Tag: Neal McCluskey

College Scholars, Mindless Borrowers?

A few days ago Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the House higher education subcommittee, had the audacity to say in a radio interview that she didn’t have a lot of sympathy for students who racked up $80,000 to $200,000 in college debt. Opportunists have leapt at the chance to attack her, branding her as either mean, or out of touch because what led to her discussion of college debt was retelling how she grew up poor and paid her way through school.

Now let’s be clear: Foxx wasn’t deriding bachelor’s grads holding average debt – about $25,000 for the two-thirds of students with debt – but people with big multiples of that. You know, the ones seemingly featured in every news story or congressional hearing dealing with higher education. And it is, often, very hard to sympathize with such people if you are able to track down crucial information about them such as what they’ve studied, where they’ve chosen to go to school, and what they spend their money on. This CBS News piece is a classic of the Woe-is-Huge-Student-Debtor genre, which Radley Balko and I took apart at the time of its airing.

There’s no question that the price of higher education has been rising at breathtaking rates, and profit-maximizing schools – and politicians who fuel the maximization – bear a good chunk of the blame. But is it really beyond the pale to suggest that maybe some students, who seem to accumulate debt without a care in the world until payment comes due, bear some responsibility for their predicament? Indeed, aren’t these supposed to be pretty smart people – you know, “college material” – who should at a minimum be capable of estimating costs, loan burdens, and potential earnings? Of course, but try bringing that up in the higher education cost debate. You’ll instantly become the Dean Wormer of the group, reviled for killing all the fun of poverty-crying students.

And here’s the thing: Giving the impression that students face an even greater burden than they do – which is exactly the effect of repeatedly focusing on fringe debtors – only encourages Washington politicians to pour even more money into student aid, letting schools raise prices even faster.

The vitriolic response to Rep. Foxx is exactly why so little progress is made in politics generally, and higher ed specifically. There are just some things you can’t talk about, no matter how important than may be, and if you dare bring them up you can expect anything but an honest discussion. You can  expect only cheap shots and smears.

My Advice? Don’t Blame State Taxpayers

I don’t have any great advice to offer those going through the college acceptance wringer, other than to make sure that going to college—and doing college-level work—is really what you want to do. If it’s not, don’t waste your time and money; like so many who’ve gone before you, you’ll likely end up with no degree, a degree you don’t want to use, and quite possibly lots of debt.

That gets me to my main point: Blaming high tuition prices on state legislatures, as University of South Florida education professor Sherman Dorn—but hardly just Mr. Dorn—does is simply wrong. State and local appropriations to public colleges and universities have risen substantially over the last 25 years.

According to the latest data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, inflation-adjusted state and local outlays to colleges for general operations rose from $57.7 billion in 1986 to $74.2 billion in 2011, a 29 percent increase. That’s “increase,” not “decrease.”

The one way you could characterize state and local funding as decreasing is on a per-pupil basis, but that doesn’t reflect the heartless budget cutting Mr. Dorn implicates. It reflects huge enrollment increases—enrollment that often ends with no degree or appreciable learning. And even on a per-pupil basis it would be wrong to write as if we’ve seen decades of constant cuts: Spending tends to go up and down with the business cycle, and 2001 saw record high state and local spending per pupil for the 25-year period.

I hope students waiting to hear from colleges have to sweat things out as little as possible. I also hope people will stop wrongly turning up the heat on state and local taxpayers. When you look at the data, high prices clearly aren’t their fault

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

Pretty Sure It’s Already Divisive

When you’ve been fighting over the same thing for well-nigh 90 years, there’s a good chance some new policy won’t suddenly make it divisive. Nonetheless, that’s what an L.A. Times article, citing critics, suggests about a new law in Tennessee allowing in-class discussions critical of evolutionary theory and other scientific topics:

The measure will allow classroom debates over evolution, permitting discussions of creationism alongside evolutionary teachings about the origins of life. Critics say the law, disparagingly called “The Monkey Bill,” will plunge Tennessee back to the divisive days of the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial’’ in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925.

