Tag: education

On Federal Education, Think Progress Should Think Harder

Over on the Think Progress blog, Ian Millhiser accuses Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) of never having read the Constitution. His grounds for the accusation? Coburn, citing Jefferson, doesn’t think that the Constitution gives the federal government authority to provide such things as Pell Grants and student loans.

Writes Millhiser:

Sen. Coburn might want to try actually read the Constitution before he pretends to know what it allows. Article I provides that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” a grant of power that unambiguously empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them on programs that are broadly beneficial to American welfare — such as education.

Moreover, while Coburn’s reference to Thomas Jefferson is true in the narrowest sense of the term, it also betrays Coburn’s ignorance of constitutional history. During the Washington Administration, Jefferson and James Madison led a minority coalition which believed that Congress’ constitutional power to spend money was too narrow to support spending programs such as the First Bank of the United States. President Washington, however, rejected their arguments. Moreover, while Coburn is correct that President Jefferson briefly referenced his narrow view of the Constitution in his 1806 State of the Union, Jefferson was an extreme outlier by this point in American history. Even Madison parted ways with Jefferson by the time Madison became president in 1809.

This might be a classic pot-kettle situation. At the very least, it is utterly impossible to say that the general welfare clause “unambiguously” empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them – with massive strings attached, of course – on education. Indeed, that the general welfare clause does anything other than introduce the specific, enumerated powers that follow it was expressly rejected by Madison in Federalist no.  41, in which he wrote:

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

The general welfare clause, quite simply, confers no power – it just explains why the specific powers that follow it were given.

But didn’t Alexander Hamilton – who had Washington’s ear – reject that notion? Well yes, in his 1791 Report on Manufactures he suggested that the federal government could do almost anything as long as it was done in the interest of the entire nation. But his report was not only shelved by Congress at the time, Hamilton’s argument was quite different from what he wrote in the Federalist Papers. Though speaking  specifically of the taxation and  ”necessary and proper” clauses, in Federalist no. 33  Hamilton wrote that seemingly broad powers were given to Congress only to execute “specified powers:”

[I]t may be affirmed with perfect confidence that the constitutional operation of the intended government would be precisely the same, if the clauses were entirely obliterated, as if they were repeated in every article. They are only declaratory of a truth which would have resulted by necessary and unavoidable implication from the very act of constituting a federal government, and vesting it with certain specified powers [italics added]. This is so clear a proposition, that moderation itself can scarcely listen to the railings which have been so copiously vented against this part of the plan, without emotions that disturb its equanimity.

How about the argument that Jefferson’s quaint small-government beliefs were way out of date by 1806? Well, they sure weren’t on education.

For one thing, it is notable that President Washington probably had a more expansive view of the federal government’s role in education than one might expect. He wanted a national university, after all. But he didn’t get it – that notion was well out of sync with the limited federal government most Americans wanted. 

Next, Coburn was actually quoting Jefferson from Jefferson’s call for federal involvement in education, an idea that went nowhere because it would have constituted more federal intrusion – not less – than most Americans wanted. Indeed, Jefferson was generally on the big-government fringe of his time when it came to education. He only got the University of Virginia after four decades of trying, and never got the rudimentary public schooling system he wanted for Virginia.  Most people at the time simply didn’t think government’s role – especially the federal government’s – was to run education.

One last bit of information demonstrates just how truly mistaken Millhiser is in his attack on education ”tenthers.” In 1943 – when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president – the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House, published The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution. It noted in a section titled “Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution:”

 Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

Even FDR’s people, apparently, didn’t find that the Constitution ”unambiguously” gave Washington authority to involve itself in education – quite the opposite!

In light of all this, it is clearly not Mr. Coburn who can reasonably be accused of having never read the Constitution. Indeed, not only has he almost certainly read it, it seems he has even taken the time to understand it.

The Private Sector Lacks What?!?

So there I was, checking e-mail this morning on my JooJoo when I came across this editorial about how the private sector lacks accountability unless the government provides it through regulation! This naturally caused me to expectorate New Coke all over over myself and my Apple III, forcing me to toss my Levi’s Type 1 jeans in the wash and hop back in the shower. (You know, that Touch of Yogurt shampoo by Clairol is really… uh… something).

Twenty minutes later I was still so preoccupied about responding to the editorial that I backed over my neighbor’s Segway as I pulled the Edsel out of the garage. Oops. Sorry Dean.

Anyway, once I got into the office I popped a couple of Ben Gay Aspirin to ease my now ferocious headache, but realized as I did so that I’d left my Colgate Kitchen Entree frozen dinner at home. Argh!

