Tag: public schools

Turns out State Schooling Isn’t Communist after all…

Albert Shanker, long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers union, said back in 1989 that:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

But hang on a minute! Doesn’t the following description sound a lot like the work rules in our public schools:

Promotion was determined by the Table of Ranks…. An official could hold only those posts at or below his own personal rank…. [S]tandard intervals were set for promotion: one rank every three years from ranks 14 to 8; and one every four years from ranks 8 to 5…. This meant that, barring some heinous sin, even the most average bureaucrat could expect to rise automatically with age…. The system encouraged … time-serving mediocrity

That, ladies and gentleman, is not a description of the work rules of the communist-era Russian bureaucracy. It describes the rules in the Tsarist Russian bureaucracy (see Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy,” p. 36).

The funny thing is, according to Figes, “By the end of the [19th] century, however, this system of automatic advancement was falling into disuse as merit became more important than age.”

So the modern U.S. system for promoting public school teachers was discarded as inefficient and unworkable… by the Tsars.

School Officials Can’t Censor Student Speech, Not Even Religious Speech

Everyone knows that students have First Amendment rights, that the Constitution proverbially doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  Yet students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas (against whose speech code Cato previously filed a brief) were prohibited from handing out pencils with messages such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or sending holiday cards to retirement homes that said “Merry Christmas.”

The students, through their parents, sued the district on First Amendment grounds, and were successful through a Fifth Circuit panel ruling that “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that prevents government officials from being held personally liable under certain circumstances for violating constitutional rights, did not apply in this case.  The panel’s holding is as important as it is unremarkable: School officials have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech during non-curricular activities violates the First Amendment.  The government certainly cannot do so simply because the speech happens to be religious.

The Fifth Circuit en banc (as a whole) vacated the panel’s decision, however, and decided to rehear the case.  Cato has filed a brief supporting the students and their parents; not only is it settled law that students have the right to free speech in public schools, but school officials should be held liable for violating those rights on the basis of the content of that speech.

Indeed, if the First Amendment means anything, it is that the government cannot suppress speech based solely on its content.  More specifically, when an area of the law is “clearly established,” officials cannot escape liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity simply doesn’t apply to public school officials who suppress speech in a non-curricular setting merely because the school district points to some legal disagreement in a dissent, concurrence, or other non-binding judicial opinion that disagrees with settled doctrine regarding viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech.

The en banc Fifth Circuit will hear the case, Morgan v. Swanson, later this spring.  Thanks to legal associate Michael Wilt for his help with the brief and this post.

Let’s Not Lose Sight of a Real Education Market

Over the last few days Jay Greene, the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, and several other edu-thinkers have been arguing about whether national curriculum standards would destroy a competitive market in education, and a market that already provides the uniform standards Fordham wants Washington to impose. But let’s be very clear: We haven’t had a real market – a free market – in education for a long time.

Sadly, I’m afraid Jay started this whole mess, though he certainly knows what a free market in education would look like and I don’t think he intended to confuse the issue.  Indeed, he doesn’t use the term “free market,” but mainly writes about the “competitive market between communities.” His argument is that Americans over time picked standardized curricula and schools by moving to districts that provided such things. He is no doubt at least partially right, though the case is hardly open and shut. Indeed, there is strong historical evidence that district consolidation and uniformity was often pushed on small districts from outside, especially in urban areas. It is also quite possible that many people moved to districts with uniform offerings not in search of such offerings, but in search of something else that happened to coincide with them. Most notably, industrialization brought many people to cities in search of employment, and school uniformity often came with that. Finally, the economist whose work inspired Jay’s post notes that while he believes small rural districts died largely due to residents abandoning them, he concedes that there is a “lack of direct evidence connecting rural property values with local decisions about consolidation.”

Those caveats aside, Jay’s point is a still good one that I have made before, most notably when discussing schooling and social cohesion: People will tend to have their children learn many ”common” things because that is the key to personal success. People will learn what they need to in order to work effectively and successfully in society.  Moreover, people will simply tend to gravitate toward things that work.

So the main problem in the Greene-Fordham debate is not that Jay’s points are necessarily wrong, it’s that “competitive market between communities” is too easily misconstrued as “free market,” and it fails to acknowledge the gigantic inefficiencies that come from government monopolies, whether controlled at the district, state, or federal level. Those include the massive, expensive waste that fills the pockets of special interests employed by the system; constant conflict over what the schools will teach; and at-best very ponderous competition – if you want a better school you have to buy a new house – that quashes crucial innovation and specialization. Worse yet, it leads to the following kind of crucial, damaging misunderstanding by Porter-Magee:

For more than a decade we have been conducting a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting at the state level. The result? A swift and sure race to the bottom. A majority of states had failed to set rigorous standards for their students—and had failed to create effective assessments that could be used to track student mastery of that content. In fact, the whole impetus behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative was to address what was essentially a market failure in education.

This is wrong, as they say, on so many levels!

First, we do not have real market forces anywhere at work in the current, NCLB-dominated regime. Using the quick list of market basics that John Merrifield lays out in his Policy Analysis on school choice research, a truly free market needs ”profit, price change, market entry, and product differentiation.” None of these are meaningfully at work in public schooling, with profit-making providers at huge tax-status disadvantages; public schools artificially “free” to customers; high legal barriers to starting new institutions that can meaningfully compete with traditional public schools; and requirements that all public schools teach the same things, at least at the state level. 

Moreover, if you want to talk about competition between states – which is more in line with what Jay was discussing – under NCLB all states have faced the same, overwhelming incentives to establish low standards, weak accountability, or both: If they don’t get their students to something called “proficiency” – which they define – the federal government punishes them! In light of that, of course they have almost all set very low “proficiency” bars. But that is about as far from “a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting” as you can get! Indeed, it is a brilliant example not of market failure, but government failure!

Ultimately, Jay’s point is right: People on their own will tend to select educational options that are unifying, as well as gravitate to what appears to work best, so there is no need for the federal government to impose it. Moreover, as Jay points out, there are huge reasons to avoid federal standardization, including that special interests like teachers unions will likely capture such standards. But that problem has been at work with state and local monopolies, and it, along with myriad other government failures, will not be overcome until we have a real market in education – a free market in education.

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.