Tag: Neal McCluskey

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.

Kudos to Carnevale!

About a month ago, Anthony Carnevale and his associates at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce released a report that, in my estimation, significantly oversold the value of college degrees. As I wrote, it focused too much on median earnings by educational attainment, and made some considerable leaps of faith about the value of degree-holding people who have jobs that do not require college degrees.

Today, in contrast, I’m grateful to Prof. Carnevale for producing a new report that goes a long way toward correcting the first flaw in his June offering.

The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings, released today, does nice work breaking earnings down by both employment category and educational attainment, and showing the significant overlaps in earnings that result. Overall, for instance, Carnevale and company found that 14 percent of workers with no more than a high school diploma earn at least as much as the median Bachelor’s holder. Especially striking, 1.3 percent of people with less than a high school education rake in more than the median possessor of a professional degree (think doctors and lawyers), the highest-earning educational category.

Looking at specific job categories, The College Payoff identifies some of the major occupations you can go into with lower educational attainment that out-earn job categories with higher ones. For instance, driver/sales workers and truck drivers who maxed out at a high school diploma earn an average of $1,531,000 over their lifetimes. That beats the earnings of secretaries, retail sales managers, accounting and auditing clerks, customers service reps, retails salespersons, and nursing and home health aids with some college under their belt. It also beats secretaries, customer service reps, retail salespersons, and accounting and auditing clerks with Associate’s degrees.  

There’s a lot more data than that in the report, of course, and it would reward perusal.

Unfortunately, the report’s concluding section starts with this:

No matter how you cut it, more education pays.

As the report itself reveals, there are in fact lots of ways to “cut it” that enable you to earn more with less formal education. Alas, old habits die hard for Carnevale. But just for providing these data, he and his team are to be thanked.

Anoka-Hennepin “Battleground” is Government Schooling in Microcosm

The Star-Tribune has a telling article about the Anoka-Hennepin school district, Minnesota’s largest and, after a recent string of suicides, the subject of a lawsuit and federal investigation over its handling of sexual orientation-based bullying. What led to the suicides and how the district dealt with bullying remain open questions, but in the absence of concrete evidence on those matters, perhaps nothing nails Anoka-Hennepin’s root problem as squarely as this article subhead: “Diverse and large.” 

Anoka-Hennepin, in other words, appears to be the nation in microcosm, and the firestorm enveloping it sadly but starkly illustrates the destructiveness of forcing diverse people to support a single system of government schools.

Beyond its succinct subhead, the Star-Tribune piece expands on its main point:

The spotlight isn’t a surprise to [Superintendent Dennis] Carlson, who recalls the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone telling him that politicos and cultural observers look to the disparate school district as a bellwether not just for the state, but the nation.

“That’s why we’ve been chosen for this political battleground,” Carlson said. “[But] it’s not a battle we want to fight. That’s not why we’re here.”

One flashpoint is the district’s 10-sentence Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which allows teachers to discuss sexual orientation issues but requires them to remain neutral. Two national civil rights groups sued the district this month on behalf of five current and former students, seeking removal of the policy, which they say doesn’t do enough to prevent harassment.

Meanwhile, a parents group is seeking to keep the policy in place and accuses the lawsuit sponsors of using children as pawns.

All the problems with forcing diverse people to support a single system of government schools are here: The inevitable conflict; the hopelessness of “neutrality” (which itself requires taking a stand not to act on something); and schools becoming battlegrounds when what most people presumably want is just for them to teach their children. Oh, and as usual with politically controlled schooling, there’s politics thrown in: Anoka-Hennepin is in Michele Bachmann’s district, and people are starting to connect its problems to her.

Anoka-Hennepin is, save for being the home of a major presidential candidate, not an outlier: As I laid out in a 2007 report, in just a single year battles sparked by the zero-sum contest of whose rights and morals win in government schooling raged across the nation. Subsequent to publishing that, I have collected information on hundreds more throwdowns around the country, which I hope to have posted on Cato’s website in the coming months.

