Tag: public schools

Ditching Collective Bargaining Won’t Control Public School Costs. Here’s What Will…

Lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are seeking to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public school employees as a means of controlling runaway spending (it has tripled in real terms since 1970, despite stagnation or decline in student achievement at the end of high school–see the last chart in this post). But even if collective bargaining is forbidden to state school employees, the savings will likely be negligible.

Surprising as it may seem, that conclusion follows directly from the research on school employee unions, which I reviewed last year for the Cato Journal. Differences in spending between school districts with and without collective bargaining are modest to non-existent. Does this mean that the unions are impotent and that their members have been wasting their $600 annual dues payments? Not quite.

Though employee compensation varies little from one school district to the next, based on the presence or absence of collective bargaining, public school employees enjoy far better compensation than their private sector counterparts. The combined salary and retirement benefits of public school teachers are 42 percent larger than those of private school teachers (see link above).

Public school employees win this generous compensation premium through political action backed by monumental campaign contributions. Democrats receive the overwhelming share of these contributions (93% from the NEA; 99% from the AFT, see Cato Journal link), but many Republican lawmakers are also swayed, fearful that the unions will finance their primary opponents the next time they face voters.

To further increase their clout, union leaders have sought to grow their membership. More members mean more dues revenue with which to influence legislators. In this regard, too, they have been enormously successful: the number of public school employees has grown ten times faster than the number of students for two generations—a major factor in the system’s exploding cost and collapsing productivity (see figure below).

Public school employees clearly understand that union membership has benefitted them handsomely in both compensation and job security. Over the past forty years, union membership as a share of the public school workforce has increased from 42 percent to 70 percent. Even if collective bargaining were eliminated tomorrow, school employees would have every reason to continue funding the self-interested political action that has served them so well in the past.

So what would provide a counterbalance to unsustainable union demands?

To find the answer, it helps to know that while union membership was rising in the public sector it was falling steadily in the private sector—to just 6.9 percent of the workforce in 2010 (see figure below). The reason is simple: when a business makes excessive concessions to a union and is thereby forced to raise prices above those of its competitors, it loses customers. As it loses customers, it lays off workers. If this situation continues, the business fails. Private sector unionization is thus self-regulating to a significant degree.

Public school employee unions, by contrast, have no direct competitors. They cannot drive their employer out of business because there is only one employer in the sector and its existence is mandated by law. The only real solution to the spiraling cost of our state school monopolies is thus to open them up to private sector competition, so that both parents and taxpayers have an alternative to the no-longer-affordable status quo.

There are several ways of doing this, of which education tax credits seem the most promising. In Florida, Arizona and other states, taxpayers can claim a dollar-for-dollar credit for donations to non-profit scholarship organizations. These organizations, in turn, subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. In Illinois and Iowa, families who pay for their own children’s education are eligible for tax credits to directly offset part of the cost.

Though most of these programs currently impose tight caps on the total value of credits available, they are already generating substantial savings to taxpayers while simultaneously expanding the choices available to families. Florida’s k-12 scholarship donation credit saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, and the new private sector competition has improved achievement in public schools.

So while curtailing collective bargaining won’t rein in out-of-control spending, introducing real private sector competition will. And as the final figure reveals, we have got to get spending under control….

…..

Update: I should add that, as NRO’s Rich Lowry notes, the plan for the state to stop garnishing public school employees’ wages and sending the money to the union is highly commendable. If employees want to pay union dues, they should be free to do so, but the choice should be theirs.  Of course, since public school employees benefit very handsomely from the status quo monopoly (see below), it’s likely that most will continue to pay voluntarily for the lobbying and political contributions that will preserve their above-market compensation. So it’s still the case that introducing private sector competition is the best way to control education costs.

Science: ‘All Kids Different’

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but in last week’s State of the Union address President Obama celebrated the spread of national curriculum standards that’s been fueled largely by the federal Race to the Top. Of course, he didn’t actually call them “national standards” because no one is supposed to think that these are de facto federal standards that states have been bribed into adopting. The point, though, was clear to those in the know:

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.

Despite the celebration of national standards by both the President and lots of other supporters, there is essentially zero evidence that such standards will produce better educational outcomes.  Much of that has to do with the reality of democratically controlled, government education: Those who would be held accountable for getting kids to high standards have the most clout in education politics, and they naturally fight tough standards. It also has a lot to do with human reality: All kids are different. It’s an inescapable observation for anyone who has ever encountered more than one child, but the national-standards crowd prefers to ignore it.

Maybe science will help them see the light. According to the BBC, new research comparing identical and fraternal twins reveals that genetics – something that exists before standards and schooling – has a lot to do with how much and how quickly someone learns:

The researchers examined the test results of 12-year-old twins - identical and fraternal - in English, maths and science.

