Tag: education

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.

Gov. Romney, Federal ‘Incentives’ Mean Federal Power

In a speech today, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will lay out the foundations of his education platform. Based on an outline of his proposals released by Education Week this morning, Gov. Romney seems just a little less disinterested in the Constitution – and the 40-plus years of proven federal education failure – than the man he seeks to replace. And no, calling what you want federal “incentives” neither absolves them of being unacceptable federal intrusions, nor makes them any less coercive.

The heart of what Mr. Romney wants in elementary and secondary education is federal enticements to get states to implement everything from “open-enrollment” policies for schools, to individual school “report cards,” to encouraging “talented individuals to become teachers.”

As I wrote last week, while “incentive” sounds kinda harmless, an incentive program is really all that No Child Left Behind is. No state has to do anything in NCLB. It only has to follow the law if it wants the federal money attached to it. The funding is only an incentive, but it is so big an incentive it is irresistible, even with the law being a huge millstone around the neck of American education. And, of course, taxpayers had no choice about furnishing the ducats to begin with. (Well, I suppose they were incentivized by a trip to prison…)

Where Romney’s K-12 offering is most enticing is his proposal that federal money be attached to low-income and special-needs children and made portable even to private schools. (Portable, that is, “in accordance with state guidelines,” a proviso the outline doesn’t flesh out.) But the very real threat, as with all federal funding , is federal control. What Washington funds it will regulate – though usually for political show, not efficiency or effectiveness – and that is something we should strenuously avoid for  private schools when states can implement more varied – and less regulation prone – choice mechanisms such as education tax credits. And, of course, the Constitution gives the federal government no more authority to deliver school choice than to dictate curricula. That is, except in Washington itself, and to his credit Mr. Romney is proposing to save the D.C. voucher program that Mr. Obama, for whatever shoddy reason, seems determined to suffocate.

The good news about Gov. Romney’s outline is that it directly addresses the primary problem in higher education, and one of its primary causes: insane tuition inflation fueled by massive federal student aid. Indeed, though he will no doubt get flayed for it by the higher ed establishment, who will publically deny it like so many naked emperors, Mr. Romney’s outline is refreshingly straightforward in identifying the root problem:

Governor Romney realizes that more spending will not solve the problem of tuition increases – to the contrary, it has helped fuel the problem. When Washington puts more money into student aid programs to help families and individuals pay for higher education, colleges and universities raise tuition rates.

So what grade does Mr. Romney get on education, at least from this initial outline? About a 30 percent for K-12, and a 90 percent for higher ed. That works out to 60 percent – a woeful D-minus – but that’s probably a tad bit better than most presidents would have gotten since the 1960s.

The Making and Breaking of Education Policy

Matt Ladner does a good job of explaining how his beliefs shape his education policy recommendations. It’s a quality that he shares with Horace Mann, who persuaded the people of Massachusetts to adopt a fully tax-funded state school system based on his own beliefs about how a just society should educate its children.

More than a century and a half later, we are still struggling to replace Mann’s unresponsive, divisive, ineffective, wasteful, and often cruel system with one that actually works. So, as we reflect on exactly what to replace Mann’s system with, we have to ask: how did he get it so very, very wrong, and how can we avoid the same fate?

I suggest that Mann’s great mistake was to base his policy recommendations on his belief system. To avoid sentencing future generations to a similarly dysfunctional education, we must base our conclusions on a broad and systematic analysis of the evidence. We should study school systems historically and internationally to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. We should make predictions about how different policies will unfold and then try to test those predictions empirically. We should observe how different policies play out across states rather than rushing to homogenize them before their effects can be compared.

At least that seems to me our greatest hope of avoiding Mann’s tragic mistake. And if the policy conclusions we reach do not happen to be the easiest to implement, we can take comfort in the fact that Mann succeeded in promoting a system that had no basis in reason or evidence despite strong and longstanding opposition. If a radical bad idea could triumph, why not a radical good one?

