Tag: george miller

Pell Grants Best for Buying Votes

Quite simply, Pell Grants are not supposed to be for the middle class. As the U.S. Department of Education’s website makes clear, Pell is supposed to be for “low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students.”

So why characterize Pell as a benefit for the middle class? Because lots of people consider themselves to be in that group — which federal politicians rarely define — and policymakers want their votes.

Unfortunately, as Rep. George Miller (D-CA) recently demonstrated, saying Pell is intended for the middle class also makes it a valuable weapon in waging class warfare.

“Pell is the reason they are able to go to college and get ahead,” Miller said in response to congressional Republicans purportedly looking to trim the program as part of debt reduction. “It’s a shameful excuse and an attack on middle class families.”

Other than their usefulness in browbeating those who’d dare propose education cuts, Pell Grants are, at best, of limited value. Yes, they are needed by some people to go to college, but that’s because they are largely built into college prices. Basically, give me a dollar more to pay for school and my college will charge me another buck.

Of course it’s not just Pell that influences prices — there are lots of other sources of aid, and colleges confront numerous variables that affect their costs — but subsidize something and prices will go up. And boy, do they go up in higher education!

One last consideration is crucial but rarely mentioned. One of the great political benefits of Pell is that to recipients it’s free dough — no need to pay it back. That lets politicians play Santa Claus, not the mean banker who sinisterly comes after you to return student-loan money, plus interest. But keep in mind what, in most cases, college is ultimately for: to enable attendees to greatly increase their earnings. In light of that, how can politicians justify simply giving away money from taxpayers? Quick answer: They can’t.

Were you or I to do that it would be called “stealing.” When government does it, apparently, it’s called “helping the middle-class.”

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

In Class War, It’s the “Middle” Ground that’s Key

Want to know a major reason Washington won’t make the cuts we need? Because winning elections is largely about getting “middle-class” votes, and just about any program can be spun as a savior for that big – but rarely defined by politicians – chunk of Americans.

Case in point, an animosity-stoking assertion uttered last week by House education committee Ranking Member George Miller.  As reported by CNN, the subject was the possibility of a cut being made to the federal Pell Grant program:

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, defended Pell Grant funding on Friday, calling it the “great equalizer” for millions of students.

“Pell is the reason they are able to go to college and get ahead,” Miller said. “It’s a shameful excuse and an attack on middle class families.”  

Now, what’s wrong with this assertion (other than its obnoxiousness and assumption that Pell doesn’t mainly enable colleges to raise their prices)? According to the U.S. Department of Education’s  description of Pell – and the long understood intent of the program – it isn’t for the middle class. It is for “low-income” Americans:

The Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.

So much for Pell-trimming proposals assaulting the middle class. Buy maybe Rep. Miller was doing more than just inaccurate, uncivil political posturing with his comments. Maybe he was revealing a dirty little secret: While Pell is better focused on low-income students than many federal aid programs, over time politicians increasingly aim all education efforts at the big mass called the middle class. Maybe Miller was accidentally acknowledging that aid for the poor morphs into aid for the not-poor because, well, that’s where the votes are.

Look at Pell, which, again, is relatively well targeted. In the 1975-76 school year, 1.2 million students received grants (table 1). By 2009-10, 8.1 million did – almost seven times more! Meanwhile, overall enrollment in degree-granting institutions grew from about 11.2 million in 1975 to 20.4 million in 2009, less than doubling.  Almost certainly, there has been less precise targeting to truly low-income students. Indeed, about 6 percent of Pell recipients (table 3-A) in 2009-10 came from families making at least $50,000 a year, or about the median household income in 2009.

Such expansion has been seen in K-12 education, too, though one wonders if Pell is singled out for big bucks in the debt-ceiling deal because people get Pell personally, unlike elemetary and secondary aid which goes to states and districts. Regardless, federal K-12 funding has spread farther and wider over the decades as politicians have sought to keep money coming even as their districts have lost people, and as allocations have become less and less focused on individual students. 

When waging class war, a powerful weapon is to portray your political enemy as intentionally hurting the most vulnerable people: the poor, children, etc. But the winning strategy? Sending money to the middle class, and capturing their precious votes.

