Tag: department of education

Plowing Through the Defenses of National Education Standards

Arguably the most troubling aspect of the push for national education standards has been the failure – maybe intentional, maybe not – of standards supporters to be up front about what they want and openly debate the pros and cons of their plans. Unfortunately, as Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios laments today, supporters are using the same stealthy approach to implement their plans on an unsuspecting public.

Standing in stark contrast to most of his national-standards brethren is the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, who graciously came to Cato last week to debate national standards and is now in a terrific blog exchange with the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. Petrilli deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to answer such crucial questions as whether adopting the standards is truly voluntary, and if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right here.

I’m not going to leap into most of Jay and Mike’s debate , though it covers a lot of the same ground we hit in our forum last week, which you can check out here. I do want to note two things, though: (1) While I truly do appreciate Mike’s openly grappling with objections to what might be Fordham’s biggest reform push ever, I think his arguments don’t stand up to Jay’s, and (2) I think Mike’s identifying national media scrutiny as what will prevent special-interest capture of national standards is about as encouraging as BP telling Gulf-staters ”we’ve got a plan!”

Let’s delve into #2.

For starters, how much scrutiny does the national media give to legislating generally? Reporters might hit the big stuff and whatever is highly contentious, but even then how much of the important details do they offer? Think about the huge health care debate that just dominated the nation’s attention. How many details on the various bills debated did anybody get through the major media? How much clarity? Heck, sometimes legislators were debating bills that even they hadn’t seen, much less reporters. Of course, the health care bill was much bigger than, say, the No Child Left Behind Act, but remember how long after passage of NCLB it was before the Department of Education, much less the media, was able to nail down all of its important parts?

Which brings us to a whole different layer of policy making, one major media wade into even less often than legislating: writing regulations. How many stories have you read, or watched on TV news, about the writing of regulations for implementing anything, education or otherwise? I’d imagine precious few, yet this is where often vaguely written statutes are transformed into on-the-ground operations. It’s also where the special interests are almost always represented – after all, they’re the ones who will be regulated – but average taxpayers and citizens? Don’t go looking for them.

Finally, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I keep hearing that daily newspapers are on their way out. Of course they might be replaced by cable television news, but those outlets almost always fixate on just the few, really big stories of the day – war, economic downturns, murders, golfers’ affairs, celebrity arrests – and education can rarely compete for coverage. And that seems likely to remain the case even if the education story is as scintillating as, say, federal regulators reducing the content of national standards by five percent. Indeed, education is so low on the reporting totem poll that the Brookings Institution has undertaken a crusade to save its life, and has noted that right now “there is virtually no national coverage of education.”

Wait, virtually none? Uh-oh. If national media scrutiny is supposed to be the primary bulwark protecting national standards from the special-interest capture that has repeatedly doomed state standards, the fact that almost no such coverage actually takes place really doesn’t give you a warm-fuzzy, does it? And if special-interest capture can’t be prevented – if standards can’t be kept high – then the entire raison d’etre of national standards crumbles to the ground.  

Which helps explain, of course, why national standards supporters are typically so eager to avoid debate: Their proposal is hopelessly, fatally flawed.

While You Were Watching the Economy, Health Care, Wars…

…the federal government was taking over education. At least, it was moving a lot further in that direction, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wielding billions of “stimulus” dollars to coerce states to do Washington’s bidding. And that’s not just my take. It’s also the New York Times’:

Mr. Duncan is a man in a hurry. He has far more money to dole out than any previous secretary of education, and he is using it in ways that extend the federal government’s reach into virtually every area of education, from pre-kindergarten to college.

Race to the Top. SAFRA. National standards. For well over a year, we at the Center for Educational Freedom have issued warnings about all of these escalations of utterly unconstitutional federal power in education, but it has been nearly impossible to cut through all of the huge, non-education stories to get much notice.

Unfortunately, the hits just keep on coming. While the nation is fixated on oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the supposed evils of Wall Street, the administration continues to change the constantly moving target that is the Race to the Top program, now essentially offering individual districts in California a chance to compete in RTTT round two. This despite states explicitly being identified as THE competitors in the current RTTT. It almost makes you conclude that you just can’t trust anything you’re told about RTTT by the administration, and that there is no good reason for any state to expect a fair race.

Thankfully, there is some good news to report. According to the Times, the ever-expansive Department of Education is now about as popular as the tax man – but not quite:

A new survey by the Pew Research Center found distrust of government at its highest level in 30 years. Of all federal agencies, the department of education’s approval rating had fallen most sharply, to 40 percent from 61 percent in 1998. In fact, the department got the lowest rating of any federal agency, including the Internal Revenue Service.