California Knows How to Party… $16 Billlion Too Lavishly

Californians may be forgiven for expectorating coffee over their morning newspapers today, as they learn that their state deficit is not $9 billion, as Governor Brown’s administration had predicted, but rather $16 billion. Oops.

Further increasing the breakfast table choking hazard is the Governor’s “solution”: raise taxes. Gov. Brown is pushing a fall ballot initiative that would raise both sales and income taxes. He argues that this is preferable to cutting spending on things like public schooling on the grounds that schools have already been slashed to the bone. But have they? Actually, no. California’s per pupil spending has nearly doubled over the past forty odd years, in real inflation-adjusted dollars, and remains near its all-time high.

What did California get for that massive spending increase? Not a great deal if the SAT performance of its college-bound high school students is any guide. And, as I pointed out in this op-ed, it’s a pretty reasonable guide.

But while raising taxes has consistently failed to improve educational performance, cutting them actually works—via tax-credit school choice programs that give families an easier choice between public and private schools. Florida’s education tax credit program, for instance, has been shown to improve the achievement of students who stay in public schools, to improve the achievement of students who accept scholarships and attend private schools, and to save taxpayers millions of dollars a year. If expanded on a mass scale in a large state like California, it would save billions of dollars a year.

So what’ll it be, Californians? Fiscal and education policy sobriety, or the Governor’s hair-of-the-dog continued big government partying?

Did You Read the Federalist Papers in College? Grad School? Law School?

In the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz says you probably didn’t. And it shows:

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of The Federalist for understanding the principles of American government and the challenges that liberal democracies confront early in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet despite the lip service they pay to liberal education, our leading universities can’t be bothered to require students to study The Federalist—or, worse, they oppose such requirements on moral, political or pedagogical grounds. Small wonder it took so long for progressives to realize that arguments about the constitutionality of ObamaCare are indeed serious.

Explains a lot, really.

TED Goes to School

In this new TEDx video, University of Newcastle (England) lecturer Pauline Dixon takes viewers on a tour of schools serving some of the poorest people on Earth. Private schools … that charge fees … that are paid for by the poor parents themselves … and that outperform local government schools spending far more per pupil. I know. You’ll just have to watch it.

If your curiosity is piqued afterwards, check out her colleague James Tooley’s wonderful book, The Beautiful Tree, which tells the story of their travels and research. It will blow your mind.

How to Make ‘Bless’ and ‘Love’ Fighting Words

I’m no theologian, but when a religious group asks God to bless something, I’m pretty sure that’s a sign they like it. So if some other folks show up and say they love that same thing, we’ve got a clear case of mutual agreement. They’re not going to fight over whether the thing in question needs a blessing or a loving—unless the setting is a public school.

Stall Brook Elementary School, outside Boston, recently told parents that they were editing the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” for an upcoming student assembly, and that their children would instead sing it as “We Love the U.S.A.” A furor ensued, and it wasn’t over the loss of assonance in the refrain. After a great sound and fury the school has relented and will allow, but not require, children to sing the words “God Bless.” Other children and parents, it seems, will be free to sing “We Love” if they prefer. So that will sound nice.

This captures, in small, a great problem with public schooling: compelled conformity. In every community in the country, there is only one public school district. It is the official education organ of the state. As such, it cannot engage in devotional religious activities under the First Amendment. More than that, it cannot possibly reflect the diverse values and preferences of every family. It just can’t. And that’s why we encounter these endless battles over the place of religion in the classroom and in plays, pageants, and ceremonies. It’s why the teaching of history and even of reading and math are fraught with conflicts over content or methodology. And it’s unnecessary. Totally unnecessary.

A truly free society needs a well-educated citizenry. It does not need a government monopoly on k-12 schooling. In fact, it needs to not have a government monopoly on schooling. Fortunately, there is a wonderful alternative to the monopoly status quo—a system that can ensure universal access to a quality education without forcing parents or taxpayers to violate their convictions. That alternative is education tax credit programs that cut taxes on families who pay for their own children’s education and on donations to nonprofits that subsidize tuition for the poor. These programs exist, they work, and they won’t make us fight over blessing or loving the U.S.A.