You get the idea, yes?

The fact that consumers have demands, and that they can go elsewhere if you fail to meet them, makes producers accountable. We see this in every sector of the economy. Provide a product or service that people don’t want, take away one that they do want, or charge more than they are willing to pay, and they will kick you right in the bottom line.

The result is the same in education as in other fields: the least regulated, most market-like education systems consistently outperform highly regulated state-run school systems such as we have in this country—across every measure people care about.

Regulations are an attempt, crude and usually unsuccessful, to imitate the accountability inherent in competitive markets. So as long as you allow market forces to work in education, and you allow people to allocate their own money rather than taxing it and spending it through the state, regulations are not only unnecessary they are generally counterproductive. (Milton and Rose Friedman had a good chapter on this in Free to Choose.)

Note that this is true under both personal use education tax credits (for parents’ own education costs) and scholarship donation tax credits (in which taxpayers donate to non-profit organizations that subsidize education for the poor). If a scholarship organization becomes corrupt or inefficient, taxpayers can easily redirect their donations to better-run competing organizations. The accountability is built into the system’s design. No other private school choice program has this feature, and certainly public schools do not.

There is no evidence that layering government regulations on top of this market accountability system improves outcomes, and ample evidence that heavily regulated school systems perform badly. Unless those facts change, there is good reason to fight off attempts to regulate private schools under education tax credit programs.

Remarkable Interest in School Choice in Colorado?

In Douglas County, CO, a jurisdiction with 240,000 residents south of Denver, there is strong public interest in the possible implementation of a sweeping school choice program.  Here’s a blurb from the Denver Post:

Douglas County School District officials say an unexpected level of interest in a retreat exploring school choice today and Saturday is forcing them to add an overflow room and a video feed to allow the public to watch the discussion. The school board is investigating a voucher program that would allow students to use public money to help with tuition at approved religious schools and other private ones. The two-day retreat will discuss the findings of a school-choice task force that has been mulling several issues, including vouchers.

…The board will officially discuss the school-choice recommendations at a meeting Tuesday night, during which the public will be allowed to comment. No Colorado school district has a voucher program.

Here’s a link to the full proposal. I’m told that parents will have a voucher for about $4,500 per child that can be used to finance tuition at any qualifying school. This is more than enough money to cover costs at most non-government schools, and the population is sufficiently large to make this program a dramatic test case.

Keep your fingers crossed that Douglas County officials resist special-interest groups that are seeking to thwart this reform. The teacher unions have been vicious in their efforts to stop this kind of development. If Douglas County succeeds in putting kids first, this could break the logjam and lead to better education policy across the nation.

“Dear Foreigners, You Do the Math” —USA

A brand new Harvard University study finds that American students perform very poorly in math compared to their peers in other nations.

What’s that? You’ve heard this all before? Not quite.

This study compares the percentages of students scoring at advanced levels across countries, and it controls for the confounding effects of differing populations of disadvantaged groups. When the researchers looked exclusively at white students and at students with at least one parent with a college degree, the results remained largely the same. Among white students, for instance, 8 percent of Americans scored “advanced” in math, landing us in 25th place among nations for which scores were available–behind nearly every other advanced industrialized nation on Earth. And the highest ranked U.S. state, Massachusetts, trails the overall averages of 14 nations.

This may come as a shock to those who imagined that America’s educational shortcomings were restricted to inner cities or disadvantaged populations, but it is entirely consistent with results reported more than a decade ago as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, showing that U.S. students taking advanced mathematics and physics classes lagged their peers in other industrialized nations at the end of high school, often by wide margins.

So how, then, have we remained an economic superpower for so long if our school system is so bad? The answer is that we have historically enjoyed one of the freest economies on Earth, a relatively unfettered labor market, and comparatively low taxes–all of which have drawn to our shores many of the world’s best and brightest. Regrettably, our comparative advantage in those areas has eroded over the past several years.

Perhaps, instead of continuing to make our economy more like our failing centrally planned school monopoly, we should allow our education system to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace that was always the engine of our prosperity….

Election Results in School Choice States

While most of the election punditry to date has been focused at the national level, major gains by Republicans in states that already have k-12 education tax credits or school vouchers could lead to the expansion of such programs or the passage of new ones. To see where the action might lie, I offer the chart below, showing post-election party control of the legislative and executive branches of government in school choice states (the height of each bar represents degree of control, with the height of the executive branch = 100%). The states are sorted by the number of branches of government that changed hands (represented on the chart by the yellow circles, which correspond to the axis on the right).

There might be gridlock at the national level, but at the state level we may see some interesting school choice developments over the next 2+ years.

