Tag: media

Survey Says: Public Wants to Know the Total Per Pupil Cost of Public Schooling

A new public opinion survey commssioned in Rhode Island by the Friedman Foundation reveals that people want to know the honest-to-goodness total per-pupil cost of public schooling.

Unfortunately, the full cost is regularly omitted from state education department websites, as revealed in a recent Cato study by Jason Bedrick. What’s more, the full figure is seldom reported by the media. Instead, newspapers and local TV news outfits usually report just a portion of the cost that excludes things like construction spending, interest on debt, and pensions. Education officials obviously have an incentive to make their operations look as frugal as possible, so it’s no surprise that they would offer reporters these partial spending figures (known as “operating” or “current” spending).

Public Schools Cost More Than Americans Think

Imagine your business trying to decide whether to increase or decrease spending on marketing without knowing how much your company currently spends on marketing. Worse, imagine making that decision under the false impression that your company spends nearly half as much as it actually does. Sadly, that’s the state of the education funding debate nationwide, and the media often exacerbate the problem.

For example, in a news segment on Colorado’s NBC affiliate earlier this month, the reporter acts as though the amount of money spent per child in the public schools is a matter of political opinion to be legitimately debated rather than an empirical fact:

Like any good political debate, there are two sides to every single answer. When it comes to school funding, people have been wondering how much schools get to spend per student. That answer depends on who you ask.

The first person the reporter asked was Kathleen Gebhardt, the lead attorney in Colorado’s education adequacy lawsuit, who claimed that the public schools “receive an average of $6,474 per pupil in tax dollars.” How does that compare with other states? According to Gebhardt, “We’re in the top 10 for wealth and in the bottom 10 for funding our students.”

The reporter then gets a second opinion from Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, who claimed that education funding is actually “closer to $10,000 per student.”

The media segment doesn’t give DeGrow an opportunity to explain how he reached that figure, instead turning to a laughing Gebhardt who chortles, “Oh, $10,000-a-year would be unimaginable for almost anybody in Colorado! It would be a nice problem to have, but it’s not one we currently have.”

So who was telling the truth? According to the reporter, no one can really know. He concludes the segment: “Like any good political debate, much of the issue will be addressed at the polls.”

After the segment aired, DeGrow explained how he and his counterpart arrived at their figures. Gebhardt’s figure didn’t account for all sources of tax revenue. In DeGrow’s words, “It is equivalent to counting only the primary breadwinner’s earnings as household income, even though about half as much more money comes in through a side job, home business and investment earnings.”

Moreover, the reporter was asking the wrong question. He wanted to know the amount of state tax dollars that public school districts receive per pupil. The more relevant question is what is actually spent per pupil, including local and federal sources of funding. Not surprisingly, that figure is even higher. According to a report from the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado’s average per-pupil expenditures total $12,181, nearly double the misleading figure given by Gebhardt.

But why mislead the public about how much public schools actually cost? The penultimate paragraph provides a clue:

On Election Day, voters in 31 school districts around the state will decide whether to raise property taxes to pump an additional $1 billion into the school system in the form of bond issues for buildings or mill levy overrides for operating budgets.

And what did voters decide?

Tuesday’s election saw voters in 29 Colorado schools districts approve 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion.

Would voters have decided as they did had they known how much money was actually spent per pupil? That’s impossible to know. But it’s also impossible to legitimately debate what the right level of public school funding should be when bureaucrats misinform the public about what public school funding currently is. A 2008 survey by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that voters greatly underestimate how much public schools cost and that their funding preferences vary depending on whether they are accurately informed or not:

The average per-pupil spending estimate from respondents to the 2008 Education Next/PEPG survey was $4,231, and the median response was just $2,000; but for these respondents, local average spending per pupil at the time exceeded $10,000. When told how much the local schools were spending, support for increased spending dropped by 10 percentage points, from 61 percent to a bare majority of 51 percent.

Likewise, in PEPG’s 2011 survey, only 46% of informed respondents wanted to increase funding compared with 59% of uninformed (read: misinformed) respondents.

A part of the media’s job is looking at every claim with a gimlet eye. Sadly, this is far from the only case of the media replacing their self-proclaimed “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out” skepticism with “Rekab Street” credulity.

 

Politics Is Better as Fiction

If the season’s got you thinking cynically about politics and politicians, TCM has the movies for you. It’s running a series all this month called “American Politics on Film.” You’ve missed classics like “A Face in the Crowd,” but there’s still time to catch “All the King’s Men” this Thursday night, about a Southern reformer who becomes corrupted by power, and “All the President’s Men” on Friday night, about an ambitious Westerner who was probably corrupt long before he got power. Also on Friday night: “Advise and Consent” and “Seven Days in May,” made from the great political novels of the 50s and 60s. Whatever happened to great political novels, anyway?

For movies about freedom, click here.

Business in the Movies

Libertarians have often complained about the selective and hostile portrayal of business in Hollywood movies. A couple of little-known Hollywood movies that offer a different view are going to be on television this week.

