Tag: Neal McCluskey

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.

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.

Republicans Employ Education Weapons, Too

A couple of days ago I blasted President Obama for, in repugnant tradition, using “education” as a political weapon, invoking it to scare Americans into demanding increased taxes for “the rich.” House Speaker John Boehner, thankfully, did not abuse education similarly in his rebuttal. But his proposal for raising the debt ceiling illustrates just how weak the GOP’s commitment is to returning the federal government to its constitutional – and affordable – size. And I say this not because of the relative puniness of his proposed cuts, but what the proposal would do in education, the only area it specifically targets: increase funding for Pell Grants.

Now, I know what many people will say to this: Pell is a de facto entitlement; it has a big shortfall; and Boehner’s bill would offset the Pell increase by eliminating federal student loan repayment incentives and grad student interest subsidies. And do you just hate education, McCluskey, or poor people?

On the first points, yes to all of those, and the CBO even projects that over ten years Boehner’s bill would achieve some savings from his student-aid moves. But ten years is a long time, during which a lot of things – especially spending increases – could happen. And the seemingly forgotten fact of the matter is that we have a $14.3 trillion debt and are sooner or later going to need big, tough cuts. And though Pell Grants sound so nice – they give poor kids money to go to college! – they should be eliminated for several reasons well beyond  frightening fiscal reality:

  1. They are unconstitutional: None of the Federal government’s enumerated – and only – powers say anything about paying for college.
  2. They are inflationary: Maybe Pell Grants, because they target low-income students better than federal loans and tax-based aid, aren’t the biggest drivers of tuition inflation, but research suggests they are a driver, especially at private institutions. There is also good reason to believe that schools target their own aid dollars to other, better-off students when they can use taxpayer dough for low-income ones.
  3. They take money from real human beings – taxpayers – to make others rich: Okay, maybe not rich, but as higher ed advocates will quickly tell you, on average a person with a college degree will make roughly $1 million more over her lifetime than someone without one. There’s a lot of play in that number, but the point is generally correct: A degree helps to significantly increase earnings. How, then – even absent a mind-blowingly colossal debt – can we justify taking money from taxpayers, many of whom did not go to college, and just giving it away to others so that they can get a lot wealthier? At the very least Pell should be made into a federally backed loan program – recipients should at least have to return taxpayers’ “investment” – which Boehner could have put into his bill.

Republicans might not be as quick as Democrats to rattle education-tipped missiles, but they’re fully committed to keeping them in their arsenal.

‘Education’: The Relentless Political Weapon

On at least six occasions in his address to the nation last night President Obama invoked the words “education,” “student,” or “college” to scare listeners into thinking that the federal government must have increased revenues. Typical was this bit of cheap, class-warfare stoking rhetoric:

How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?

Now, I’m all for eliminating economy-distorting tax loopholes, incentives, etc. But there is simply no way on God’s green Earth that the President—or anyone else—could look at what the federal government has done in the name of education and conclude that it has been anything but a bankrupting, multi-trillion-dollar failure:

  • Spending on Head Start is ultimately just money down a rathole according to the federal government’s own assessment
  • In K-12 education, Washington has dropped ever-bigger loads of cash onto schools out of ever-bigger jumbo jets, but has gotten zero improvement in the end
  • In higher education, all the money that supposedly makes college more affordable is actually a major driver behind students having ”to pay more for college”—just what the President decries—because it enables colleges to raise their prices at rates far outstripping normal inflation

The only people who regularly benefit from federal education profligacy are not students, but school employees and, especially, their lobbyists. They are teachers’ unions, tenure-track college professors, school administrators of all varieties, but not students, and definitely not taxpayers. Oh, and one other group: politicians who, despite the overwhelming evidence that all their spending on education is utterly useless, just keep exploiting students to buy votes and beat down anyone who would return the federal government to a sane—and constitutional— size.

Education, for our politicians, is not a thing to be fostered. If it were, they’d get out of the business. No, it is a political weapon, and it continues to be used to deadly effect.

The Frightening Philosophy of Public Schooling, in a Nutshell

From a New York Times article on wealthy suburbanites opposing charter schools in their districts:

Millburn offers Mandarin only in high school, fueling the arguments of those seeking the new charters. “Kids are like sponges,” said Yanbin Ma, a Hanyu founder. “There are so many things they can absorb and become good at, and I feel that our public schools haven’t done enough to take advantage of that.”

But to Mr. Stewart, a leader in a growing opposition that includes Livingston mothers who have helped collect more than 800 petition signatures, this sounds “selfish.”

“Public education is basically a social contract — we all pool our money, so I don’t think I should be able to custom-design it to my needs,” he said, noting that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes. “With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’ ”

Could there be a philosophy of education any less compatible with a free society – or any society composed of unique individuals – than the one-size-must-fit-all, communal model championed by Mr. Stewart ? No way – yet that is exactly what we’ve got.

Standards Garbage In, Standards Garbage Out

Over at Jay Greene’s blog, Sandra Stotsky riffs off an Education Week report about educators around the country not seeing the difference between their old state standards and new, “Common Core” standards. Stotsky offers a theory for why this is: Common Core – as far as anyone can tell because the standards-drafting process was so opaque – was put together largely by the same people responsible for the bad old state standards. As a result, maybe they really aren’t all that different.

The general ignorance about the standards brings up an important point. As Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Institute has pointed out, yes, the $4.35-billion federal Race to the Top pushed a lot of states to adopt the Common Core standards, but that doesn’t explain states adopting the standards after RTTT had concluded. It’s a reasonable point. So what else is at play?

Likely one part of the explanation is that many state education officials really don’t know much about either the Common Core or their state’s standards, so they’ve seen no big problem with switching over. This general ignorance has likely been exacerbated by Common Core advocates’ strategy of keeping the whole national-standardizing process out of the public eye, whether it’s been secretive drafting of the standards, or supporters’ constant mantra of “don’t worry, it’s all voluntary” while petitioning for federal adoption “incentives.” And let’s face it: Just going with the flow and adopting national standards furnishes one less thing state officials have to take responsbility for. If the standards turn out to be a disaster – or simply gutted by special interests in Washington – all that state officials have to say is ”sorry, the whole nation was adopting them. Heck, the feds were practically forcing us to adopt them. It’s not our fault.” Add to all this that No Child Left Behind likely had much of the public thinking we already had national standards, and it’s little wonder that the Common Core was able to worm its way into so many states. 

Whether it’s been adoption in response to bribery, passing the buck, or just keeping everything under the radar, the national-standards drive has been a troubling affair.  But there is still hope: Washington hasn’t cemented national standards and testing by attaching them to the big federal dollars flowing through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka, No Child Left Behind. But efforts to revise the law are underway, and if the final version contains any connection between national standards and eligibility for federal taxpayer dough, then there will be no escape.