Tag: president

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.

Obama Jobs Plan to Push More K-12 Bloat?

In a recent interview, President Obama hints at the core of his much-anticipated jobs plan:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: what we do have, I think, is the capacity to do some things right now that would make a big difference …

TOM JOYNER: Like?

OBAMA: For example, putting people to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools all across America…

We’ve got the capacity right now to help local school districts make sure that they’re not laying off more teachers. We haven’t been as aggressive as we need to, both at the state and federal level.

So we haven’t been aggressive enough with our hiring at the K-12 level, hmm? Perhaps I’m an unusually timid sort, but the trend below looks pretty darn aggressive to me: k-12 employment has been growing 10 times faster than enrollment for forty years.

And the $300 billion question is: what impact has doubling the workforce had on the cost and performance of America’s public schools? According to federal government data, the answer is this:

We’ve nearly tripled the cost of sending a child all the way through the K-12 system, while performance near the end of high school has been stagnant (reading and math) or even declining (science). Just returning to the staff-to-student ratio of 1980 would save almost $150 billion annually—and somehow students weren’t performing noticeably differently in the ’80s than today.

And yet President Obama apparently wants more hiring and more spending. I wonder if voters will want more of President Obama if he indeed continues to flog the failed policies of the past two generations?

Ayn Rand on the Front Page of Ecuador’s Major Newspaper

El Universo, the newspaper with the largest circulation and the paper that publishes my weekly column, ran a mostly blank front page today that features only this quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion–when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing–when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors–when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you–when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice–you may know that your society is doomed.

This quote is from Francisco D’Anconia’s speech on “The Meaning of Money” which you can read here. (I used it in my column last month.) How did Rand’s quote get there? It’s a response to the latest and most prominent attack on freedom of the press in Ecuador and Latin America.

In less than four months the Ecuadorian courts, known for being slow, resolved the specious lawsuit President Rafael Correa filed against op-ed writer and editor Emilio Palacio, the directors of El Universo and the newspaper itself for libeling the country’s president. According to Correa, Palacio slandered him in this op-ed (in Spanish), and the newspaper and its directors “contributed” to committing the supposed crime. Incidentally, this court has had five different judges overseeing this case since February; the last one came in on Monday and issued his judgment yesterday, minutes before his authority expired.

The court’s decision sentences the directors of El Universo and Emilio Palacio to three years in jail and orders them to pay a total of $30 million to the President. The judge also ordered that the newspaper company pay an additional $10 million to President Correa.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent of making third parties responsible for what an individual says. It is a clear act of intimidation of all independent media outlets and of the citizens of Ecuador. Even though this is not the first blow to freedom of expression during this government, it certainly is the most radical given the context. On May 7th, a referendum gave the President unprecedented power to essentially pack the courts. Soon, the entire judiciary will be on the long list of state institutions captured or co-opted by the executive (including the constitutional court, the electoral authority, and the national assembly, among others).

Once the judiciary is completely captured and after this historic decision, we can expect more self-censorship or more people sued/jailed for expressing their opinions, or a combination of both. It is a harsh blow against liberty in our country, but a logical outcome of Correa’s populist push to centralize ever more economic and other power in his own hands.

Earmarks and the Constitution

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s announcement yesterday that he will support a moratorium on earmarks a sign that establishment Republicans are caving in to the tea party faction of their party?

My response:

Far from a sign that ”establishment” Republicans are “caving in” to the Tea Party faction soon to arrive here, Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s announcement yesterday that he “will join the Republican Leadership in the House in support of a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress” suggests that Republicans may be rediscovering their roots in limited government, however reluctantly for some. At the same time, McConnell’s unusually long press release brings out two main difficulties surrounding the subject: first, and most important, the overall growth of spending; and second, the question of who decides where that spending goes.

On the second question, McConnell is clearly right: It’s hardly an improvement if ending earmarks amounts simply to giving the president the discretion to determine where spending goes. And on that point he contrasts earmarks he himself has made toward projects that properly were federal – e.g., cleaning up a dangerous chemical weapons site in his state, which presidents in both parties had ignored – with the Stimulus Bill, “which Congress passed without any earmarks only to have the current administration load it up with earmarks for everything from turtle tunnels to tennis courts.”

To be sure, there’s enough mischief at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to go around, but it’s the growth of spending, most on matters unauthorized by the Constitution, that is far and away the larger problem. McConnell calls for congressional oversight “to monitor how the money taxpayers send to the administration is actually spent.” Far more important will be hearings to determine whether Congress has constitutional authority to appropriate money on any particular matter in the first place.

Thus, the new Congress needs to see through the false alternative the earmarks debate has engendered. At bottom, it’s not a question of whether Congress or the president shall decide. Rather, after administration input, all but ministerial spending decisions belong to Congress – as constrained by the Constitution. Thus, if the voice of the electorate is to be respected, new and old members alike need to attend first to their oath of office.

Merry Christmas, Ivory Tower!

If you ever want to see how federal student aid is used for political gain, look no further than the report on the American Opportunity Tax Credit released today by the U.S. Treasury Department.  The accolade-begging for the President begins right on the cover page:

The President created the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which he signed into law in February 2009. For tax years 2009 and 2010, the new law allows families with tuition expenses to receive a tax credit of up to $2,500 per student, and up to $1,000 per year of this amount is refundable. If the AOTC is made permanent, as proposed in the President’s FY 2011 Budget, a student could receive a credit up to $10,000 over four years. 

The President, of course, doesn’t create these things, the legislative branch does. But the Prez, apparently, wants the credit for the credits. A White House event  scheduled for today suggests why: It appears that the President will be using the report, as well as his proposal to extend the AOTC, to curry favor with college students, a potentially large voting bloc. 

The content of the report, unfortunately, is just as bad as its PR use, going on and on about how much free money the credit offers for college, and breaking down the benefits so every type of filer can see how he or she might benefit. Meanwhile, there’s hardly amention of the AOTC’s cost – something in which you’d think the Treasury Department would be at least a little interested.  But, to be fair, I’m not just talking about the obvious cost to taxpayers who will sooner or later have to foot the bill for this Santa Claus program. Arguably the even bigger cost is that expanding federal aid like this ultimately just enables colleges to raise their prices and capture the money, making it a major, self-defeating source of fuel for rampant tuition inflation.

So the AOTC will do little or nothing to make college more affordable in the long-run. It will, though, make colleges and their employeesbetter off, and create the powerful illusion that Washington politicians – especially, in this case, the President – are doing their best to make college affordable for all.  And that, as pure-PR reports like this one strongly suggest, is likely the primary goal.

On the “Wisdom” of Obama

This morning POLITICO Arena asks:
 
Should POTUS show his cards on mosque?
 
My response:
 
Obama’s inept handling of the Ground Zero mosque controversy is perfectly consistent with so much else he’s touched during his so-far short presidency. On Friday night he waded into this local matter by miscasting it as one of high constitutional principle. Then as his defenders were shouting “Bravo!” on Saturday he pulled the rug out from under them by saying, correctly, that it was really a matter of “wisdom” – about which he wasn’t going to comment.
 
Maybe he’s right about that. After all, the president isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the moral compass of the nation – certainly not this president. But it’s rather late in the day to be ducking out on this one, now that it’s been elevated to the presidential level. And it isn’t as if we didn’t know how inexperienced this man was when we elected him president. What was it Churchill said about democracy?
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