Tag: education

More Fifth Column than Fourth Estate

Citing new Census figures, the New York Times claims that “public school districts spent an average of $10,499 per student on elementary and secondary education in the 2009 fiscal year.” But according to the most recent issue of the Digest of Education Statistics, expenditures haven’t been that low for over a decade. In the last year reported, 2007-08, total expenditures per pupil in average daily attendance were already $12,922 (in 2008-09 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $13,500 in today’s dollars. (Looking at spending per student enrolled, rather than per student actually taught, lowers the total figure, but not by that much).

So what gives? How can the Times claim that public school “spending” is $3,000 lower than it actually is?

They simply exclude a huge swath of expenditures in the number that they call “spending,” without telling readers they have done so. Specifically, they ignore spending on things like… buildings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think American public schools have returned to Plato’s practice of holding lessons in an olive grove. Until they do, they will use buildings. Buildings cost money. They aren’t erected, for free and fully furnished, from the mind of Zeus.

Not only does this arbitrary and unjustifiable exclusion of capital expenditures from the reported “spending” figures wildly mislead the public about what schools are really costing them, it also misleads the public about the trends in spending. As my colleague Adam Schaeffer reveals in the chart below, spending on physical facilities has increased at a far faster rate than other expenditures (remember those Taj Mahal schools?). So by channeling David Blaine and making capital spending disappear, the Times also misrepresents real spending growth. In so doing, they undermine the public’s and lawmakers’ ability to make sound policy decisions regarding education. If the Times prominently corrects this glaring error I will be utterly shocked.

Michelle Rhee Endorses Private School Choice…Sort of

Former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee declares in a new op-ed that she endorses private school choice for low-income families, but adds: “I’m not for school choice for its own sake. I am for choice because it can, directly and indirectly, provide better opportunities for low-income children—not simply more opportunities.”

I’m not sure I understand her. Is Rhee saying that given two alternatives: one in which parents have many different educational choices and one in which they don’t, she inherently prefers the option that gives parents no choice if test scores are not impacted either way? Why not prefer choice for its own sake, as well as for its academic benefits?

Rhee then goes on to say that private schools receiving government funding should be under government oversight, and be required to do such things as administer standardized tests in order to ensure “accountability.” But isn’t this precisely the sort of “accountability” to which state-run schools are already subjected in minute detail, and which has coincided with stagnation or decline in academic achievement for two generations (depending on the subject) and a catastrophic productivity collapse? It’s worth noting that it is the freest, least regulated, most market-like education systems that consistently produce the most effective, efficient schools.

It’s a short op-ed, providing little room for Rhee to explain how she came to hold the particular policy views she espouses regarding private school choice. It will be interesting to learn more.

Tight on Standards, Loose Grip on Reality

As promised (actually, a week later than promised) I have read the Fordham Institute “Briefing Book” for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. As expected, it’s big on trumpeting national standards, and squishy on almost everything else. Perhaps most aggravating, though, is how loose it is in characterizing the views of those of us at the Cato Institute, who apparently are part of the big group of education analysts who love the idea of Washington lavishing money on education but are, presumably, too blinkered to want to get results for it:


The local controllers. These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

Where, exactly, has someone from Cato written that Uncle Sam should keep dropping ducats on education? Certainly not here, where I call for complete elimination of federal involvement in education save civil rights enforcement, and a return of all federal education funds to taxpayers. You won’t find it here, where Chris Edwards calls for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and zeroing out all its spending. And you won’t discover it here, where Andrew Coulson and I propose that “NCLB not be reauthorized and that the federal government return to its constitutional bounds by ending its involvement in elementary and secondary education.”

Sadly, reporting the truth doesn’t appear to be as important to Fordham as producing a strawman — some group that’s portrayed as totally irrational, allowing Fordham to show how ”realistic” they are by coming up with relatively reasonable sounding policy proposals. It’s a grating, superficial tactic employed by Fordham that Jay Greene and his gang have long harped on.

The funny thing is, in the end there isn’t anything particularly realistic about Fordham’s proposal. Basically, Fordham would have the federal government force all states to adopt the Common Core standards — while adding science and history standards — to get back money that came from their citizens to begin with, or adopt standards that some state-federal hybrid panel of “experts” deemed “just as rigorous as the Common Core.” This would somehow prevent “an unwarranted intrusion by the federal government in state matters.” Because, of course, it is much less intrusive to have an option of having some federally mandated Frankenstein’s panel tell you if the standards you came up with are as good as the federal standards, or just having the feds set one standard.