The 1960 film “Cash McCall,” starring James Garner as an early “corporate raider,” was voted ”Best Libertarian Picture” at the 1994 First International Libertarian Film Festival. Take that as you will. But arguably it does show, as the late lamented Miss Liberty website said,  ”a talented investor who overcomes envy and anti-success prejudice.” And it’s on TCM Saturday night at midnight.

USA Network meanwhile, is broadcasting “Taking Woodstock” 22 hours early, at 2 a.m. Saturday (i.e., very late Friday night). I wrote about that movie for Liberty magazine in 2010 (not online):

The movie Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee, led me to the book of the same name by Elliot Tiber. I knew of Woodstock as a hippie happening a bit before my time. What I found interesting about the movie and the book was the portrayal of the Woodstock Festival, “Three Days of Peace and Music,” as an impressive entrepreneurial venture.

In 1969 Tiber was a 33-year-old gay designer living in Manhattan, while spending his weekends trying to save his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. One weekend he read that some concert promoters had been denied a permit in Wallkill, N.Y. He came up with the crazy idea of inviting them to hold the festival on his parents’ property. Lo and behold, they showed up to check it out. Taking the lead was 24-year-old Michael Lang, who went on to become a prominent concert promoter and producer.

The Tiber (actually Teichberg) property wasn’t suitable, but Elliot drove Lang and his team down the road to Max Yasgur’s nearby farm. At least that’s Tiber’s story; other sources say he exaggerates his role. He did play a key role, however, in that he had a permit to hold an annual music festival, which up until then had involved a few local bands.

There’s a wonderful scene, better in the movie than in the book, when Lang and Yasgur negotiate a price for the use of the farm. We see it dawning on Yasgur that this is a big deal. We see Elliot panicking that the deal will fall through, and that without the festival business his parents will lose their motel. And we see Lang’s assistant reassuring Elliot that both parties want to make a deal, so they’ll find an acceptable price, which indeed they do.

And then, with 30 days to transform a dairy farm into a place for tens of thousands of people to show up for a 3-day festival, Tiber describes (and Lee shows) a whirlwind of activity. “Within a couple of hours, the phone company had a small army of trucks and tech people on the grounds, installing the banks of telephones that Lang and his people needed.” Helicopters, limousines, and motorcycles come and go. A few hundred people are erecting scaffolding, stage sets, speakers, and toilets. The motel keepers are trying to find rooms and food for the workers and the early arrivals. The local bank is eagerly providing door-to-door service for the mountains of cash flowing into bucolic White Lake, N.Y.

Meanwhile, there are a few locals who don’t like the whole idea. In Tiber’s telling, they don’t like Jews, queers, outsiders, or hippies. Maybe they just didn’t like a quiet village being overrun with thousands of outsiders. In any case they had a few tools available to them. A dozen kinds of inspectors swarmed around the Teichbergs’ motel. The town council threatened to pull the permit. Tiber writes, “Why is it that the stupidest people alive become politicians? I asked myself.”  At the raucous council meeting Lang offered the town a gift of $25,000 ($150,000 in today’s dollars), and most of the crowd got quiet. Max Yasgur stood and pointed out that “he owned his farm and had a right to lease it as he pleased.” That didn’t stop the opposition, but in the end the concert happened.

The psychedelic posters and language about peace and love – and on the other side, the conservative fulminations about filthy hippies (see John Nolte’s movie review at BigHollywood.com – can obscure the fact that Woodstock was always intended as a profit-making venture. That was the goal of Lang and his partners, and it was also the intention of Tiber, Yasgur, and those of their neighbors who saw the concert as an opportunity and not a nightmare. The festival did rescue the Teichberg finances. It ended up being a free concert, however, which caused problems for Lang and his team. Eventually, though, they profited from the albums and the hit documentary Woodstock….

Tiber writes, “One of the great benefits of Woodstock—a benefit that, to my knowledge, has never been written about—was its sexual diversity.” But I think the fact that there were gay awakenings at Woodstock — and three-ways and strapping ex-Marines in sequined dresses — would surprise people less than the realization that Woodstock was a for-profit venture that involved a lot of entrepreneurship, hard-nosed negotiation, organization, and hard work. Taking Woodstock (the book, but better yet the movie) is a great story of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and capitalism.

Those of a different political persuasion may prefer TCM’s Dalton Trumbo extravaganza tonight.

Truth in Budget Reporting

Newspaper articles on government budgets virtually never tell the reader the two most important facts: What was the budget last year, and what is it this year? Instead, the typical budget article trumpets “cuts” and “austerity,” and never actually mentions that the budget is going up by four percent, or six percent, or nine percent in the coming year. So two cheers to the Washington Post for its article on Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s proposed budget, which does—eventually—give you most of that information. Still, the second paragraph (and second sentence) of the article says that McDonnell “proposed saving nearly $1 billion in a variety of ways.”

You have to wait for the seventh paragraph, on the jump page, before you find out that the proposed budget amounts to $85 billion over two years.  And only in the 20th of 25 paragraphs do you find out that

The two-year budget, which begins July 2012, will be the largest spending plan in Virginia history, growing by about $7 billion.

