Tag: school

Ed. Feds to Reinvent Wheel, Ignoring Pi

Education secretary Arne Duncan testified before Congress today on the president’s 2010 budget for the Department of Education. One of the first things he said was this:

We also plan to work very hard at scaling up success in our education system. Under our 2010 budget, the Department would continue to use the Innovation Fund created by the Recovery Act to identify and replicate successful models and strategies that raise student achievement. We know that there are many school systems and non-profit organizations across the country with demonstrated track records of success in raising student achievement, and our 2010 request would help bring their success to scale.

Duncan and President Obama are so, so right to focus on this challenge. Sadly, their efforts will so, so utterly fail, just as those of all their predecessors. Here’s why:

For a long time, observers of U.S. public schooling have wrung their hands over a pernicious problem: there are many isolated and transitory examples of excellence within the system (think “Stand and Deliver”), but efforts to scale these models up on a lasting, nationwide basis have always failed.

One early and notorious example was the federal Follow Through experiment of the late 1960s and early ’70s. At a cost of over a billion dollars, it demonstrated that one instruction method, “Distar,” clearly outperformed 21 others. Distar was #1 not just overall, but in each of the subcategories of reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. It placed a close second in promoting advanced conceptual skills, and was even the most effective at boosting students’ self-esteem and responsibility toward their work. Nothing else came close.

So what happened? The public school system failed to follow through on Follow Through. Not only was Distar NOT widely adopted around the country, most of the schools that had used it during the experimental phase subsequently dropped it. Their performance dropped commensurately. End of story.

Then there was the billion-dollar Annenberg Challenge of the 1990s, which was meant to identify and replicate successful education models around the country. The project was funded by TV Guide mogul Walter H. Annenberg, launched by then-president Bill Clinton, and overseen, in its Chicago operations, by Barack Obama. And it was another utter failure. Some good schools were created here and there, but the lasting, system-wide improvements that Annenberg had been hoping for never materialized. Why?

The reason is simple: the incredible progress we’ve witnessed in virtually every aspect of life for the past two centuries is the product of freedoms and incentives that do not exist in public schooling.  After spending most of their adult lives writing an awe-inspiring 11 volume history of the world, Will and Ariel Durant remarked that:

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive or too transient. (The Lessons of History, 1968, p. 54-55).

And while the Durants learned this lesson from their study of history, others learned it from personal experience. Michael Manley, leader of the People’s National Party and Vice President of the Socialist International, looked back on his time as Prime Minister of Jamaica and observed in New Perspectives Quarterly:

The fact is we all seriously miscalculated the capacity of the state to intervene effectively. Despite the enormous sincerity we brought to the task, our nationalist and statist approach didn’t work… When one tries to use the state as a major instrument of production, one quickly exhausts the managerial talent that can be mobilized in the name of patriotism. Absent the profit motive, it was truly amazing how few managers one could find that were motivated solely by love of their country, and how quickly these noble souls burned out. I call this idea the “Guevarist myth.” (1992, p. 46-47).

The automatic process by which useful innovations are encouraged, identified, disseminated, perpetuated, and finally superseded relies on innovators being free to do whatever they think is best for their customers, and having powerful incentives to constantly improve on the state of the art. That is why dramatic progress has been the norm under the free-enterprise system over the past 40 years, while public school productivity has plummeted.

Great educators and great schools can and do appear within the public school system, but they do so in spite of that system, not because of it. They never scale up in the way that Google, iPods, or the Kumon tutoring chain have scaled up, because they lack the combination of freedoms and incentives essential to doing so. Trying to get a bureaucracy with a state-protected funding monopoly to reliably scale up excellence in the way that markets do is like trying to reinvent the wheel with an alternative value of pi. It simply cannot be done.

True education markets are the ONLY system that will do what Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and the American people wish.

Tax Credits, Courts, and Cabers

As Adam Schaeffer notes on this blog today, education tax credits have won in court, again. This time in Arizona.

I’ve long argued that their superior resistance to court challenge is one of many reasons to favor tax credits over other approaches to school choice. But there’s one court that even credits are likely to run into trouble with: the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit is the most statist appellate court in the nation, and it has been sitting on an education tax credit case, Winn v. Garriott, for more than a year. For the record, I expect it to rule against the program sometime in 2009. If it does, that ruling will be appealed and almost certainly overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Supporters of educational freedom should both brace themselves for this setback and also put it in perspective. The 9th Circuit is overturned more often than a caber at the Highland games.

Education Tax Credits Upheld, Again

The decision by the Arizona court of Appeals today upholding the constitutionality of the business tax credit program should put to bed once and for all these frivolous lawsuits against tax credits. Opponents are wasting their money.

Education tax credits are taxpayer funds and therefore cannot run afoul of state constitutional provisions regarding the use of government funds. It really is just that simple.

Some school choice supporters have given up on vouchers because of recent disappointments and think that means the end for private school choice. They forget the most successful school choice policy in recent years is education tax credits.

Not only have tax credit programs been passed and expanded with regularity (GA just passed a $50 million, universal program last year), education tax credits have proven bullet-proof in court.

Education tax credits are the future for school choice, and it’s looking pretty bright.

