Tag: public education

Can Litigation Save American Education?

Next week, the case of Vergara v. California goes to trial. The question being litigated is whether or not the state’s laws on teacher tenure (“permanent employment”), dismissals, and last-in-first-out layoffs disproportionately harm poor minority kids, thereby violating California’s constitution.

Plaintiffs in the case feel they have the evidence to prove this point (see the links above), and so far the courts have acknowledged that their view is at least plausible. Certainly these laws are incompatible with efforts to maximize the quality of the teaching workforce. And it does seem as though they do the most damage in districts and schools serving the most disadvantaged kids. But will a victory by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit do substantial and lasting good?

That’s less obvious. For one thing, these employment practices can be found in many places where they are not codified in state statutes.They are employment guarantees and benefits of the sort that are often sought and obtained by teachers’ unions in collective bargaining with districts. So getting rid of the laws won’t necessarily get rid of the practices.

More broadly, over a dozen states have explicit constitutional provisions demanding that they create “uniform” education systems—a more stringent equality requirement than is contained in California’s constitution—and it’s not at all obvious that this seemingly strict legal guarantee has made any difference in the quality of educational opportunity in those states.

It’s easy to empathize with the desire to see state legal precedents enforced, and bad laws overturned. But neither state constitutions nor legal precedents have been able to secure either the uniformity or the quality of American education systems, and there is no reason to expect that to change no matter how the Vergara case is decided. More than half a century after the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, poor African-American kids are  still disproportionately likely to be assigned to lousy schools. I wrote about this 11 years ago, and little has changed since then. Lawsuits can redress specific legal wrongs, like compelled segregation, but they can’t produce educational outcomes that require the coordination and relentless dedication of thousands or even millions of people, year after year.

For those who really want to maximize the quality of education offered to disadvantaged and minority students—indeed to all students—the best hope is to study the different sorts of education systems that have been tried around the world and across history, and then ensure universal access to the best among them: a free educational marketplace.

 

Public School Spending. There’s a Chart for That!

What better time than back-to-school season to revisit the trends in U.S. student achievement and public school spending? With that thought in mind, I present a newly updated version of my chart showing the total amount spent over the course of a single student’s k-12 career, along with student achievement trends for 17-year-olds. The achievement data come from the Department of Education’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress “Long Term Trends” series, which regularly tests nationally representative samples of U.S. students, drawing from the same pool of questions in use since the tests were first administered around 1970. These are the best data we have on what our kids know by the end of high school and how much it has cost to get them there.

In the past, some readers have wondered if the use of two separate scales ($ on the left and % on the right) might skew the way we perceive these numbers, making the public school productivity collapse look worse than it really is. To allay that concern, I present an alternate version of the chart that places all the data on the same percentage scale. Alas, the second picture is no less bleak than the first.

If music players had suffered the same cost/performance trends we’d all still be lugging around cassette boom boxes, but they’d now cost almost $1,800…. Aren’t you glad we didn’t give tax-funded state monopolies to 19th century Victrola manufacturers?

The School Buildings Are Crumbling!!!!!!!!

From the-more-things-change-the-more-they-don’t files, I bring you alarming claims that our nation’s school buildings are crumbling and will soon crush the educational aspirations and physical bodies of children everywhere if more money is not spent, NOW.

In March of 1997, Education Week reported on the growing crisis in the condition of school facilities and inadequate spending:

The stories are familiar to school administrators: gaping holes in school roofs, crumbling walls etched with lead paint, heating systems that don’t work, and other serious structural problems that have become commonplace in many districts…

These stories certainly are familiar! Why, President Obama advanced the same tired line in his remarkably forgettable “jobs” plan of late last summer:

And there are schools throughout this country that desperately need renovating. How can we expect our kids to do their best in places that are literally falling apart? This is America. Every child deserves a great school – and we can give it to them, if we act now. The American Jobs Act will repair and modernize at least 35,000 schools. It will put people to work right now fixing roofs and windows; installing science labs and high-speed internet in classrooms all across this country.

Education Week gives voice to fears for the future in 1997:

Unless school leaders can persuade wary voters to pass bond referendums or raise local taxes, there’s often little hope of change … Some education leaders say it is getting tougher to pass bond issues when local residents, many of whom do not have school-age children, want lower taxes and are wary of how districts will manage the funds… And even if a bond passes, it rarely provides enough money to meet the needs of districts with fast-growing populations, said Carole Kennedy, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

The funny thing is, spending on school facilities increased at a rapid rate before 1997 and continued on afterward, increasing more than 150 percent in constant dollars from 1989 to 2008.

Government school lobbyists like Carole Kennedy, President Clinton, and President Obama have been successfully squeezing money out of taxpayers for decades based on false claims of crises. And not just for construction. Take a look at this video for everything you need to know about public school spending:

Everything You Need to Know About Public School Spending in Less Than 2½ Minutes

Neal McCluskey gutted the President’s new “Save the Teachers” American Jobs Act sales pitch a good while back, as did Andrew Coulson here. Thankfully, it seems a lot of senators agree it’s a bad idea.

Last week, a $35 Billion piece of the president’s new “stimulus” plan, which included $30 Billion to bail out government schools—againwent down in the Senate:

Our public education problem is huge; we’re spending far too much and getting way too little. But most people don’t know the basic details. They still think we need to spend more on education.

So, for all of you who want to get the details but don’t have much time, or have family and friends who need to be introduced to reality, I present to you … Everything you need to know about public school spending in less than 2½ minutes.

