Tag: president

Pre-K Poll Vaulting

Just as President Obama has vowed to regain the initiative and push forward with his economic and education policy agenda, an organization called The First Five Years Fund has released a new poll asking the public about Pre-K policy. According to the poll, Americans know what they want (More federally funded Pre-K!), and know when they want it (NOW!).

Encouraging as this must be for supporters of a larger federal role in early education, opinion polling is not a good way to design policy—any more than it is a good way to design bridges. There is an aspect of bridge construction in which public opinion does properly figure: assessing demand. But when it comes to actually designing the structure that will carry living, breathing people across a gorge, public opinion plays little role. The reason is obvious: most people lack the time, skills, and knowledge to design bridges. They know what they ultimately want out of civil engineering projects, but they don’t know how best to achieve their goals.

It’s the same with education policy, and indeed with policy generally. Contrary to the apparent assumption of these early education advocates, it is not inherently obvious that increased federal Pre-K spending will ensure that children get a strong start in life. As it happens, there is a great deal of evidence that past and current federal Pre-K programs have proven expensive failures and have even, in some cases, done harm. Nor is the advocates’ currently favored policy–federally subsidized state Pre-K programs–an obviously good idea. Some states with universal Pre-K programs have actually seen their 4th grade test scores decline relative to the national average. There is no clear pattern of success.

Because of that fact, this is precisely not the sort of policy that should be expensively promoted at the federal level. If states wish to gamble that they can succeed where others have failed, then their residents should be the ones who put their money on the line. That approach has the merit that state politicians can be more easily held accountable than federal ones—voters have fewer issues on which to decide whom to support or oppose at the state level.

Well-meaning as the First Five Years Fund and its philanthropic backers no doubt are, their effort to design policy based on public opinion polling is badly misguided. It is little better than a schoolyard taunt that “everyone else wants to do it.” Serious people, people who actually want to achieve their stated goals and not simply win a political contest, can do better.

President’s Budget Lacks Seriousness, Vision

The measure of our seriousness in helping children learn is not simply the number of dollars we spend, but rather the care and thought we invest in allocating them, and our openness to changing course when the evidence demands it. The education provisions of the President’s budget, released today, lack both seriousness and vision.

The FY 2014 budget overview emphasizes three educational initiatives: preschool for all, STEM and innovation, and school infrastructure.

As foreshadowed in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposes to federally subsidize statewide preschool programs. This approach seems designed to deal with the mounting evidence that the federal government’s own preschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, have essentially no lasting benefits. Though candidate Obama once said he would terminate ineffective programs, his latest budget retains them both, and actually grows Early Head Start. Additionally, the new budget would subsidize PreK programs like those in Oklahoma and Georgia that advocates have long touted as “high quality.” The evidence on those programs is, however, rather mixed. Relative to the national average, Oklahoma has seen modest declines on the 4th grade NAEP tests while Georgia has seen modest gains—and the declines are larger than the gains. A broader review of the evidence by early education expert Russ Whitehurst of Brookings finds the same lackluster results overall. 

Not only are these statewide programs failing to show a pattern of lasting and substantial benefits thus far, the addition of federal subsidies will likely impede efforts to improve them. Federal education dollars at the pre-college level always come with strings attached—strings that accumulate over time. That is likely to exert a homogenizing pressure on state pre-K offerings, eliminating variation and thereby preventing us from learning which approaches are effective and which are not.

On STEM, the President is keen to fund the hiring of 100,000 new Science, Technology, and Math teachers. But America does not have a teacher quantity problem, we have a teacher effectiveness problem. Over the past 40 years, we’ve grown the number of public school employees 11 times faster than enrollment [i.e., we’ve doubled the number of staff to serve only 8.5 percent more students]. This has added $200 billion annually to the cost of American public schooling, and two million of the three million new hires were instructional staff, so it’s not simply a problem of bureaucratic bloat. And yet, despite all those new teachers and teachers’ aides, achievement at the end of high school is largely flat as are real graduation rates.

In other words, our public schools have shown themselves incapable of harnessing the talents of these millions of additional educators. The solution is not to hire yet more teachers into that system, it is to liberalize the education sector, bringing it back within the free enterprise system. Only when schools have both the freedoms and incentives to make the most of their teaching staffs, will we see educators’ talents marshaled effectively.

Finally, President Obama’s proposed new infrastructure spending focuses only on the symptom (crumbling school facilities) and ignores its cause (mismanagement). I’ve analyzed school survey data on the condition of facilities and found that public schools are in a much worse state of repair than private schools, despite the fact that private schools spend far less per pupil, on average. The question is WHY are public schools in a worse state of repair, given that they spend more? According to a federal government report, it’s because districts repeatedly defer necessary routine maintenance. These deferrals increase the cost of maintaining school facilities and accelerate the deterioration of buildings and equipment. In other words, they postpone the ounce of prevention until the pound of cure becomes unavoidable—and they do this because they don’t have to pay for the cure. Once again, bringing schools back within the free enterprise system would provide administrators with the incentives to maintain their facilities so as to avoid the financial hit of costly repairs and replacements—a hit that they can now pass on to taxpayers at no cost to themselves or their careers.

