Tag: cost

Catholic Schools and the Common Good

One of the first things you learn when you start to study the comparative performance of school systems is this: on average, Catholic schools are much more educationally effective and vastly more efficient than state-run schools. And then you learn that their impact goes beyond the three R’s. I wrote a little about these facts a few years ago, while I was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and my Mackinac friends have resurrected the post for Catholic Schools Week. I’ve appended an excerpt below, but you can read the whole thing here.

When state-run public schooling was first championed in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, it was under the banner of “the common school,” and it was touted more for its predicted social benefits than its impact on mathematical or literary skills. The leading common school reformer of the time, Horace Mann, promised, “Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Having experienced more than a century-and-a-half of a vigorously expanding public school system, Americans are no longer quite as sanguine about the institution’s capabilities. Nevertheless, there is still a widespread belief that government schools promote the common good in a way independent private schools never could.

Is that belief justified? Scores of researchers have compared the social characteristics and effects of public and private schooling. They have found little evidence of any public-sector advantage. On the contrary, private schools almost always demonstrate comparable or superior contributions to political tolerance, civic knowledge and civic engagement. One group of private schools stands out as particularly effective in this regard: those run by the Catholic Church.

When Is $28,000 per Pupil Not Enough?

…Apparently, when you are the District of Columbia public school system. The Washington Times reports today on a candle-light vigil beseeching the federal government for extra cash for new computers. The group organizing the vigil, OurDC, shares this “horror story” from former technology teacher Toval Rolston:

I’ve been in D.C. schools where the computers are so antiquated that you can’t even download a basic pdf file; our children don’t have the tools to compete in today’s high tech world.

The twin implications of this plea are that DC schools are underfunded and that more money will actually be spent wisely. The first statement is false and the second is decidedly unlikely. The last time I calculated total spending on K-12 education in DC, from the official budget documents, it came out to over $28,000 per pupil (the linked post points to a spreadsheet with all the numbers).

How do you manage to spend $28,000 per pupil and not manage to keep your computer hardware up to date? Or, for that matter, manage to have among the worst academic performance in the country? Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with not being capable, or perhaps even inclined, to spend the money on what works.

The Washington Times, by the way, points out that OurDC is headquartered at the same address as the Service Employees International Union. Go figure.

Obama-Reid ‘Jobs’ Bill Soaked in Greece

A stated aim of the Obama-Reid jobs bill is to preserve the “competitive edge” that our “world-class” education system purportedly gives us. In an attempt to do that it would throw tens of billions of extra taxpayer dollars at public school employees.

A few problems with that: we’re not educationally world-class; we don’t have a competitive edge in k-12 education; and this bill would actually push the U.S. economy closer to a Greek-style economic disaster.

First, the belief that increasing public school employment helps students learn is demonstrably false. Over the past forty years, public school employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment. If more teachers union jobs were going to boost student achievement, we’d have seen it by now. We haven’t. Achievement at the end of high school has been flat in reading and math and has declined in science over this period. I documented these facts the last time Democrats decided to stimulate their teachers union base, just one year and $10 billion ago.

So what has our public school hiring binge done for us? Since 1980, it has raised the cost of sending a child from Kindergarten through the 12th grade by $75,000 – doubling it to around $150,000, in 2009 dollars.

And what would going back to the staff-to-student ratio of 1980 do? It would save taxpayers over $140 billion annually.

But don’t those school employees need jobs? Of course they do. But we can’t afford to keep paying for millions of phony-baloney state jobs that have no impact on student learning. We need these men and women working in the productive sector of the economy – the free enterprise sector – so that they contribute to economic growth instead of being a fiscal anchor that drags us ever closer to the bottom of the Aegean. Freeing up the $140 billion currently squandered by the state schools would provide the resources to create those productive private sector jobs.

Continuing to tax the American people to sustain or even expand the current bloat, as Obama and Reid want to do, cripples our economic growth prospects by warehousing millions of potentially productive workers in unproductive jobs. The longer we do that, the slimmer our chances of economic recovery become. This Obama-Reid bill is such an incredibly bad idea, so obviously bad, that it is hard to imagine any remotely well-informed policymaker supporting it… unless, of course, they think the short term good will of public school employee unions is more important than the long-term prosperity of the American people.

More Fifth Column than Fourth Estate

Citing new Census figures, the New York Times claims that “public school districts spent an average of $10,499 per student on elementary and secondary education in the 2009 fiscal year.” But according to the most recent issue of the Digest of Education Statistics, expenditures haven’t been that low for over a decade. In the last year reported, 2007-08, total expenditures per pupil in average daily attendance were already $12,922 (in 2008-09 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $13,500 in today’s dollars. (Looking at spending per student enrolled, rather than per student actually taught, lowers the total figure, but not by that much).

So what gives? How can the Times claim that public school “spending” is $3,000 lower than it actually is?

They simply exclude a huge swath of expenditures in the number that they call “spending,” without telling readers they have done so. Specifically, they ignore spending on things like… buildings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think American public schools have returned to Plato’s practice of holding lessons in an olive grove. Until they do, they will use buildings. Buildings cost money. They aren’t erected, for free and fully furnished, from the mind of Zeus.

