Tag: center for educational freedom

Getting Cato - and Fed Ed Policy - Right

I want to thank Kevin Welner for giving the Cato Institute’s education people some pub, and I’m heartened that he thinks our ideas have a lot of influence with the Romney folks. As far as I can tell, though, they don’t. Why? Because if they did, Gov. Romney wouldn’t be offering federal open-enrollment, voucher, or even “neovoucher” proposals. He would be calling to get the federal government out of education, which is exactly what I and my colleagues have long advocated.

Do we like school choice? Absolutely, because logic and mounds of evidence strongly suggest that it works. But that does not mean we want the federal government to impose or “incentivize” it.

There are myriad reasons for this, even though it requires resisting the powerful temptation to have the federal government impose a policy we like in one fell swoop rather than going through the hard work of having individual states and districts adopt it.

First and foremost, we oppose federal involvement because the Constitution doesn’t give Washington authority to meddle in education outside of its 14th Amendment duty to prohibit state and district discrimination, and its jurisdiction over federal lands and DC itself. To press for what we know to be unconstitutional just because it would be politically easy would be to subvert the very rule of law, that which protects us from the arbitrary – and as the Founders understood, very dangerous – rule of men.

But the reasons for keeping Washington at bay are not simply legal or to avoid an oppressive dictatorship.

The fact of the matter is that no one person or group of people – even those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom – are omniscient, or even close to it. There are lots of things we don’t know, and we all make mistakes. That’s why it is never wise to give broad authority to a central government, even if it is utterly benevolent. If it does something wrong everyone goes down, and the human tendency is to do lots of wrong things. It is this understanding that backs the “laboratories of democracy” concept of states. Individual states can try different ideas, but others are free to steer clear of those that fail and run with those that work.

But aren’t state governments and districts prone to the same human failings as Washington, not to mention the same special-interest driven politics, misalignment of political and educational incentives, etc.?

They certainly are, which is why education policy people at Cato support school choice generally and education tax credits – which crucially do not involve public money – specifically. Given the numerous reasons that government fails, as well as the need for the specialization, competition, and innovation that government quashes, we understand that education would work much more effectively if government didn’t control the schools. But it is far better to let fifty states control their own education systems – including getting to experiment with their own school-choice delivery mechanisms – than to empower the central government to dictate one policy for all.

Yes, education analysts at Cato like school choice. But we’re also big fans of federalism and the Constitution, and when it comes to federal policy those things must come first.

C/P from the National Journal’s “Education Experts” blog.

Curricula with an Agenda? It Ain’t Just Big Coal

Today the Washington Post has a big story on efforts by the coal industry to get public schools to teach positive things about — you guessed it — coal. The impetus for the article is no doubt a recent kerfuffle over education mega-publisher Scholastic sending schools free copies of the industry-funded lesson plan “The United States of Energy.” Many parents and environmentalists were upset over businesses putting stealthy moves on kids, and Scholastic eventually promised to cease publication of the plan.

Loaded curricula designed to coerce specific sympathies from children, however, hardly come just from industry, as the Post story notes. Indeed, as I write in the new Cato book Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, much of the curricular material put out at least on climate change is decidedly alarmist in nature, and is funded by you, the taxpayer. In other words, lots of people are trying to use the schools to push their biases on your kids, which is an especially dangerous thing considering how unsettled, uncertain, and multi-sided so many issues are.

In light of the huge question marks that exist in almost all subjects that schools address, the best education system is the one that is most decentralized, in which ideas can compete rather than having one (very likely flawed) conclusion imposed as orthodoxy. And it would be a system in which no level of government — either district, state, or federal — would decide what view is correct, or what should be taught based on the existence of some supposed consensus, as if “consensus” were synonymous with “absolute truth.” What is truth should not be decided by who has the best lobbyists or most political weight, nor should children be forced to learn what government simply deems to be best.

Of course, there are some people who will decide that they are so correct about something that it would be abusive not to have government force children to learn it. If their conclusion is so compelling and obvious, however, no coercion should be necessary to get people to teach it to their children — it should be overwhelmingly clear. More importantly, if there is controversy, efforts to impose a singular view are likely to fail not just with the children of unbelievers, but for many of the children whose parents share the view. As significant anecdotal evidence over the teaching of human origins has stongly suggested — and new empirical work has substantiated — when public schools are confronted with controversial issues, they tend to avoid them altogether rather than teach any side. In other words, efforts at compulsion don’t just fail, they hurt everyone.

Educational freedom, then, is the only solution to the curricular problem. If you want full power to avoid the imposition of unwanted materials on your children, you must be able to choose schools. And if you want to ensure that your kids get the instruction you think every child should have, everyone else must have that ability, too.

