Tag: public schools

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.

The More Obama ‘Challenges,’ the More Education Will Look the Same

The Obama Administration talks a mighty game about “change” and taking politics out of decision making, but at least when it comes to education it seems to be all about playing politics.

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific editorial on the latest evidence of old school political maneuvering by Obama’s education apparatus. (And Andrew Coulson has just blogged about the nefarious goings-on.) Basically, the Obama people let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed. And when was this report finally released? Last Friday afternoon, a perfect time to keep press coverage to a minimum. 

I had to insert “almost certainly,” by the way, when stating that education department people had the report in hand while the voucher killing was going on because, according to the WSJ, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s people have refused to say who knew about the report’s results when. Apparently, they didn’t want to deliver any smoking gun showing that they tried to suppress the DC evidence.

So the Obama Administration is hostile to school choice. What, then, is its plan for reform?

Here’s what Secretary Duncan recently told the Washington Post after dismissing DC’s voucher program:

The way you help them [all kids] is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.

Oh, challenge the status quo and deliver “dramatically better schools”! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” I mean, that’s powerful stuff, along the lines of how do you get to Mars? You fly there!

Obviously, the important thing is how you challenge the status quo and provide better schools, and for decades we’ve been trying sound-bite-driven reform like Duncan offered the Post, and exhibited in his recent declaration that he will “come down like a ton of bricks” on any state that doesn’t use waste-rewarding “stimulus” money effectively. And how will we know when a use is ineffective? Why, we’ll make states report on test scores, teacher quality, and other things, and then threaten to withhold money if outcomes don’t get better.

Of course, we know how well that’s worked before.

Simply put, tough talk from politicians has delivered pretty much nothing good for kids or taxpayers. The powers of the status quo – the teachers unions, administrators, and bureaucrats who live off our moribund public schools – have effectively neutered almost every top-down, tough-guy reform ranging from state standards, to Goals 2000, to the No Child Left Behind Act. And of course they have: These groups have by far the most political power in education because they have by far the greatest motivation and ability to control education politics. After all, the system provides both their livelihoods and much of the money they use for political action, and you and I have no choice but to pay for it! And like all of us, the adults who control the schools want as much money, and as little accountability, for themselves as possible.

So what would really challenge the status quo? Look no further than what the unions, administrators, and bureaucrats hate the most: school choice! Yes, the very reform that Duncan has regularly pooh-poohed, undercut, and ignored is by far the greatest threat to the status quo. Why? Because it is the only reform that would destroy the monopoly that keeps the education interests in power! Choice would also unleash specialization, competition, and innovation – the wonderful market forces that give us everything from constantly improving computers to incredibly reliable delivery services – but from a reform standpoint, the most fundamental thing that choice would do is actually challenge the status quo, not just talk about it. 

Unfortunately, it seems that kind of change is too challenging for Obama and company. It’s just much easier to give the special interests all the money they want, wrap it up in tough talk, and kneecap anything that would really challenge the woeful status quo.

Why We Fight

Neal McCluskey’s classic Cato Policy Analysis, “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict,” is vindicated once again by the tiff over whether a porn film will be screened on the University of Maryland campus.

At this writing, students intend to go ahead with a showing of “Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge” despite threats from a state senator to withhold funding for the university if the film is screened.

Many people object to porn for legitimate reasons. The question is whether the state should weigh in on the subject, pitting the moral views of some against the speech rights of others.

Says McCluskey:

Throughout American history, public schooling has produced political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed between diverse people. Such clashes are inevitable in government-run schooling because all Americans are required to support the public schools, but only those with the most political power control them.

Hopefully, the students are learning the relevant free-speech lesson from this episode: Government funds always come with strings, including strings that threaten free speech.

Conservatives, Public Schools, and Pedagogy

I’ve received a fair bit of e-mail in response to my commentary yesterday on the recent defunding of the Bush administration’s Reading First program. Several people questioned my assertion that the program failed to yield a significant nationwide improvement in literacy. I cited a 2008 federal government report in support of that assertion, but questions were raised as to the validity of that study and other research seeming to contradict it was presented.

Taking the latter point first, it was pointed out that an EDS study of California found a positive impact to the program, as did an NWREL study of 5 other Western states. Note that there is not necessarily any contradiction between the federal study and the California and Western states studies. It’s possible that, nationwide, Reading First was associated with academic improvements in some schools, no effect in others, and lower performance in still others, resulting in the overall lack of impact reported by the federal government study. If so, it could be that schools in which Reading First proved effective are unevenly distributed around the country, and happen to be concentrated in the West.

Another possibility is that the federal study was so flawed that it failed to find a significant positive effect to Reading First when there actually was one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that this is true and that Reading First is actually working, overall, at improving student literacy nationwide. If so, what confidence should we have that it would continue to be effectively implemented in the long term, and not displaced by something else, or altered so as to become ineffective?

The answer is: not much. As I’ve noted in the case of the Follow Through experiment of the 60s and 70s, which is typical, even when a proven method is adopted in public school classrooms and yields great success it tends to be discarded for one reason or another. Since nothing fundamental has changed in the incentive structure of public schooling since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that Reading First would buck the trend and somehow survive in perpetutity.

But all of this is of course academic, because Congress has already defunded the program. Democrats were not interested in continuing to evaluate the program to make absolutely sure of its impact. They killed it almost immediately because it is a traditionalist pedgaogical program that appeals to conservatives rather than “progressives.”

