Tag: federal education

American Education, From Camelot to Obamaville

The president has relentlessly called for a more extensive—and expensive—federal role in education. Here’s just one example:

The human mind is our fundamental resource. A balanced Federal program must go well beyond incentives for investment in plant and equipment. It must include equally determined measures to invest in human beings—both in their basic education and training and in their more advanced preparation…. Without such measures, the Federal Government will not be carrying out its responsibilities for expanding the base of our economic… strength.

And if we spend all those new federal dollars on k-12 education, the president promised that “it will pay rich dividends in the years ahead.”

But here’s the strange part: in that same speech, the president made this seemingly ridiculous claim:

Our progress in education over the last generation has been substantial. We are educating a greater proportion of our youth to a higher degree of competency than any other country on earth.

It’s actually not so ridiculous when you learn that the president who said it was John F. Kennedy, in February of 1961. Back then, we really had been making educational progress.

Aside from the ill-fated National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government had made no attempt to improve k-12 academic achievement or attainment in the four decades before JFK… and yet, as he noted, American education did in fact improve during that period.

But within a couple of years of JFK’s assassination, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act. And in the four plus decades since, the feds have spent roughly $2 trillion trying to improve outcomes and attainment. Over that course of years, both graduation rates and academic achievement at the end of high school have been flat or declining.

Perhaps it could be argued that JFK couldn’t have known better. There was no history showing him what an expensive failure U.S. federal education spending would turn out to be. But the same cannot be said of President Obama, or of those in Congress who continue to tell the public, and presumably themselves, that fed ed. spending is a useful “investment.”

Today, we can look back at a half-century of failed federal education programs. We can think about how much better off the U.S. economy and our children would be if we hadn’t thrown $2 trillion at a calcified school monopoly that cannot spend money efficiently.

And reflecting on that history, perhaps we’ll find the wisdom not to repeat it.

Topics:

Sen. Rubio to Sec. Duncan: Dear Sir, Obey the Law

Senator Marco Rubio has just written to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, requesting that he not break the law. At issue is the administration’s plan to offer states waivers from the No Child Left Behind act if they agree to adopt national standards or pursue other educational goals of the administration. Rubio states that these conditional waivers violate the U.S. Constitution, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s right.

As my Cato colleagues and I have noted many times, the Constitution mentions neither the word “school” nor the word “education,” and so, under the 10th Amendment, reserves power over those concerns to the states and the people.

The Act creating the Department of Education is equally clear:

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system… .[Section 3403(b)]

Nor is the NCLB particularly ambiguous:

‘Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction. [Section 1905]

The Secretary’s conditional waivers from NCLB mandates, in return for dancing as he desires on national standards, seem to violate all of the above. I wonder if any education reporter will have the temerity to ask Arne Duncan on what grounds he believes he is entitled to ignore these laws? Senator Rubio’s letter certainly gives them a golden opportunity to do so.

Education Tax Credits More Popular Than Vouchers & Charters

As Neal wrote about earlier, Education Next has released their new poll, and there are some interesting results.

Surprisingly, the authors buried the lede in their writeup; education tax credits consistently have more support and less opposition than any other choice policy.

This year, donation tax credits pulled in a 29-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 25-point margin of support.

The authors added a new, less neutral voucher question that boosted the margin of support to 20 points. They couched the policy in terms of “wider choice” for kids in public schools, and the implication was that it was universal. All three of these additional considerations tend to have a positive impact on support for choice policies.

The standard low-income voucher question showed a big jump this year from a -12 in 2010 to a 1-point margin of support. The last time Education Next asked a low-income tax credit question, it garnered a 19-point margin of support.

Last year, tax credits had a 28-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 22-point margin of support and vouchers for low-income kids went -12 points (more respondents opposed).

Public opinion is consistently and strongly in favor of education tax credits over vouchers and even charter schools. And thankfully, they’re a much better policy as well.