Tight on Standards, Loose Grip on Reality

As promised (actually, a week later than promised) I have read the Fordham Institute “Briefing Book” for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. As expected, it’s big on trumpeting national standards, and squishy on almost everything else. Perhaps most aggravating, though, is how loose it is in characterizing the views of those of us at the Cato Institute, who apparently are part of the big group of education analysts who love the idea of Washington lavishing money on education but are, presumably, too blinkered to want to get results for it:

 

The local controllers. These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

Where, exactly, has someone from Cato written that Uncle Sam should keep dropping ducats on education? Certainly not here, where I call for complete elimination of federal involvement in education save civil rights enforcement, and a return of all federal education funds to taxpayers. You won’t find it here, where Chris Edwards calls for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and zeroing out all its spending. And you won’t discover it here, where Andrew Coulson and I propose that “NCLB not be reauthorized and that the federal government return to its constitutional bounds by ending its involvement in elementary and secondary education.”

Sadly, reporting the truth doesn’t appear to be as important to Fordham as producing a strawman — some group that’s portrayed as totally irrational, allowing Fordham to show how ”realistic” they are by coming up with relatively reasonable sounding policy proposals. It’s a grating, superficial tactic employed by Fordham that Jay Greene and his gang have long harped on.

The funny thing is, in the end there isn’t anything particularly realistic about Fordham’s proposal. Basically, Fordham would have the federal government force all states to adopt the Common Core standards — while adding science and history standards — to get back money that came from their citizens to begin with, or adopt standards that some state-federal hybrid panel of “experts” deemed “just as rigorous as the Common Core.” This would somehow prevent “an unwarranted intrusion by the federal government in state matters.” Because, of course, it is much less intrusive to have an option of having some federally mandated Frankenstein’s panel tell you if the standards you came up with are as good as the federal standards, or just having the feds set one standard.

Then there’s Fordham’s accountability — er, “transparency” — proposal, which would force states to annually spit out “reams” of data on outcomes “sliced and diced in every way imaginable.” Once the tons of data confetti are dumped, Fordham would rely on public pressure from seeing the mess to force reform. And how would the public force said reform? Don’t worry about it — “realism” dictates that all we need are national curriculum standards, testing, and data, data, data!

So, sadly, Fordham’s “realism” fails where it always seems to fail: In ignoring actual reality. Thanks to the phenomenon of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs that is a basic part of representative government, the people who benefit most directly from specific government policies will be most heavily involved in the politics behind those policies, and will bend them to serve themselves, not the “public good.” In the case of education, the people employed by the schools — the teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, etc. — have the most power, and will gut anything used to hold them accountable, just as they have for decades. And there is nothing — nothing — in the Fordham proposal that will keep this from happening again, no matter how centralized the standards or humongous the data dumps. Indeed, centralized standards provide one-stop shopping for special interests!

Only one thing breaks the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs conundrum, and it is taking government out of the equation and forcing educators to earn the money of customers. But for Fordham and others who, ultimately, seem to want to dictate what every child must learn, that is a bit of realism much too far.

I’ll Take “Whatever Evidence I Like” for Hundreds of Billions, Alex

Right before the President’s 2012 budget proposal was released, I wrote a bit about what I was hearing the administration would call for with Pell Grants. Notably, ending year-round Pell on the grounds that the cost was too high and “there was little evidence that students earn their degrees any faster.” I found this argument a bit odd because eligibility to get more than one Pell award annually started in just the 2009-2010 academic year – way too recently to have any conclusive evidence on its effect one way or the other.  I was also surprised because, well, evidence of success has never been important in decisions to keep or kill programs.

Take the embattled – and near dead – Washington, DC voucher program. There is currently a concerted effort to revive the program, but the Obama administration and most congressional Democrats evinced no qualms about killing it despite its well-documented success with graduation rates and parental satisfaction. Documented, in fact, using “gold-standard,” longitudinal, random-assignment research methods. That documentation is why Cato Center for Educational Freedom director Andrew Coulson last week testified to the House education committee that “there is one federal education program that has been proven to both improve educational outcomes and dramatically lower costs. That is the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarships Program.”

Sadly, the administration – and, to be honest, pols of all stripes – are as happy to ignore the evidence of success in programs they dislike as the very common evidence of failure in programs they support.

Take the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school activities intended to keep kids off the streets and provide them with social and educational enrichment.  A series of studies – the last published in 2005 – found that not only didn’t the program appear to provide many positive results, it might have had overall negative effects:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

 
In light of its (at-best) impotence, did the program go away? Of course not! In FY 2010 it was appropriated $1.17 billion, and the Obama administration has asked for $1.27 billion for FY 2012. And this despite not just poor performance, but a pesky $14 trillion national debt.

This is small potatoes, though, compared to some other programs. Take Head Start: Run by the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start is supposed to give poor kids an early boost in life. In reality, however, it has proven itself to be largely worthless, with benefits disappearing after just a few years. It’s a finding that was repeated in a federal evaluation released in 2010, which reported that “the advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole.”

Despite this fecklessness, the administration wants to increase funding for Head Start from $7.23 billion in FY 2010 to $8.10 billion in FY 2012.

Clearly, “evidence” doesn’t drive budgeting decisions – it’s just a term that’s invoked when it’s politically expedient to do so. But maybe one more bit of evidence is in order to illustrate this. Compare increases in overall federal spending on K-12 education to the academic performance of 17-year-olds, our schools’ “final products”:

In light of this, if federal policymakers really cared about evidence, would they still be spending money on education at all? The evidence on that, unfortunately, is almost indisputable.