Tag: Neal McCluskey

New America’s New Entitlement

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has delivered a lot of money for ideas to make higher education more affordable. One of the many papers it funded came out of the New America Foundation last week, and the report contains lots of proposals for Gates to work with. Unfortunately, its backbone – making the Pell Grant an entitlement program – is a complete nonstarter. Not only does Washington need a new entitlement like the Super Bowl needed a sudden spike in hair dryer use, the Pell Grant is utterly unjust, taking from Peter and giving to Paul so that Paul can make a million extra bucks.

The first point should be self-evident. Entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security are already gigantic fiscal asteroids hurtling directly at us. Indeed, at their present rate of growth, by 2050 entitlements will likely eat up every single cent the federal government brings in, leaving not a dime for defense and other discretionary spending.

A Pell entitlement would certainly be small compared to, say, Medicare. If I’m reading NAF’s report right, the total Pell cost in 2022, after all their recommended reforms, would be about $53.3 billion. (NAF says its plan would cost $94.4 billion over the next ten years “compared to current policy.” For simplicity, dividing $94.4 by ten and adding the resulting $9.4 billion to the CBO-projected 2022 Pell cost of $43.9 billion yields $53.3 billion.) In contrast to that $53.3 billion, Medicare is expected to cost about $1 trillion in 2022. But while the cost would be relatively tiny, the root pathology would be the same: a program with funding put on autopilot.

And don’t think Pell won’t sneak up to include increasingly higher-income people. No one likes seeing others get free taxpayer money, and no politician will let the “middle-class” – whoever that is – get “squeezed.” Indeed, NAF tries to soften the blow for those who would lose tax deductions and credits under their plan (very good proposals, by the way) by noting that “some of the aid that these benefits provide to families with middle incomes will be replaced with the significant increases to the maximum Pell Grant that are proposed in this paper.”

All that said, the root objection to Pell applies, whether it is an entitlement or not: There is no just reason for taking money from Paul and giving it to Peter so that Peter can get much wealthier. But that is precisely what Pell is intended to do: Take money from taxpayers and give it to other people so that they can get degrees and earn “$1 million more over their lifetimes.” If any entity other than government were to do that, we’d call it “stealing.”

The Pell Grant program absolutely should not be an entitlement – we have way too many of those as it is. Even more important, though, Pell shouldn’t exist at all. It is, essentially, legalized theft.

Cross-posted at seethruedu.com

School Choice Is Nice, but It’s Freedom That’s Key

This is National School Choice Week, and that’s great. Having the ability to choose a school is certainly better than being assigned to a single, government institution. But just being able to choose a school must not be the ultimate goal. That must be total educational freedom, both because freedom is the most basic of human rights, and because freedom best provides education for the whole of society.

Unfortunately, when you’re stuck in day-to-day ed policy grappling – Which studies show what about test scores? How much did New York City spend on rubber rooms? – you can easily lose sight of the major, broad reasons that educational freedom is so crucial. In honor of National School Choice Week, here’s a quick refresher:

Freedom involves choice, but a little choice is hardly freedom

You can have choice without having freedom. You don’t have freedom if you can choose between Wendy’s and McDonald’s for a burger, but are forbidden from having any other food. Or if you can select between the local Methodist and Lutheran churches, but nothing else that might satisfy your beliefs or spiritual needs.

Freedom means being able to choose from any options that others are freely willing to provide and that don’t force harm on others. We’re not particularly close to that, for any meaningful number of people, in any school choice program.

No one is omniscient

People make bad choices all the time. But guess what? That includes the people who presume to know what is “best” for each and every child. It is the inescapable reality of humanity that no person or group is even close to omniscient, which is why the argument so often proffered against choice – we can’t let people make bad choices for their kids – is utterly backwards. Because human beings are so limited, it is far safer that power reside in voluntary agreements between educators and parents than with central authorities. When bad decisions are, inevitably, made in the former, only small numbers are hurt. When in the latter, everyone goes down.