President Obama and Education Politics As Usual

President Obama has seemingly made an entire mountain range out of his Race-to-the-Top reform molehill, while he’s gotten more or less a free pass on all he’s done to enrich the status quo. And now, with big midterm losses looming for his party, he appears to be resorting to one of the easiest political ploys in the book: Claim the GOP will cut funding to education and, in so doing, hurt innocent children and cripple the nation’s economic future. As the President opined in his weekly address:

[I]f Republicans in Congress had their way….We’d have a harder time offering our kids the best education possible. Because they’d have us cut education by 20 percent – cuts that would reduce financial aid for eight million students; cuts that would leave our great and undervalued community colleges without the resources they need to prepare our graduates for the jobs of the future.

Now, it is true that when it comes to our budget, we have real challenges to meet. And if we’re serious about getting our fiscal house in order, we’ll need to make some tough choices. I’m prepared to make those choices. But what I’m not prepared to do is shortchange our children’s education. What I’m not prepared to do is undercut their economic future, your economic future, or the economic future of the United States of America.

Where did the President get the 20 percent number? It most likely stems from the promise in the House Republican’s “Pledge to America” to return federal spending unrelated to defense or senior citizens to pre-stimulus levels. Presumably, that means education spending would be reduced to the level it was at before passage of the stimulus. Considering that the stimulus was supposed to be a one-shot thing, that hardly seems like a draconian move.

That said, the much more important consideration is that based on decades of evidence – not to mention the strictures of the Constitution – federal education spending should not only be reduced, it should be phased out completely. Looking at the evidence since the feds started delving deeply into education in the mid-1960s, it’s clear that we’ve gotten very little for our money. 

Start with K-12 education, where we have results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a consistent measure of performance since the early 1970s :

As you can see, Washington has spent steeply increasing amounts of money and not moved the needle at all for the 17-year-olds that constitute the “final products” of our elementary and secondary schools.

How about higher education?

Here the main focus has been providing stduent financial aid to increase college access, and in defense of the feds we have seen big increases in college enrollment since the mid-1960s. Enrollment, however, had been increasing substantially for many decades prior to 1965 or the post-World War II G.I. Bill, suggesting that Washington might have just caught an enrollment wave that was coming in anyway. There is also strong evidence that federal student aid has helped fuel rampant tuition inflation, largely negating the aid’s value. And while we have no consistent, long-term measure of learning outputs, we can at a minimum see that literacy among holders of at least a bachelor’s degree dropped between 1992 and 2003. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, forty percent of people whose highest educational attainment was a bachelor’s degree were proficient prose readers in 1992 . By 2003, only 31 percent were. For Americans with graduate degrees, 51 percent were proficient in 1992. Eleven years later, only 41 percent were.

Unfortunately, for decades federal politicians have expended taxpayer money either in goodhearted – but misguided – efforts to improve education, or more selfishly, to appear to “care about the children” and make political hay. Regardless of the motivation, at this point it must no longer be ignored: Washington ‘s spending on education has gotten us little of demonstrable value.  For President Obama to not even acknowledge the powerful evidence of this, but instead trot out the old canard that less spending is synonymous with worse education,  signals that he’s more than willing to play bankrupting education politics as usual.

Fordham Institute 1, Education 0

On NRO today, the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli take a little time to gloat about the continuing spread of national education standards. In addition, as is their wont, they furnish hollow pronouncements about the Common Core being good as far as standards go, and ”a big, modernized country on a competitive planet” needing national standards. Oh, and apparently having counted the opponents of national standards on “the right,” they note that there are just “a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

Now, there are more than six conservatives and libertarians who have fought national standards. But Finn and Petrilli are sadly correct that most conservatives haven’t raised a finger to stop a federal education takeover – and this is a federal takeover – that they would have screamed bloody murder about ten years ago.  There are many reasons for this, but no doubt a big one is that too many conservatives really are big-government conservatives committed, not to constitutionally constrained government, but controlling government themselves. If they think they can write the national standards, then national standards there should be.

These kinds of conservatives just never learn. As I have explained more times than I care to remember, government schooling will ultimately be controlled by the people it employs because they are the most motivated to engage in education politics. And naturally, their goal will be to stay as free of outside accountability as possible!

