Tag: Neal McCluskey

Beating Back Big (Ed.) Brother?

It certainly seems quixotic to try to reverse the federal invasion of American education—it’s “for the children,” for crying out loud!—but there are signs that the forces of constitutional and educational good might be making progress. The fact of the matter is that people seemingly across the ideological spectrum have had it with the illogical, rigid, and failed No Child Left Behind Act, and very few people want to keep that sort of thing in place.

What’s the evidence of this?

For one, both Senate Republicans and Democrats are putting out NCLB reauthorization bills that would significantly reduce the mandates the current law puts on states, including the hated and utterly unrealistic full-proficiency-by-2014 deadline. On the House side, Republicans have for months been advancing bills aimed at reducing the size and prescriptiveness of Washington’s edu-occupation. The White House, too, has been arguing that NCLB is far too bureaucratic. Finally, GOP presidential candidates are returning to what was, before the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, an obvious Republican position: there should be no U.S. Department of Education whatsoever.

So perhaps NCLB will be remembered as the high-water mark of federal school control.

Perhaps, but we’re nowhere near the promised land yet.

First, there is the extremely troubling way the Obama administration is pushing NCLB aside: issuing states waivers from the law, but only if they implement administration-dictated measures, including ”college and career ready standards,” a euphemism for federal curriculum control. But even if they were demanding that states adopt universal private school choice, this would be extremely dangerous, and far beyond just education. The administration is for all intents and purposes unilaterally making law: no separation of powers, no Congressional approval—nothing! Essentially, the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of man, and no one should stand for that even if they think, as I do, that No Child Left Behind is an absolute dud. It reminds me of of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.

And then there are those federal standards, the supposedly “state-led and voluntary” Common Core standards that Washington just happens to have repeatedly shoved onto states, whether through Race to the Top or waivers. They are perhaps the greatest threat to educational freedom we’ve yet seen, holding the potential to let Washington dictate what every child in America will learn, no matter how controversial, or unproven, or unfit for any kids who are not “the average.”

Fortunately, resistance to these, too, seems to be gaining traction. Perhaps the most heartening evidence is Prof. Jay Greene having been invited a few weeks ago to testify on national standards before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Jay terrifically summarized the myriad logical and empirical failings of national standards generally, and the Common Core specifically, and having his testimony out there is useful in and of itself. But more important is that at least some people in Congress are paying attention to this largely—and intentionally—under-the-radar conquest. Meanwhile, there is evidence that in at least some states that have adopted the Common Core people are becoming aware of it and starting to ask questions. At the very least, these happenings offer reason to hope that national standards supporters won’t keep getting away with just repeating the fluff logic of “a modern nation needs a single standard, and don’t worry, the Common Core has been rated as good by all us Common Core supporters.”

What has for a long time seemed impossible is suddenly feeling a bit more plausible: withdrawing the Feds from our kids’ classrooms. But there’s a huge amount still to do, and gigantic threats staring us in the face.

Ignore Reality, Sell Jobs Plan

It took them several weeks after introducing the American Jobs Act, but the White House has finally gotten into the numbers behind the Act’s edu-employment parts. A report released yesterday by the Obama administration - “Teacher Jobs at Risk” - tries to paint a picture of truly dire circumstances, which is a pretty easy task when you offer no context for your numbers.

The foundational assumptions, of course, are that more money necessarily equals better education, and less money worse. This so flies in the face of reality – at least according to federal test scores – as to be laughable. Well, laughable were it not for the fact that most people are wholly unaware of the truth, and that has made education a giant albatross around our wallets.

Which brings us to the more specific context-dodging deceptions in this report.

The sweet spot in the report — sweet like chocolate-covered arsenic — is a block on the first page pithily titled, “The American Jobs Act Could Prevent Hundreds of Thousands of Layoffs, and Allow Schools to Rehire Thousands More.”

Sounds great, right?

Sure, unless you consider that the $30 billion the administration intends to spend on this — yes, Virginia, there is a cost side — will have to come from people, either today or in the future. That’s right, it will be taken from human beings who are just as real as education employees, and who probably have lots of important things they would do with the dough if allowed to keep it. And that includes the hated “rich,” who would spend their money or invest it, leading to the “saving or creating” of lots of jobs.

So this isn’t about opposing jobs. It’s about opposing government deciding who does or doesn’t get employed.

But perhaps we are on the verge of education employment Armageddon. The administration’s report, after all, says that 300,000 elementary and secondary jobs were lost between 2008 and 2011, which seems like a big number. The report doesn’t say whether that was net or total, and it is probably a worst-case scenario, but still, that feels huge.

Huge, that is, until you see what it’s out of. In 2008 the total number of school and district employees was 6,318,395. That means a 300,000 loss was just a 4.7 percent trimming — far from humongous. To put that in students-per-employee perspective, using the latest total enrollment estimate such a cut would have taken us from a ratio of 7.9 students per employee in 2008 to about  8.2 to 1 today. In other words, it would have created a student-to-employee situation we haven’t seen since all the way back in…2003.

Oh.

