Tag: Arne Duncan

Burke v. Pelosi

Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation has a good post today dissecting Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s recent press release on DC school vouchers.

If anything, Burke goes a little easy on Rep. Pelosi, comparing the maximum value of the vouchers  ($7,500) with the published figure for DC public school spending ($17,600). As it happens, the public school spending figures published by the Department of Education (and the Bureau of the Census) are always badly out of date. That means they don’t take into account the continuing trends of rising overall spending and falling enrollment in DC public schools (let alone inflation). When you break down the DC K-12 education budget for the 2008-2009 school year, as I did in this Excel spreadsheet, it comes out to just over $28,000 per pupil. It’s almost certainly higher today.

What’s more, the average voucher amount is closer to $7,000, so DC schools are underperforming the private voucher schools while spending four times as much per pupil.

Despite this, Rep. Pelosi, President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and over 90% of Democrats in the House and Senate oppose the DC voucher program. It’s almost as if politicians care more about special interests and ideology than they do about kids and reality.

At Least 82 Percent of Education Is Politics

The big schooling story is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s assertion that this year 82 percent of public schools could be identified as failing under No Child Left Behind. That’s a huge percentage, and also hugely disputed. But the real story here, as always, is that government control of schooling is all about politics, not education.

Start with the 82 percent figure. It’s a consequence of NCLB’s demand that all students be “proficient” in mathematics and reading by 2014. That’s a severely reality-challenged goal, especially if proficient is supposed to mean having mastered fairly tough material. But the law largely wasn’t driven by reality – it was driven by politicians wanting voters to see them as uncompromising on bad schools.

Now the controversy. People who track NCLB results – including many Democrats – say the 82 percent figure is ridiculously inflated. Reports the Washington Post:

“I find it hard to believe,” said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide who is president of the Center on Education Policy, an independent think tank that tracks the law. “I think they really stretched it for dramatic effect.”

And why the possible prioritization of “dramatic effect” over “reality”? Because the Obama administration is pushing to get the law rewritten along lines it likes, and might very well feel the need to scare the bejeepers out of the public to get momentum behind it:

Charles Barone, a former congressional aide who helped draft the 2002 law, called Duncan’s projection “fiction.” Barone tracks federal policy for a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which is generally in accord with Obama’s policies on education changes.

“He’s creating a bogeyman that doesn’t exist,” Barone said of Duncan. “Our fear is that they are taking it to a new level of actually manufacturing a new statistic - a ‘Chicken Little’ statistic that is not true - just to get a law passed. It severely threatens their credibility.”

But hold on! With only about 37 percent of schools identified as failing last year, the leap to 82 percent certainly does seem improbable. But quietly evading the spirit of NCLB – actually improving educational outcomes – some states backloaded their improvement goals to very late in the full-proficiency game, betting NCLB would be gutted by 2014 and they’d never be held accountable. So some states really might be on the verge of having to pay the piper big time, and the failure rate perhaps could be set to rise dramatically. But you’d have to know a lot about the political machincations in every state to figure that out. 

Indeed, that’s been the biggest problem with NCLB all along. It talks tough about proficiency, but leaves it to states to write their own standards, tests, and proficiency definitions. Again, it makes perfect political – but not educational – sense. Many of the federal politicians who voted for NCLB also know Americans cherish “local control” of education, so they wanted to appear to be both zealous protectors of local control and no-excuses enforcers of excellence. The result has been an endless stream of conflicting, confusing information – like the 82 percent figure – that few parents could ever hope to have the time or ability to sort through. And yet, as reported by the Post:

many educators agree that the law’s focus on standardized testing and minority achievement gaps shined a critical spotlight on problems that public schools have long sought to avoid.

A “critical spotlight”? NCLB is more like a deranged disco ball, randomly shooting out bits of light that make it impossible to ever know what’s really going on.

And the befuddling hits just keep on coming. At the same time the Obama administration is pushing national curricular standards that have little concrete content, as well as tests to accompany those standards that won’t be available until 2014, Duncan is decrying the “one-size-fits-all” nature of NCLB. Reports CNN:

“By mandating and prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, No Child Left Behind took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students,” Duncan said calling the concept “fundamentally flawed.”

