Tag: public schools

When Is $28,000 per Pupil Not Enough?

…Apparently, when you are the District of Columbia public school system. The Washington Times reports today on a candle-light vigil beseeching the federal government for extra cash for new computers. The group organizing the vigil, OurDC, shares this “horror story” from former technology teacher Toval Rolston:

I’ve been in D.C. schools where the computers are so antiquated that you can’t even download a basic pdf file; our children don’t have the tools to compete in today’s high tech world.

The twin implications of this plea are that DC schools are underfunded and that more money will actually be spent wisely. The first statement is false and the second is decidedly unlikely. The last time I calculated total spending on K-12 education in DC, from the official budget documents, it came out to over $28,000 per pupil (the linked post points to a spreadsheet with all the numbers).

How do you manage to spend $28,000 per pupil and not manage to keep your computer hardware up to date? Or, for that matter, manage to have among the worst academic performance in the country? Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with not being capable, or perhaps even inclined, to spend the money on what works.

The Washington Times, by the way, points out that OurDC is headquartered at the same address as the Service Employees International Union. Go figure.

Obama-Reid ‘Jobs’ Bill Soaked in Greece

A stated aim of the Obama-Reid jobs bill is to preserve the “competitive edge” that our “world-class” education system purportedly gives us. In an attempt to do that it would throw tens of billions of extra taxpayer dollars at public school employees.

A few problems with that: we’re not educationally world-class; we don’t have a competitive edge in k-12 education; and this bill would actually push the U.S. economy closer to a Greek-style economic disaster.

First, the belief that increasing public school employment helps students learn is demonstrably false. Over the past forty years, public school employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment. If more teachers union jobs were going to boost student achievement, we’d have seen it by now. We haven’t. Achievement at the end of high school has been flat in reading and math and has declined in science over this period. I documented these facts the last time Democrats decided to stimulate their teachers union base, just one year and $10 billion ago.

So what has our public school hiring binge done for us? Since 1980, it has raised the cost of sending a child from Kindergarten through the 12th grade by $75,000 – doubling it to around $150,000, in 2009 dollars.

And what would going back to the staff-to-student ratio of 1980 do? It would save taxpayers over $140 billion annually.

But don’t those school employees need jobs? Of course they do. But we can’t afford to keep paying for millions of phony-baloney state jobs that have no impact on student learning. We need these men and women working in the productive sector of the economy – the free enterprise sector – so that they contribute to economic growth instead of being a fiscal anchor that drags us ever closer to the bottom of the Aegean. Freeing up the $140 billion currently squandered by the state schools would provide the resources to create those productive private sector jobs.

Continuing to tax the American people to sustain or even expand the current bloat, as Obama and Reid want to do, cripples our economic growth prospects by warehousing millions of potentially productive workers in unproductive jobs. The longer we do that, the slimmer our chances of economic recovery become. This Obama-Reid bill is such an incredibly bad idea, so obviously bad, that it is hard to imagine any remotely well-informed policymaker supporting it… unless, of course, they think the short term good will of public school employee unions is more important than the long-term prosperity of the American people.

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?

‘Back to the Future,’ or: ‘The Math of Khan’

Oklahoma has just enacted a law that requires students to be held back a year if they are not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. The inspiration is sound: poor readers cannot keep up with their classmates as the curriculum becomes more sophisticated and relies more heavily on reading comprehension across subjects. But this particular approach doesn’t begin to tackle the larger problem of age-based grading itself. Kids are not all identical widgets who learn every subject at the same rate. Individual children even learn different subjects at different rates. So the idea that all children should be grouped by age and, by default, moved through every subject at the same pace is ludicrous on its face.

More than that, it is a retrogression from the pedagogy of the early 1800s. In an early 19th century one-room schoolhouse, children of different ages and aptitudes progressed through the material at their own paces. It wasn’t unusual for an 11 year old girl to be on McGuffey’s or Elson’s 4th Reader while her older brother was still on the 3rd. It wasn’t unusual, and it wasn’t a problem. Age-based grading is a problem. Fortunately, technology will dump it on the scrapheap of history within a generation, as services like Khan Academy and software like Dreambox allow children to progress at their own rate through the material.