But what if we lost another 280,000, which is the scenario the administration if trying to scare us with for the current school year? Add that to the 300,000 worst-case loss between 2008 and today, and it would be a total edu-jobs loss of 580,000. In percentage terms that would be a 9.2 percent drop since 2008, and in student-per-staffer perspective an uptick to 8.6 kids per employee, a proportion we last saw in just 1998.

That’s regretable, perhaps, but considering the gigantic staffing increases over the decades — a near doubling since 1969 — and stagnant achievement scores, we should probably be asking why we’ve let cuts be so small up to now. And lest we forget: The nation has an over $14 trillion-and-growing debt, which threatens all of us like a gigantic asteroid  hurtling toward Earth. In light of that, using taxpayer dollars to keep public schooling a perpetual jobs factory not only flies in the face of educational logic, it is fiscal and economic lunacy.

The Obama Administration’s edu-jobs plan might work politically — it might be a great weapon for getting votes — but as public policy it is utterly irresponsible.

Principal of the United States Returns

Today the POTUS – in this case, Principal of the United States – will give his third annual, national back-to-school speech, to be televised live by MSNBC. The immediate target, of course, is the kids, but I doubt it would be viewed negatively by the President if lots of adults saw or heard the  speech and thought, “Wow, this guy really cares about kids. I really like him.” And who knows, maybe footage of inspiring the children will make it into a campaign ad or two.

The speech itself, from what appears to be the early-release transcript, does seem to focus mainly on encouraging the kiddos. At least there’s that. But it also has some nice self- and special-interest-serving bits:

You’ve also got people all across this country – including me – working on your behalf. We’re taking every step we can to ensure that you’re getting an educational system that’s worthy of your potential. We’re working to make sure that you have the most up-to-date schools with the latest tools for learning. We’re making sure that our country’s colleges and universities are affordable and accessible. And we’re working to get the best teachers into your classrooms, so they can prepare you for college and a future career.

Now, teachers are the men and women who might be working harder than anybody. Whether you go to a big school or a small one, whether you attend a public, private, or charter school – your teachers are giving up their weekends and waking up at dawn. They’re cramming their days full of classes and extra-curriculars. Then they’re going home, eating some dinner, and staying up past midnight to grade your papers.

And they don’t do it for a fancy office or a big salary. They do it for you. They live for those moments when something clicks, when you amaze them with your intellect and they see the kind of person you can become. They know that you’ll be the citizens and leaders who take us into tomorrow. They know that you’re the future.

Probably the only big question stemming from this speech is why so little hubbub about it? In 2009 it was huge news. Today – almost nothing.

Certainly one thing is this year, unlike 2009, the Department of Education didn’t put out ham-fisted, potentially politicized teaching guides to go with the speech. And clearly the President’s supporters no longer have the same ardor they did in his early, far less bruised days. And it seems the White House just isn’t publicizing this address very much, maybe to avoid revisiting past acrimony, or maybe just to seem less intrusive in all aspects of American life than he did in 2009.

Or maybe it’s this: Like all unprecedented federal intrusions, once the precedent is set Americans just get used to it. And there are always new threats to battle, right? Meanwhile, freedom is eroded just a little bit more.

Now there’s a topic I’d like to see the Principal of the United States address.

How About ‘Not-Bought Books Week’?

In case you hadn’t heard, we’re in the midst of “Banned Books Week,” a self-righteous time of year when librarians in particular condemn efforts to get books booted out of public schools and libraries. It’s supposed to be a week in which Americans are shocked and dismayed over efforts to make Twilight novels, or The Catcher in the Rye, harder for kids to get for free.

Well, not “free,” exactly. I should say “on the public dime.”

Wait? This isn’t about outright burning of books, or expelling them from every home and Amazon list, but removing them from publicly funded institutions?

That’s right, and that makes such “banning” much more complicated than the American Library Association would have you believe.

You see, when a public institution chooses to buy a book with taxpayer money, more than just free speech rights come into play. So to does the right of taxpayers not to be compelled to support the speech of others. So book “banners” have just as much right to demand the removal of books as others have to demand that they remain on the shelves. It’s not censorship. It’s equal rights.

There’s another part of this: with public libraries and schools, government employees or some other governmental entity—maybe a selection committee—is choosing which books to purchase. That’s just as much discrimination against one or another book as demanding that a volume already purchased be removed. It’s just censorship on the front end instead of the back.

Here’s what I propose: go to your local public library and see if they offer every Cato book ever published. If they don’t, loudly decry their unconscionable censorship. Then, tell them that as long as anyone decides what goes into their library at public expense, someone’s rights will be trampled—rights don’t just kick-in after books have been procured. Finally, let them know that the only way to end this unacceptable situation—and the constant, zero-sum battles over who’s rights will be respected—is to get taxpayer money out of schools and libraries.

That will go over like a lead library cart, of course, but it will at least begin to address the real problem.