You don’t have to be Charles Darwin—or God—to figure this one out: the law was passed because the topic is already divisive. Government-schooling defenders might not want to acknowledge that, and they have been able to keep it slightly hidden by having discussion of creationism de jure  forbidden in public schools, but hard evidence reveals that Americans are mightily torn.

Time after time, surveys expose the deep split. Most recently, a 2010 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe that “God created humans in present form”; 38 percent accept that ”humans evolved, with God guiding”; and 16 percent believe that “humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.” Those numbers have stayed pretty consistent since 1982, the first year for which Gallup has data.

Clearly, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Americans are already very divided on evolution, and have been for quite some time.

How has what peace we’ve had been kept? Generally, by avoiding evolution in the schools. As Berkman and Plutzer have found, about 60 percent of high school biology teachers either completely avoid or soft-pedal evolution so as not to stir up controversy.

Public schools haven’t been happily chugging along, teaching rigorous evolutionary theory and eschewing any alternative explanations for human origins. A large number have been either teaching evolutionary pap, or nothing.

One of the major arguments government schooling defenders employ against school choice is that choice would lead to a balkanized, divided America. To make that argument, they have to ignore the history of American education—it was largely government-free for about two centuries, and public schools were long grounded in homogeneous communities—and assume that if you force diverse people together they will give up their conflicting values and ultimately engage in a gigantic, society-wide group hug.

Our endless battling over evolution—not to mention incessant fighting over countless other matters—reveals that that just doesn’t happen. You cannot force conscience uniformity, and you can’t have peace or rigor without educational freedom. Tennessee is just helping to make that clear.

Bush or Obama: Can We Tell Who Shuffles the Edu-Chairs Better?

I’m a Paul Peterson fan, and I sure don’t think President Obama’s education grade should be very high, but I’m afraid Peterson is offering some pretty weak stuff in this op-ed hoisting President George W. Bush above the current POTUS in education policy.

The main problem is that Peterson is using broad National Assessment of Educational Progress data as his main evidence of Bush’s success and Obama’s failure. But not only are these data far too blunt to tell us much about a single administration’s policies—myriad forces are at work in education beyond federal rules and regulations—it’s a serious stretch to suggest that we should expect to see big testing gains from any policy within a year or two of its enactment. Peterson even hints as much late in his treatment of Obama, noting that “NAEP data are available for just the first two years of his administration, [but] the early returns are not pretty.”

“Early returns” is right, considering that President Obama only took office in 2009, the first winners of Race to the Top—Obama’s main “reform” driver—weren’t declared until late August 2010, and the NAEP exams were administered between January and March of 2011.

More troubling, though, is the praise Peterson heaps on President Bush and No Child Left Behind. I’ve broken down NAEP scores six ways from Sunday and won’t rehash it all again, but based on improvement rates the NCLB era hasn’t been all that special. More important for this discussion, again considering policy implementation lags, it is a big leap to look at NAEP scores and crown Bush the edu-winner.

Let’s break down Peterson’s biggest advantage-Bush claim: “Overall, the annual growth rate in fourth- and eighth-grade math was twice as rapid under the Bush administration as under his successor’s.” (Actually, his biggest claim is that Bush’s fourth-grade reading performance is “infinitely” better than Obama’s, but that’s because there’s been no gain under Obama, not because under Bush scores were numerically much better.)

By far the biggest increase in 4th grade math scores that included Bush presidency years occurred between 2000 and 2003, when the average score rose three points per year. Pretty impressive, but Bush didn’t become President until 2001, and NCLB wasn’t enacted until January 2002. With NAEP administered between January and March 2003, NCLB was only law for about a year in that time span, and it took much of that year for people just to figure out what NCLB was all about. In other words, it is unlikely—though, granted, not impossible—that the improvement in that period was due primarily to NCLB.  Pull that span out of the Bush years, though, and growth was just 0.83 points (out of 500) per year. Years 2009 to 2011 saw a 0.50 point uptick—so neither president saw growth that was too impressive.

