Tag: Neal McCluskey

Democracy - Whatever That Is - and Education

Democracy is inherently good, and since public schools are democratically controlled they, too, are inherently good. Right?

You’d think so from the way many people invoke “democracy” when championing government schools, but thanks to a recent blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, we might have a rare opportunity to actually scrutinize that assumption. A few days ago, Petrilli questioned the value of local school boards in light of what seems to be frequent capture by teachers unions, and was immediately accused of attacking “democracy” by historian Diane Ravitch.

“Gosh, Mike,” Ravitch wrote in the comments section, “it sounds as though you have identified the real problem ‘reformers’ face: democracy.”

With that the battle was on, and it’s one I’m happy to join: A huge problem we face in education is, indeed, democracy.

Before I go further, the first thing that’s necessary to do is define “democracy.” Unfortunately, that’s something rarely done by those who wield the term like a rhetorical chainsaw, swinging it wildly at anyone who might question government schooling.  Typically, it seems the word is employed to just vaguely connote some sort of action by “the people” – whoever they are – as opposed to “elites,” or to indicate that popular voting is in some fashion used to make laws.

That said, the most basic definition of democracy – the one you probably learned in grade school –  follows these lines: “Control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.” You might also assume the word means representative democracy, where people vote for their representatives and majorities of reps make the laws, but usually the word’s use isn’t even that precise.

This lack of precision leads to numerous problems, and a big one was illustrated in an exchange between Bob Bowdon – of Cartel and ChoiceMedia.tv fame – and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker. Bowdon had a Flypaper post pointing out numerous cases in which ”the people” enacted education policies disliked by teachers unions, and the unions, instead of accepting the “democratic” outcomes, headed to the courts to thwart the new laws. Baker would have none of this argument, in the comments section of Petrilli’s post calling Bowdon’s entry an “absurd and misinformed rant.” Why? Largely because Bowdon failed to acknowledge that courts in Georgia – where one of the legal actions cited by Bowdon occurred – were taking perfectly legitimate action in striking down a charter school law that violated the state’s constitution.

Of course, Baker isn’t talking about democracy, at least in any precise way (or the feel-good, “people rule” sense I think Ravitch meant to convey) but a constitutional republic with separation of powers. That’s a very different thing, with a very different goal, from simple majority rule. As The Federalist discusses with great insight, a constitutional republic with checks and balances is a system intended to minimize the threat government poses to individuals, while enabling it to do those things that government must do.  That does not at all seem to be the “democracy” Ravitch and company were lauding, and you can’t reasonably blame Bowdon for turning that against them. Live by the loaded, imprecise definition, die by the loaded, imprecise definition. Unfortunately, that makes it much harder to have a useful debate about education governance.

But why don’t we want pure democracy?

Aside from the towering logistical problems, uninhibited majority rule is an existential threat to individual liberty, the true foundation of American society. Should my ability to drum up support from 50.1 percent of voters be all that’s needed to have your house taken from you, your speech quashed, and your family imprisoned? Of course not, but pure democracy would not only allow that, it would give it complete legal sanction.

So a constitutional republic, with its checks, balances, and enumerated powers, is infinitely preferable to pure democracy. However, it is a much harder concept to employ when you just want people to feel good about public schools, or angry about efforts to change them. “For crying out loud, they are democratic schools – schools controlled by the people – you evil 1-percenter!” (Cue foreboding tyranny-of-the-majority music.) And just because a form of governance is better than democracy doesn’t mean it works well.

Why does this superior form of government still largely fail? To really get into this question I recommend Cato’s Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice, available free online! I’ll just briefly hit the main, inherent pathology of government that constantly leads to skewed results.

Ultimately, it comes down to concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: The people who get the greatest benefit from a policy will be the most motivated to participate in the politics of that policy, while the costs are usually highly diffuse, giving the people paying for it relatively little incentive to politick. In education, the greatest benefit is accrued by the school employees – the people whose very livelihoods come from the system – hence they exert hugely disproportionate power. They are also much easier to organize than parents or taxpayers.  

