Tag: federal education policy

GOP Senators Playing With Federal Education Fire

It’s easy to understand why several prominent GOP Senators, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, are sponsoring federal school voucher legislation. State-level voucher programs have raised student achievement, increased high school graduation rates, and boosted college matriculation. School choice programs are also market-based initiatives that aid and appeal to low-income voters. As Senator Paul argued:

“School choice for low-income parents and students across America is a way out of the poverty cycle,” Mr. Paul said in a statement. “Allowing Title 1 funds to follow the student creates an opportunity for students to get the most out of their education in the best environment possible.”

Moreover, a recent survey from Harvard University’s Program on Education and Governance found a high level of support for expanded school choice programs. All that said, the GOP should resist the temptation of a federal voucher system.

Even setting aside the question of constitutionality (education is not listed in the Constitution as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers), there are practical reasons for being skeptical about increased federal involvement in America’s education system. It is very likely that a federal voucher program will lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. While there’s no law of the cosmos that states that federal dollars must come with strings attached, they most often do. And while the GOP legislators proposing the vouchers will likely keep regulations light at the outset, when the political pendulum swings—as it inevitably will—opponents of vouchers might find that it’s politically easier to add regulations to the program than to kill it outright. Once private schools become dependent on the federal money that their students bring with them, the vast majority will accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

Instead of playing with federal fire, the GOP should embrace federalism. As David Boaz wrote in the Cato Handbook for Congress a decade ago, the case against federal involvement in education:

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

School choice programs have been expanding rapidly among the states in recent years (albeit not as rapidly as I would like). Supporters of school choice should be encouraging that trend, working hard at the state level to expand educational opportunities. Expanding choice all across the fruited plain in one swoop may be tempting in its immediacy, but it’s not worth the price.

NCLB Is a Failure. It’s Nothing Personal.

Education writer RiShawn Biddle has offered a spirited response to my blog post yesterday about the failure of the No Child Left Behind act. In it, he asserts that NCLB has advanced school choice, and links to an earlier essay that ostensibly presented his case. Summarizing it, Biddle writes that:

The impact of No Child on advancing choice… starts with the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. Thanks to the data culled, the low quality of education in traditional district schools was exposed for all to see, providing parents and school choice activists with the information they needed  to push for the advancement of choice.

No thanks. The poor performance of U.S. schooling has been evident to a great many people for a very long time. The bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read was first published in 1955. Over the past 40 years, the NAEP’s Long Term Trends (LTT) tests have revealed stagnation in math and reading and decline in science toward the end of high school. In contrast to the consistent and nationally representative results of the NAEP LTTs, the NCLB is tied to state-administered tests that are so often corrupted by tinkering with their content and cut scores that they are largely worthless for measuring achievement at a single point in time let alone for measuring trends.

Biddle also claims that NCLB

exposed the long-running gamesmanship by states looking to define proficiency downward (a fact that Cato has used to its own advantage in arguing against expanding federal education policy); this, in turn, has rallied more reformers to move toward advancing school choice.

In reality, NCLB exacerbated the gamesmanship of state-level tests by giving state officials incentives to show the appearance of progress rather than actual progress. Moreover, it was not NCLB that exposed this fraud that was partially of its own making. For that we can thank… the NAEP. It was by comparing unreliable state test scores to far more reliable NAEP scores that it was discovered just how badly public schools in many states have been lying to families about their children’s performance. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted this fact, saying in 2009 that:

When states lower [their own academic] standards, they are lying to children and they are lying to parents. Those standards don’t prepare our students for the world of college or the world of work. When we match NAEP scores and state tests, we see the difference. Some states, like Massachusetts compare very well. Unfortunately, the disparities between most state tests and NAEP results are staggeringly large.

[Ironically, Duncan seems to have benefited from the absence of such a comparison while he was head of Chicago Public Schools, riding into his current position on the wings of a supposed “Chicago Miracle” that appears, based on NAEP scores, to have been a mirage induced by fanciful state tests.]

Biddle then goes on to praise NCLB’s “focus on graduation rates,” which he claims “forced states to present realistic numbers.” While it is true that many states had been reporting meaningless graduation statistics prior to NCLB, it is not at all clear that the law has improved matters. On the contrary, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman concluded from his exhaustive statistical study of the subject that NCLB appears to have fostered further cheating with graduation rates—what he calls “strategic behavior” by states and districts to present inflated graduation rate figures in order to avoid NCLB penalties. So, once again, it appears that NCLB is obfuscating rather than illuminating educational performance in America.

Finally, a note about Biddle’s characterization of my and my colleagues’ work at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom. Apparently discomfited by my criticism of NCLB, Biddle dubs us dogmatic ideological purists, unthinking and blindered, and claims that we praise or attack policies based on our “worldview,” etc. etc. While I can understand becoming exercised as a result of a policy debate, I cannot understand why someone who wants to be taken seriously would stoop to such obviously fatuous ad hominem attacks. My last paper was a regression study of the link between the performance of charter school networks and the grant funding they receive. It has multiple technical appendices, several of them added in response to peer reviews. Anyone who doubts its findings is welcome to repeat it and see if they obtain different results. The paper I wrote before that was a regression study of the regulatory burdens imposed by voucher and tax credit programs. It, too, can be repeated by other researchers if they wish to verify its findings. The term for this kind of testable, repeatable work is science, not “dogma” or “ideology” or “world view.” My colleagues are likewise engaged in empirical research and we derive our policy recommendations from that research. So our conclusions are indeed very narrowly constrained, but not by ideology. They are constrained by what works, and what does not work, in the real world.