Archives: September, 2009

“I Pledge to Be of Service to Barack Obama”

Michelle Malkin beat me to this story, but it bears repeating. So too does the accompanying video, especially at about the 3:15 mark. This is almost certainly not analogous to what the president will ask for in his address to students, but as you read the guidance given to schools by the U.S. Department of Education, it seems a heck of a lot closer than anyone should ever be comfortable with.

Thanks for The Wakeup Call, Mr. President

It’s one thing for a president to encourage kids to work hard and stay in school – that’s a reasonable use of the bully pulpit. It’s another thing entirely, however, to have the U.S. Department of Education send detailed instructions to schools nationwide on how to glorify the president and presidency, and prod schools to drive social change. Yet as Andrew Coulson has already begun to discuss, the latter is what President Obama, audaciously, has done.

This is, of course, a very troubling turn of events, giving rise to very legitimate fears of political and social indoctrination even if it turns out that those aren’t at all the President’s motives. Perhaps, though, this is also a blessing in disguise. As many liberals and conservatives push for national academic standards and other centralizing education reforms, this situation brilliantly illustrates why government schooling is totally antithetical to a free society, and why the more centralized the power, the greater the danger.

Some background: In anticipation of the president’s planned September 8 address to students nationwide, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter and detailed “classroom activities” with all sorts of alarming buzzwords and guidance to schools across the country. In his letter, Duncan asserts that the work of educators is “critical to…our social progress.” It’s a statement that suggests – as many educators have held and continue to hold – that it is the job of public schools to impose values, often collectivist, on students. Fear that this might be the case is reinforced by suggested classroom activities in the department’s guidance for pre-K-6 students that encourage children to make posters setting out “community and country” goals. Perhaps even more frightening is the lesson being pushed that it is important to listen to “the President and other elected officials.” Possibly most distressing of all, though, is guidance that appears explicitly designed to glorify both the presidency and President Obama himself, encouraging schools to prepare for the speech “by reading books about presidents and Barack Obama.” Finally, schools are told to ask students how president Obama will “inspire” them in his speech before he gives it, and how they were inspired after Obama has spoken.

This is very disturbing, making crystal clear the huge dangers that attend government-controlled education. Ultimately, politicians will use power over education for their own ends, something fully at odds with a free society. And this is just the most stark manifestation of the inherent incompatibility of freedom and government education. As I have emphasized constantly since publication of my paper Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, every day free people are pitted against one another, forced to defend their freedom and basic values because they all have to support a single system of government schools. Evolution vs. creationism. Prayer in – or not in – schools. Books with offensive material in libraries. Decisions over whose history will be taught, and whose won’t. The curtailment of freedom goes on and on when government takes everyone’s money and provides schools with it. And the more we centralize education – the more diverse people we force to support one system of schools – the greater the cost to liberty.

All of which makes one thing obvious: The only system of learning compatible with a truly free society is not one of government domination, but one rooted in educational choice – public education, not schooling – in which the public assures that all people can access education, but parents are free to choose their children’s schools and educators are free to educate how they wish.

For too long we have ignored freedom when it’s come to education, sacrificing liberty for “test scores” or “efficiency.” As a result, we’ve gotten neither good test scores nor efficiency while fomenting constant social conflict and building increasingly dangerous government control over our children and our lives. But hopefully some good will come of this troubling Obama administration initiative, issuing a desperately needed wakeup call to all Americans about the great damage government education can inflict on otherwise free people.

Fretting about College Costs? Don’t Forget K-12!

There’s been much interest in the blogosphere recently over spiraling college costs. Niraj Chokshi kicked things off at the Atlantic, and the discussion was picked up by Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein, among others.

We’ll be hosting a debate on the causes of and solutions to this problem at Cato on the 6th of October, but in the meantime, it’s worth noting what the blogosphere has thus far overlooked: the epic productivity collapse in k-12 schooling over the past 40 years.

As I noted in Investors’ Business Daily last month, k-12 spending has risen by a factor of 2.3 since 1969, while achievement at the end of high-school is flat. The scary details can be found here.

If public school productivity had merely stayed where it was in 1970, instead of collapsing as it did, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300+ billion annual tax cut.

State-run schooling has become so profligate and inefficient, in fact, that one recent study finds higher public school spending is associated with LOWER subsequent economic growth.

Oh, and regarding the education vs. health care debate that started all this: k-12 productivity trends seem worse than those in health care.

DC Gun Regulations

A Washington Post reporter describes the rigmarole Washington D.C. residents must endure to purchase a gun and keep it in one’s home for purposes of self-defense. Snippet:

It took $833.69, a total of 15 hours 50 minutes, four trips to the Metropolitan Police Department, two background checks, a set of fingerprints, a five-hour class and a 20-question multiple-choice exam.

It’s a fair-minded article–not only about the government regulations, but also the factors that play into the decision to keep a gun–risk of crime, risk of accident, the personal willingness to use deadly force (not to mention getting approval from the spouse!)

