Tag: education

Ending Fed Ed Would Hardly Be Pure Loss

The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) has sounded the alarm: Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would be pure loss because a lot of people use federal education money. Lost jobs, lost college access, lost learning. Which makes sense if you assume that the federal government miracles money into existence, people can’t adjust to changing circumstances, and federal control can only help.

Of course, the federal government does not just will money into existence. It does spend far more than it has, but sooner or later someone is going to have to pay for that. And money arriving through taxation comes from people who may have used it for other, more productive things. Taxpayers may have spent it on new businesses, or housing, or food, or lots of other things that would have potentially grown the economy and created new jobs. Or heck, just made them happier. So there are costs—maybe big ones—that CAPAF ignored: opportunity costs.

Then there are costs to dealing with ED demands. Yes, as CAPAF points out, the department has a relatively small workforce—about 4,300 full-time equivalent employees—but that is in part because ED makes states do a lot of the administrative heavy lifting, forcing them to hire a lot of bureaucrats. There is also a sizeable compliance cost that goes with federal programs. The latest available numbers I could find were from a 1998 report—pretty old—but that precedes the No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly expanded federal management. That report suggested that for every dollar sent to Washington only 85 cents made it back to local districts, and noted that there were nearly three times as many state employees being funded by federal money as ED employees.

How would ED be eliminated? While it is unclear how Trump would do it—details do not seem to be his thing—he would likely phase the department out, not just kill it all at once. Of course, he could just move the programs elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy. But assuming that by killing ED he means to kill the programs, he would probably phase them out, leaving states, districts, colleges, and students time to adjust. And if he were to couple phasing out the programs with, say, proportionate tax relief, or even just block grants to states, that money could still be used for education! It would not necessarily mean any lost teacher jobs, student aid, or anything else. It could just mean that instead of losing 15 cents in bureaucratic processing for each dollar, taxpayers could keep the whole buck!

Would trimming what we spend necessarily even be bad educationally? Signs pretty clearly point to “no.” As the graph below shows, as well as this report on SAT scores, large spending increases haven’t come close to producing commensurate improvements in achievement, at least as measured by standardized tests for high school kids. Those scores have essentially sat still. Same for staffing: In roughly the same period as is covered in the graph, public schools went from about 14 students per staff member, to just 8 students, approaching a doubling of employees per child. Even the high-school graduation rate “all-time highs” that sound so nice aren’t: CAPAF cited a report based on only four years of data, and longer-term data show in 1969–70—close to when the feds first got heavily involved in education—the average freshman graduation rate for public schools was 78.7 percent. As of 2012–13—the latest data on the chart—it was 81.9 percent. Hardly a huge increase, and possibly one inflated by “credit recovery” and other dubious practices. Oh, and the feds coerced states to adopt a single curriculum standard—the Common Core—only to see tremendous backlash after the public finally became aware of what had been foisted on them. At the very least, great political acrimony and stomach-churning educational turbulence have been the result.

The evidence—more of which can be found here—suggests that in K–12 education, federal involvement may well be a loss, not a gain.

How about higher ed? Federal student aid, it is becoming increasingly certain, has largely translated into skyrocketing prices, major non-completion, credential inflation, and big student debt. Hardly the pure affordability effect that is all CAPAF discusses. You can get more in-depth on higher education here.

There is one other thing that ought to be mentioned, though it may seem passé: Washington has no constitutional authority to meddle in education outside of DC itself, federal installations, and prohibiting state and local discrimination in education provision. Yet the vast majority of what ED does goes far beyond those things. Ignoring the Constitution comes with costs all of its own, which CAPAF—and everyone else—may learn very quickly if there is a President Trump and he, among other things, unilaterally tries to change federal education policy. You know, like President Obama.

CAPAF portrays the U.S. Department of Education as all gain, and it’s possible ending all pain. But there is a whole other side to federal education meddling: costs. And they are big.

New In the Summer Issue of Regulation

The latest issue of Regulation magazine has been released on the Cato website.

The cover article, by Christopher Robertson and Jamie Cox Robertson of the University of Arizona, examines the extent of over incarceration in the U.S.  Why are so many innocent people convicted of crimes? They review recent scholarship that concludes that many types of evidence introduced by prosecutors to convince jurors of guilt, such as bite mark, fingerprint, and bullet analysis, are not scientifically reliable. The authors suggest various remedies to the wasteful incarceration problem including public rewards for attorneys who demonstrate that a prisoner should be released.

Researchers John Lott and Gary Mauser explore empirical research on firearms. They found that the findings of such research vary systematically with the disciplinary orientation of the authors.  A large majority of articles written by economists find that expanded legal access to firearms reduces crime and does not increase the suicide rate, and that gun owners who are approved for concealed-carry are less likely to commit crimes than ordinary Americans. In contrast Criminologists were more evenly divided on these questions.

Two articles critique regulatory rationales rooted in behavioral economics. In Infantilization by Regulation law professors Jonathan Klick and Greg Mitchell argue that protecting people from the effects of their choices reduces their ability to think critically about them.  Georgetown ethics professor John Hasnas explores how much liberty is preserved under modern “libertarian paternalism.” He then asks whether the insights of behavioral economics apply to public decisions, argues yes, and concludes that U.S. Constitution is an excellent example of choice architecture.

One of the most discussed topics in higher education policy is the rate of inflation in university tuition. Top William and Mary economists find empirical evidence that highly selective schools reduce financial aid to students who receive federal tuition support.