Jobs Bill Only Makes Political Sense

I can’t look into President Obama’s heart, so I can’t tell you what motives are driving the American Jobs Act. I can, though, tell you this: One look at the facts about American education, and his proposal only makes sense if the goals are to energize union support, and perhaps use spending as some easy shorthand to tell voters that the President cares about kids.

The basic reality is that over the last several decades governments at all levels have conducted ever-bigger education money bombings with no positive academic impact. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, real per-pupil expenditures rose from $5,671 in 1970-71 to $12,922 in 2007-08 (the latest year with available data). On the federal level, between 1970 and 2010 per-pupil spending rose an astonishing 375 percent. Meanwhile, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ “final products” – were almost completely flat. More money did not buy better results.

What did it buy? Exactly what President Obama seems to want to protect: staffing bloat. Between 1969 and 2008 American schools went from having 22.6 students per teacher to 15.3. District administrative staff went from 697.7 students per employee to just 363.3. In total, students per employee dropped from 13.6 to 7.8, all while academic outcomes froze. We got lots of jobs – many unionized – but nothing of educational value.

There is simply no way to look at the data and believe that $30 billion for school staffing will improve education. So it must only be about jobs, and ineffectual jobs at that.

That “ineffectual” part is the economic key. Stimulus supporters argue that paying for any job is good because employed people spend their dollars. But they ignore that the money must come from somewhere, and that somewhere is ultimately taxpayers who would either spend it themselves – including investing in new or existing companies – or put it in banks that would lend it. So the money would be spent one way or another, only taxpayers have huge incentives to employ it much more efficiently than do public schools, if for no other reason than they did the hard work of earning it. In the aggregate, that means we’d be better off just letting taxpayers keep their ducats.

What we’ve tried already supports this. Contrary to what Dan Domenech writes, public schools have gotten oodles of bailout money. The original stimulus included roughly $100 billion for education, the bulk of which went to public K-12 schooling, and in 2010 the President signed legislation giving states another $10 billion to keep school employment rolls engorged. And did unemployment plateau at about 8 percent, as the Obama team projected? You know the answer.

How about fixing dilapidated school buildings? Again, money is not the answer, unless the question is how do you win union friends and influence voters.

As I testified in 2008, for years school districts had been spending more on maintenance and construction than it was estimated they needed to bring all schools into “good overall condition.” Yet conditions seemed to keep getting worse.

What’s the problem? First, districts often put off maintenance so that small problems become bigger. And second, they often spend lavishly on School Mahals, a tendency embodied by L.A. Unified’s $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex.

Of course, building something brand new, equipped with more superfluous lights and whistles than the original starship Enterprise, doesn’t make practical sense if you could keep the old buildings fully functional at a fraction of the cost. But practical and political are totally different animals. Keeping the boiler in good repair simply doesn’t make for politician-aggrandizing, ribbon-cutting photo-ops. But undertaking a big addition or renovation, which Obama’s bill would pay for, absolutely does.

And let’s not forget: All the labor would likely have to be hired at union rates, in keeping with standard federal requirements. So jobs yes, but not more jobs in exchange for market wages.

Ultimately, the President’s bill would do nothing for education and would hurt the economy, because government spending more almost by definition means a nation wasting money.

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

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.

School Snatchers Invasion Confirmed!

The good news: Supporters haven’t been able to completely stamp out debate over national curriculum standards. The bad news: The Invasion of the School Snatchers strategy is real, and it is working! 

Yesterday, I blogged about a letter from Jeb Bush reportedly causing a subcommittee of the American Legislative Exchange Council to table model legislation opposing national standards. Subsequent to my writing that, a follow-up Education Week post reported that debate wasn’t, in fact, quashed by Bush’s letter. Unfortunately, it appears consideration was postponed for another reason: Most state legislators have no idea what’s going on with national standards:

“Legislators have heard of it, but not a whole lot of states engage legislators in discussion of the common core,” said [John Locke Foundation education analyst Terry] Stoops, who describes himself as a common-core opponent. “Some wanted to know more about it, because state education agencies or state boards of education didn’t give them much information, if any, on the common core.”

If this is accurate, it confirms exactly what I’ve been saying for months: Despite being told that the national standards drive is “state-led,” the people’s representatives have been frozen out of it. Worse, it suggests that national-standardizers’ strategy of sneaking standards in is working.

Adding to confirmation of this school-snatcher strategy is a recent blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli. At first I was heartened: Petrilli, a flag officer in the national standards campaign, was renouncing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s intent to make national-standards adoption a requirement to get waivers from No Child Left Behind. Perhaps, I thought, I’d gotten my first taker in the Demand Real Voluntarism Challenge. But then it sank in: Petrilli wasn’t demanding that Washington stop perpetuating the voluntarism sham. No, he was afraid something as un-stealthy as high-profile waiver demands would suddenly direct much-unwanted attention to the school-snatcher invasion:

The only possible outcome of Secretary Duncan putting more federal pressure on the states to adopt the Common Core is [to] stoke the fires of conservative backlash–and to lose many of the states that have already signed on.

Hopefully that is exactly what will happen, and both the unconstitutional waivers, and the snatchers strategy, will get all the negative attention they deserve.