They found the identical twins, who share their genetic make-up, did more similarly in the tests than the fraternal twins, who share half their genetic make-up.

The report said: “The results were striking, indicating that even when previous achievement and a child’s general cognitive ability are both removed, the residual achievement measure is still significantly influenced by genetic factors.”

In light of this confirmation of the obvious, isn’t it clear that a single timeline for what all children should know and when they should know it makes little sense? And doesn’t it point to the best system being one that gives kids individualized attention?

Of course it does, but that would require “experts” of all stripes to stop trying to impose their solutions on all children. It would also, ultimately, necessitate a system in which parents would choose what’s best for their children, and educators would specialize in all sorts of different curricula, delivery mechanisms, and teaching techniques.  

Unfortunately, few in the education policy world are willing to adopt that utterly logical – but power relinquishing – solution.

Why Is Bill Gates Writing Code for a Coleco Adam?

Bill Gates is addressing the Council of Chief State School Officers today. According to the NYT, he’ll tell them to bite the bullet and start making sound budgetary decisions like rewarding teachers based on merit instead of time served, and not handing out raises simply for the trappings of higher learning, but rather for demonstrated prowess in the classroom. In principle, that’s good advice.

But it’s an ultimately futile effort, and here’s why:

Bill established himself early on as a pretty sharp computer programmer, and no doubt he still is. But there’s only so much you can do when the hardware you’re writing for is a pile of junk. Public schooling is the Coleco Adam of education systems.

The Adam was a pretty cute looking machine for its time (1983), but it had some fundamental flaws. Among other things, turning the power on or off had a habit of sending out electromagnetic pulses that fried the data on its storage tapes. Oops. Now a good programmer might figure how to mitigate the damage caused by that problem (I dunno, treat the two tapes as a RAID 1 array, maybe?), but then the machine also had its power-supply located in the mandatory (and noisy, and slow) printer that came with it. So if the printer had to be serviced, you were left with a paperweight. Hard to fix that one in software.

It’s the same with public schooling. By its very design, it lacks the freedoms and incentives that relentlessly allow and pressure executives to make sound decisions in the free enterprise sector of the economy. Bill’s a sharp corporate executive as well as a sharp programmer. He’ll no doubt give the state superintendents of public instruction some reasonable advice. And ultimately it won’t matter.

If they make great decisions, these execs will at best get a pat on the back. If they make terrible ones, it likely won’t affect their compensation or careers much, because millions of families have little choice but to send their children to the official state-run schools. Given the state-run system’s monopoly on $13k / pupil of tax funding, it’s hard for most parents to pay for a better quality education for their kids.

This is a systemic problem. Without the necessary freedoms and incentives, good decisions made today will eventually be supplanted with worse ones in the future because public schooling has no built-in mechanism to consistently encourage the good over the bad.

Bill, it’s a hardware problem.

Why is Waiting for “Superman” Pushing Kryptonite?

You’ve probably heard it already, but if not, you should know that on Friday the documentary Waiting for “Superman” – from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim – will be opening in select theaters around the country. The film, about how hard it is to access good education in America thanks to adults putting their interests first, follows several children as they hope beyond hope to get into oversubscribed charter schools. It is said by those who’ve seen it to be a tear-jerker and call to arms to substantially reform American education.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t promote real, essential reform: Taking money away from special-interest dominated government schools and letting parents control it.

The movie does flirt – from what I know, that is, without having yet seen it – with school choice, lionizing charter schools. But let’s not forget that while many charter schools and their founders have tremendous vision and drive, charters are still public schools, and as such are easily smothered by politically potent special interests like teacher unions. Moreover, while charter schools are chosen, charter schooling still keeps money – and therefore power – out of the hands of parents. Together, these things  explain why there are so many heartbreaking charter lotteries to film: there is almost no ability or incentive to scale up good schooling models to meet all the desperate demand.  

But isn’t the goal for no child to have to wait for Superman? If so, then why not give parents the power to choose good schools (and leave bad ones) right now by instituting widespread school choice? Indeed, we’re quickly losing room in good institutions because parochial schools – which have to charge tuition to stay in business – simply can’t compete with “free” alternatives. If we were to let parents control education funds immediately, however, they could get their kids into those disappearing seats while the seats are  still around, and we would finally have the freedom and consumer-driven demand necessary to see good schools widely replicated.

Unfortunately, Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t just seem to want to make people wait for good schools by promoting charter schools and not full choice. On its “take action” website, it prominently promotes the very opposite of parent empowerment: Uniform, government-imposed, national standards for every public school in America.