For eighth grade math, again excluding 2000-2003, the Bush years registered another 0.83 point growth rate, and 2009-2011 was again at 0.50.

The Bush years are a bit better than Obama’s just looking at NAEP—which alone tells us little—but neither president’s tenure is all that great, especially considering, as noted, several pre-NCLB periods saw faster growth. And then there’s the big picture: When you get to 17-year-olds—our schools’ “final products”—NAEP scores have been utterly stagnant for decades despite per-pupil expenditures roughly tripling and Washington getting ever-more involved.

Even if you could tell who nudged an Adirondack chair a millimeter farther from the abyss, arguing about which president is the better chair-shuffler is really missing the sinking ship.

Introducing the ‘Obama Rule’

In his latest weekly radio address, President Obama featured what will no doubt be a mainstay of his reelection campaign: the “Buffett Rule,” which says that rich people should pay at least the same tax rate as middle-class folks. It’s named after mega-investor Warren Buffett, who famously declared that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. President Obama and his supporters have run with that, and are employing it to convince the public that such is the norm for the despised “rich.”

Of course that’s not the norm: Buffett is the rare taxpayer who makes almost all his income through investments, and top earners have much higher tax rates than people earning $200,000 and below. So this is clearly not about fairness – it’s about politics.

Two, though, can play at this game. If the President can engage in class warfare he’s also a fair target of it. So why not implement something called the “Obama Rule,” which demands that lower-income people get at least the same educational options as the President? That only seems fair, right, like the Buffett Rule? Indeed, the President himself noted in his weekly address that “ we…have to pay for investments that will help our economy grow and keep our country safe [such as] education.” So why, then, does the President’s 2013 budget zero-out funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program while his daughters go to Sidwell Friends? Shouldn’t other kids in Washington have access to the same excellent private schools as the President’s daughters?

Class envy is hardly the right reason to demand school choice – the right reasons are freedom, competition, innovation, and specialization – but of course all kids should have the same options as President Obama’s daughters! As the President concluded in his weekly address (though, obviously, he wasn’t talking about school choice): “That’s how we’ll make this country a little fairer, a little more just, and a whole lot stronger.” So let’s invoke the Obama Rule, and give lower-income families the same educational choices as the President! It’s simply the fair thing to do.

The Other Federal Takeover

Right now the nation is fixated on the Supreme Court and health care, as well it should be. If the Court rules the wrong way and the individual mandate is upheld, seemingly the last limit to federal power—Washington can’t make you buy stuff—will be gone. So yes, please, let’s focus on ObamaCare.

When the arguments end and the health fight abates for a while, however, let’s pay some much needed attention to another federal takeover, one that is constantly being overshadowed by bigger things like wars, ObamaCare, and budget blowouts: looming federal domination of education.

There’s actually an immediate ObamaCare connection to education, though few will likely recall it. To make the CBO cost estimates come out right, Democrats attached the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) to the already immense legislation. SAFRA eliminated guaranteed college loans—loans originated through private lenders but completely backed by taxpayer money—and made almost all lending direct from the Treasury. It wasn’t a sudden takeover as many Republicans framed it—the guaranteed program already represented massive federal control—but it did push the private sector even farther to the student-lending fringes.

Much more insidious is what Washington has been doing in K-12 schooling.

The real sea change was No Child Left Behind, when the Feds went from primarily doling out money, to dictating that every state have standards and tests in math, reading, and science, and schools and districts make yearly “proficiency” progress. It was a huge ramping-up of already unconstitutional federal involvement.

At least NCLB, though, was enacted through the proper legislative process: Congress debated the law, voted on it, and the president signed it. These days, that’s just too much of a bother.