Unintended consequences

There’s been a lot of coverage lately of Rice University student Zack Kopplin’s crusade against voucher programs, which allow people to choose schools that teach creationism. Were Kopplin’s argument fundamentally that taxpayers should not have their money taken against their will to schools with which they might disagree, it would be one thing: vouchers do transfer taxpayer money, though they provide far more overall freedom than does public schooling. But Kopplin’s argument – like the arguments of so many people on numerous education issues – isn’t ultimately about freedom. It’s about prohibiting others from learning something he doesn’t like.

Common Core Caught In Its Own Tangled Web

At this point, I probably don’t need to rehearse all the deceptions that have been central to the triumph of national curriculum standards. (If for some reason you need a refresher, check out this op-ed.) Unfortunately, what we are dealing with now are the slowly emerging costs of all that deception. We are indeed entering a tangled web.

The fastest growing hullabaloo is over how much fiction versus nonfiction English teachers – or is it schools? – must teach. Many English teachers  are just now learning about seeming Common Core dictates that no more than 30 to 50 percent of what they teach – depending on  the grade level – be fiction. You know, Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm. The specific reasons for their concern are two tables in the Common Core ELA document  (p. 5) that appear to lay out just such percentages.  And needless to say, despite the Common Core’s air of omniscience about what and how kids should learn, there is big disagreement about the relative value of fiction and nonfiction.

But hold on! Common Core crafters David Coleman – now head of the SAT-makin’ College Board – and Susan Pimentel insist that’s all off base. The standards are very clear, they say,  that the percentages apply to all reading in a school, not just English classes. As they wrote in the Huffington Post yesterday:

The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature – that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA. On page 5 of the Standards – where the distinction between literature and informational text is introduced – there is an explicit, unambiguous statement regarding the balance of texts relative to the disciplines covered by the Standards:

“… the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary non-fiction, [and] a great deal of informational reading in grades 6-12 must take place in other classes…”

I sure hope the Common Core doesn’t have lessons on ambiguity, because I don’t think the crafters grasp the concept. This explanation couldn’t be much more ambiguous, stating that English classes must focus on literature “as well as” nonfiction. Sure sounds like a 70-30 or 50-50 split could be mandated under that.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of obtuse mumbo-jumbo one should expect from a document – and overall effort – that tries to simultaneously be revolutionary and innocuous. And wouldn’t it have been wonderful if this sort of thing had been hashed out before states were cajoled into adopting the standards? But then there would have been public disagreements, and all the silliness of people holding different opinions is exactly what destroyed past efforts to impose uniform standards on the country.

The good news is that, absent further federal efforts – which are the huge, looming threat – there is no mechanism that can actually make states adhere to these confusing time allocations, or anything else in the Common Core. And, of course, states can move in a wholly better direction by instituting private school choice programs that don’t include centralized standards. Then individual children – you know, unique people – could seek out educational models tailored to their specific needs provided by educators with the freedom to use different and innovative standards and methods.

Even if that happens, though, the lesson is becoming clear: Practice to deceive, as Common Core supporters have, and you could get caught in a very sticky web.

 

U.S. Scores Up, but Why?

Today, bounteous new international academic achievement data were released, from the TIMSS and PIRLS battery of tests. The news for the United States wasn’t too bad, especially with the country ranking fairly high overall (but generally well below high-flying East Asian nations).

How have U.S. scores changed? On 4th grade mathematics average scores have risen precipitously, from 518 (out of 1000) in 1995 and 2003, to 541 in 2011. 8th grade scores were also up, but at a smaller clip, going from 492 in 1995 to 509 in 2011. Interestingly, scores rose ten points between 1995 and 1999, but only seven points between 1999 and 2011.

In science, 4th grade performance was pretty static: 544 in 2011, versus 542 in 1995, with a dip in the line in 2003 and 2007. 8th grade also saw some interesting kinks—the high score was 527 in 2003—but 2011’s score of 525 beat 1995’s 513.

Finally, only 4th graders are tested in PIRLS, the literacy test, and data only go back to 2001. Again there was a dip in the middle, but in 2011 the U.S. average was 556, versus 542 in 2001.