So at the same time he’s championing the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution – national curriculum standards – he is attacking NCLB for eroding local and state control. Of course, if you want to get political credit for fixing American education you first have to demonize what’s there, even if your solution comes out of basically the same mold. Don’t, though, think national standards coupled with as-yet-unseen national tests will solve our problems by ending state obfuscation. If the administration gets its way, the games will all just be played in Washington.

Trying to understand what’s really going on in education is enough to make you pull your hair out. But that’s what you get when you put government – meaning self-interested politicians – in charge.

Oh, to Be Politically Favored!

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest student-loan default data, and along with it offered some good ol’ fashioned profit-bashing. Meanwhile, politically favored schools got off with nary a negative word.

The FY 2008 default rates certainly aren’t good. Overall, 7 percent of borrowers whose first payments were due between October 1, 2007, and September 30, 2008, had defaulted by September 30, 2009. And yes, for-profit schools had the highest rate out of non-profit private, public, and for-profit schools, which came in at 4 percent, 6 percent, and 11.6 percent, respectively.

To what did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attribute these results? The overall default rate, he suggested, was but the sad consequence of ”many students…struggling to pay back their student loans during very difficult economic times.” The for-profit rate, however, had a very different cause: “[F]or-profit schools have profited and prospered thanks to federal dollars” and many have saddled “students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use.”

Already, you can see that for-profits are largely just an easy political target: All defaulting borrowers are portrayed as victims; wasteful, money-hoarding, non-profit institutions get no mention; and for-profits are painted as predators.

Of course, for-profits do have higher default rates, so maybe they really are predators.  But there’s more from yesterday…

At roughly the same time Duncan was dumping on for-profit schools, his boss was feting another subset of higher education: historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Indeed, he was kicking off National HBCU Week, and lauding the schools’ work. But guess what? While the Education Department doesn’t release default rates for HBCUs as a group, quickly pulling those schools’ data together and averaging their default rates indicates a rate even higher than for-profit schools:  almost 12 percent. Moreover, for four-year, private, non-profit HBCUs – which like for-profit colleges don’t get big state subsidies to help keep tuition artificially low – the default rate is nearly 13 percent.

So why no criticism by Duncan of HBCUs? Heck, why was his boss celebrating them?

Because they are politically favored, that’s why. Of course, this is in part because of their very important historical mission to furnish higher education to long-oppressed African Americans. It is also, though, because like all “non-profit” colleges and universities, HBCUs act as if their employees have no interest in higher salaries, nicer facilities, easier workloads – all the rewards that the people in not-for-profit schools give themselves instead of paying profits out to shareholders.  But there’s no evidence that people in HBCUs or other non-profit schools are any less self-interested than people working or investing in for-profit institutions. 

Why do I point this out? Not to pick on HBCUs, but to further illustrate the point that the attack on for-profit schools isn’t really about saving taxpayer dollars or protecting students, but going after the easiest target to demagogue – people honest about trying to benefit themselves as much as “the students.” It is also to illustrate, once again, that when we let government fund something, it is political calculus – not educational benefits, economic effectiveness, or what’s best for taxpayers – that ultimately drives the policies. Which is why government needs to get out of the higher ed business that it has made both bloated and, ultimately, a net drain on the economy.

Duncan’s Invitation Just the Start of the Problem

So U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited every Education Department employee to attend Rev. Al Sharpton’s Glenn Beck counter-rally. As David Boaz explained in the Examiner, it was a ”highly inappropriate” thing to do, pushing people who are supposed to serve all Americans to support one side of a “political debate.” But that’s just the most obvious problem with Duncan’s weekend doings.

Perhaps just as troubling as his rally-prodding is that Duncan declared education “the civil rights issue of our generation” at Sharpton’s event. This only about a year after helping to kill an education program widely supported by many of the people he and Sharpton insist they want to empower. I’m talking, of course, about Washington, DC’s, Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program that was proven effective. But the heck with success – Duncan and President Obama let the union-hated program die.

The cause for concern, though, doesn’t end there. According to the Examiner, an Education Department spokeswoman tried to gloss over the boss’s out-of-bounds play by suggesting that Sharpton’s rally was but a mere “back-to-school event.” Sound familiar?

That’s right! As I just blogged about, last year the Obama administration scared parents and taxpayers across the country by sending politically charged material to all public schools to prepare them for the president’s planned address to the nation’s children. Only after it took serious heat for that did the administration have the most alarming material changed. And then what did it do? Declared that the address would obviously be but a simple back-to-school speech, and tried to make everyone who knew what had actually transpired seem like a partisan attack dog.