Watch it, “like” it, post it on Facebook, email it around, comment, and generally get the word out … because we really do need to get the word out.

Here’s Where Better Schools HAVE Scaled Up…

Earlier this summer, I released a study comparing the performance of California’s charter school networks with the amount of philanthropic grant funding they have received. The purpose was to find out if this model for replicating excellence was consistently effective. The answer, regrettably, was no.

But a new study we are releasing today finds that there is at least one place where better schools HAVE consistently scaled-up: Chile. Thanks to that nation’s public and private school choice program, chains of private schools have arisen, and they not only outperform the public schools, they also outperform the independent “mom-and-pop” private schools.

For anyone interested in replicating educational excellence, this study by a team of Chilean scholars is worth a look.

Cash Rewards For Failing Schools, the Lawsuit Way

I see the editorialists of the New York Times have rhapsodically hailed last week’s 3-2 New Jersey Supreme Court opinion striking down the budget-trimming plans of Gov. Chris Christie. As the press reported, the court ordered instead that an extra $500 million in state funds be allocated to some of the state’s poorest-performing school districts – the so-called Abbott districts, named after the three-decade-running New Jersey school finance litigation, Abbott v. Burke.

It’s too bad the editorial said nothing about the report five years ago in which one leading newspaper surveyed the wreckage done by the then-25-year-old litigation, which it called an “ambitious court-ordered social experiment.” (At that point, $35 billion in state tax money had already been lavished on the Abbott districts.) The paper’s reporting made a convincing case that the orders had squandered billions on mismanaged districts that were already far outspending most others in the state and region, as with Asbury Park, which was spending 70 percent more than the typical New Jersey district. Indeed, “the highest-spending districts were making the fewest gains” in student performance. It’s especially unfortunate because the newspaper that reported all this was the New York Times itself.

As I argue at greater length in my new book, school reform lawsuits like Abbott are much more than just vehicles for inefficiency and waste of tax dollars: they’re examples of an alternative method of governance, accomplished through what is sometimes called institutional reform litigation, and quite remote from the channels of lawmaking and appropriations familiar from civics books. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations, and so forth. The legal basis for the power grab is often flimsy in the extreme; in the Garden State, for example, the state constitution vaguely mandates that there be a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, and “educational equity” lawyers have prevailed on the courts to erect the whole thirty-year edifice of Abbott orders on a filling in of those mysterious blanks, a process that Gov. Christie has accurately described as “legislating from the bench”. (Our friend Hans Bader at CEI has more here and here.) In New Jersey, as in many other states and cities subject to these suits, governors and legislators may come and go, but the permanent government of court orders and negotiated consent decrees grinds on and on, conferring a curiously unaccountable power on the lawyers who manage and advance the litigation and their circle of allies.

It’s worth noting that since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the federal courts have stayed out of most school finance litigation, leaving it to state courts. For decades, outspoken voices in the law schools have been calling for Rodriguez to be overturned or at least end-run so as to confer an Abbott-like charter for social experimentation on the federal courts, which could then proceed to issue orders equalizing school finance, ordering “Robin Hood” aid to underperforming districts, and so forth. The most prominent advocate of this view in recent years has been a Berkeley law professor named Goodwin Liu – his views are summarized by admirers here and here – which may explain in part why Liu’s recent Ninth Circuit nomination raised such strong feelings.

Education and Society

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss asserted yesterday that “public education is a civic institution” and laments that it is seldom talked about as such (kindly citing our upcoming Cloning “Superman” event in the process).

Certainly the way children are educated can have a powerful impact on the kind of society they go on to build. And there are many social goals on which Americans strongly agree: that schools should prepare children for the responsibilities of citizenship as much as for success in private life; that they should encourage harmonious relations among people of different backgrounds (or at least not foment conflict); and that they should ensure that every child, regardless of background, has access to a quality education.

But does anyone seriously believe that our existing school system is doing a satisfactory job in any of these areas? I doubt that Ms. Strauss herself believes that, and suspect that she was merely expressing the view that our education system should do these things rather than claiming that it already was. Consider the hundreds of community conflicts around the country documented by my colleague Neal McCluskey as having been caused by public schools in a single year. Consider, too, the literature review performed by the University of Arkansas’ Patrick Wolf showing that the civic outcomes of freely chosen (usually private) schools are consistently superior to those of public schools, after controlling for differences in student and family background. And one needn’t have seen the documentary Waiting for Superman to realize that public schools have been failing far too many children, especially poor and minority children, for far too long.

If we are to remedy these profound shortcoming in American education, our best hope is to set aside our preconceptions about what kind of school systems should produce the social goods we seek, and instead ask which systems actually do produce them.

Having reviewed the worldwide econometric literature of the past 25 years, I’ve found that it is the most marketlike education systems that have consistently done the best job of serving disadvantaged children (indeed, all children) both here and abroad. Wolf’s literature review also favors private schools in their civic outcomes. And when people can get the sort of education they value for their own children without being compelled to impose their preferences on their neighbors, the conflicts caused by public schooling are avoided. Even with regard to meaningful integration among children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the private education sector performs as well or better than the state sector.

If Ms. Strauss or anyone else has compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll be interested to hear of it. And if she or anyone else would like to know what the social impact of decades of private school choice has been in a communitarian nation like Sweden, they’re welcome to come to Cato and ask Peje Emilsson on the 28th of this month.