The Obama administration started unilaterally making education policy with the “Race to the Top,” a contest in which states competed for $4 billion in “stimulus” money. Among the administration-specified things states essentially had to adopt to win? National curriculum standards, better known as the “Common Core,” which we are told repeatedly are voluntary for states to adopt.

But wait. Didn’t I used to write that Race to the Top was $4.35 billion? What happened to the other $350 million?

It wasn’t part of the purse states competed for. Instead, the administration is using it to pay for the development of national (read: “federal”) tests to go with the Common Core.

In case all that weren’t enough, the Obama Administration has decided it’s tired of waiting for Congress to rework NCLB and is issuing waivers to states that promise to implement administration-approved reforms. Included in those is adopting “college- and career-ready” standards, a euphemism for the Common Core. In other words, the federal government is on the precipice of dictating the basic curriculum for every public school in America, and doing so without even the semblance of following the constitutional, legislative process. It’s not just a federal takeover, but an executive branch takeover.

Why hasn’t this gotten the sort of attention that’s been showered on health care?

Unfortunately, a large part of the problem is that people are simply accustomed to a government education monopoly. Historically such a monopoly hasn’t been the norm, but in our lifetimes it has, and government schooling advocates would have us believe that it is the cornerstone of our society. Not so with health care: lots of people want others to pay for their care, but the default has never been government assigning you a doctor and hospital based exclusively on your home address.

The other part of the problem is people simply don’t know about the federal edu-coup. This is especially the case with national standards, which advocates have purposely soft pedaled to avoid the fate of open and honest—but disastrous—federal standards efforts in the 1990s. And when the topic has come up in public discussion, classic propaganda techniques have been employed: repeat enough that the effort is completely “state-led and voluntary,” and people will believe you.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to reverse this. There’s no historic Supreme Court showdown on the horizon, but some states have started to resist federal control, and groups like the Pioneer Institute and Pacific Research Institute have undertaken concerted efforts to expose the Common Core. The biggest problem is that the public is largely oblivious to what’s going on. Which is why, after the ObamaCare Supreme Court arguments are over, we need to turn our attention to the other, almost complete, federal takeover: education.

Power Yes, Trigger No

There is little question that parents have too little power in elementary and secondary education. In fact, they have almost no power: they can vote, but are otherwise usually relegated to being class moms, or holding bake sales, or some other fluffy “involvement” that gives them no real say over how their children are educated. Adding insult to injury, that doesn’t often stop professional educators from blaming parents when students don’t do so well.

To remedy the problem, the trendy thing seems to be “parent trigger” laws that would, generally speaking, allow a majority of parents at a school declare that they want to fire the staff, or bring in a private management company, or some other transformation. It’s been the spark behind some especially heated conflicts in California, as unions and parents of different stripes have been doing battle with each other. It is also the subject of a New York TimesRoom for Debate” exchange today.

While I sympathize—obviously—with those who advocate giving parents more power, I cannot help but conclude that the parent trigger is a very poor way to do this. For one thing, it is inherently divisive: what about the 49 percent, or 30 percent, or whatever percent of parents who don’t want the changes the majority demands? They’ve got no choice but to fight it out with their neighbors. It is also inefficient: individual children need all sorts of options to best meet their unique needs and abilities, but the trigger would just exchange one monolithic school model for another.

The trigger, quite simply, is no substitute for real educational freedom: giving parents control of education funds, giving educators freedom to establish myriad options, and letting freedom, competition and specialization rein.

There is, however, one gratifying thing about the parent trigger: it has made historian Diane Ravitch—who constantly decries the destruction of “democracy” were we to have educational freedom—express outrage about ”51 percent of people using a public service hav[ing] the power to privatize it.”

Um, isn’t majority rule what democracy is all about? Or do government schooling defenders really just invoke the term because it sounds so nice and is such a potent rhetorical club?

The answer, it seems, is getting more clear.