The really crucial question in all of this, of course, is why have the scores—both in the United States and other countries—moved as they have? Unfortunately these reports—at least the basic achievement parts and executive summaries—provide little insight into that. Yes, they tell us that schools with kids who do more math and reading with their parents get better scores, as do schools that are more orderly, but those could easily be functions of an underlying cause: say, families and communities that value education more. Indeed, as I found when looking at the empirical research on national curricular standards, one of the major possible reasons East Asian nations consistently outpace the rest of the world is a culture that values academic achievement, especially on material that is easily tested.

Unfortunately, some educationists are likely to seize on today’s news and declare that their pet policy variable—NCLB! Unionization! National standards! Spending! Even, to be fair, school choice!—explains high performance. But, just from the test scores, it is impossible to reach such conclusions. That requires much deeper analysis, such as the work Andrew Coulson has done in an effort to isolate the impact of  market-like factors on outcomes.

So for now, be happy: the United States has improved somewhat. But don’t make any policy declarations based on that.

Education Poll Exposes Moochin’ Americans

As we slide towards the “fiscal cliff,” President Obama’s stance seems pretty clear: Americans want lots of stuff but shouldn’t have to pay for it. (It’s a position the GOP has also often taken.) A new education survey suggests the President’s position is politically smart.

According to the poll, commissioned by the pro-spending Committee for Education Funding, 55 percent of respondents thought “education programs” should be spared automatic budget cuts, third behind Medicare (69 percent) and “tax credits for low-income families” (58 percent). That’s not surprising, since most people are rationally ignorant – how many have the time or inclination to delve into the minutiae of health, education, and tax policy?  – and assume that spending on good-sounding things must be, well, good. That rampant rent-seeking and bureaucratic inefficiency squanders the dough probably isn’t something of which many are aware.

From a moral standpoint this isn’t hugely troubling, though one would hope that people would care much more about effects than intentions. What is quite troubling is that while many Americans think education is crucial and should be spared cuts, it seems they aren’t willing to pay for it themselves. 55 percent of respondents thought education should be protected from sequestration, but only 45 percent said they would “definitely” or “probably” be willing to pay more taxes to do it. And odds are respondents were much more willing to say they would accept higher taxes than they would be to support concrete efforts to actually get them.

So who, if anyone, should pay? While the survey isn’t crystal clear on that – indeed, there is much wiggle room throughout the findings – at least one indication is “the rich.” When given the (false) choice of either cuts to federal programs or tax increases for “those with incomes over $250,00 per year,” 58 percent chose the latter.

It’s hard to fault people for not knowing the depressing outcomes of federal programs that purportedly promote good things.  It is not so difficult to fault them for saying that other people should pay for the initiatives they think are so dandy.

It seems there’s a fair amount of moochin’ goin’ on.

Teachers — and Unions — Like Profits, Too

By now you’ve probably seen the economically ignorant, Ed Asner-narrated polemic from the California Federation of Teachers that “explains” how the rich hurt everyone because they are just so darn greedy. At one point in the original version the already loathsome Richy Rich actually goes so far as to relieve himself on the middle- and lower-class people above whom he rises  on his pile of cash. Don’t look for that “trickle down” visual now, though. It seems the CFT has edited it out after getting, shall we say, less than positive reviews for it. The rest of the tedious allegory, however, isn’t much more subtle.

It’s the reality-denying hypocrisy of it all, though, that is so grating. You see, teachers and unions want to profit just as much as reviled “Wall Street fat cats.”

“What?!” I can hear the teachers reading this scream. “I don’t do this for the money! How dare you, sir!”

Mr. and Mrs. Teacher, please bear with me for a moment.  I mean you no harm.

First, undertsand what profit is. Basically, it is making more from providing something than it costs to produce it. So if you are a teacher and use your earnings to buy food, housing, cable television, garden gnomes, airplane tickets, plastic surgery – anything – you are making a profit. And on an hourly basis likely a good profit, outpacing accountants and auditors, insurance underwriters, registered nurses, and other professionals. And that is without considering quite generous benefit packages public school employees often get.

