Tag: school choice

Waiting for Realityman

The edu-documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ continues to generate lots of noise about fixing American education. Unfortunately, like the film itself, most of the noisemakers ultimately ignore reality: The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents – the customers – to get their money. And that can mean only one thing:  transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.

You would think that would be clear to members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Think again: In a new report, the Chamber demonstrates that what’s really needed is not a visit from Superman, but for Realityman to give it a superpowered kick to the rear so that it will demand universal school choice, not the milquetoast tweaks of the government monopoly it meekly champions.

What follows are just a few examples of where the Realityman Signal shines brightly in the report – where the Chamber clearly sees the diabolical work of government monopoly, but ultimately fails to identify the culprit – calling out for our hero to save the Chamber.

First, the paper notes that “successful businesses use well-documented management and leadership practices that result in lean, accountable, flexible, high-achieving organizations.” Meanwhile, “these practices are often absent in school management. State [sic] and districts are not held accountable for their academic outcomes relative to their expenditures….”

No kidding: Businesses have to become ever-more efficient and effective or they’ll lose customers to better, cheaper competitors.  Public schools, in contrast, have no real competition and get paid no matter what.

Next, if you aren’t happy with the state of your schools, the Chamber advises getting “tough with candidates and elected officials…. Call candidates, conduct town hall forums and invite the press, write op-eds, and call your local newspaper reporters who work on education issues.”

Now, is this how most businesses work? If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!

Finally, the Chamber laments that “other industries are changing, adapting, and harnessing the power of new technologies, but our education system resists change.”

There’s a simple explanation for this: Public schooling isn’t an “industry.” WordNet defines “industry” as “the organized action of making of goods and services for sale [italics added].” But public schools don’t sell anything. They simply take, and because they don’t have to earn any business they have little incentive to adapt new technologies.

Surely most businessmen recognize the forces that push them to do their best. Why can’t they see the desperate need for the same forces in education?

Save us, Realityman!

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.

Rhee-buffeted?

We don’t know for certain that controversial DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will depart DC when her boss’s term ends – and it will end soon – but it seems very likely. Assuming she does leave, there is a big education lesson to be learned from Adrian Fenty’s re-election loss: Relying on crusading politicians to successfully and permanently reform a government schooling monopoly is a recipe for crushed hopes. Politics is simply too volatile – and enacting tough reforms too politically risky – for even good reforms to be sustained. It’s just another reason that the key to truly sustainable reform is school choice, in which parents control education funds, educators have to compete and perform for business, and children are no longer buffeted back and forth by the ever-changing winds of politics.

Would the Schools Work Better If They Outlawed All Competitors?

In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy praises the “profound egalitarian insights” and “radical oneness” of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (and billionaire Warren Buffett):

“I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty,” Rhee wrote. “But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education. ‘Make private schools illegal,’ he said, ‘and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.’ “

Milloy’s not satisfied that Rhee is taking on entrenched interests, firing principals and teachers who aren’t doing a good job, and apparently actually improving the schools in the District of Columbia. No, he’s attracted to the “radical concept” of outlawing private schools and forcing everyone in the District into the same schools, with no hope of escape. There would be one method of escape, of course: moving to the suburbs.  And you can bet that lots more people would do that if Milloy and Rhee got their way.

I wonder what a total government monopoly on education would look like. Are Buffett and Rhee right that a government monopoly forced on every citizen would work well? Would work so well that it would “solve the problems of urban education … and reverse generational poverty”?

Well, one answer might be glimpsed on the same page B3 where part of Milloy’s column appeared. In an adjacent column, columnist John Kelly discussed his “Kafkaesque” five-hour visit to the state of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration:

I was at the MVA. I was in Hell.

I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don’t care. You don’t know what it was like. You weren’t there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time….

I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn’t every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn’t management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.

The MVA, of course, is a monopoly government bureaucracy. Everyone must go there – CEOs, diplomats, even Washington Post columnists. And yet, somehow, that has not led to the MVA equivalent of solving problems and reversing poverty. Five hours to get a drivers’ license just might be worse performance than that of the public schools.

It’s the system, Mr. Milloy and Ms. Rhee. Monopolies don’t have much incentive to improve. Give everyone the chance to go to a different supplier, and then you’ll see improvement. Giant Food wouldn’t last long if it took five hours to buy your groceries – because it has competitors. But as long as the schools are a near-monopoly, and the MVA or DMV is a total monopoly, don’t expect real improvement.

Is an Education Free Market Really ‘Totally Insane’

Matt Yglesias thinks my assertion that we would be better off economically if education money stayed with taxpayers rather than going to public schools and universities is “totally insane.” Ouch!

Now, I can actually understand this, because many people have difficulty envisioning things other than what they’ve always known. But have I really gone all Crazy Eddie? If government didn’t spend taxpayer dough on education, would the poor be much worse off than they are today? Can we never over-invest in schooling because education is just so important? Does the college wage premium mean we should never ratchet down subsidies for college education? And is it at least possible that spending more and more public dough doesn’t lead to more or better education – by which I mean actual, valuable learning – as much as more waste?