This is not how education in a free country should operate – government picking rights winners and losers – yet  based on fuzzy notions of all-togetherness many education thinkers and pundits blithely assert that government schooling is the “foundation of our democracy.” It’s a conclusion that simply isn’t supported by either logic or evidence, and Anoka-Hennepin exemplifies both crucial failings.

I don’t know if the Anoka-Hennepin district intentionally failed to combat bullying based on sexual orientation – if it did, that is clearly unacceptable – but from what is known, Anoka-Hennepin, like public schooling generally, is doomed to war. And there is only one way to meaningfully foster peace: Let parents control education dollars and choose schools that share their values,  rather than forcing citizens to come to blows.

Public Right on Choice, Wrong on Standards, But Always Well Intentioned

Today the good folks at the journal Education Next released their annual survey of education opinion. What follows is a quick summary of many of the things the pollsters found, followed by a little commentary about the national-standards results.  (Adam Schaeffer, I have it on good authority, will be flogging the tax credit and voucher findings in an upcoming post.) Bottom line: The public usually has the right inclinations, but gets some answers wrong as a result.

One note: As is always the case with polls – but I won’t go into great detail with Education Next’s questions – remember that question wording can have a sizable impact on results.

So what did Education Next find?

  • Almost everybody reports paying at least some attention to education issues
  • 79 percent of Americans would grade the nation’s public schools no better than a “C”
  • 54 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of parents, would grade their communities’ public schools no better than a “C”
  • Even when told how much their district spends per pupil, 46 percent of respondents think funding should increase. But that’s down from 59 percent when the current expenditure isn’t given
  • Pluralities of Americans favor charter schooling and government-funded private-school choice (without mention of the sometimes toxic word “voucher”), and a close majority supports tax-credit-based choice   
  • A huge majority, even after having been given the average teacher salary, thinks teachers should get paid more or about the same as they currently do
  • A plurality thinks teachers should pay 20 percent of the cost of their health-care and pension benefits
  • Large pluralities – and for one question a majority – support judging and rewarding teachers based on performance, as well as easing credentialing and tenure rules
  • The public is about evenly split on whether teachers’ unions are good or bad for their districts
  • Big majorities support federal testing demands (without mention of the often-toxic No Child Left Behind Act) as well as states adopting the “same set” of standards and tests (without mention of federal incentives to do so)
  • A plurality of Americans oppose taking income into account when assigning students to schools
  • Only 16 percent of respondents think local taxes for their district should decrease

All of these results demonstrate good reflexes by the public. They know, for instance, that overall the public schools are performing poorly, but they are a little happier with the districts they often chose when selecting homes. They want to spend more money on schooling because education is generally a good thing, but that drops when they are told how much is actually being spent (a slippery figure few hard-working Americans have time to pin down themselves). They recognize the need for choice, something they benefit from in almost every other facet of their lives. They believe in judging and rewarding people based on their performance. They oppose forcing physical integration – in this case based on income – on students and communities. And they even, reasonably, want all states to have the same academic standards.

About that last point: Intuitively, it seems to make sense. Why should kids in Mississippi be asked to learn less than those in Massachusetts? If I didn’t get paid to analyze education policy – if I had to do other work for 40-plus hours a week – I, too, would probably support national standards because I wouldn’t have time to look at the evidence, or cogitate over the politics behind such a fair sounding proposal. But I do analyze education policy full time, and I know that (1) there is little evidence supporting calls for national standards; (2) many states have adopted national standards mainly in pursuit of federal money; (3) even if you can get initially high standards, they’ll be dumbed-down by politics; and (4) states can perhaps be standardized, but unique, individual students never can be.

Of course, the good-intentions problem is not unique to education. The huge opportunity costs – among other disincentives – that keep members of the public from being able to sufficiently analyze complicated political issues is a major problem in all public policy matters. That’s why good intentions – which the public demonstrates in spades in this poll – can often lead to bad outcomes. But we cannot blame the public for that. We must, instead, inform the public as best we can.