Those concrete things, though, are not the compensation limits. There’s also substantial job security that comes with tenure, and in conjunction with teaching not being especially hard to break into, relatively little personal risk. Contrast that to entrepreneurs – you know, people who sometimes become fat cats – who often risk much of what they have to try new things that often end in failure. Such risk is a huge cost teachers simply don’t deal with.

In addition, while working with children is often very challenging, it can also be very rewarding. Who doesn’t get a kick out of the antics, questions, and comments of little kids? (I mean, they say the darndest things, right?) Or enjoy seeing their smiling faces. And when they get older, it can be very gratifying to guide them or inspire them as they contemplate what they want to do with their lives. In contrast, running a business  involves often stultifying detail work such as running payroll, securing office space, keeping “the books,” dealing with detailed government regulations, etc.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is nothing wrong with making a profit! Indeed, being profitable is generally the key to knowing that what you are doing is in demand – that you are providing something that makes other people better off – and, because you are earning more than the cost of production, you are doing something sustainable. So teachers, don’t disdain profits – embrace them!

Perhaps, though, be concerned about how you are getting them.

While there is far too much crony capitalism at work – businesses enriching themselves through government and politics – in general, companies can only make profits by earning the voluntary business of customers. In other words, they have to provide something people want, at a cost they are willing to pay. Payers have to feel they are better off.

Not so for public school teachers. Rather than getting paid by voluntary customers, they are ultimately paid with money extracted through government. Whether taxpayers like it or not, they are forced to pay for public schools. Which is, of course, why teachers’ unions are so deeply involved in politics.  They want to take people’s money no matter what.

The real irony is that many teachers could probably get paid more – in Korea some get MUCH more – were free enterprise rather than socialism allowed to reign. But we have a government monopoly, which is ripe for union control. One system, without any real competition, is best suited to have one employee rep. Allow people to freely choose among autonomous schools, however, and schools would have big incentives to pay the best teachers well because providing a great service – not throwing around political weight – would be the key to success.

Teachers, ultimately, are human beings, and on the whole almost certainly enjoy profit as much as anyone else. That’s not a problem. The problem is how they – and much worse, their unions – make it.

Sports ‘Donations’ a Flagrant College Foul

I love me some Georgetown University basketball, and am happy to pay for the privilege of possessing season tickets. (Well, that is when the Hoyas win pretty regularly and don’t deliver too many abominations like this one.) I’m also more than willing to make the hoops club “donation” that’s required to secure my seats. But it’s high time to end the ludicrous college sports scam—especially in light of our fast-approaching rendezvous with the “fiscal cliff”—that is the tax deduction for ticket-securing “charitable” donations.

My forced giving, to be honest, is pretty small: $100 per seat for some decent, lower bowl (though not center court) seats. But it’s not like I’m spending the dough to support, say, a new science center, or endow a professorship. No, it’s going to support big-time, constantly televised, money-making sports entertainment. And, of course, it is the fun of being an in-person fan—not my selfless desire to, say, engineer mitochondria to better serve humanity—that is animating my “charity.” Nonetheless, 80 percent of my donation is tax deductible.

At many big-time sports schools, and for better seats than mine, such forced philanthropy can be much pricier. At some institutions, such as the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina, it is impossible to nail down just how much people have to donate per seat beyond sticker prices because one accumulates donation points over time. Just to make it onto the UT benefits chart, however, you have to donate at least $150, and the top-line is $25,000. Texas A&M lets you know that for “priority” football tickets you’ll have to give between $45 and $3,900 per seat. And for most of the lower-bowl seats at the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, basketball season tickets require donations of between $850 and $5,000. But don’t worry—part of the price can be handled by corporate matching funds!

If people want to donate generously to college sports programs—including cash-cow football and basketball—that’s fine. And I don’t want government getting any more money than it already has … and flushes down noble-sounding toilets. But giving favored tax status to forced donations for season tickets, as if one were donating to famine relief or cancer research? Even without the nation facing a $16 trillion—and growing—debt, that’s ridiculous.

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com