Demonization vs. the Constitution

Yesterday, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced the first new legislation aimed at breaking down the prescriptiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s a small step in the right direction, but there are two serious problems with it:

  1. It doesn’t come nearly close enough to the reform we need.
  2. Democratic reaction to it illustrates why it is so hard for politicians to obey the Constitution.

First the insufficiency of the bill. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act would, essentially, allow states and districts to take federal funding that comes through numerous streams and apply it to different streams. For instance, if a state wanted to take dollars slated for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and apply them to Teacher Quality Grants, it could do so without seeking Washington’s permission.

That’s good as far as it goes; it makes sense, at least in theory, to let state and local authorities manage money according to their superior understanding of the needs of their communities.  But that’s in theory.

The first serious problem is that, ultimately, Washington would still be dictating outcomes to states and districts. As the summary for Kline’s bill states:

The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act will maintain monitoring, reporting, and accountability requirements for states and school districts under existing ESEA programs.

That suggests, at least as far as this bill goes (Kline has promised more legislation to come), that states will still have to meet all of NCLB’s rigid standards, testing, and “adequate yearly progress” requirements.   

The next big failure of the bill is that it trusts state and local bureaucrats to do what’s best for kids and handle taxpayer funds efficiently. As many people have pointed out, that’s about as likely to happen as your winning the Powerball.  

Finally, the bill fails because it keeps the same basic, unconstitutional model we’ve had for decades: federal funding of education — and associated rules — despite Washington having no constitutional authority to do so. That’s why the LEARN Act, sponsored by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), is superior to both what Kline has proposed and the A-PLUS Act that continues to make the rounds. LEARN would simply allow states to declare that they will not be dictated to by Washington, and let their taxpaying citizens, not education bureaucrats, reap the rewards by getting back the “education” dollars Washington took from them.

Unfortunately, a revolting tactic commonly employed by Democrats — but little different in odor quotient from, say, GOP attacks on war critics as unpatriotic — threatens to chill any effort to impose rationality on education policy. It’s the all-too-standard implication that if you’re for cutting federal education spending or even just making it more efficient, you’re at best indifferent to civil rights and, at worst perhaps, secretly a pre-Brown v. Board segregationist. As Education Week reports:

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, said the measure is “an offensive, direct attack on civil rights” that is sure to weaken efforts to ensure that disadvantaged and minority kids get access to educational opportunities.

“This back-door attempt at fulfilling campaign promises to dismantle the federal role in education will turn back the clock on civil rights and especially harm low-income and minority students,” Miller said.

This sort of rhetoric is designed to do but one thing: defeat reform efforts by all-but-directly accusing supporters of racism, or at least inhuman callousness. But notice what gets no mention: the Constitution, the thing that gives the federal government its only powers and includes no authority over education. Well, almost no authority: under the 14th Amendment Washington does have a responsibility to ensure that states and local districts do not discriminate in their provision of education, but the amendment in no way authorizes federal spending on education.  

And let’s not pretend that current federal intervention is doing any good. National Assessment of Educational progress math scores for African-American 17-year-olds — the schools’ “final products” — did rise markedly from 1973 to 1990, which could very well be at least partially a product of proper federal intervention: ending de jure segregation. But from 1990 to 2008, which includes the age of federal “accountability,” we’ve seen at-best stagnation, with the 1990 average score at 289 (out of 500) and the 2008 score at 287. Reading is the same story: healthy increases until 1988 (but fastest in Reagan’s anti-fed-ed 1980s) and stagnation after that. Indeed, the average score for African-American 17-year-olds dropped from 274 to 266 between 1988 and 2008. Meanwhile, real federal K-12 spending more than doubled, rising from $32.6 billion in 1988 to $73.2 billion in 2008.

There is, frankly, no good argument for keeping the federal government in education. But we can’t even have a reasoned debate about that as long as thinly veiled assertions of racism and callousness are the the standard response to any downsizing proposal.

Should We Spend More on Failed Programs?

