Tag: public schools

A Severe Irony Deficiency

Tomorrow night at 8:00pm, Fox Business News will air a John Stossel special on the failures of state-run schooling and the merits of parental choice and competition in education. I make an appearance, as do Jeanne Allen and James Tooley.

News of the show is already making the rounds, and over at DemocraticUnderground.com, one poster is very upset about it, writing:

When will these TRAITORS stop trying to ruin this country?

HOW can AMERICANS be AGAINST public education?

Stossel is throwing out every right-wing argument possible in his namby pamby singsong way while he “interviews” a “panel” of people (who I suspect are plants) saying things like preschool is a waste of money and why invest in an already-failing system….

I hate Stossel and I hate all of those who think the way he does.

This poster goes by the screen name “Live Love Laugh.” I guess there wasn’t enough space to tack “Hate” onto the end.

What this poster–and many good people on the American left–have yet to grasp is that critics of state monopoly schooling are NOT against public education. On the contrary, it is our commitment to the ideals of public education that compels us to pursue them by the most effective means possible, and to abandon the system that has proven itself, over many many generations, incapable of fulfilling them. I wrote about this crucial point more than a decade ago in Education Week, in a piece titled: “Are Public Schools Hazardous to Public Education.”

Fortunately, a small but steadily growing number of American liberals have already grasped this pivotal difference between means and ends, as the growing Democratic support for Florida’s school choice tax credit program evinces. Giving all families, particularly low income families, an easier choice between state-run and independent schools is the best way to advance the ideals of public education.

Public Schools = One Big Jobs Program

Who said public schooling is all about the adults in the system and not the kids? Everyone knows it’s even more basic than that: Public schooling is a jobs program, pure and simple. At least, that’s what one can’t help but conclude as our little “stimulus” turns one-year old today.

“State fiscal relief really has kept hundreds of thousands of teachers and firefighters and first responders on the job,” declared White House Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer today.

Throwing almost $100 billion at education sure as heck ought to have kept teachers in their jobs, and the unemployment numbers suggest teachers have had a pretty good deal relative to the folks paying their salaries. While unemployment in “educational services” – which consists predominantly of teachers, but also includes other education-related occupations – hasn’t returned to its recent, April 2008 low of 2.2 percent, in January 2010 it was well below the national 9.7 percent rate, sitting at 5.9 percent.

Of course, retaining all of these teachers might be of value to taxpayers if having so many of them had a positive impact on educational outcomes. But looking at decades of achievement data one can’t help but conclude that keeping teacher jobs at all costs truly isn’t about the kids, but the adults either employed in education, or trying to get the votes of those employed in education. As the following chart makes clear, we have added teachers in droves for decades without improving ultimate achievement at all:


(Sources: Digest of Education Statistics, Table 64, and National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Trend results)

Since the early 1970s, achievement scores for 17-year-olds – our schools’ “final products” – haven’t improved one bit, while the number of teachers per 100 students is almost 50 percent greater. If anything, then, we have far too many teachers, and would do taxpayers, and the economy, a great service by letting some of them go. Citizens could then keep more of their money and invest in private, truly economy-growing ventures. But no, we’re supposed to celebrate the endless continuation of debilitating economic – and educational – waste.

You’ll have to pardon me for not considering this an accomplishment I should cheer about.

Government-Run Monopolies or School Choice Competition?

Cato’s Isabel Santa uses school choice as an example of why competition is better than government-imposed monopolies. The video explains that government schools cost more and deliver less, which is exactly what one might expect when there is an inefficient monopoly structure. The evidence about the school-choice systems in Sweden, Chile, and the Netherlands is particularly impressive.

There are many other reasons to support school choice, including diversity and innovation. There also is no need for fights over school prayer and sex education when parents can choose schools that reflect their values.

Perhaps most important, school choice should be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Many minority families live in areas where the government school monopoly does a scandalously poor job of educating children, even though these often are the school districts with higher-than-average per-pupil spending.

For more information about education issues, see what Cato’s scholars have written.

Charters No Substitute for Private Innovation

I wrote about this private school in South Carolina last year. The Voice for School Choice has a new video highlighting the great work of the Eagle Military Academy, which works with many kids the public schools cannot or will not educate.

There’s a lot of talk lately about the transformative power of some charter schools, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many secular and religious private schools have been saving kids all along with no public funds and little or no recognition from the elite opinion class.

We need to open up choice to these schools as well, not just public charter schools that cannot provide the breadth and depth of experiences offered by private schools.

Public charter schools are no substitute for full school choice through education tax credits.

Head Start’s Impact Evanescent — HHS Study

HHS has finally released the second installment of its series of studies on the persistence of Head Start effects. Its finding (see page xiv): virtually all academic effects disappear by the end of 1st grade. There is only one positive statistically significant finding out of eleven academic outcomes measured, the size of that effect is minuscule by recognized standards (it’s half way between zero and what most social scientists consider “small”), and the confidence in the finding is low by recognized standards. (Many authors would categorize it as “insignificant” rather than “significant” – it’s only significant at a 90% confidence interval, not the more common 95% confidence interval).

We have spent more than $100 billion on the program to date (ballpark estimate from Table 375 here) and HHS’s own research shows that its results diminish to essentially nothing by the end of the first grade.

