Tag: education

A Soft Surrender to Low Expectations

There is a problem in the school choice community … let’s call it a soft surrender to low expectations.

We are witnessing a race to the bottom on education policy, and the latest case comes from my own state of Virginia. The legislature passed an education tax credit program this week, soon to be signed by the Governor, which means I should be celebrating. Unfortunately, the Virginia tax credit program is a mockery of education reform.

I will lay out my basic list of criticisms, which include some of the program’s  inadequacies along with its grave debilitations. Read more here.

  1. It is a 65% credit, which is terrible policy and will cripple the program (see more on this issue).
  2. It places the program administration and control, including approval of SOs and schools under the state DOE rather than the proper authority for administering a tax credit program, the Dpt. of Revenue.
  3. It exempts the DOE from the Administrative Process Act, which provides for appeal and review of decisions, and explicitly states that all decisions by the DOE and Superintendent are “final and not subject to review or appeal.” In other words, they have been given a blank check of regulatory authority over the program and schools.
  4. The bill will force schools to collect and report detailed student information to the DOE.
  5. The cap is only $25 million, and has no growth provision.
  6. No personal-use credits so that families can use their own money for their own children … they must beg for charity if they are eligible.
  7. No homeschooling or non-traditional education.
  8. And the kicker … the whole thing sunsets in 2018, five years from now (see section 58.1-439.26 A, “beginning on or after January 1, 2013, but before January 1, 2018 …”).

I would celebrate the last provision, a sunset clause, as a chance for Virginia to get it right the second time, if not for the much greater probability that the looming demise of the program will enable choice opponents to make the program even worse in trade for a stay of execution.

If we will accept this, we will accept anything. It will not do what we expect or need in terms of expanding choice and freedom, and the hope that it will be appreciably improved in the next five years is slim at best.

Often, when I insist on higher standards in school choice policy, I am told that we must voice support because it will help some children now. Few seem to consider the hundreds of thousands of children who will not be helped in decades to come, indeed may well be harmed, because of this inadequate policy. Opportunity costs must be considered. All the children yet to be born must play into our utilitarian calculus if that is the measure we use to judge public policy.

And we should not pretend that obviously inadequate programs are bold reforms; it  only serves to encourage yet more inadequate policy. We should push the conversation and educate leaders and citizens about real reform. Instead, the issue of school choice will be set aside for at least four years, as politicians point to their “accomplishment” that will help so few and provide no foundation for future reform. A roadblock to real education reform has just been passed in Virginia, and it is labeled SB 131.

David Brooks, Charles Murray, and Market Education

In a recent column, David Brooks considers Charles Murray’s thesis that “America is coming apart,” and concludes that:

The country… needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires… building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

The first recommendation is reasonable. The second suggests Brooks is not very familiar with the history of education.

For the past century and a half, the biggest single intervention by the government in American lives has been our state school systems. Prior to the mid 1800s, all education in this country was local. The majority of children attended private schools, and those who attended the local “common” or “public” schools usually paid tuition. Even “common” schooling was only free for the truly destitute. Partly as a result of this direct financial responsibility, parents had ultimate control over what and by whom their children were taught.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann and his colleague in the House, James Carter, imagined and ultimately laid the foundation of the state school system we know today. They did so for a variety of reasons, one being their belief that the common man and woman could not be trusted to educate their own children. Their solution was to take educational power and responsibility out of parents’ hands and place it under the control of state-trained, state-appointed experts.

Shockingly, taking responsibilities away from people does not make them more responsible. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it, or lose it. The kinds of  “organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly” are those that actually impose responsibilities upon them. When parents must not only choose but pay for their children’s education, they expect rather more from the system than when they are assigned “free” schooling by the state. And school efficiency rises as a result.

Some parents could not afford to pay for a good education for their children even without the heavy tax burden imposed by the present bloated state school monopolies. For those parents, we could easily provide financial assistance to cover most or (as necessary) all the cost of schooling. This is already being done on a small but growing scale in 8 states, thanks to k-12 education tax credit programs.

If Brooks wants “an organization and structure” that induces people to behave responsibly, he need look no further than the free enterprise system. “Using government” to achieve that end has been tried for 150 years, and the results are not impressive.

School Choice Lowers Crime

New research by Harvard professor David J. Deming studied the crime rates of young adults who participated in a random lottery at the middle or high school level. The lotteries decided whether students were able to attend a school of their choice or whether they were forced to attend their assigned public school. Students who won the lottery committed significantly fewer crimes as young adults than those who lost it. So here is another in the long list of educational outcomes improved by market freedoms and incentives.

Send this to a friend who is still on the fence about the merits of educational freedom.