We can’t get back to the future soon enough.

The Sodom and Gomorrah of Public Schooling?

I was tied up when the massive Atlanta School District cheating scandal broke last month, and so didn’t get around to blogging it. [Recap: nearly 200 teachers and principals in half of the district’s 100 schools were involved]. But, with other large-scale cheating investigations still on-going, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked about the problem yesterday during a video-taped “Twitter town hall” (minute 12:00). Specifically, he was asked if the high-stakes tests mandated by NCLB are to blame (minute 16:50). Though Duncan made an off-hand comment that high-stakes NCLB-required tests may have contributed to the pressure that lead to the cheating, he repeatedly blamed the cheating on a uniquely “morally bankrupt culture” in Atlanta’s public schools. That didn’t convince interviewer John Merrow, who cited several other cities where cheating investigations are underway—nor should it convince you.

The problem is not that Atlanta is the Sodom and Gomorrah of public schooling. The problem is that state schooling separates payment from consumption. The accountability mechanism of competitive markets—the only such mechanism that actually works—requires the payer to also be the consumer, because the central incentive for any service provider is to please the payer. So if the consumer isn’t paying, he or she is rendered relatively unimportant in the eyes of the provider. Atlanta parents want their children to be well educated, but a lot of work is required to meet that goal. State and federal bureaucrats just want high scores on NCLB-mandated tests—that’s much easier to achieve by cheating than by doing an excellent job teaching. So there is an incentive for school officials to cheat because they are paid by the bureaucrats, not by the parents. Not every teacher succumbs to this incentive, of course, but the incentive is very clearly putting pressure in the wrong direction.

Now consider the incentive structure of schools paid directly by parents in tuition. The incentive in that scenario is to give parents what they want, which is usually a high quality education for their children. Certainly schools could try to lie to parents about how well their children are doing, but this is much harder than lying to bureaucrats. A great many parents will notice a discrepancy if their illiterate children are awarded A’s. And parents considering a school will notice a discrepancy if the “A”-graded graduates of that school somehow cannot gain admission to, or often drop out of, the next higher level of education. Word of mouth—and now word-of-social-networking-apps—is a powerful thing. So it’s much harder for parent-funded schools to get away with cheating, even if they were predisposed to use that strategy.

This is why no system of education that relies exclusively on third-party payment will ever match the quality and progress that we have come to expect in every other field. Indeed, it argues for finding ways of ensuring universal access to education that rely, as much as possible, on direct payment of tuition by parents. Of all the currently viable education policies, the one that fits that description best is the education tax credit—particularly direct credits for families’ own education expenses. And, among third-party payment methods, scholarship tax credits also have advantages over the alternatives.

This is a reality many folks will not want to hear or accept, but reality is not optional.

Topics:

Rick Perry, Arne Duncan, and Michael Jackson

To my astonishment, Arne Duncan went after Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry yesterday on the grounds that Perry hasn’t done enough to improve the schools under his jurisdiction. According to Bloomberg News, Duncan said public schools have “really struggled” under Perry and that “Far too few of [the state’s] high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college.”

I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan, but for some reason his “Man in the Mirror” track just popped into my head as I read this. You see, once upon a time, Arne Duncan was “CEO” of the Chicago Public Schools. During and for some time after his tenure, he was celebrated as having presided over “The Chicago Miracle,” in which local students’ test results had improved dramatically. That fact turns out to have been fake, but accurate. The state test results did improve, but not because students had learned more; they appear to have improved because the tests were dumbed-down.

When this charge was first leveled, I decided to look into it myself, and found that it was indeed justified. There was no “Chicago Miracle.” Arne Duncan ascended to the throne of U.S. secretary of education, at least in part, on a myth. The academic achievement of the children under his care stagnated at or slightly below the level of students in other large central cities during his time at the helm. Seems an opportune occasion for someone to “start with the man in the mirror, asking him to change his ways.”