Regrettably, seeing the root causes underlying our educational woes is beyond the vision of the present administration.

Changing the Electoral College Game

Article II of the United States Constitution states: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress” to elect the president. The phrase “in such Manner” does not obviously restrict the way electors may be rewarded.

Even before the last election, some people had proposed changing the way states award electoral votes. The National Popular Vote effort, for example, proposed a compact in which states with a majority of the electoral votes agree to award their votes to the winner of the popular vote for president. Now other people, mostly Republicans, propose that states award each of their electoral votes to the winner of each congressional district in a state.

This proposal is highly partisan, but it is not outlandish. Two states, Nebraska and Maine, now award almost all of their electoral votes by congressional district. In each state, two of their electoral votes (the two they get because of equal state representation in the Senate) go the state-wide winner of the popular vote.

However, proponents of the “district proposal” have not suddenly been convinced of the merits of presidential elections in Maine and Nebraska. Rather, they are beguiled by the thought that Mitt Romney would have won in 2012 had electoral votes been awarded by congressional district.

Here we find the first problem with the proposal: it concerns the past not the future. Much like those liberal Democrats who wished to change the filibuster rule because Sen. McConnell (R-KY) frustrated the president’s desires on health care, some Republicans now wish to change electoral rules in response to the 2012 disaster.

It is unlikely that states governed by Democratic majorities in the legislature would adopt this proposal. Let’s assume they would, however, to think about what might happen.

The “district proposal” would increase the value of partisan redistricting since the presidency as well as the House would now depend on the composition of congressional districts.

The “district proposal” might change nothing. If the partisan majority in every state legislature has already maximized its share of congressional seats, nothing changes. I think that would be the case for most states controlled by the GOP.

Obama, Romney, Teachers, and Choice

Jay Greene has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal this week revealing that the teacher workforce has grown dramatically over the past forty years—and at enormous cost—without improving student achievement by the end of high school. And he rightly disparages President Obama for arguing that even more teachers would somehow do the trick. Even better, Greene notes that American education will not reverse its productivity collapse and become efficient until we allow it to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace.

But then Jay cites Governor Romney’s goal of “voucherizing federal education funds so that parents can take those resources and use them to send their children to schools of their choice,” and he does so with apparent approbation. Even ignoring the fact that the Constitution does not empower Congress to run education programs, this is a very dangerous idea.

There has been no civilization in the history of humanity in which governments have paid for private schooling without ultimately controlling what was taught and who could teach, erecting barriers to entry and thereby crippling market forces.

For that reason, I recommended against a federal voucher program under the Bush administration. Since then, additional evidence has come to light. When I studied the regulatory impact of U.S. private school choice programs last year I found that even the small existing U.S. voucher programs do indeed impose a heavy and very statistically significant additional burden of regulation on participating private schools.

Perhaps a way will be found to enact and maintain minimally regulated voucher programs in the coming years. Until that time comes, it would be the height of folly to introduce a federal voucher program whose regulations would suffocate educational freedom from coast to coast.

In my statistical study of choice program regulation, I found that K-12 tax credit programs do not impose a statistically significant extra burden of regulation on private schools. But even a national K-12 tax credit program would be far too dangerous. By leaving education policy to the states and the people, we can see which programs flourish and which become sclerotic. We must encourage and learn from that policy diversity, not squelch it with federal programs or mandates.

Obama vs. Romney on Public School Jobs

In a high-profile presser on the economy last Friday, President Obama’s central proposal was to hire more public employees. Then, in his weekly address, he argued that hiring more public school teachers would allow the U.S. to educate its way to prosperity. His Republican presidential rival, Governor Romney, has recommended precisely the opposite: reducing the size of government to boost private sector job growth–and he, too, mentions public school teachers. So… who’s right?

First, let’s look at public school employment and student enrollment over time.

As the chart makes clear, enrollment is only up 8.5% since 1970, whereas employment is up 96.2%. In other words, the public school workforce has grown 11 times faster than enrollment over the past 40 years. What difference does that make in economic terms? If we went back to the staff-to-student ratio we had in 1970, we’d be saving… $210 billion… annually.