Keep Fed Ed? What, Do You Hate Kids?

Yesterday, Tad DeHaven wrote about an interview with Rep. John Kline (R-MN), likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee should the GOP take the House majority. Tad lamented that Kline seemed to declare any potential effort to kill the U.S. Department of Education (ED) already dead in the water. Unfortunately, Kline is certainly right: Any effort to kill ED in the next couple of years would not only have to get through a (presumably) GOP-held House, but (also presumably) a Dem-controlled Senate and Obama-occupied White House. There just aint no way ED will be dismantled – and more importantly, it’s profligate programs eliminated – in that environment.

That said, if many Tea Party-type candidates win today, it will be precisely the time to start pushing the immensely powerful case for ending fed ed. I won’t post them yet again, but Andrew Coulson’s charts showing the Mount Everest of spending and the Death Valley of student achievement over the last roughly forty years should, frankly, be all the evidence anyone needs to see that the federal government should reacquaint itself with the Constitution and get out of elementary and secondary education. When it comes to higher education, the evidence plainly points to student aid helping to fuel the massive tuition hikes – and major waste – that plague higher education. And let’s not forget the ongoing failure of Head Start

The biggest obstacle to ending federal intrusion in education is that no one wants to vote against more education funding or programs no matter how akin to money-sack bonfires they are. Politicians simply don’t want to be tarred and feathered in campaign ads as being against children, or education itself. (No doubt almost everyone has seen ads attacking candidates for just such impossible cruelty over the last, seemingly endless, few months.) But if Tea Party sentiment proves strong today, tomorrow will be exactly the right time to launch a full-on, sustained attack against the federal occupation of education.

For one thing, teachers unions – arguably the most potent force in domestic politics, and the biggest “you hate children” bullies – are on their political heels, with even Democrats acknowledging that the unions don’t actually put kids first. Next, people are very concerned about wasteful spending, and as Andrew’s charts illuminate,  education furnishes that in droves. Third, the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll reveals that by large majorities Americans want state and local governments – not the feds – in charge of education. Finally, and most importantly, the evidence blares that federal spending and meddling hasn’t actually done anything to improve education. All of which makes this the perfect time to drive the argument home: We must get Washington out of education because it is bad for your pocketbook, and bad for education!

Now, some inside-the-Beltway types have counseled the GOP to ignore the Constitution and abundant evidence of federal failure because they think the feds can somehow do good. They should be ignored because logic, evidence, and the Constitution simply aren’t on their side. And for those who might say to drop the issue because you won’t win in the next year or two? They would be right about the time frame for victory, but absolutely wrong to not take up the fight.

The Student Aid Did It!

The College Board is out with its annual reports on college prices and student aid, and the story is pretty familiar. According to The New York Times, the reports reveal that over the last year tuition and fees rose 8 percent at public, four-year schools, and 4.5 percent at private non-profits. Meanwhile, student aid rose at a very fast clip. Indeed, over the last five years, despite lightning-quick growth in sticker prices, after-aid college costs actually dropped.

Now, don’t expect to hear this from the College Board or even mentioned in the Times, but doesn’t it seem at least plausible that giving more and more aid to students enables schools to raise prices? You know, that colleges might jack up tuition and fees knowing that government, largely, will ensure that students can cover them? It’s not only plausible, it’s almost certainly the case. But like I said, forget about ever reading that in The New York Times. Instead, we get this standard lament:

“The College Board figures are depressing and utterly predictable,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “When states cut funding for higher education, tuitions go up to make up for the difference.”

Dealing with this one gets incredibly tiresome, and it should infuriate taxpayers who fund both massive student aid and subsidies to public colleges.

For one thing, of course, cuts in  state subsidies don’t explain constantly increasing private school costs. Moreover, while no doubt public schools sometimes raise tuition to make up for state funding dips, they also raise it when state funding is going up. Indeed, as this chart from the State Higher Education Executive Officers illustrates, public schools raise prices no matter what is going on with state and local subsidies:

How can schools get away with this? Because students are able to cover the incessantly rising prices. And how can students do that? By using more and more money that comes from someone else!

The data scream this reality so loudly even passed-out undergrads could hear it. So why does it get so little attention? In part, no doubt, because many in the media refuse to even consider that there could be a causal connection between ballooning aid and skyrocketing prices. Even worse, the people controlling the aid see votes, votes, votes from playing education Warbucks. And if, say, the President of the United States can buy votes with student aid, why would he ever admit that his “generosity” mainly just lets higher education bleed taxpayers dry? The unfortunate answer is, he wouldn’t.