And that is with ED operating largely under the radar. Imagine if people actually knew what Duncan and company were doing!

Higher Education Subsidies

A battle over higher education loans is coming to a head as Democrats consider including the ill-titled Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act in reconciliation legislation. In one corner, we have private education loan lenders who enjoy the generous subsidies and loan guarantees provided by Uncle Sam. In the other, we have policymakers who want to cut out the middleman by having the Department of Education provide direct loans.

Critics of SAFRA correctly point out that the alleged savings of nationalizing student loan subsidies are a sham. The Congressional Budget Office has scored the nationalizing portion of the bill as saving $67 billion over ten years. However, in a letter to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), the CBO acknowledged that when the cost of default risk is factored in, the alleged savings drop by $33 billion. Yet, taxpayers won’t realize any savings because the legislation adds $80 billion in additional spending for Pell grants and other programs.

For taxpayers, the unpalatable choice is nationalization or crony capitalism—subsidizing private businesses. The real answer is for the federal government to get out of the higher education subsidy business altogether, as a Cato essay argues.

The following are some key points from the essay:

  • The effect of subsidy programs, in part, is to impose taxes on blue collar workers—who have not attended college—to pay for the tuition of future white-collar professionals. Why should the government subsidize future high earners at the expense of average working people?
  • Federal student aid programs transfer wealth from taxpayers to academic institutions. That’s because the rise in student subsidies over the decades appears to have fueled inflation in education costs. Tuition and other college costs have soared as subsidies have risen. College cost inflation induced by federal aid probably hurts low-income families—the people that federal aid was supposed to target—more than others.
  • Federal aid has probably helped increase student enrollment, but many of those additional students may not have been ready, or suited, for college. This is evidenced by the rising shares of college students who require remedial work, and the fact that institutions have lowered their standards to adapt to the rise in second-rate students.
  • Increasing top-down control and subsidization of higher education from Washington is creating a threat to the strength of the American system. As we have seen in K-12 education, the growth in federal subsidies is usually accompanied by calls for more oversight, micromanagement, and rising levels of red tape imposed by Washington.
  • Federal student loan and grant programs have been subject to waste and fraud for decades. The Pell grant program (which SAFRA would enlarge) costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year in fraud. Another ongoing problem is the high default rate on student loan programs.

Arne Duncan Embraces False Friedman

In a shocking development, U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan embraced the ideas of Milton Friedman today, championing the funding of students instead of schools! Unfortunately, it was in the context of higher education – Duncan and his boss have done all they can to destroy school choice elsewhere – and he completely misrepresented what Friedman said about higher ed, suggesting that the Nobel Laureate somehow endorsed the federal Direct Loan Program:

We will end the loans under the Federal Family Education Program and make them directly to students – just as economist Milton Friedman proposed 50 years ago, and just as the Department of Education has been doing since 1993 through the Direct Loan Program.

Were Milton Friedman still with us, I think he would be pretty miffed with Duncan. For one thing, 50 years ago there was no Federal Family Education Loan Program. Moreover, assuming Duncan is referring to Friedman’s “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman was clearly stating that if there is going to be any higher education aid it should go to students, not schools. And then there’s this:

The resulting system would follow in its broad outlines the arrangements adopted in the United States after World War II for financing the education of veterans, except that the funds would presumably come from the States rather than the Federal government [italics added].

It’s bad enough that Duncan and his boss reject Friedman’s very wise and proven counsel when it comes to elementary and secondary education. It’s even worse that Duncan then has the gall to blatantly lie about what Friedman wrote in an effort to sell a rotten and costly piece of federal legislation, the laughably titled Student Aid and Fiscal Repsonsibility Act.

Race to Domination

Today’s the day that states must submit their applications to the U.S. Department of Education to compete for round-one “Race to the Top” grants. But no worries if your state’s a little behind: Not only will there be another application round for the $4.35-billion dash-for-cash, but as President Obama announced today, he wants a $1.35-billion sequel to what was supposed to be a one-time, stimulus-funded contest.

The important question, of course, is whether sponsoring this race is worthwhile for federal taxpayers. The clear answer is no.

Sure, in response to RttT states have been raising charter-school caps, allowing teachers to be evaluated using student performance, and instituting other changes, but they’ve done little of real substance. Just raising caps won’t make it much easier to get good, competitive charter schools since most of the charter-supply problem revolves around over-regulation and painful authorization processes. And while states have eliminated prohibitions on using student test results to evaluate teachers, they haven’t done much to actually base teacher evaluations on student performance or other meaningful metrics.