So two cheers for giving the facts, even if the lead of the story might have led some readers to think that McDonnell was cutting $1 billion from the state’s budget. And three cheers for Steve Contorno of the Washington Examiner, who put the basic facts clearly in the third paragraph (and third sentence) of his article:

In an hour-long address to the General Assembly’s budget committees, McDonnell laid out an $85 billion spending plan through June 30, 2014, up from $79 billion in 2010-2012.

Please, reporters: when you write about a city, state, or federal budget, please tell us readers and taxpayers how much the budget actually is, and how much it will be next year. With that information, we can figure out for ourselves whether it involves cuts or not.

An Intended Consequence

The New Republic has an interesting article explaining “How Campaign Finance Laws Made the British Press so Powerful.” Basically, only British newspapers are free of regulations that suppress political speech. The author suggests adding more controls (including content restrictions) on the British newspapers to enforce “impartial” coverage. In other words, the media should be just as repressed as everyone else, and political leaders should be free of criticism.

Like many others, I have long thought that U.S. newspapers editorialize in favor of campaign finance restrictions to control competing speech and thereby become more powerful. After Citizens United, other organizations now enjoy the same First Amendment protections as media corporations like The New York Times and The Washington Post. No doubt that does mean such corporations are less powerful than they would be if campaign finance laws suppressed political speech that competes with their editorials and news reports. However, such competition is good for voters.

China Cracks Down on Ideas. And Music. And Advertising.

The government of China finally confirmed that it has detained the artist Ai Weiwei. Meanwhile, Evan Osnos writes from Beijing for the New Yorker about China’s “Big Chill”:

Step by step—so quietly, in fact, that the full facts of it can be startling—China has embarked on the most intense crackdown on free expression in years. Overshadowed by news elsewhere in recent weeks, China has been rounding up writers, lawyers, and activists since mid-February, when calls began to circulate for protests inspired by those in the Middle East and North Africa. By now the contours are clear: according to a count by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, the government has “criminally detained 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention.”

Indeed, everywhere I turn today, there’s news about Chinese censorship and fear of dissent, of ideas, of art, of words like “luxury.” The Washington Post has a major article on Bob Dylan’s concert Wednesday night in Beijing. Dylan, the troubadour of the peace movement and the Sixties and civil rights, in the capital of the world’s largest Communist party-state. How’d that go? Ask Keith Richburg, whose Post article is titled “The times they are a-censored”:

Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.

Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list – which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.

In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.

But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”

There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”

Meanwhile, NPR reports that Beijing has banned words such as “luxury,” “supreme,” “regal,” and “high-class” on billboards:

The city’s new rules state that ads must not glorify “hedonism, feudal emperors, heavenly imperial nobility” or anything vulgar, according to the Global Times newspaper. They also should not violate “spiritual construction” standards or worship foreign products — leading some to believe the campaign could be targeting foreign luxury goods.

“The truth is that the party has very clearly started what is very clearly a campaign against ostentation in China,” says David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia, a communications advisory agency. “There is a pushback against things Western. And there is the desire to see those Western things take a lesser role in the development of Chinese culture.”…

China Daily reports that the campaign is aimed at protecting social harmony, quoting a sociologist who says advertisements that promote the belief that “wealth is dignity” could upset low-income residents.

Now there’s some good old-fashioned communist thinking! Of course, communists with the courage of their convictions would ban the products, not just the ad copy. But it’s nice to see the old values survive.

In some ways the government’s confirmation that it has detained Ai Weiwei is the most chilling indication of the new climate. It came in an editorial in Global Times, a vigorous presenter of the government line. Just listen to the combative language:

Ai Weiwei likes to do something “others dare not do.” He has been close to the red line of Chinese law….

The West ignored the complexity of China’s running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei’s individual behavior. They simply described it as China’s “human rights suppression.”

“Human rights” have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world.

“Human rights” are seen as incompatible things with China’s great economic and social progress by the West. It is really a big joke. Chinese livelihood is developing, the public opinion no longer follows the same pattern all the time and “social justice” has been widely discussed. Can these be denied? The experience of Ai Weiwei and other mavericks cannot be placed on the same scale as China’s human rights development and progress.

As I’ve written before, China faces a dilemma. They have opened up their economy and reaped huge benefits, perhaps the largest advance in human well-being in the history of the world – as the editors of Global Times defiantly argue. But if China wants to become known as a center of innovation and progress, not just a military superpower or a manufacturer, it will need to open further. Investors want to put money into a country with the rule of law. Creative people want to live in a country that allows them to read, write, think, and act freely.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele, author of From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation, wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West–technology, innovation, entrepreneurship–without adopting its liberal values. ”We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with strip-tease.”

How much freedom can China’s rulers tolerate? How much repression will its citizens tolerate? How many ambitious, creative Chinese will leave the world’s largest market to find more creative freedom elsewhere? These may be the most important questions in the world over the next generation.

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