In our Briefly Noted articles economist Ike Brannon argues that cities harm transit riders by over-providing subsidized parking near street corners. Brannon and the American Action Forum’s Sam Batkins question whether expanded family leave policies would harm workers. University of California, Irvine emeritus professor Richard McKenzie shares the results of his survey that found servers at fast-casual restaurants would not support substituting higher hourly wages for the current tipped-wage system. Finally, University of Michigan professor Thomas Hemphill lays out a practical approach to reforming occupational licensing laws.

Book reviews include Free Market Environmentalism reviewed by Timothy Brennan, Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism and Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth reviewed by David R. Henderson, and Phil Murray’s review of Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules.


My Working Papers column describes papers on cigarette taxes and food stamps, e-cigarettes and adolescent smoking, corporate inversions, and public housing and crime.

Five Graphs Celebrating Women’s Progress

Harriet Tubman’s forthcoming placement on the U.S. twenty dollar bill is being hailed as a symbolic win for women. Tubman certainly deserves the honor, and Cato’s Doug Bandow called for putting Tubman on “the twenty” a year ago. In celebration of the soon-to-be-redesigned twenty dollar bill, here are 5 graphs showcasing the incredible progress that women have made in the realms of work, education, health, etc.

1. The gender wage gap, which is largely the result of divergent career choices between men and women rather than overt sexism, is narrowing in the United States and in other developed countries. Part of this trend may be explained by more women entering highly paid fields previously dominated by men. For example, there are more women inventors and researchers in developed countries.label 

2. Around the world, girls in their teens have fewer children and are more likely to complete secondary education. As a smaller share of teenaged girls become mothers, many are better able to pursue education. The gender gap in youth literacyprimary school completion, and secondary school completion are all shrinking, even in many poor areas. Today, there are actually more women than men pursuing tertiary education and earning college degrees.label  

3. In the United States, domestic violence against women has fallen considerably since the 1990s. And the very worst kind of domestic violence—homicide of an intimate partner—has also become rarer in the United States, both for male and female victims. Police also recorded fourteen thousand fewer cases of rape in the United States in 2013 than in 2003—in spite of a population increase. In fact, both rapes and sexual assaults against women have declined significantly in the United States since the 1990s. Evolving attitudes about the acceptability of violence against women may be partially to thank.


How Teachers Can Earn Millions

Last year, the comedy duo Key & Peele’s TeachingCenter sketch imagined what it would be like if teachers were treated like pro-athletes, earning millions, being drafted in widely televised events, and starring in car commercials. We’re not likely to see the latter two anytime soon, but some teachers are already earning seven figures.

The Key & Peele sketch inspired think pieces arguing that K-12 teachers should be paid more, but without making any fundamental changes to the existing system. Matt Barnum at The Seventy-Four brilliantly satirized this view in calling for pro-athletes to be treated more like teachers: stop judging teams based on wins or players based on points scored, eliminate performance pay in favor of seniority pay, and get rid of profits.

Protecting School Choice from the State

As economists have understood for more than half a century, government agencies charged with regulating industries are often subject to regulatory capture. Rather than protect consumers from bad actors in the industries they were created to oversee, regulators too often develop cozy relationships with industry leaders and work at their behest to advance their interests. In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman detailed a particularly egregious example: the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

Established in 1887, the ICC’s mission was to regulate the powerful railroad industry, which critics accused of engaging in cartel-like price fixing and market sharing. Instead, the railroad industry took almost immediate control of the ICC. The ICC’s first commissioner, Thomas Cooley, was a lawyer who had long represented the railroads and, as the Friedmans explained, many of the agency’s the bureaucrats “were drawn from the railroad industry, their day-to-day business tended to be with railroad people, and their chief hope of a lucrative future was with railroads.” 

Video: An Introduction to HumanProgress.org

If you’re familiar with Cato’s project HumanProgress.org, then you probably know that according to the available data, people today are wealthier, healthier, better educated, and less exposed to violence than in the past. HumanProgress.org provides you with the tools to explore how the state of humanity has changed over time. But even if you have visited the website before, you may not be aware of every feature it offers. Did you know that HumanProgress.org allows you to compare datasets of human wellbeing against one another, allowing you to see if the datasets correlate? Or that you can download a customized chart or map with the click of a mouse? Our new introduction video offers a rundown of all our current features. Check it out:

Is There Really a National Teacher Shortage?

Motoko Rich of the New York Times reports:

Across the country, districts are struggling with shortages of teachers, particularly in math, science and special education — a result of the layoffs of the recession years combined with an improving economy in which fewer people are training to be teachers.

So do we really have a shortage of teachers today, compared to historical levels? How big were the recession layoffs in historical context? I offer an updated chart below of the % change, since 1970, in the number of teachers and students, as well as the change in the cost per graduate of a public school K-12 education.

As the chart reveals, the recession layoffs were tiny when compared to the massive growth in our teaching workforce since 1970. To this day, we employ over 150% as many teachers as we did in 1970, to teach only 109% as many students. In other words, the number of teachers has grown 5 times faster than enrollment. That does not mean that there couldn’t be a small portion of districts in the U.S. that really need to hire teachers, but it does mean that there is no “national teacher shortage” compared to historical levels of employement. To anyone who claims otherwise, we can only ask: a shortage compared to what?