And that was the second point of my commentary: even when effective methods are implemented in public schools they remain subject to the inconstant winds of politics. If you want to find fields where better methods roiutinely displace worse ones rather than vice versa, you have to look to the free enterprise sector of the economy. Without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, stagnation and declining productivity are the norm. Education is no different in this regard from any other field.

And just to be clear, I am convinced by the earlier research that the pedagogical ideas behind Reading First are sound, and that when properly implemented its systematic use of phonics is superior to most of what it would have displaced. I’m simply pointing out that there was never good reason to expect a government-protected monopoly consistently implement it effecitvely, and that even if it did for some period of time Reading First would eventually have fallen victim to shifting political winds. While some may choose to disagree on the first point, the second has already come to pass.

If we want schools around the country to continually adopt and refine the best methods available, we must create the freedoms and incentives that will cause that to happen… or get used to disappointment.

NEA to Dems: HEY! We Paid Good Money for You!!!

Here’s an interesting letter penned by Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association – the largest union in the country (hat tip to Cato’s own Neal McCluskey). It reads, in part (boldface added, ALL CAPS “shouting” in the original):

Letter to the Democrats in the House and Senate on DC Vouchers

March 05, 2009
Dear Senator:

The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher (“DC Opportunity Scholarship”) program.  We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program.  Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress. 

Vouchers are not real education reform.  Pulling 1,200 children out of a system that serves 65,000 doesn’t solve problems - it ignores them.  Real reform will put a qualified teacher in every classroom, keep their skills up to date with continuing education, and raise pay to attract and retain the best teachers.  Rather than offering a chance for a few, we should be ensuring that every child has access to a great public school.

Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.  Throughout its history, NEA has strongly opposed any diversion of limited public funds to private schools…. 

According to his bio, president Van Roekel used to teach high school math, so I assume he is an able number cruncher. But as someone who used to be a computer software engineer, I think an old comp. sci. adage is apropos: “Garbage-in, Garbage-out.” It doesn’t matter how good your number crunching is if the numbers you crunch are nonsense.

As I have previously pointed out, enrollment in DC this year is nearly 20,000 students lower than Van Roekel imagines. The “limited public funds” he seems to think are allocated to k-12 education in DC amount to $26,555 per pupil. The DC voucher program’s enabling legislation actually increases funding to DC public schools by $13 million per year, and the average tuition charged by voucher-accepting private schools was $5,928 last year.

So the DC voucher program is 4 times more efficient than DCPS, and gets far more positive reviews from parents in the bargain, according to the Dept. of Education’s own study of the program. If it were expanded to serve every student in the district, it would save on the order of half a billion dollars, even allowing for a higher average tuition.

Now let’s see… what other reasons might president Van Roekel have for wanting to kick 1,700 poor kids in DC out of schools they love?

RAND: Charter Schools Raise Ed’l Attainment

I am not a particularly avid fan of charter schools. As I’ve previously written on this blog, I see reason to fear that their long term result will be the growth rather than the contraction of the state schooling bureaucracy. That said, RAND has just published a relatively positive new study about their short-term effects.

While the RAND study finds no significant difference in achievement gains in charters versus regular public schools, it finds that charter students for whom they have the necessary data are 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college, after controlling for student characteristics.

While this is wonderful news, it will be a Pyrrhic victory if charter schools gradually succumb to regulatory encroachment and stultifying unionization, as seems likely.

Fortunately, as I blogged a couple of days ago, there is no need to run this risk. Truly market-like education systems show the same or better effects on students educational attainment, and show significant positive effects on academic achievement, school efficiency, parental satisfaction, eventual student earnings, and other outcomes. Access to such marketplaces can be made universal through tax credit programs that are significantly more apt to resist regulatory encroachment than are state-funded school choice policies, as I document in a forthcoming book chapter for Clemson University.

Matt Yglesias on School Choice in Sweden

Following up on Dana Goldstein’s American Prospect blog post, Matt Yglesias calls the Swedish system and U.S. charter schools better education policy models than education tax credits.

He doesn’t say why, and I’d be interested to hear his reasoning. As I documented on Cato-at-Liberty in response to Goldstein, the econometric evidence shows that the greatest margin of superiority over state-run schooling is enjoyed by truly market-like education systems. By that I mean systems that are minimally regulated with respect to content, staffing, prices, etc., and which are funded at least in part directly by the families they serve.

Yglesias also claims that choice supporters want to “eliminate public education.” On the contrary, choice supporters are fundamentally more committed to public education than anyone who refuses to consider the market alternative.

“Public Education” is a set of ideals. It is not a particular institution. It is the ideal that all children should have access to a good education, regardless of family income; that schools should prepare students not just for success in private life but for participation in public life; and that our schools should foster harmonious relations among the various groups making up our pluralistic society – or at the very least not create unnecessary tensions among them.

School choice advocates are more committed to those ideals than is anyone wedded to the current district-based school system, because that system is inferior in all of the above respects to a universally accessible education marketplace. This is documented in the literature review linked-to above, in my book Market Education: The Unknown History, and in the work of James Tooley, E.G. West, my Cato colleagues, and many others.

The education tax credit programs my colleagues and I have proposed would ensure universal access to the education marketplace, while leaving essentially intact the freedoms and incentives responsible for the market’s success. I know of no other policy capable of achieving this. Certainly charter schools and the Swedish system fail to do it.