Cato Chairman Bob Levy, the prime mover of the landmark Heller ruling, discusses the next legal fight: Whether one can carry a firearm outside of the home for purposes of self-defense. Tom Palmer is suing the DC government on this. For more on the Second Amendment and gun control, check out the new Cato book, Gun Control on Trial, by Brian Doherty.

In Praise of the Brain Drain

The standard view in policy discussions is that emigration of skilled workers from poor countries to rich countries is bad for development becuase it deprives poor countries of much-needed human capital and it reduces growth.

A new study by Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development challenges this view. Clemens shows that efforts to slow the so-called brain drain “generally brings few benefits to others, and often brings diverse unintended harm.” There is little evidence that limiting skilled migration improves growth or public finances in poor countries, while following such a policy may reduce the demand for education, international trade and capital flows, and the diffusion of ideas and norms. There is also a gap between the policy discussion (that takes the negative aspects of the brain drain for granted) and the research literature (that reaches much more ambiguous conclusions). Clemens also rightly stresses choice and freedom as central factors to consider when formualting policy–an element so far missing from the policy discussions.

The study was first released this spring as a background paper to the UN’s forthcoming Human Development 2009 annual report, which will focus on migration and incorporate much of Clemens’ work.

Afghanistan = Bottomless Pit of Massive Social Engineering

Obsidian Wings echoes my frustrations about the debate surrounding the war in Afghanistan. Publius notes, “The goal of preventing Taliban control isn’t a sufficient reason to stay.”

That analysis is absolutely right. As I mention in my forthcoming white paper (co-authored with TGC), Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, the resurrection of the Taliban’s fundamentalist regime doesn’t threaten America’s sovereignty or physical security. The Taliban is a guerilla-jihadi Pashtun-dominated movement with no international agenda or shadowy global mission. Even if their parochial fighters took over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory it is not compelling enough of a rationale to maintain an indefinite, large-scale military presence in the region, especially since our presence feeds the Pashtun insurgency we seek to defeat (as Publius also acknowledges) and our policies are pushing the conflict over the border into nuclear-armed Pakistan, further destabilizing its already shaky government.

Even if the Taliban were to reassert themselves amid a scaled down U.S. presence, it is not clear that the Taliban would again host al Qaeda. In The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright, staff writer for New Yorker magazine, found that before 9/11 the Taliban was divided over whether to shelter Osama bin Laden. The terrorist financier wanted to attack Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which, according to Wright, would have defied a pledge Taliban leader Mullah Omar made to Prince Turki al-Faisal, chief of Saudi intelligence (1977–2001), to keep bin Laden under control. The Taliban’s reluctance to host al Qaeda’s leader means it is not a foregone conclusion that the same group would provide shelter to the same organization whose protection led to their overthrow.

Moreover, America’s claim that the Taliban is its enemy seems less than coherent. After all, although some U.S. officials issued toothless and perfunctory condemnations of the Taliban when it controlled most of Afghanistan from September 1996 through October 2001, during that time the United States never once made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban despite knowing that it imposed a misogynistic, oppressive, and militant Islamic regime onto Afghans. For Washington to now pursue an uncompromising hostility toward the Taliban’s eye-for-an-eye brand of justice can be interpreted as an opportunistic attempt to cloak U.S. strategic ambitions in moralistic values.

On a side note, another conservative joins George Will for getting out of Afghanistan.

Obama to Kids: Tune in, Turn on, Don’t Drop out

President Obama will address every public school student in the nation next Tuesday, and is expected to exhort them to stay in school and work hard. This is such an a-political message that even the popular conservative blogger Ace of Spades (who “cuts like a hammer”) found the planned speech largely unobjectionable so long as it doesn’t drift into demagoguery or an effort to boost the president’s faltering cult of personality.

My colleague Neal McCluskey is concerned that it may do just that, noting that the curriculum materials tied to the speech and sent out by education secretary Arne Duncan prompt students to “Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president,” and ask how the president inspires them. If the president is trying to avoid raising concerns about his speech among supporters of limited government, he’s doing a double-plus ungood job of it.

But what incenses me is not that the president’s face will be filling every public school classroom in the nation in Orwellian fashion. Or the likelihood that the Democratic public school establishment (95+ % of the NEA’s political donations go to Democrats) will no doubt use his speech as an opportunity to advance a partisan ideological agenda.

What incenses me is that while the president will be saying nice things about kids staying in school and graduating, his own actions and policies are having the opposite effect!

There is copious scientific research showing that private schools have higher graduation rates than public schools, and that their graduates are more likely to go on to college and complete college. And that is after controls for student and family characteristics that may differ between the public and private sectors. There is research from the president’s own Department of Education that the DC voucher program is producing significantly better academic results than DC public schools (and at a quarter of the cost). But the president has chosen to kill the DC voucher program rather than grow it, and he opposes private school choice programs at the state level that would bring these better educational outcomes within reach of all children.

So kids, here’s your lesson for next Tuesday: the guy talking at you from the television set may say a lot of nice sounding things, but he is not doing what is best for you. He is letting some combination of ideology and political self-interest trump what is best for you. That’s politics. And that’s one reason why we need limited government and educational freedom.