Obama First Dem President to Support Vouchers

Through his press secretary Robert Gibbs, president Obama has declared that he will reverse congressional Democrats’ phase-out of the DC Opportunity Scholarships program. The scholarships make private schooling affordable for 1,700 poor DC children, most of whom would be forced back into the District’s broken public school system if it were to end.

However – yes, there’s always a however – there’s every indication that president Obama will do the minimum necessary to keep the program going at its current size, and will not help to expand it.

This is nevertheless a crucial milestone. There is finally a major national Democratic leader who is beginning to catch up to his state-level peers. Democrats all around the country have been supporting and signing small education tax credit programs because they realize that these programs are win-win: good for their constituents and good for their long-term political futures.

The old guard of the Democratic party – typified by congressional leaders – still imagines that school choice is bad for them. They still think that they can roll back time to a period when the public school monopoly was inviolate. That time has passed. Real educational freedom is spreading – slowly – around the country. That is not going to stop.

The last Democrats to be found jamming their fingers into the dike, hoping to stop the flight to educational freedom, will find their political careers swept away when that dike finally crumbles.

The Early-Ed Big Lie

In a speech on education this morning at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Obama repeats questionable statistics in support of his bid to expand the government’s monopoly on education back to the womb, asserting that “$1 of early education leads to $10 in saved social services.”

Unfortunately he’s referring to small-scale programs that involved extensive and often intensive total-family intervention rather than simple “early education.”

In contrast to the– real-world school choice programs have been tested extensively with solid, random-assignment studies. Nine out of ten of these studies find statistically significant improvement in academic achievement for at least one subgroup.

Obama should follow the scientific evidence on what works in education; school choice, not “early education.”

Vouchers vs. the District with ‘More Money than God’

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on March 9, 2009.

This week, education secretary Arne Duncan referred to DC public schools as a district with “more money than God.” Perhaps he was thinking of the $24,600 total per-pupil spending figure I reported last year in the Washington Post and on this blog. If so, he’s low-balling the number. With the invaluable help of my research assistant Elizabeth Li, I’ve just calculated the figure for the current school year. It is $26,555 per pupil.

In his address to Congress and his just-released budget, the president repeatedly called for efficiency in government education spending. At the same time, the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have been trying to sunset funding for the DC voucher program that serves 1,700 poor kids in the nation’s capital. So it seems relevant to compare the efficiencies of these programs.

According to the official study of the DC voucher program, the average voucher amount is less than $6,000. That is less than ONE QUARTER what DC is spending per pupil on education. And yet, academic achievement in the voucher program is at least as good as in the District schools, and voucher parents are much happier with the program than are public school parents.

In fact, since the average income of participating voucher families is about $23,000, DC is currently spending almost as much per pupil on education as the vouchers plus the family income of the voucher recipients COMBINED.

So Mr. President and Secretary Duncan, could you please sit down with Democratic leaders in the Senate before next Monday’s vote on an amendment to keep funding the DC voucher program, and reassert to them your desire for efficiency and your opposition to kicking these children out of a program that they depend on?

Here are the details of, and sources for, the DC education spending calculation:

Excluding preschool, higher education, and charter schools, the main education expenditures in the District are as follows:

Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education $4,917,325
DCPS (k-12 relevant items only, see below) $593,961,000
OSSE (k-12 relevant items only, see below) $198,277,000
Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization $38,368,800
Non-public Tuition** $141,700,442
Special Education Transportation** $75,558,319
Capital funding $239,033,000
Total DC k-12 budget $1,291,815,886
DCPS official total enrollment (incl. special ed.) 48,646
Total per pupil spending $26,555

Budget Sources:

DC budget FY2009, Agency budget chapters, part 2

DC Budget FY2009, Capital Appendices, part 2

DC Budget FY2009, Operating Appendices, part 2

Enrollment Source:

Linda Faison at DCPS, e-mail, March 5, 2009

The non-k-12 items excluded from the OSSE budget were:

            amount      code     description

$36,697,000  A245 public charter financing and support
$85,943,000  a430 early care & education administration
$6,322,000  a431 childcare program development
$14,544,000  a432 pre-k and school readiness
$459,000  a433 early childhood infants and toddlers
$2,036,000  a434 income eligibility determination
$37,000  a440 career & technical education
$34,397,000  a475 DC Tag
$726,000  a470 post secondary educ & workforce readiness
$4,574,000  a471 career and tech education
$3,237,000  a472 adult and family education
$1,800,000  a477 adult scholarship

The non-k-12 item excluded from the DCPS budget was:

            amount      code     description

$58,780,000  2200 early childhood education

Transfers from OSSE to DCPS (count in OSSE budget, but not in DCPS budget):

Revenue code Amount

706 $18,172,000
727 $90,290,000
728 $1,370,000

Ed Secretary: DC Schools Have ‘More Money than God,’ But They’re Still Lousy

You know, I might not agree with federal education secretary Arne Duncan on a lot of things, but I could really get to like this guy if he keeps talking like this:

History has shown that money alone does not drive school improvement, Duncan said, pointing to the District of Columbia, where public school students consistently score near the bottom on national reading and math tests even though the school system spends more per pupil than its suburban counterparts do.

“D.C. has had more money than God for a long time, but the outcomes are still disastrous,” Duncan said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.