There are other government education programs whose effects actually grow substantially over time, and that are comparatively economical. Consider the federal DC voucher program. Just a year or two after switching from public to private schools, the effect of the private schooling was not big enough to rise to the level of statistical significance. But by their third year in private schools, the evidence was clear that voucher-receiving students were reading more than two grade levels above a randomized control group that stayed in public schools.  This program, as I’ve previously documented, costs 1/4 as much per pupil as DC spends on public education: about $6,600 vs. $28,000.

But Congress, and particularly Democrats, have defunded the DC voucher program while raising spending on Head Start. President Obama is at the forefront of this travesty. If you weren’t already jaded and disgusted by education politics and its domination by employee unions opposed to educational choice, start now.

Neither Standards Nor Shame Can Do the Job

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews has done it again: lifted my hopes up just to drop them right back down.

In November, you might recall, Mathews called for the elimination of the office of U.S. Secretary of Education. There just isn’t evidence that the Ed Sec has done much good, he wrote.

My reaction to that, of course: “Right on!”

Only sentences later, however, Mathews went on to declare that we should keep the U.S. Department of Education.

Huh?

Today, Mathews is calling for the eradication of something else that has done little demonstrable good – and has likely been a big loss – for American education: the No Child Left Behind Act. Mathews thinks that the law has run its course, and laments that under NCLB state tests – which are crucial to  standards-and-accountability-based reforms – “started soft and have gotten softer.”

The reason for this ever-squishier trend, of course, is that under NCLB states and schools are judged by test results, leading state politicians and educrats to do all they can to make good results as easy to get as possible. And no, that has not meant educating kids better – it’s meant making the tests easier to pass.

Unfortunately, despite again seeing its major failures, Mathews still can’t let go of federal education involvement. After calling for NCLB’s end, he declares that we instead need a national, federal test to judge how all states and schools are doing.

To his credit, Mathews does not propose that the feds write in-depth standards in multiple subjects, and he explicitly states that Washington should not be in the business of punishing or rewarding schools for test performance.

“Let’s let the states decide what do to with struggling schools,” he writes.

What’s especially important about this is that when there’s no money attached to test performance there’s little reason for teachers unions, administrators associations, and myriad other education interests to expend political capital gaming the tests, a major problem under NCLB.

But here’s the thing: While Mathews’ approach would do less harm than NCLB, it wouldn’t do much good. Mathews suggests that just having the feds “shame” states with bad national scores would force improvement, but we’ve seen public schools repeatedly shrug off massive ignominy since at least the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. As long as they keep getting their money, they couldn’t care much less.

So neither tough standards nor shaming have led to much improvement. Why?

As I’ve laid out before, it’s a simple matter of incentives.

With punitive accountability, the special interests that would be held to high standards have strong motivation – and usually the power – to demand dumbed-down tests, lowered minimum scores, or many other accountability dodges.  The result: Little or no improvement.

What if there are no serious ramifications?

Then the system gets its money no matter what and again there is little or no improvement.

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

So what are reformers to do? One thing: Take government – which will almost always be dominated by the people it employs – out of the accountability equation completely. Give parents control of education funds and make educators earn their pay by having to attract and satisfy customers.

Unfortunately, that still seems to be too great a leap for Jay Mathews. But one of these days, I’m certain, he’ll go all the way!

DC Vouchers Solved? Generous Severance for Displaced Workers

Colbert King argues that DC should continue the opportunity scholarships private school choice program on its own dime, instead of complaining that Congress is killing it off. He starts off with a refreshing dose of realpolitik: “It should come as no surprise that Democratic congressional leaders are effectively killing the program. They, and their union allies, didn’t like it in the first place.” Too true. This is what disgusts many Americans about politics, but hey, that’s the reality.

But then he seems to descend into uncharacteristic naivete with this:

If the city likes vouchers so much, why shouldn’t the District bear the cost? The answer is as clear as it may be embarrassing to voucher proponents: D.C. lawmakers don’t want to ask their constituents to shoulder the program’s expense.

That is NOT the answer. DC lawmakers are familiar with DC’s budget. DC’s FY 2009 budget, as I show in this Excel spreadsheet file, allocated $28,170 per pupil for k-12 schooling. And the average voucher amount is not $7,500, as King claims. That’s the maximum. The average is $6,620 one quarter of what the district is spending on k-12 schooling. So operating the voucher program entirely out of the District of Columbia’s own budget would not cost a dime. And if expanded, it would save DC tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.

So DC lawmakers are most certainly NOT afraid of asking constituents to pay for it – it would more than pay for itself. What DC lawmakers must be afraid of is that DC schools have become a massive jobs program instead of an educational program. They must fear that if the voucher program were expanded it would put many non-teaching staff out of work – including perhaps some of their own supporters.

Well how about a realpolitik solution to that problem: offer displaced workers 18 months of severance pay at something like 75% of their current salary. That would give them plenty of time to find other work, and it could be paid for from the savings of students migrating from public schools to the voucher program. This would mean that taxpayers would not see savings in the first couple of years, but after that the District would be able to offer taxpayers generous tax cuts while also offering kids significantly better learning opportunities.

Surely the details of such a deal could be hammered out by experienced politicians and negotiators. Because, really, the status quo is insane. Why keep paying $28,000 for a worse education than the voucher program is providing for $6,600? That is sheer madness.