What has RttT done that is of substance? Unfortunately, push yet more power into federal hands, forcing  states and districts to jump through all manner of hoops for a chance to get back some of their citizens’ money. Indeed, it is becoming painfully clear that President Obama intends to put Washington firmly above the states in the hierarchy of education power.

For his $1.35 billion RttT expansion, President Obama plans to allow districts to directly compete for federal funding, bypassing states completely. And then there’s his crusade for national curricular standards. His administration has been talking up “common” standards since almost day one, and in the ”fact sheet“ accompanying the RttT expansion announcement the first bullet states that RttT emphasizes “designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards.” 

Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the “states” working “jointly” thing, or utterly unbelievable administration denials. If the feds are paying states to adopt common standards then those standards will be de facto federal. Either that, or the feds will let states adopt any old joint standards and still get paid. Six of one bad thing, half dozen of the other…

Thankfully, there is resistance to Obama’s bribe-to-the-top scheme. Texas, most notably, has refused to participate in RttT, with Gov. Rick Perry declaring that ”we would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.” And Texas is not alone: According to a New York Times article appearing yesterday, states and districts around the country are refusing to put on their track shoes and run for the federal funds. 

Still, federal money – taxpayer money – can be a tough thing for any elected offical to turn down. Sooner or later, if we let him, Obama will almost certainly find an amount that no state or district can resist.

Neither Standards Nor Shame Can Do the Job

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews has done it again: lifted my hopes up just to drop them right back down.

In November, you might recall, Mathews called for the elimination of the office of U.S. Secretary of Education. There just isn’t evidence that the Ed Sec has done much good, he wrote.

My reaction to that, of course: “Right on!”

Only sentences later, however, Mathews went on to declare that we should keep the U.S. Department of Education.

Huh?

Today, Mathews is calling for the eradication of something else that has done little demonstrable good – and has likely been a big loss – for American education: the No Child Left Behind Act. Mathews thinks that the law has run its course, and laments that under NCLB state tests – which are crucial to  standards-and-accountability-based reforms – “started soft and have gotten softer.”

The reason for this ever-squishier trend, of course, is that under NCLB states and schools are judged by test results, leading state politicians and educrats to do all they can to make good results as easy to get as possible. And no, that has not meant educating kids better – it’s meant making the tests easier to pass.

Unfortunately, despite again seeing its major failures, Mathews still can’t let go of federal education involvement. After calling for NCLB’s end, he declares that we instead need a national, federal test to judge how all states and schools are doing.

To his credit, Mathews does not propose that the feds write in-depth standards in multiple subjects, and he explicitly states that Washington should not be in the business of punishing or rewarding schools for test performance.

“Let’s let the states decide what do to with struggling schools,” he writes.

What’s especially important about this is that when there’s no money attached to test performance there’s little reason for teachers unions, administrators associations, and myriad other education interests to expend political capital gaming the tests, a major problem under NCLB.

But here’s the thing: While Mathews’ approach would do less harm than NCLB, it wouldn’t do much good. Mathews suggests that just having the feds “shame” states with bad national scores would force improvement, but we’ve seen public schools repeatedly shrug off massive ignominy since at least the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. As long as they keep getting their money, they couldn’t care much less.

So neither tough standards nor shaming have led to much improvement. Why?

As I’ve laid out before, it’s a simple matter of incentives.

With punitive accountability, the special interests that would be held to high standards have strong motivation – and usually the power – to demand dumbed-down tests, lowered minimum scores, or many other accountability dodges.  The result: Little or no improvement.

What if there are no serious ramifications?

Then the system gets its money no matter what and again there is little or no improvement.

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

So what are reformers to do? One thing: Take government – which will almost always be dominated by the people it employs – out of the accountability equation completely. Give parents control of education funds and make educators earn their pay by having to attract and satisfy customers.

Unfortunately, that still seems to be too great a leap for Jay Mathews. But one of these days, I’m certain, he’ll go all the way!

What about K-12, Secretary Duncan?

Speaking to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, education secretary Arne Duncan said that “he would gladly cut federal red tape if institutions, in return, showed greater progress on improving student performance.” So the secretary supports less government intrusion in education if schools show improvement.

Except he doesn’t. Not at the K-12 level, anyway. Because Arne Duncan has advocated a slow death for the DC voucher program that his own Department of Education shows is… wait for it… significantly improving outcomes while getting government out of the business of running schools altogether.

But maybe that’s the problem. Schools work better the smaller the role government plays in them, but that means we don’t really need a secretary of education at all, do we?