The Irony of the President’s STEM Initiatives

The media tide of the past two days has carried in a great flood of stories on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. ABC, NBC, AP, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, Politico, the Detroit News, and others joined in. This torrent of attention is due to a White House science fair at which the president announced several initiatives to boost student achievement in those fields. Details are scant, but based on the administration’s press release it seems that $100 million or so would go to encourage particular kinds of teacher’s college programs. Various extracurricular STEM programs funded by non-profit foundations were also touted in the release.

The obvious irony in the president’s plan to tweak teachers’ college programs is that those programs are themselves a key part of the problem. The nation’s state school monopolies typically require most or all of their teachers to either have a degree from a government-approved college of education or to be pursuing such a degree during evenings and weekends. Few of those studying or working in STEM fields are willing to sit through a teachers’ college program—with good reason. Not only are these programs often pointless according to their own graduates, they are not associated with improved student performance. They are a requirement without a function–at least without a function that benefits students. The one thing they do accomplish is to erect a barrier to entry that protects incumbent teachers from competition, allows the specter of “teacher shortages” to be floated at regular intervals, and thus to justify above market wages [state school teachers receive compensation that is roughly $17,000 per year higher than their private sector counterparts].

As a result, many of the most promising teaching candidates in these fields are weeded out from the start. President Obama’s plans to “improve” this barrier to entry into the profession amounts to reupholstering the deck chairs on the sunken Titanic.

But how to ensure that only effective teachers lead the nation’s classrooms given that the government certification process is not just useless but counterproductive? Here, again, there is irony. Somehow, in the thousands of different fields in which scientists and engineers work every day, the competent are distinguished from the incompetent. And somehow, those who underperform are either helped to improve or cut loose to seek work in a field (or with an employer) to which their talents are better suited. It is ludicrous to suggest that managers can effectively evaluate the work of the scientists and engineers they employ in every field _except_ education.

The media would do us all a favor if they would look past the Obama administration’s marshmallow launcher for a moment and contemplate the effect that our massive barrier to entry into the teaching profession has on recruiting scientists and engineers.

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.

‘School Spending Predicted to Climb 50%’*

*by 2005…

Defenders of the educational status quo have long argued that we don’t need wholesale reform because our state-run school system can be fixed. If we simply raise spending, shrink classes, hire more teachers, or wait for the latest government mandate to work, they’ve promised, our problems will be solved. Reformers have predicted the opposite: that pouring more resources into the public school monopoly will only make it more expensive, not better, and so we need to inject real parental choice, get rid of the red tape that hobbles educators, and unleash market incentives. Who’s right?

My colleagues and I at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom normally answer that question with empirical research, but in honor of School Choice Week

we’re taking a different tack. We’re letting the status quo defenders and reformers speak for themselves, by dredging up their predictions of decades past to see who was a Nostradamus and who a Nostradumb—. To kick off this week-long series, here’s our first blast from the educational past:

“School Spending Predicted to Climb 50% by 2005” [Education Week, Sept. 22nd, 1994]

A report published by the American Legislative Exchange Council predicted that public school spending would climb “from nearly $262 billion in 1994 to $386 billion by 2005.” ALEC also warned that the new spending would do little to help children learn, because public schooling is a government-run monopoly and monopolies are notoriously wasteful and inefficient.

Not everyone agreed. The Ed. Week story cautioned that ALEC’s “projections do not square with [substantially lower] federal estimates, and school finance experts have questioned their methodology.”

Who was right? To find out, we first have to adjust ALEC’s prediction to account for inflation (their estimate of what spending would be in the year 2005 was, of necessity, made in 1994 dollars, which were worth a lot more than dollars in 2005). Using the BLS inflation calculator, we find that ALEC’s prediction amounts to $509 billion in 2005 dollars. That turns out to have been… too low. Real U.S. public school spending in 2005 was $529 billion, according to the 2008 federal Digest of Education Statistics.

As for student achievement, ALEC was right about that, too. Tested near the end of their k-12 schooling, students performed no better in 2005 than they did in 1994—or, for that matter, in 1970 (see chart below).

A Decade of No Child Left Behind

Ten years later, it’s clear that the No Child Left Behind law is a failure. Instead of driving better academic performance of K-12 students, NCLB has cost many billions of dollars with no discernible positive impact on student achievement. Worse, the law has laid some of the groundwork necessary for the adoption of national standards, another step toward a fed-approved and standardized K-12 curriculum, an outcome many of the law’s former proponents explicitly oppose.

Neal McCluskey argues in this new video that the only reasonable (and Constitutional) course for the feds now is to simply bow out of K-12 education completely.