Last month, I testified before the House Education & the Workforce Committee. The most startling part of that experience was the response to my testimony offered by ranking Democrat George Miller (who had chaired the committee in the previous Congress.) The archived web-cast is now available, and Rep. Miller’s response begins at 42:29.

To set things up: I reported that the federal government has spent $2 trillion dollars on k-12 schooling over the past two generations, and failed to achieve either of its avowed goals (raising overall achievement, and narrowing the gaps by family income and minority status). To this, Rep. Miller replied:

I think when you look at student performance and you look at money and you want to say that somehow there should be some correlation there I think that’s wrong-headed.

Really? I know that Democrats support higher government spending than libertarians and conservatives, but it’s always been my understanding that they do this because they imagine the extra spending will actually accomplish something. I have never before heard anyone suggest that we should spend more taxpayer money without any expectation that spending is correlated with outcomes. I can’t believe that Rep. Miller’s view is widely shared by American voters—even by those who voted for him.

The congressman also made what I took to be an effort to undermine the test data I had presented, saying that “After No Child Left Behind, millions of people were added to the test pool that were left out before.”

With respect to the National Assessment of Educational Progress test score trends I presented during my testimony, this statement is incorrect. The NAEP Long Term Trends results have always been based on nationally representative samples of students and to my knowledge NCLB did not affect those sampling procedures in any way. I can only guess that Rep. Miller was referring to the NCLB’S effect on student participation in state tests, but if so his comment is not germane.

Congress really has spent 2 trillion taxpayer dollars and achieved neither of its avowed k-12 goals. Cutting these ineffective programs would save scores of billions annually.

Another State and Local Bailout?

Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has introduced a bill that would give state and local governments another $100 billion to prevent public sector job cuts. The bill was written at the behest of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other local special interest groups addicted to federal largesse.

These days it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading a tug-at-the-heart-strings story about state and local officials having to make the “painful” decision to cut supposedly crucial government spending. Very rarely do journalists dig in deeply and examine in detail where state and local governments are actually spending their giant budgets.

Sometimes stories highlight some superficial waste, such as this Los Angeles Times story reporting that “As Los Angeles County supervisors prepare to carve deeply into everything from public safety to social services, they also are spending millions in taxpayer dollars to burnish their public images, pay for chauffeurs, hold parties for friends and lobbyists and support pet projects.”

The story assumes that every penny L.A. County spends on public safety and social services is a penny well spent. Like their federal counterparts, state and local programs are rife with waste, fraud, and excess. Unfortunately, for every 100 stories you read about teachers being furloughed, you might read one that questions the basic efficiency of the services being provided or possible private-sector alternatives.

In a new Cato Policy Analysis on the cost of public education, Adam Schaeffer found that the Los Angeles school district’s real per-pupil cost is $25,000 – not the $10,000 it reports. This compares to average Los Angeles private school per-pupil spending of $8,400.

The rise of public sector unionism is another subject that should be getting more media attention as state and local politicians warn of having to “slash” programs. According to a recent study by Chris Edwards, half of the $2.2 trillion that state and local governments spent in 2008 went to employee wages and benefits. Edwards found that “public sector unions push up the costs of the public sector workforce in the United States by about 8 percent, on average, but the increase would be more in states with highly unionized public sectors such as California.”

The lavish benefits that state and local politicians have bestowed upon public employees have created massive unfunded liabilities. A recent study by Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh calculated that state and local pensions are underfunded by a whopping $3.2 trillion. Jagadeesh Gokhale and Chris Edwards estimate that public employee health benefits are underfunded by an additional $1.4 trillion.

Another bailout for state and local government like the one Congressman Miller is proposing creates a disincentive for state and local policymakers to implement necessary reforms to get their budgets and future liabilities under control. It also creates a disincentive for local citizens to be vigilant when it comes to state and local spending. Why bother attending city council or school board meetings when the federal and state governments are picking up a hefty portion of the tab for local spending?

The decades of increasing centralization of what were traditionally local responsibilities has fueled extravagant spending at all levels. Instead of continuing to aid and abet state and local politicians who are only too happy to spend the “free” money the federal government shovels their way, it’s time to get back to our constitutional roots with a return to fiscal federalism.