Wait a minute, though! Research by economist Rick Hanushek and others has found that improved student achievement boosts economic growth. So if the 2.9 million extra public school employees we’ve hired since 1970 have improved achievement substantially, we might well be coming out ahead economically. So let’s look at those numbers…

Uh oh. Despite hiring nearly 3 million more people and spending a resulting $210 billion more every year, achievement near the end of high school has stagnated in math and reading and actually declined slightly in science since 1970. This chart also shows the cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system–the total cost per pupil of each graduating class from 1970 to the present. As you can see, on a per pupil basis, a K-12 education has gone from about $55,000 to about $150,000 in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

The implications of these charts are tragic: the public school monopoly is warehousing 3 million people in jobs that appear to have done nothing to improve student learning. Our K-12 government school system simply does not know how to harness the skills of our education workforce, and so is preventing these people from contributing to our economy while consuming massive quantities of tax dollars. So what would hiring even more people into that system do for our economy…

The Irony of the President’s STEM Initiatives

The media tide of the past two days has carried in a great flood of stories on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. ABC, NBC, AP, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, Politico, the Detroit News, and others joined in. This torrent of attention is due to a White House science fair at which the president announced several initiatives to boost student achievement in those fields. Details are scant, but based on the administration’s press release it seems that $100 million or so would go to encourage particular kinds of teacher’s college programs. Various extracurricular STEM programs funded by non-profit foundations were also touted in the release.

The obvious irony in the president’s plan to tweak teachers’ college programs is that those programs are themselves a key part of the problem. The nation’s state school monopolies typically require most or all of their teachers to either have a degree from a government-approved college of education or to be pursuing such a degree during evenings and weekends. Few of those studying or working in STEM fields are willing to sit through a teachers’ college program—with good reason. Not only are these programs often pointless according to their own graduates, they are not associated with improved student performance. They are a requirement without a function–at least without a function that benefits students. The one thing they do accomplish is to erect a barrier to entry that protects incumbent teachers from competition, allows the specter of “teacher shortages” to be floated at regular intervals, and thus to justify above market wages [state school teachers receive compensation that is roughly $17,000 per year higher than their private sector counterparts].

As a result, many of the most promising teaching candidates in these fields are weeded out from the start. President Obama’s plans to “improve” this barrier to entry into the profession amounts to reupholstering the deck chairs on the sunken Titanic.

But how to ensure that only effective teachers lead the nation’s classrooms given that the government certification process is not just useless but counterproductive? Here, again, there is irony. Somehow, in the thousands of different fields in which scientists and engineers work every day, the competent are distinguished from the incompetent. And somehow, those who underperform are either helped to improve or cut loose to seek work in a field (or with an employer) to which their talents are better suited. It is ludicrous to suggest that managers can effectively evaluate the work of the scientists and engineers they employ in every field _except_ education.

The media would do us all a favor if they would look past the Obama administration’s marshmallow launcher for a moment and contemplate the effect that our massive barrier to entry into the teaching profession has on recruiting scientists and engineers.

Why More Money Hasn’t, and Won’t, Fix the Nation’s Public School Buildings

Adam Schaeffer has just blogged about the massive increase in public school facilities spending of the past two decades, and about President Obama’s likely call to throw even more money at the problem of decrepit schools (in his address on the economy, next week).

Adam argues that money hasn’t fixed the problem, but it isn’t hard to imagine that a true believer in the status quo (paging Matt Damon…) might conclude that we simply haven’t increased facilities spending enough.

I addressed this counterargument a few years ago, using federal government data on the condition of U.S. public schools and data from a survey of Arizona private schools. What I found is that public schools were four times more likely than AZ private schools to have a building in “less than adequate” condition, despite the fact that public schools  spent one-and-a-half times as much per pupil. [And, yes, I’m talking total spending here, not just tuition].

So if private schools can and do maintain their buildings in far better shape than public schools, at far less cost, what exactly are public schools doing wrong? The answer comes from one of the federal government’s own assessments of school facilities nationwide. According to that report,

a decisive cause of the deterioration of public school buildings was public school districts’ decisions to defer maintenance and repair expenditures from year to year. However, maintenance can only be deferred for a short period of time before school facilities begin to deteriorate in noticeable ways. Without regular maintenance, equipment begins to break down, indoor air problems multiply, and buildings fall into greater disrepair… Additionally, deferred maintenance increases the cost of maintaining school facilities; it speeds up the deterioration of buildings and the need to replace equipment.

This routine deferral of necessary maintenance is not, as the spending data show, the result of a funding shortage; it is the result of mismanagement. Allowing a public school to decay has no inevitable consequences for management because public schools have a monopoly on k-12 funding. Private schools, by contrast, would lose students if their facilities crumbled, and so they make a greater (and more effective) effort to maintain them.

The solution to America’s public school repair problems is not to spend more, it is to unleash the freedoms and incentives of the free enterprise system on our creaking, calcified, government school monopoly.