearing back-to-school time, and that means in addition to lots of yellow buses, we’ll be seeing the annual spate of education polls. The first one just came out—the 2019 Phi Delta Kappa poll—and it furnishes some interesting information illustrating why it’s so hard for public schools to inculcate values. Short answer: we just don’t agree on them, and a lot of people fear what their kids might be taught.
This edition of the survey—PDK, by the way, is an organization of professional educators—has a special focus on teaching religion, civics, and other values-based subjects, as well as presenting regular fare such as grades for public schools and lists of perceived “biggest problems.” Taken as a whole, it reveals that most people want values taught, but there is major disagreement

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DC Vouchers: Bang for the Buck

May 16, 2019

Standardized test scores aren’t what they used to be. From A Nation at Risk in 1983 to Common Core around 2010, they were close to exclusively how we assessed whether students and schools were succeeding. But over the years the monomaniacal focus on test scores increasingly grated on schools and families, and with the Common Core threatening to put everyone on the road to the exact same standards and tests, there was a political revolt. At about the same time an empirical revolt was brewing, with increasing evidence that schools’ test scores may not correlate all that well with other important outcomes, ranging from college attendance to health. Which brings us to the latest evaluation of the Washington, DC, voucher program.
After the first two reports in the three-installment series

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Brown v. Board Did Not Start Private Schooling

April 4, 2019

A common refrain in opposition to school choice is that choice is rooted in racial segregation. Specifically, that people barely thought about choice until the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision required public schools to desegregate, and racists scrambled to create private alternatives to which they could take public funds. I have dealt with this before and won’t rehash the whole response (hint: Roman Catholics), but a new permutation popped up on Vox yesterday, with author Adia Harvey Wingfield asserting:
Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, most US students attended local public schools. Of course, these were also strictly racially segregated. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court struck down legal segregation that a demand for private (and eventually charter

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On Trump’s Higher Ed Executive Order

March 22, 2019

President Trump’s hotly anticipated executive order on college free speech—brought to a fever pitch with his comments at this year’s CPAC—is out. It’s actually kinda several orders in one, with free speech on the main stage, but college outcomes data, and a bunch of studies—including of “skin in the game”—on the sides. Here are some quick thoughts on all three parts.
Free speech
Conservatives, especially, have become disgusted with what they have seen as an increasingly aggressive, politically-correct culture on American campuses, and not without some justification. The order, as you could glean from the White House signing event, was almost certainly motivated by that. But as far as the words of the order go, it seems restricted to combatting college policies, not cultures. Free

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Any Budget That Cuts Fed Ed Is Good, But…

March 12, 2019

The Trump Administration’s proposed U.S. Department of Education budget, released yesterday, is due some props. It would cut spending by about 10 percent from 2019, and kill some bad programs. But there’s also a downside: it would push federal tentacles further toward private schools, and deeper into charters. Which means the lesson still hasn’t been learned: The Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern in education, and that includes advancing ideas the Trump Administration—and I!—like.
Let’s first acknowledge that it takes some guts to cut education department funding, because the average person probably hears “cuts to education” and thinks “oh no, cutting education!” What they should hear is “cutting spending in the name of education, but that often has very dubious

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Even Something as Great as School Choice Should Not Be Federalized

February 28, 2019

Today, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), in conjunction with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, will unveil a bill to create a $5 billion scholarship tax credit, an unprecedented federal school choice effort. An op-ed all three have in USA Today spells out both the good of federal school choice, and inadvertently, the potential bad which makes it too dangerous to justify.
First, the good. DeVos, Cruz, and Byrne argue, quite rightly, that “education isn’t about school systems. It is about school children.” If you recognize basic reality, you’ll know that all children and families are different—different talents, values, dreams—hence it makes no sense to say all should get uniform education. But opposing school choice is de facto endorsing the idea that

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School Inc. and Andrew Coulson

January 25, 2019

All this week, the Center for Educational Freedom has been posting clips from Andrew Coulson’s award-winning documentary School Inc., which takes viewers through time and around the globe to explain how freedom is the key to transforming education for the better. Of course, a few clips can’t convey the entire case. If you want to soak in the whole journey you can do so on the website of Free to Choose Media, which finished production of School Inc. when Andrew became ill, and is the home to all three episodes. If that doesn’t satisfy your desire to better understand how free markets can work in education, or if you want to learn more about Andrew and his ideas—including disagreements with them—read Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas. You can get Kindle

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School Choice Is about Embracing Free Enterprise

January 25, 2019

When did economic growth, and the standard of living of average people, really begin to take off? What caused it? There are many theories, but as Andrew Coulson discusses in the School Inc. clip below, there is good reason to believe not when banking was invented, or factories, or some technological change, but when earning a living through free enterprise—profitable commerce—stopped being seen as, well, kind of tawdry. It is a feeling we continue to struggle with when it comes to education.  
There is, of course, profit made throughout public schooling, if that’s defined as taking in more revenue from providing a good or service than is spent to produce it. Whiteboard manufacturers, construction companies, publishers—all are typically for-profit. Indeed, while absent a free market we

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School Choice Is about Taking Innovation to Scale

January 23, 2019

Only a few years ago, if you’d been, say, dining out with friends, had a drink or two, and wanted to go somewhere else, like maybe home, you pretty much had one choice: call a taxi and hope you got a good one. Today you’ve got lots of options including the good ol’ cab, but also ridesharing networks like Uber, Lyft, and others that connect riders to regular people who are drivers and want to make some money, while often enabling both parties to rate their experiences. It was an idea that started with embryonic efforts in San Francisco around 2010, and just a few years later it is nearly ubiquitous. Innovation went quickly to scale.
As Andrew Coulson explains in the School Inc. clip below, we’ve seen this phenomenon—innovations in goods and services quickly made accessible to basically

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First and Foremost, School Choice Is about Liberty

January 21, 2019

Liberty. It is America’s foundational value. We have failed to uphold it for far too many people much too often, but the freedom of Americans to choose what they will believe, and how they will live, is at the very heart of the American experiment. It is fitting, then, that we kick off five days of National School Choice Week posts on [email protected] with a reminder of the fundamental good that is sacrificed when government controls education.
As we will be doing all week, I direct your attention to a clip from Andrew Coulson’s award-winning School Inc., a documentary series that ran on PBS stations nationwide in 2017 and can still be watched, in its entirety, on the website of Free to Choose Media. Here, after discussing sometimes even deadly fights that Americans have had over what the

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