Tag: education

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.

Yes, Nationalizing Facebook Is a Nonstarter

The other day, I was asked to review a draft slate of pro-innovation proposals that might be put before the next presidential administration (regardless of who heads it). I went down the list, typing again and again, “Education policy is not a federal role.”

The rather amateurish list was packed with ideas for injecting book-learnin’ into our economy. It betrayed little awareness of how our constitutional republic is structured, including the absence of federal authority over education. I guess some books are better than others

It occurred to me as I typed that people coming after me to look over the innovation proposals might think I was an idiot.

“Look right there! There is a federal Education Department. Don’t deny it!” they might say.

When I say education policy is not a federal role, I am saying something normative, about how things should be. As a present-day literal matter, there is rather obviously a federal role in education. And the sooner we restore authority to localities and especially parents, the better.

That how-things-could-be lens, though, is how to look at a self-described “thought experiment” on Slate called “Let’s Nationalize Facebook.”

It would be better to have a national privacy commissioner with real authority, some stringent privacy standards set at the federal level, and programs for making good use of some of the socially valuable data mining that firms like Facebook do. … Facebook would have to rise to First Amendment standards rather than their own terms of service. The company could be regulated the way public utilities often are.

It’s thinking far more magical than my statements about education policy.

Were Facebook nationalized, its privacy problems would not evaporate. They would double. The obscure (and, for some, concerning) uses Facebook makes of data in commerce would be joined by secret uses of data and equivocal denials by military spymasters.

Would Facebook be prevented from “serving authoritarian interests”? Tell that to the activist/whistleblower who has been driven into the arms of Ecuador, of all countries, because he fears extradition to the United States.

Public utility regulation of social media has already been made mincemeat. Nationalizing Facebook is indeed a nonstarter.

“If only we elected the right people,” our friends on the left seem to think, “things would be better. If only our elected officials dedicated their lives to careful balancing of our precious American values, if we got a real regulator in there, if only they didn’t come under outside pressure…” If only, if only, if only.

It is quite conceivable to have some wise and neutral authority make better decisions about how every organ of society might operate. I think this dream is what brings our friends on the left to believe so strongly in increasing government control over society.

The thing is, it is quite impossible for that wise and neutral authority ever to exist.

We can go to the aphorisms—“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”; we can go to school: the public choice school of economics, specifically; or we can go to the lessons of history to show that there is not a beneficent government in the kitchen, lovingly brewing coffee for you, when you wake from your ‘democratic’ dream.

My dream of having education policy restored to its rightful place with localities and families is more likely—well, I’ll put it this way—less unlikely than a powerful, all-seeing, yet benign central government.

Celebrating Milton Friedman

Today is the 100th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s birth and wonderful pieces have appeared all over the Web to commemorate the occasion. I particularly like Stephen Moore’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and economist Bryan Caplan’s brief but thoughtful blog post.

To add to the celebration, we’ve put together a brief interview with Bob Chitester, producer of Milton’s “Free to Choose” documentary series, and provided a link to the site where you can watch the whole thing for free. I’ve also added a few thoughts of my own on Milton’s impact on the school choice movement, and the high standards he set in his life and work.

Note to Education Reporter: GDP Is HUGE, Just like Education Spending

Last week I testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that deals with education. The topic was sequestration, and my case was, frankly, overwhelming, showing that education spending has ballooned for decades while achievement for 17-year-olds – our schools’ “final products” – hasn’t budged.

At least I thought it was overwhelming. But apparently a Huffington Post reporter was underwhelmed by it and wrote the following:

Some lobbyists in the education reform camp note that U.S. education spending has skyrocketed, while test scores have stagnated. Neal McCluskey – an expert witness who serves as associate director for the Cato Institute’s education center – took this line, but a recent report from the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy shows that education spending has actually not grown at all as a share of the gross domestic product.

Aside from the odious implication that I am either a lobbyist or take my cues from them, the big problem with this rebuttal is that it is flat-out wrong. Open the link to the CEP report, go to page 35, and there you will see that the share of GDP taken by elementary and secondary education in fact grew between 1999 and 2009, from 4.4 percent to 4.6 percent.

Perhaps the writer thinks a 0.2 percentage point uptick isn’t big enough to constitute growth. If so, she should really take a look at the Digest of Education Statistics table that furnished the GDP data. It reveals just how big a spending increase that seemingly dinky rise was, a function of GDP starting very large and growing  substantially. Indeed, there was an increase of over $237 billion, or a 57 percent ballooning, with spending rising from $413 billion in 1999 to $650 billion in 2009!

Those are current dollars so we should really adjust for inflation. Doing that moves the 1999 figure to $531 billion, but that still means there was a real increase of $119 billion, or a 22 percent move. That’s no growth by no means.

To her credit, the Huff Po reporter included one piece of context that’s crucial when discussing cuts to federal education spending, context that belies the irresponsible rhetoric of people like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said sequestration would “jeopardize our nation’s ability to develop and support an educated, skilled workforce that can compete in the global economy.”

Surely to justify such doomsaying cuts would have to be very large – perhaps 10 or 20 percent – right?

Nope. As Sen. Shelby (R-AL) rightly noted at the hearing – and the Huff Po reported – the 7.8 percent cut to federal education programs likely under sequestration would only translate into about a 0.84 percent cut in total education spending. Why? Because the Feds – though spending far too much on education – still only supply about 10.8 percent of the total. Most funding comes from state and local governments.

When you look honestly at the numbers there really is no question: Sequestration should fully include education.

State Rep. Balks at Voucher Funding for Muslim School

Just as Louisiana’s legislative session was wrapping up earlier this month, state Rep. Kenneth Havard refused to vote for any voucher program that “will fund Islamic teaching.” According to the AP, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans was on a list of schools approved by the state education department to accept as many as 38 voucher students. Havard declared: “I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this.”

For unreported reasons, the Islamic school subsequently withdrew itself from participation in the program and the voucher funding was approved 51 to 49. With the program now enacted and funded, nothing appears to stand in the way of the Islamic school requesting that it be added back to the list, and it is hard to imagine a constitutionally sound basis for rejecting such a request.

This episode illustrates a fundamental flaw in government-funded voucher programs: they must either reject every controversial educational option from eligibility or they compel taxpayers to support types of education that violate their convictions. In either case, someone loses. Either poor Muslims in New Orleans are denied vouchers or taxpayers who don’t wish to support Muslim schools are compelled to do so.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Education tax credit programs can ensure universal access to the education marketplace without violating anyone’s freedom of conscience. That’s because tax credits extend choice not only to parents but to taxpayers as well. Taxpayers in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and a half dozen other states can choose to donate to nonprofit tuition-assistance organizations that serve the poor. If they do make a donation, they pick the organization that receives their funds, whether it be Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, secular or entirely indifferent to religiosity.

Similarly, direct education tax credits for parents who pay for their own children’s education compel no one to support those parents’ choices. Such personal education tax credits, which already exist in Illinois and Iowa, merely let parents keep more of their own money. Far from increasing the tax burden on their fellow citizens, parents who pay for their own children’s education with the help of a credit save other taxpayers from having to pay for their children’s state schooling.

The school choice movement does not need to throw taxpayers’ freedom of conscience under the bus to secure freedom of choice for parents.

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.