Unfortunately, it seems Ygelsias didn’t follow any of the links I provided in the post containing the line he objected to, which furnished some valuable data answering these important questions. And, by the way, it really was just one line he seemed to dislike – the point of the post was to argue against spending yet more taxpayer dough on an education-centered stimulus, not for complete separation of school and state. And, of course, tax-credit-based school choice leaves taxpayers in control of their money without eliminating support for education.

But let’s start answering our questions in more depth so that Mr. Yglesias and others can start to think outside of the “how we’ve always done it” box.

First, let’s hit one critical point: Spending taxpayer money on government schooling does not actually mean you get better education. Let’s look at that graphically:

Here you can see nearly four decades of precipitously increasing expenditures on K-12 education plotted against student performance. And what does it reveal? No correlation between the Death Valley of academic achievement and the Everest of spending. Ever-more taxpayer dollars have gone into the government education system, but the system hasn’t improved at all. Why? Because the educators receiving the money have no need to get better – they’ve gotten ever-more dough no matter what, in large part because many people simply assume that increased government spending on education equals better education. But if you spend hugely greater amounts and get no better results, that seems like it would be an economic drain, no? Which was exactly what I was arguing.

How about higher education?

On a per-pupil basis, over the last quarter-century spending on public colleges and universities has been steady overall, while aid per student at all schools has gone way up. And what do we have to show for that?

The first thing is  incredible tuition inflation – the bane of American higher education. On a per-pupil basis, since 1988 real aid per student has risen 144 percent, while prices have inflated 81 percent at four-year-private schools and 145 percent at four-year publics. It seems, at least in part, that colleges and universities raise their prices because, well, the aid makes sure they can.

Surely, though, the schools use that money to provide more people with ever-better educations? Maybe, but much of the new money seems to have gone just to hiring more administrators, freeing professors from teaching so they can conduct research, and erecting ever more fabulous amenities. Which brings us back to the economic point: Maybe taking money from taxpayers to subsidize all this empire-building and waste might be an economic loss because taxpayers would otherwise spend the money more wisely. Maybe they’d invest in companies that provide better, cheaper products; give money to charities; buy education from stripped-down – but more educationally effective –  schools; or use it for countless other things they need or want.

But what if all this subsidizing – even with its attendant waste – resulted in impressive educational outcomes? Then maybe, just maybe, it would be an economic net gain.  But things look pretty bad: The six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s degree seekers is just 57 percent; roughly one-third of first-year students need to take remedial courses; and literacy dropped (see p. 38) roughly ten percentage points for Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree between 1992 and 2003. Oh, and that wage premium? It could very well include massive credentialism: It might be that you now need a bachelor’s degree for jobs that require only skills or abilities you could have attained on the job or in relatively brief specialized training. But at this point even half-way decent prospective employees would be expected to have gone to a four-year college.

Enough conjecture, though. Let’s go to the videotape – an actual effort to isolate the effect of government higher-ed spending on economic growth. Economist Richard Vedder has done this, and what he has found is that the more a state spends on higher education, the lower its rate of economic growth. Why? Among other possible things, it seems that when education is largely funded by third parties – especially third parties who have no choice in the matter – it decreases schools’ and students’ motivation to act efficiently. So sure, build that on-campus water park – I ain’t really paying for it!

Looking at things this way – contemplating the myriad costs, not just the assumed benefits, of taxpayer funding of education – it seems maybe my ideas shouldn’t be assigned a cell between the Joker and the Riddler quite so quickly.

But what about the equalitarian argument? Forget about economic efficiency – what about justice for the poor?

First off, I’d note that freer, more efficient economic systems tend to be better for everyone, rich and poor alike. You can read all about that here. But we need look no further than American history to see that people – including the poor – will get educated without government help. Before there was widespread government schooling there was widespread education. Indeed, by 1840 – when Mann’s common-school movement was still in diapers – it is estimated that 90 percent of adult whites in America were literate, a very high level relative to Europe. And the nation was hardly the Monopoly Man at the time. In other words, poor people got educated on their own.

But how could this be? Certainly part of the answer was that many poor people emphasized education, and much education occurred in the home. It was also provided by religious institutions, as well as philanthropists. And, of course, poor communities sometimes got together to establish their own schools.

But that was then and this is now, right? Education is much more complex because the world is much more complex. How could poor people get an education today if government didn’t provide it?

Well, for one thing, education need not be nearly as complex and expensive as it is. All those computers and other bells and whistles? There is hardly overwhelming evidence that they do any good – they may just be a huge waste of money. Meanwhile, many relatively barebones private schools seem to do just as good a job or better at educating students. Oh, and there’s that charity thing again: Religious schools provide low-cost education to millions of kids, and it could be lower if they didn’t have to compete with “free” public schools. And despite massive government subsidies to higher ed, private philanthropists give tens-of-billions of dollars to colleges and universities every year – imagine how much they might give if government didn’t say it would do the job! In other words, there is absolutely no overwhelming argument – to say the least – that just because the world is  more complicated government must run schools and pay for education. Indeed, huge, bureaucratic, plodding government is about the least well-equipped entity to handle complication and fast change.