Then there’s Fordham’s accountability — er, “transparency” — proposal, which would force states to annually spit out “reams” of data on outcomes “sliced and diced in every way imaginable.” Once the tons of data confetti are dumped, Fordham would rely on public pressure from seeing the mess to force reform. And how would the public force said reform? Don’t worry about it — “realism” dictates that all we need are national curriculum standards, testing, and data, data, data!

So, sadly, Fordham’s “realism” fails where it always seems to fail: In ignoring actual reality. Thanks to the phenomenon of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs that is a basic part of representative government, the people who benefit most directly from specific government policies will be most heavily involved in the politics behind those policies, and will bend them to serve themselves, not the “public good.” In the case of education, the people employed by the schools — the teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, etc. — have the most power, and will gut anything used to hold them accountable, just as they have for decades. And there is nothing — nothing — in the Fordham proposal that will keep this from happening again, no matter how centralized the standards or humongous the data dumps. Indeed, centralized standards provide one-stop shopping for special interests!

Only one thing breaks the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs conundrum, and it is taking government out of the equation and forcing educators to earn the money of customers. But for Fordham and others who, ultimately, seem to want to dictate what every child must learn, that is a bit of realism much too far.

CEOs to Governors: Raise Production Goals and Quality Standards

A group of CEOs called on the nation’s governors this week to raise U.S. business standards. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the CEOs declared that state governments have been misleading consumers about the quality of the goods they’re buying. One retired Fortune-500 CEO declared that:

America’s standing as the most innovative and prosperous nation on earth depends on our ability to boost business’ productivity. As business leaders, we are pledging to stand with governors who commit to high production and product quality standards in scientific and technological fields.

Even today, most readers probably recognize the preceding paragraphs as satirical (I hope!). The idea that it would be helpful to have bureaucrats set production volume and quality standards for high-tech industries is ludicrous on its face. How tragic it is, then, that this event actually took place… with one small twist: the CEOs were calling for more central planning in science and technology education.

Having spent nearly 20 years studying the relative productivity of different types of school systems, it is hard for me to understand how such brilliant business leaders could have arrived at such a profoundly mistaken conclusion. If they care at all about the goals they have set out to achieve, they would be well advised to stop listening to those who are currently advising them, and to look at the evidence on what actually does raise educational productivity. I’ve summarized that evidence in a short piece for the Washington Post, in a journal paper reviewing the past 25 years of worldwide research, and in a book surveying 20 centuries of school systems.

Distilling the findings of that work into a single sentence: it is the freest and most market-like education systems that, throughout history, have done the best and most efficient job of serving both our individual needs and our shared ideals.

Teachers, it turns out, are people. And like other people, they respond to the freedoms and incentives of their workplaces. As a result, the same structures and conditions that optimize the operation of other industries also optimize the operation of school systems. Xerox makes good copiers and Intel makes good chips because they have competitors who will eat their lunch if they don’t; because they have the freedom to explore new and better ways of serving their customers; and because they are rewarded very handsomely for innovations that successfully serve those customers.

Want education standards to rise? Give educators those same freedoms and incentives — and stand back.

No Profile in Courage Here, Either

Yesterday, speaking at Facebook headquarters, President Obama assessed the guts of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other congressional Republicans and concluded that their deficit reduction plan isn’t “particularly courageous.” That might be accurate – their plan lacks specificity and could target a lot more for elimination – but it’s pretty rich for the President to throw out such a conclusion. After all, his whole strategy appears to be the bankruptingly lame-but-safe crying of doom for cute kids and other supposedly defenseless people no matter what the size of the proposed cut to a social program or how ineffective the program has been. That, and the constant lamentation that “the rich” – a small and therefore electorally weak group of voters – don’t pay their fair share. (And the constitutionality of federal programs? That doesn’t even get a mention.)

Representative of this cowardly course is the President’s mantra about “investing” more in education-related programs despite blaring evidence that the programs don’t work or, as is the case with federal student aid, actually make the problem they’re supposed to solve much worse. But the President wants votes – like most politicians, he wants lots of people to think he’s giving them great stuff for free – so he’s not doing the mildly courageous thing and telling people “look, these programs don’t work, we have a titanic debt, and I’m going to cut things that might sound good but aren’t.” No, he’s doing things like going to community colleges and, in front of cheering groups of students, talking about mean Republicans and how he wants to protect students just like them by keeping the federal dollars flowing.