As long as politicians run education, education will be hopelessly politicized. Unfortunately, that’s the simple back-to-school lesson for today.

Weak Defenses of Teacher Bailout

As the Obama administration continues to send mixed signals about the proposed $23 billion public-school bailout, rescue advocates are offering some very wimpy defenses of their cause. That is, except for the National Education Association, which has launched a PR blitz for the bailout in its grandest – and most shameless – tradition of using cute kids to get lots of dues-paying members:

OK, enough of the NEA. The more numerous defenses of the bailout try to offer more reasoned and less emotional arguments for the bailout than does the NEA. But not much more reasoned.

Case in point, the The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who takes issue with an op-ed I had in the New York Post yesterday making clear that even cutting 300,000 public-school employees – the worst-case scenario – would hardly be the “catastrophe” people like U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan say it would be. As I wrote, even that cut would only constitute a 4.8 percent reduction in the public K-12 workforce. More important, we have seen decades of huge per-pupil spending and staffing increases in education with essentially no accompanying improvement in academic achievement. In other words, even far bigger cuts than the worst-case scenario would likely have little adverse effect on achievement.

So the worst cuts wouldn’t actually be that big, and they’d likely have little negative effect on achievement. But to Thompson, they’d be akin to the suffering of cold-turkey drug rehab:

At the risk of invoking a cliche, our education system is a bit like a painkiller junkie who just had his wisdom teeth pulled. In the long term, we probably want to wean the patient off drugs. In the short term, the patient happens to be in dire need of some drugs.

Perhaps more troubling than this overwrought analogy is that Thompson dismisses my complaint that the $23 billion bailout would, in addition to being educationally worthless, add to our staggering national debt.  $23 billion, Thompson essentially says, is just too small a piece of federal change to complain about its debt implications.

“Well,” he writes, “if we’re playing the put-it-in-context game, $23 billion is ‘only’ 0.6% of the 2010 budget. An unfortunate bailout, perhaps, but hardly catastrophic…”

OK. If the game we’re supposed to be playing is the “this-expenditure-isn’t-all-that-big” game, then we can forget about ever cutting the $13 trillion debt. Heck, the Defense Department’s budget in FY 2010 was “only” about $693 billion, a mere 5.3 percent of the national debt.

Joining the bailout defense today is White House Council of Economic Advisors chair Christina Romer, who pushes for it in the Washington Post.

In addition to repeating the usual, now thoroughly debunked proclamations of impending educational disaster, Romer rolls out boilerplate about the government needing to maintain high employment in order to keep people spending and paying taxes:

Because unemployed teachers have to cut back on spending, local businesses and overall economic activity suffer. And the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will be felt not just in the next year or two but will reduce our productivity for decades to come…

Furthermore, by preventing layoffs, we would save on unemployment insurance payments, food stamps and COBRA subsidies for health insurance, and we would maintain tax revenue.

Given the at-best highly dubious short-term positive effects of the “stimulus,” it is hard to believe that too many people at this point will find these arguments persuasive. Worse yet, Romer glosses right over the fact that the mammoth debt will eventually have to be repaid, and that that will have huge negative effects for local businesses and everyone else as their money goes from useful pursuits to government debt repayment.

In light of how flaccid the arguments are for the bailout, it’s really no surprise that the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about how much it really wants the rescue. By offering some support – including having the Education Secretary appear at the launch of the NEA’s PR blitz – the administration keeps on the good side of the teachers unions. But by not going all out, the administration doesn’t end up too closely connected to a debt-be-damned expenditure that neither addresses a real emergency, nor has any meaningful connection to education quality.

Sell Your Soul for What’s Behind Curtain #1?

Would you agree to sell your soul? And not just sell it, but sell it for an undisclosed prize? The states of Maryland and Kentucky would: Both have endorsed as-yet unpublished national curriculum standards for mathematics and language arts, declaring that they will relinquish their ability to set their own standards – to control their own educational souls – in those key subjects.