And guess what? There is a profit-motive to furnish education to poor students with demonstrated academic aptitude: If someone lends money to a poor student to go to college so she can get an education that enables her to increase her future earnings, both parties will end up profiting. And let’s not overlook India and numerous other developing countries, where many of the poorest people in the world, using their own money, attend for-profit schools that outperform the free public schools. And why is that? Because the parents whose valuable money is being spent have huge incentives to hold schools accountable, and schools have to respond to parents to stay in business.

But maybe all that’s not enough for Mr. Yglesias. Maybe he needs to also be reminded of what he himself noted:

The current state of schooling in America is already bad enough in terms of ill-serving poor people.

That’s for sure! Currently, wealthy people can choose schools: they do it by buying a house in a good district or paying for private schools. Meanwhile, poor parents are often trapped in awful schools because they can’t afford to buy a McMansion for tuition. In higher education, flagship public colleges and universities have disproportionately middle- and high-income student bodies. And student aid? With creation of tax credit programs you have to have sufficient taxable income to use, as well as loans like PLUS that have no income maximums, aid has been targeted higher and higher up income scales. Meanwhile, the tuition inflation that all that fuels appears likely to scare low-income people away from higher education more than any other group.

Finally, let’s not forget that it was government that for centuries prohibited millions of people – especially African-Americans – from receiving either an equal education, or any education at all.   Without question during those times many private Americans would have discriminated in the provision of education, but government required discrimination by both bigot and good man alike.

So the current education system — which tends to be bent toward the will of the large, voting, middle- and upper-income blocs – already massively underserves the poor, and quite possibly makes it much harder for low-income Americans to compete with rich people than if everyone paid for schooling themselves. The system also injects huge distortions and inefficiencies into education, hurting overall economic progress. Of course, this is not an open-and-shut case – few things are in public policy – but you sure need to do more than just call removing government from education “insane” to counter it. Unfortunately, that’s not something it seems too many people – including Mr. Yglesias – are prepared to do.

South Carolina Gov Race: What’s Haley Thinking on School Choice?

Nikki Haley promises to be a star governor if–most likely when–she’s elected this fall by South Carolina voters. Word is she’s a committed fiscal conservative, and her background is steeped in a successful family business, not large corporations, so she should have an intuitive grasp of what makes our economy grow.

And Haley has a long, solid record of supporting school choice through education tax credits in South Carolina. As recently as August 19th, Haley was reported as saying, “like Sanford, she would veto a bill to expand public education options unless it included help with private tuition. She agreed with Sanford that it must be all or nothing, saying otherwise the Legislature won’t return to the debate.”

Now that’s the stuff.

But Haley has recently put out some concerning and confusing statements on school choice. “Haley said approving private-school choice, which would provide tax credits or vouchers to pay private-school tuition, was not a priority. ‘That is not my focus; my focus is the school funding formula,’ Haley said.”

Changing the funding formula is all well and good. It might save some money. But it will NOT improve education in South Carolina. Education tax credits will improve performance and save much more than any public school reform. School choice should be Haley’s only education issue.

Why is she backing away all of a sudden? Sure, the primary is over, but Haley is leading comfortably in the polls. Education tax credits pull down serious majority support across nearly every single demographic in South Carolina. White voters, black voters, old and young, Republicans and even Democrats. This is a great issue. And backtracking on a signature issue could tarnish her fresh, reformer image.

Most important, school choice is the right policy. Haley always seemed to have a deep understanding that only an education tax credit program can substantively improve education in South Carolina.

Senator Jim DeMint has a great short video plug for school choice out … let’s hope Haley takes a look at this, remembers what reform really matters, and does the right thing in office.

PDK: Charter Schools Finally As Popular as Education Tax Credits Have Been Since Before Clinton’s Impeachment

The new PDK/Gallup education poll for 2010 is out, with the standard problems we can expect from this pro-government school/anti-choice outfit. Randi Weingarten even gets some column space! Oh Randi, you proud yet humble teacher. The “Commentary” sidebars in general were cringe-inducingly hackish and treacly.

It is interesting that there was a big spike in the percentage of people saying the biggest problem schools must deal with is a lack of funds. They’ve done a great job convincing folks there’s no money.

Of course, the way the question is worded, it encourages respondents to think about the difficulties schools are facing, which despite their flush accounts probably is dealing with funding issues. I’d like to see the answers to “What do you think are the biggest problems preventing the public schools of your community from increasing student achievement?” or some such question. And they certainly should ask how much people think is being spent. “The Research Organization formerly known as Friedman Foundation,” or TROFKAFF, has some great state polls showing how horribly misinformed most people are about the spending issue.

PDK is still boycotting the voucher question for a few years running.

But what is really indefensible is that they haven’t asked about education tax credits since 1999, just when the policy took off. There are now 12 credit programs in 9 states. Maybe support was far too high for their taste? In 1999 support was in the high 60’s, even after a battery of questions about vouchers and pitting public reform against private choice.

Good news for charter schools, which have finally pulled ahead of the support credits enjoyed during the Clinton administration, thanks no doubt to an increase in support among Dems/liberals courtesy of Obama lip-service. PDK; update please.