That’s no profile in courage, nor is it a responsible way to deal with the federal government’s gigantic problems.


I have an op-ed in the Huffington Post today arguing that it’s possible to ensure universal access to education without compelling anyone to support types of instruction that violate their convictions. This eliminates the central objection that the ACLU and ADL have given for their opposition to private school choice. Indeed, if those organizations really care about freedom of conscience, they should prefer the policy solution I outline to the status quo system in which every taxpayer is compelled to support a single government organ of education. Or is there some other reason why the ACLU and ADL oppose liberating American education?

Feel free to chime-in in the comments section on Huff Po.

Ditching Collective Bargaining Won’t Control Public School Costs. Here’s What Will…

Lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are seeking to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public school employees as a means of controlling runaway spending (it has tripled in real terms since 1970, despite stagnation or decline in student achievement at the end of high school–see the last chart in this post). But even if collective bargaining is forbidden to state school employees, the savings will likely be negligible.

Surprising as it may seem, that conclusion follows directly from the research on school employee unions, which I reviewed last year for the Cato Journal. Differences in spending between school districts with and without collective bargaining are modest to non-existent. Does this mean that the unions are impotent and that their members have been wasting their $600 annual dues payments? Not quite.

Though employee compensation varies little from one school district to the next, based on the presence or absence of collective bargaining, public school employees enjoy far better compensation than their private sector counterparts. The combined salary and retirement benefits of public school teachers are 42 percent larger than those of private school teachers (see link above).

Public school employees win this generous compensation premium through political action backed by monumental campaign contributions. Democrats receive the overwhelming share of these contributions (93% from the NEA; 99% from the AFT, see Cato Journal link), but many Republican lawmakers are also swayed, fearful that the unions will finance their primary opponents the next time they face voters.

To further increase their clout, union leaders have sought to grow their membership. More members mean more dues revenue with which to influence legislators. In this regard, too, they have been enormously successful: the number of public school employees has grown ten times faster than the number of students for two generations—a major factor in the system’s exploding cost and collapsing productivity (see figure below).

Public school employees clearly understand that union membership has benefitted them handsomely in both compensation and job security. Over the past forty years, union membership as a share of the public school workforce has increased from 42 percent to 70 percent. Even if collective bargaining were eliminated tomorrow, school employees would have every reason to continue funding the self-interested political action that has served them so well in the past.

So what would provide a counterbalance to unsustainable union demands?

To find the answer, it helps to know that while union membership was rising in the public sector it was falling steadily in the private sector—to just 6.9 percent of the workforce in 2010 (see figure below). The reason is simple: when a business makes excessive concessions to a union and is thereby forced to raise prices above those of its competitors, it loses customers. As it loses customers, it lays off workers. If this situation continues, the business fails. Private sector unionization is thus self-regulating to a significant degree.

Public school employee unions, by contrast, have no direct competitors. They cannot drive their employer out of business because there is only one employer in the sector and its existence is mandated by law. The only real solution to the spiraling cost of our state school monopolies is thus to open them up to private sector competition, so that both parents and taxpayers have an alternative to the no-longer-affordable status quo.

There are several ways of doing this, of which education tax credits seem the most promising. In Florida, Arizona and other states, taxpayers can claim a dollar-for-dollar credit for donations to non-profit scholarship organizations. These organizations, in turn, subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. In Illinois and Iowa, families who pay for their own children’s education are eligible for tax credits to directly offset part of the cost.

Though most of these programs currently impose tight caps on the total value of credits available, they are already generating substantial savings to taxpayers while simultaneously expanding the choices available to families. Florida’s k-12 scholarship donation credit saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, and the new private sector competition has improved achievement in public schools.

So while curtailing collective bargaining won’t rein in out-of-control spending, introducing real private sector competition will. And as the final figure reveals, we have got to get spending under control….


Update: I should add that, as NRO’s Rich Lowry notes, the plan for the state to stop garnishing public school employees’ wages and sending the money to the union is highly commendable. If employees want to pay union dues, they should be free to do so, but the choice should be theirs.  Of course, since public school employees benefit very handsomely from the status quo monopoly (see below), it’s likely that most will continue to pay voluntarily for the lobbying and political contributions that will preserve their above-market compensation. So it’s still the case that introducing private sector competition is the best way to control education costs.