In light of this basic inequality of incentives, it is no surprise that teachers unions (and other education employee organizations) wield disproportionate influence. Teachers and administrators aren’t bad people, it’s simply that normal incentives give them much more reason to constantly engage in education politics than the average voter, taxpayer, or even parent, for whom there are many other major concerns than trying to influence the district, state, of federal government on education policy. 

To deal with the effects of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in school districts, Petrilli suggests a couple of possible options: a move toward greater mayoral control of the schools, as exists in New York City, or having states control education. But these are fraught with at least as much peril as local control.

At the risk of violating an Italian corollary of Godwin’s Law, the mayoral control argument seems to come down to this: Mussolini made the trains run on time. Essentially, if you can put someone with dictatorial power in charge he won’t have to worry about special interests and can do what needs to be done. Plus, in the case of mayoral control there wouldn’t be real dictatorship – Il Duce could be voted out in four years.

Obviously, though, there’s a reason the term “dictator” doesn’t enjoy the same esteem as, say, ”chocolate,” or “Betty White” – people generally don’t like the way dictators turn out. Maybe you’ll get one who’s benevolent and wise – in which case you’ll just be troubled by your ultimately nonexistent freedom – but more likely you’ll get one who’s stupid, or cruel, or a combination of the two. And what do you do when the dictator imposes a bad reading curriculum on your kids, or closes a school that might have served them well? Just suffer.

But there’s the election – you can hold a mayor responsible then! Of course, that puts us right back in the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs problem, where the special interests are likely to be much more active in politicking than the average voter. And the problem isn’t just that: When the public votes for mayor, the vote is based not only on education policies, but also law enforcement, sanitation, sodium speakeasy crackdowns, and myriad other things. In other words, it is almost impossible to send an unambiguous message that the public is angry about education when so many issues affect who votes and why.

All these problems remain with state or federal control. There’s a reason the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, etc., have big headquarters in the Washington, DC, area, and their state affiliates run hefty operations in state capitals: they are wielding political power! And, like mayoral elections, voting in state or federal elections isn’t just about education, but taxation levels, wars, roads, bridges to nowhere, extramarital affairs, “do nothing” congresses, birth certificates, and so on.

At this point you might feel that democracy really is bad, and generally doomed to failure. And you’d be right, which is why government should be restricted to doing only those things that private individuals cannot do, and one of those things is not furnishing education. We know that private individuals can and do supply widespread education from our own history, in which education and literacy had very broad reach before government schools existed, and in which private schools often thrived – including a huge system of parochial schools – despite having to compete with “free” alternatives. Perhaps even more compelling, we can see it in the massive for-profit schooling industries that out-teach government schools in the poorest places in the world.

So what is the viable solution to our education governance problems? To end government control of education, setting both educators and parents free. Move to a system of universal school choice, in which funding is controlled by parents, educators have the autonomy to run their own schools, and all involved have equal power because free, voluntary exchange – not wielding political influence – is how business is done. Don’t make parents and taxpayers engage in endless, plodding, political warfare in which they’ll always be outgunned. Let them exercise immediate power by taking their kids – and the money to educate them – out of schools that do not satisfactorily serve them and put them into schools that do.

Thanks again to Mike Petrilli for daring to question “democracy,” and I hope it spurs a truly thoughtful, honest discussion about this absolutely crucial topic.

No Compelling Evidence ‘No Child’ Worked

Over the last few days the Wall Street Journal has run two articles suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act has been somewhat successful. But that’s not supported by the federal government’s own measure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The WSJ’s first article appeared on Saturday, and while focusing on the stagnation of high-achieving students, it asserts that NAEP exams show “dramatic progress—sometimes double-digit increases—for the lowest achievers over the last two decades, especially after No Child Left Behind.”

Last month I debunked the idea that historically struggling groups have seen dramatic improvements under NCLB, laying out the data from numerous NAEP tests. Quite simply, looking at score gains per year, there were many periods before NCLB that saw faster improvements. Below are two more tables from the latest NAEP scores, released a couple of weeks ago. These are for the so-called “main” NAEP, which is not nearly as valuable as the long-term trends exam for seeing historical patterns, but the WSJ cites it and it does contain new information. The results are for the bottom 10 percent of performers.