This is not theoretical. It is the clear lesson to be learned from the failure of state-set standards and accountability across the country – not to mention decades of federal education impotence – that Fordhamites constantly bewail. Indeed, Finn and Petrilli lament it again in their NRO piece, complaining that “until now…the vast majority of states have failed to adopt rigorous standards, much less to take actions geared to boosting pupil achievement.” And why is this? Politics! As they explained in their 2006 publication To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools:

The state standards movement has been in place for almost fifteen years. For almost ten of those years, we…have reviewed the quality of state standards. Most were mediocre-to-bad ten years ago, and most are mediocre-to-bad today. They are generally vague, politicized, and awash in wrongheaded fads and nostrums.

At this point, I really have nothing new to say. That political reality will gut national standards while making the public schooling monopoly even worse is clear if you’re willing to acknowledge it. Regretably, the folks at Fordham – and many conservatives – just aren’t.  So congratulations on your victory, Fordham. To everyone else, my deepest condolences.

Federal Aid: 45 Years of Failure

Yesterday, the Washington Post reviewed the life of Phyllis McClure, who was an advocate for federal education spending in low-income neighborhoods.

Once an aspiring journalist, Ms. McClure joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1969. She immediately used her penchant for muckraking to illuminate the widespread misuse of federal funds meant to boost educational opportunities for the country’s neediest students.

The money was part of the new Title I program, created under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The slim volume that Ms. McClure wrote in 1969 with Ruby Martin – ‘Title I of ESEA: Is It Helping Poor Children?’ – showed how millions of dollars across the country were being used by school districts to make purchases – such as a Baptist church building in Detroit and 18 portable swimming pools in Memphis – that had little to do with helping impoverished students.

The authors charged that money meant for poor children was being used illegally by school districts as a welcome infusion of extra cash to meet overhead expenses, raise teacher pay and other such general aid. In addition, they wrote, districts were using Title I funds to continue racial segregation by offering black children free food, medical care, shoes and clothes as long as they remained in predominantly black schools.

That all sounds rather familiar–state and local governments misusing federal aid dollars. As I’ve written about at length, there was an explosion in federal aid for the states in the 1960s, with hundreds of new programs established. But huge problems developed almost immediately–excessive bureaucracy and paperwork, one-size-fits-all federal regulations stifling local innovation, and the inability of federal aid to actually solve any local problems. 

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. The county receives about $15 million a year in federal “Title I” aid for disadvantaged schools–the program Ms. McClure was worried about. But Fairfax is the highest-income county in the nation! Why are hard-working middle-income taxpayers in, say, Ohio, paying for local schools in ultra-wealthy Fairfax?

Aside from the misallocation problem, academic evidence suggests that state and local governments mainly offset federal spending for poor schools by reducing their own spending on poor schools. Poor schools end up being no further ahead.

The federal aid system is crazy. Even if federal aid is a good idea in theory–and it isn’t–the central planners haven’t been able to make it work as they envisioned in more than four decades. The federal aid system has simply been a giant make-work project for the millions of well-paid federal/state/local administrators who handle all the paperwork and regulations.  

Even if federal aid was constitutional or it made any economic sense, it will never work efficiently. Aid will always be a more wasteful way of funding local activities than if local governments funded activities by themselves. Aid will always be politically misallocated by Congress. Aid will always involve top-down regulations from Washington that reduce local flexibility and innnovation. And aid will always undermine federalism and the American system of limited government.

It’s time to blow up the whole system.  Title 1 and all 800 other state aid programs should be repealed.

Remember When National Standards Were Going to be “Voluntary”?

In a speech today to the National Governors’ Association, President Obama proposed that states do exactly as he tells them regarding national education standards, or his government will take their people’s money and not give it back. The applause was… light.

Under the president’s preferred reform to federal education law, states would have to bring their curriculum standards into line with his administration’s wishes or they would be denied their share of the $14.5 billion education program known as “Title 1.”

But of course taxpayers in every state must pay for Title 1, whether or not the administration deigns to allow their children to participate. So the president wants to take their money and only give it back if they do as he says. The closest word I can think of to describe this arrangement is… extortion.

I’m fairly sure that’s not a central value underlying American greatness, but there’s another political entity that it does evoke.