Not only does this arbitrary and unjustifiable exclusion of capital expenditures from the reported “spending” figures wildly mislead the public about what schools are really costing them, it also misleads the public about the trends in spending. As my colleague Adam Schaeffer reveals in the chart below, spending on physical facilities has increased at a far faster rate than other expenditures (remember those Taj Mahal schools?). So by channeling David Blaine and making capital spending disappear, the Times also misrepresents real spending growth. In so doing, they undermine the public’s and lawmakers’ ability to make sound policy decisions regarding education. If the Times prominently corrects this glaring error I will be utterly shocked.

How Not to Criticize Medicare Vouchers

Over at The Incidental Economist, Austin Frakt challenges a couple of claims I made on NPR about Medicare reform.  (Here’s how NPR reported my comments in print.)

My claims are pretty simple.

  1. If Medicare subsidizes enrollees by giving them a fixed amount of money, much like Social Security does, they would be more cost-conscious than they are under the current open-ended subsidy, because enrollees who avoid wasteful spending would themselves get to keep the savings.  Put more plainly, people spend their own money more carefully than they spend other people’s money.
  2. Health insurers and health care providers would compete to serve these cost-conscious Medicare enrollees on the basis of both cost and quality.  Prices would fall while quality improves.

I’m not really sure to what extent all this would occur under the Medicare reforms the House passed a couple of weeks ago, because we don’t yet know to what extent each enrollee’s subsidy would resemble a fixed amount of money.

Here’s what Frakt does with my claims:

[A]s I heard these words I wondered if we had any evidence on hand about the relationship between lower premium subsidies and health care cost inflation. Indeed we do! Premiums in the commercial market are subsidized by the government at a lower rate than those in Medicare. [Emphasis added.]

He then throws up the chart, shown below the jump, showing that for common benefits, the rate of growth in per-enrollee spending is “pretty similar” in Medicare and private insurance.  He concludes: “With data like this, I think we need to reexamine some of our theories about what lower premium subsidies can do.”

Oy, where to begin?

First, Frakt does not actually challenge my claim.  My claim is that voucher-like Medicare reforms will lead to reductions in the per-unit cost of producing certain goods and services, and therefore to lower prices. Frakt responds with data on health care spending.  When someone predicts that P will fall, introducing into evidence what has historically happened to P x Q is no kind of rebuttal. The confusion Frakt sows is rooted in the fact that both prices and spending can be accurately described as costs.  Such confusion could be avoided were everyone to honor Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy: Never say costs when you mean spending.

Second, though the tax preference for employer-sponsored health insurance distorts relative prices the same way an open-ended subsidy does, it is not a subsidy.  This isn’t really relevant to the matter at hand, but it’s worth emphasizing to avoid such silliness as this.

Third, it would be great if there existed one chart that would settle once and for all whether Medicare or a free market does a better job of containing costs.  Alas, this is not that chart.  Frakt uses it to make a less-ambitious point about the effects of larger versus smaller policy-induced price distortions, but its shortcomings nevertheless confound that comparison, too.  In addition to measuring increases in spending (whose effect on social welfare is ambiguous) rather than increases in cost (which are always bad), this chart handicaps private insurance by leaving off three or four years of explosive growth in per-enrollee Medicare spending (1966-1969).  Worse, it reeks of endogeneity problems.  Amy Finkelstein finds evidence that Medicare itself increases spending among those with private insurance (mostly by increasing hospital capacity), and that this effect has grown over time.   Moreover, as Medicare spending rises, so do average marginal tax rates, which increases the price distortion created by the tax exclusion, which increases spending on private insurance.  For all the play it gets on the Left, this chart serves no useful purpose that I can discern.  Economists should be embarrassed to use it.  If it were a farm animal, and social scientists farmers, they would have to take it behind the barn and put a bullet in its head.

Fourth, we are not yet at the point where we need to reexamine the theory that demand curves slope downward.  There is ample evidence to show that Medicare enrollees will respond to voucher-like reforms by choosing more economical health plans, and that health plans and providers will respond with greater efficiency.  Thomas Buchmueller reports:

Two notable experiments…took place in the mid-1990s: the University of California (UC) and Harvard University both offered a menu of plans that varied in generosity, but adopted a “fixed dollar contribution” policy. The plans also varied significantly in cost, so employees had a greater incentive to consider price when selecting a health plan…

In both cases, employees were quite sensitive to price, and were willing to switch plans to save as little as $5 per month in out-of-pocket premiums…In addition to this demand response, participating insurers lowered their premiums in order to compete for enrollment.

Fifth, there is plenty of evidence that prices can and do fall in health care – from research on the markets for laser-eye and cosmetic surgery, to the work of Clay Christensen and his colleagues, to the research of David Cutler and Mark McClellan.  (If spending increases while prices are falling, it is because changes in Q dominate changes in P – which could be due to all these open-ended government subsidies and other price distortions.)

Finally, as a response to the general theme of that NPR story: we’re a long, long way from the point where we have to worry that reductions in the growth of Medicare spending are going harm enrollees’ health.  Relying on data from the Dartmouth Atlas, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers reminds us that “nearly 30 percent of Medicare’s costs [spending!] could be saved without adverse health consequences.”  And there is plenty of evidence, from the RAND Health Insurance Experiment and elsewhere, that plans with greater cost-sharing or care management reduce utilization without harming patients’ health.

I cannot fathom what has opponents of Medicare vouchers so spooked.  It cannot be the effects that vouchers would have on Medicare enrollees and taxpayers.