As always, at what year one could start crediting results to NCLB is debatable. (Actually, you can never simply look at NAEP scores and attribute them to one factor because so many variables influence outcomes.) That date cannot be earlier than 2002, the year the law was enacted, and probably should be 2003, by which time most of the regulations were written and the law began to take real effect. To deal with this problem, the tables include only years that fully include NCLB or do not include it at all. Also note that there are two pre-NCLB time bands for reading because there are no 2000 8th grade reading scores.

Mathematics, 10th Percentile


Reading, 10th Percentile


Once again, there is is no pattern of faster improvement under NCLB than before it. Highlighting periods with greater growth than under NCLB, you can see that in 4th grade math improvements were faster before NCLB than after. In 8th grade math, it’s essentially a dead heat. In 4th grade reading, there’s sizable improvement under NCLB, and in 8th grade reading there’s an appreciable advantage before NCLB.

The second WSJ piece that gives NCLB undue credit is an op-ed from Kevin Chavous. Chavous, a tremendous advocate for school choice, implies that NCLB supplies “accountability” needed to make American kids competitive with their international peers. But as we’ve seen, there’s precious little evidence that NCLB has done anything to improve educational outcomes. Meanwhile, it has cost us a mint, with Department of Education k-12 spending rising from $27.3 billion in 2001 to $37.9 billion in 2011.

Unfortunately, Chavous’s piece seems more aspirational than reality-based, as is often the case in education policy. “We must try to make schools and teachers accountable,” he seems to be saying. “Heaven knows the states won’t do it!”

The need to deal in reality is why Mr. Chavous’ main concern—getting school choice—is so crucial. Government schooling will never be fundamentally changed because those who would be held accountable—teachers, administrators, bureaucrats—have by far the most motivation to be involved in education politics, the greatest ability to organize, and hence the biggest store of political power. Their livelihoods, after all, are at stake. And what do they want? What we’d all probably like: as much pay as possible with as little accountability.

The only way to end employee domination of education is to fundamentally change the system: instead of having politics control schooling, let parents control education money so they can take their children out of schools they don’t like and put them into those they do. Don’t force them to undertake the endless, hopeless warfare of having to form coalitions, try to get politicians’ ears, spur politicians to move and, if they can ever get decent changes, then force them to constantly fight to keep the reforms against opponents with full-time lobbyists and political machines. No, let them vote with their feet, right away, and get their children the education they need.

NCLB is, by most indications, an abject failure, and the very nature of government schooling doomed it to be so.

As You’ll See, Student Loans Hurt Us All

Suddenly, student loans are nearing the top of the nation’s public policy debate. Indeed, President Obama is expected to make a big speech about them on Wednesday. Why the sudden ascendance? Probably because the burden of student loans is one of the few things OWSers are clearly angry about, and that has raised questions ranging from whether such loans should be dischargable in bankruptcy, to whether they help fuel the Saturn V rocket of college price inflation. And last Sunday GOP presidential contender Ron Paul jumped into the fray, suggesting we eliminate the federal student loan program entirely.

Paul is right about phasing out federal student loans. Unfortunately, that’s likely the last thing President Obama will propose.

The first reaction to hearing such a proposal is that it’s Grinch-level heartlessness, stealing a better future from low-income kids. That is almost certainly what the president would say, and such a reaction would likely poll well. That’s why he’s expected to propose lowering interest rates, easing repayment, and other borrower-friendly measures. But as I lay out in a Cato Policy Analysis to be released imminently, by most indications federal student aid and other taxpayer-fueled subsidies aren’t good for anyone. (Well, anyone not employed by a college or university, the ultimate receiving end of all the forced largesse). By artificially—and hugely—boosting consumption, they ultimately lead to massive tuition inflation, encourage millions of unprepared people to take on studies they never finish, and pour H2O into already watered-down degrees. In other words, student aid—including federal lending—is likely a net loss to both students and society.

But I’ve already said too much. If you want to get a lot more on this—and more on the many unintended evils of federal college policies—stand by for the release of my study. And if you’re in DC, come to Capitol Hill Thursday for a briefing on the subject with me and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC). It should give OWSers, libertarians, conservatives, liberals, and anyone else lots to think about.

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.