Rather than let parents access the best curriculum for their unique children, the Waiting for “Superman” folks want to give the federal government power. Of course, the website doesn’t say that Washington will control “common” standards, but make no mistake: Federal money has been driving the national standards train, and what Washington funds, it ultimately controls. And there is no better way to complete the public schooling monopoly – to let the teacher unions, administrator associations, and other adult interests do one-stop shopping for domination – than to centralize power in one place.

The people behind Waiting for “Superman” are no doubt well intentioned, and their film worth seeing. But pushing kryptonite is pushing kryptonite, and it has to be stopped.

Federal Government Is a Lucrative ‘Industry’

The Bureau of Economic Analysis latest release of industry compensation levels shows that the average federal worker ranks up at the top along with employees in the finance and energy industries. That’s not exactly popular company these days.

The BEA presents compensation data for 72 industries that span the U.S. economy. Figure 1 shows the 20 industries with the highest levels of average compensation, which includes wages and benefits. It also shows the average for all U.S. private industries and the average for the industry with the lowest compensation. (The names of the industries have been simplified in some cases).

Federal civilian workers have the sixth highest average compensation of the 72 industries:

As yesterday’s post showed, federal employee compensation has exploded over the course of the decade. Figure 2 shows that this federal employee compensation growth has been the fifth highest of the 72 industries measured by the BEA:

There’s More to Market Education than School Choice

Nick Gillespie drew attention yesterday to an op-ed Charles Murray wrote on school choice. Murray’s thesis was that the dominance of family environment and genetics in determining student achievement is such as to allow little room for schools to affect academic outcomes. That said, Murray goes on to argue for school choice anyway, on the grounds that families differ in their educational preferences, and the best way to match families to schools is to allow the former to choose the latter. This, he says, “should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice.”

Certainly Murray’s point about the value of choice is true, so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. First, there are other compelling non-academic arguments for school choice (e.g., they minimize social conflict by allowing families to get the sort of education they want for their own kids without imposing it on everybody elses, as happens of necessity when there is a single official government organ of education.) Second, there is very good reason to believe that true market education would lead to higher student achievement.

Murray cites the pathbreaking work of James Coleman, who revealed that home-related factors explain more of the observed variation in student achievement than does choice of school, to argue that schools can’t have much effect on achievement. This is a non sequitur. While Murray’s inference is consistent with Coleman’s evidence, it does not necessarily follow from it. It is possible that since 90 percent of U.S. students are enrolled in government monopoly schools, and since those schools operate on similar lines not just within states but between states, variation in schools’ contributions to student learning have been artificially curtailed.

Furthermore, even in a highly competitive and free education marketplace, variation in student achievement between schools wouldn’t necessarily be very large, since the very best schools would be emulated by many of their competitors, and the very worst schools would go out of business.

But, and this is the point that Murray did not address, the mean level of student achievement in the competitive marketplace could well be much higher than the mean level in our current monopoly system despite the fact that, within each of these systems, school-to-school variation might be low.

From our previous exchanges on this topic, it seems Murray is skeptical of that possibility–skeptical that markets could lead to a substantial increase in mean academic achievement above the mean we observe the existing school monopoly. I offered some counter-evidence in those earlier exchanges, but here’s another reason to expect a higher market mean: the abandonment of rigid age-based grading.

Age-based grading is arbitrary and pedagogically counterproductive. Market education systems, such as the Asian after-school tutoring industry, often group students based on their performance in each subject, promoting them to the next level of the curriculum as soon as they have mastered the current one. This allows students to progress at their own pace. Empirical studies have shown that performance based grouping helps students at all levels of performance to learn more quickly, and it would almost certainly contribute to a boost in the overall average even if nothing else changed.

But the existing research on performance based grouping fails, I think, to capture the full extent of the difference that it can make when allowed to operate unfettered. It is not at all uncommon to see kids who take an avid interest in some pursuit leap well ahead of the typical adult expectations of what they can achieve. Music is a good example, as are strategy games like chess and go (a.k.a. weiqi or baduk). There are 11 and 12 year olds who play these games well above the level that most adult players ever reach.

Furthermore, it does not seem that we can fully attribute the stellar achievement of these youngsters to stratospheric IQs. The research on chess and IQ is surprisingly sparse, but what there is does not point to a strong linear relationship between the two. My (admittedly incomplete) reading of it suggests that there might be an IQ floor below which high-level strategy game performance is unlikely, but that above this floor assiduous practice and access to high level players (and/or books on the game) seem more important. The latter are the kinds of things that performance based grouping allows across academic subjects. There’s no reason that kids with an affinity for math couldn’t be learning calculus in middle school or early high-school, for example.

So there is much more value in market education reform than simply letting families choose the flavor of curriculum they prefer.