Alright, maybe they haven’t completely signed away their souls in exchange for what they hope will be supernaturally inspired standards. For one thing, both states could still turn away from the final standards if they end up being utterly horrific. More important, it’s not really the standards that the states are Faustian-bargaining for. As this Washington Post article makes clear, it is the federal money at stake in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.  So Maryland isn’t about to give up control of it’s educational destiny in exchange for truly extraordinary standards, but a mere $250 million – a big chunk of change to you and me, but just 2% of the nearly $11.1 billion the state spends on K-12 education.

Unfortunately, the transparent protestations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other national-standards supporters notwithstanding, what is making states endorse such standards is no powerful argument that the standards will improve education, but an obvious pursuit of federal ducats. But is that how we should want education run? States taking standards just to get DC dollars? Unfortunately, being bought by Washington – with no meaningful achievement improvements to show for it – is what states have been doing for decades, though never have they given up their ability to set their own standards.

With that in mind, readers are reminded that on the day that the final, proposed national standards are due to be released, we will be having a debate at Cato that will get past all the bribery and sound bites, and for once tackle the reality of national standards. What logic concludes, political realism makes clear, and the research reveals about national standards will be front and center, and national standards will finally be given the no-holds-barred vetting that states and their citizens deserve.

President Just Can’t Leave Them Kids Alone

Remember back in September, the huge hullabaloo over President Obama’s planned address to America’s students to start the new school year? Remember how concerned many people were that the speech would be heavily politicized, and perhaps even designed to “indoctrinate” kids about the President’s views on such controversial issues as health-care reform? You probably don’t remember because the media buried it and the speech ended up being fairly innocuous, but do you recall that the uproar was largely a result of U.S. Department of Education lesson plans that advised teachers to have kids talk about how they could help President Obama, and a cover letter from Education Secretary Arne Duncan that noted that schools are engines of “social progress”? Well it turns out that alarmed parents and taxpayers might have had very good reason to be concerned: In the pages of the most recent Parade magazine, the President furnishes just the sort of politics and social-change laden message to students that lots of parents and taxpayers feared.

The President begins his Parade address by expressing his regret that he “couldn’t be at every high school and college commencement this year.” This might seem uncontroversial, but it actually raises one of the most fundamental problems with any president forcing himself into a child’s schooling: Under the Constitution, the federal government has no authority to interfere in education.  With this president especially, though, it appears that among the ever-growing titles accompanying the presidency is now Principal-in-Chief. But that is most definitely not a legitimate presidential title, and at the very least taking it ensures that education – even if unintended – will constantly be wrapped up in White House level politics. So when kids should be sitting in their classes learning, they’ll be increasingly swept up in national political storms, just as happened last September.

Unfortunately, with President Obama’s address in Parade, we see exactly why people of all political stripes should demand that the president stay out of their kids’ classrooms: the president very well might push political and social ideas on their kids that they find unacceptable. In the case of President Obama, he has chosen to push his not-so-subtle campaign against Americans who dare to to earn profits – charlatans who try to produce things that others want and need, and earn a living through voluntary exchange – and to continue to elevate to sainthood those who work for nonprofits and, of course, government. Oh, and he throws a bit of alternative-energy environmentalism in there, too:

Of course, each of you has the right to take your diploma and seek the quickest path to the biggest paycheck or the highest title possible. But remember: You can choose to broaden your concerns to include your fellow citizens and country instead. By tying your ambitions to America’s, you’ll hitch your wagon to a cause larger than yourself. You can choose a career in public service or the nonprofit sector, or teach in an underserved school. If you have medical training, you can work in an understaffed clinic. Love science? You can discover new sources of clean energy or launch a business that makes the most efficient and affordable solar panels or wind turbines.

That their kids would be subjected to this sort of politicized, collectivist rhetoric from the president is exactly what numerous parents – many of whom pursue the filthy paychecks that come with manufacturing computers, building houses, keeping a company’s books, editing magazines, and myriad other things that make all Americans’ lives richer – feared in September. And it might very well be what they would have gotten had there not been a public furor well before Obama’s speech was delivered.

Perhaps, though, we owe the President a debt of gratitude for his insatiable desire to interject himself into our children’s education. Thanks to both the uproar created by his September address, and the objectionable content of his Parade message, the President has provided two terrific illustrations of why the federal government should get out of education.  He has also illustrated why overall we need to take education away from politicians and let parents freely choose among private educational options. In short, he has unwittingly cast a bright light on a huge reason we need full educational freedom: Without it, our children will at best be embroiled in repeated political conflict, and at worst truly face political indoctrination.