Tag: education

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.

France to Ban School Homework

Let’s say that you are a newly-elected French president and you have a lot on your plate. The unemployment rate is 10.2 percent and youth unemployment hovers around 23 percent. The budget deficit is 4.5 percent of the GDP and the explicit national debt 90 percent of the GDP. Your economy is at a standstill and your currency is on the verge of collapse. Many of your most productive people wonder if they should pack up and leave, because you have just asked them to fork over 75 percent of their earnings to the taxman. Your popularity is shrinking faster than you can say sacre bleu! So, what do you do?

Easy. You switch the subject and start talking about something completely different …  even if it is, well, a little crazy.

Thus, “French President François Hollande has said he will end homework as part of a series of reforms to overhaul the country’s education system. He doesn’t think it is fair that some kids get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don’t.”

Better that all children suffer, so long as they suffer equally. Equality of misery—that pretty much sums up socialist mentality everywhere.

Obama, Romney, Teachers, and Choice

Jay Greene has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal this week revealing that the teacher workforce has grown dramatically over the past forty years—and at enormous cost—without improving student achievement by the end of high school. And he rightly disparages President Obama for arguing that even more teachers would somehow do the trick. Even better, Greene notes that American education will not reverse its productivity collapse and become efficient until we allow it to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace.

But then Jay cites Governor Romney’s goal of “voucherizing federal education funds so that parents can take those resources and use them to send their children to schools of their choice,” and he does so with apparent approbation. Even ignoring the fact that the Constitution does not empower Congress to run education programs, this is a very dangerous idea.

There has been no civilization in the history of humanity in which governments have paid for private schooling without ultimately controlling what was taught and who could teach, erecting barriers to entry and thereby crippling market forces.

For that reason, I recommended against a federal voucher program under the Bush administration. Since then, additional evidence has come to light. When I studied the regulatory impact of U.S. private school choice programs last year I found that even the small existing U.S. voucher programs do indeed impose a heavy and very statistically significant additional burden of regulation on participating private schools.

Perhaps a way will be found to enact and maintain minimally regulated voucher programs in the coming years. Until that time comes, it would be the height of folly to introduce a federal voucher program whose regulations would suffocate educational freedom from coast to coast.

In my statistical study of choice program regulation, I found that K-12 tax credit programs do not impose a statistically significant extra burden of regulation on private schools. But even a national K-12 tax credit program would be far too dangerous. By leaving education policy to the states and the people, we can see which programs flourish and which become sclerotic. We must encourage and learn from that policy diversity, not squelch it with federal programs or mandates.

Another Newspaper Attempts Suicide

Last Friday, the often-respectable newspaper Education Week published a blog post that seems designed to destroy its credibility. The piece makes a claim so egregiously false that it could have been caught by a motivated 10-year-old using a second-rate search engine:

A growing number of countries are surpassing the United States in student performance and are spending less per student than the United States.  Not one has used choice and market incentives to do it.

In fact, according to the latest PISA international test results, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, and Canada all significantly outperform the United States in every subject tested. They also all spend less than the United States per pupil, and make use of choice and market incentives such as competition between schools, to varying degrees. The Netherlands, for example, has had a universal public and private school choice program for the last 95 years, which, according to the National Center on Education and the Economy is “one of the [Dutch] education system’s primary strengths.”

Could the author of the Education Week commentary possibly be ignorant of the Dutch and other examples that flatly contradict his claim? That seems unlikely since he is the president of the National Center for Education and the Economy.

In addition to its central falsehood, the piece also relies on an oversimplified and flawed understanding of how to draw lessons from foreign educational experiences. It fails to consider the very different cultural, demographic, and economic conditions prevailing in different countries and therefore offers no basis for apportioning responsibility for a nation’s educational outcomes between environmental factors and the design of its school system.

That is an unforced error, because there is a reliable way of learning from the educational experiences of other nations: within-country comparisons of different education systems. Many nations have two or more education systems operating side-by-side, sometimes in similar communities and sometimes in the same communities. By comparing the relative performance of these systems within countries (taking into account any differences in student/family background across sectors) it is possible to avoid the confounding variables that plague between-country comparisons.

When I surveyed this within-country scientific literature for the Journal of School Choice I found 150 separate statistical findings reported by 65 papers. The results not only favored private over government provision of schooling, they revealed that the most market-like, least regulated school systems have the biggest advantage over state school monopolies such as are the norm in the United States.

It is disappointing to see Education Week publish such obviously false and confused twaddle. If it wishes to remain a serious publication it should establish some minimal standards for the veracity and coherence of its commentary and enforce them with at least a cursory editorial review.

Public School Spending. There’s a Chart for That!

What better time than back-to-school season to revisit the trends in U.S. student achievement and public school spending? With that thought in mind, I present a newly updated version of my chart showing the total amount spent over the course of a single student’s k-12 career, along with student achievement trends for 17-year-olds. The achievement data come from the Department of Education’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress “Long Term Trends” series, which regularly tests nationally representative samples of U.S. students, drawing from the same pool of questions in use since the tests were first administered around 1970. These are the best data we have on what our kids know by the end of high school and how much it has cost to get them there.

In the past, some readers have wondered if the use of two separate scales ($ on the left and % on the right) might skew the way we perceive these numbers, making the public school productivity collapse look worse than it really is. To allay that concern, I present an alternate version of the chart that places all the data on the same percentage scale. Alas, the second picture is no less bleak than the first.

If music players had suffered the same cost/performance trends we’d all still be lugging around cassette boom boxes, but they’d now cost almost $1,800…. Aren’t you glad we didn’t give tax-funded state monopolies to 19th century Victrola manufacturers?

Obama Must Not Read Our Stuff

The topic of this weekend’s weekly presidential radio address was education. The message? You guessed it: The federal government needs to “invest” more in education – as do other levels of government – but instead they are making cuts.

At this point I don’t know what more can be said to show how nonexistent is the connection between federal spending and actual education. As we at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom have pointed out on countless occasions, federal and overall spending on public schooling has skyrocketed for decades as test scores have laid motionless; staffing has ballooned at the same time; Head Start has almost no lasting benefits; and federal higher ed spending largely enables massive price inflation and encourages people to enter college but not finish.

The evidence, frankly, is overwhelming that federal education “investment” is really just flushing precious money down the toilet. Which makes me think that maybe President Obama doesn’t read our stuff. Or maybe he just doesn’t care.

Larry Summers: Uncle Sam Is No Bill Shatner

In today’s Washington Post, Larry Summers writes:

[I]ncreases in the price of what the federal government buys relative to what the private sector buys will inevitably raise the cost of state involvement in the economy. Since the early 1980s the price of hospital care and higher education has risen fivefold relative to the price of cars and clothing, and more than a hundredfold relative to the price of televisions.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that government should buy less stuff? Maybe then prices in the health and education sectors would behave like the prices for cars, clothing, and televisions.