Tag: schools

How’d That Get in Here?

Understandably, the public is a little preoccupied right now with efforts in Washington to “reform” health care by making it much, much worse. Fortunately, people are starting to notice that a congressional bum rush is heading right toward them — maybe they’ll be able stop it in time. Unfortunately, that is giving Washington a chance to sneak some other stuff by us.

In particular, I’m thinking of the just-introduced Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. It’s been largely ignored so far, save a little chatter about the community college stuff it incorporates. In a simpler time, it would have generated a lot more copy. After all, it will:

  • end federally backed student loans that come through private companies, and instead make Uncle Sam the universal lender;
  • greatly increase Pell Grants and peg their growth to the rate of inflation plus 1 point;
  • balloon the federal Perkins loan program;
  • authorize $5 billion over two years for elementary and secondary school facility projects, with a focus on “green” efforts;
  • authorize $10 billion over ten years for Early Learning Challenge Grants; and
  • furnish $12 billion for community colleges.

Not all of this, I should say, is terrible. Getting rid of the Federal Family Education Loan Program — which backs loans coming from ostensibly private companies and guarantees lenders a profit — is a good thing. But replacing it all with loans directly from D.C.? That’s a bad thing.

To be fair, transitioning from guaranteed to direct lending could save some money, especially in the short run, eliminating various fees and guarantees Washington pays to lenders under FFEL. But those savings almost certainly won’t be the $87 billion over ten years supporters claim, a number that is no doubt overstated as a result of budget chicanery and how quickly government grows. And don’t expect taxpayers to benefit from whatever savings are ultimately generated. According to the proud declaration of SAFRA sponsor George Miller (D-CA), only $10 billion of the projected $87 billion savings is slated for deficit reduction. The rest — breathtaking deficit be damned! — is going to standard, feel-good government spending, including school “modernization” projects and “early learning” grants

Which brings me to the community college components, which have, unlike the rest of the bill, been getting some media play. I wrote about them earlier this week, noting especially that they make little sense in light of Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers showing that positions requiring on-the-job training will grow in much greater numbers than jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree. What I didn’t mention was the dismal performance of community college students, who take remedial courses in droves and complete their programs at very low rates.

Ah, but we’re told that this new legislation, backed wholeheartedly by the Obama administration, is going to reform community colleges. As David Brooks celebrates in his column today:

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

Now, I thought Brooks was supposed to be a seasoned political observer, but he seems to have swallowed the reform-y rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. He’s seasoned enough, though, to give himself an out with the qualifier, “if administered properly.”

He’s gonna’ need that out, though the reform failure probably won’t be primarily administrative; the legislation itself offers gaping holes through which schools can escape real reform. To get “innovation” grants, schools would simply have to agree to do such nebulous, input-centric things as provide “student support services” and implement “other innovative programs.” In other words, they’d need do nothing meaningful at all.

Unfortunately, this bill will probably become law. Few politicians or interest groups are standing firmly against it, and with health care storming the public’s front door, few people will notice SAFRA tiptoeing through the back. Combine that with the few people who are writing about the bill giving it little critical thought, and its passage seems assured.

Slight Correction to My DC Per Pupil Spending Figure

In my IBD piece today I gave total per pupil spending in DC as $29,000 per pupil. That was based on an official k-12 audited enrollment count of 44,681, which I was told by a district official included the special needs students placed by the district in private schools. It turns out this was not the case, so we have to add in the special needs students to arrive at the total enrollment figure. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get that enrollment correction into the IBD in time for publication. Its impact on per pupil spending is not large, however.

The grand total audited enrollment was 48,353 students. From that we have to subtract 997 students in adult education programs and 1,498 students in preschool programs who are not covered by my k-12 budget calculations. That leaves us with a k-12 audited enrollment of 45,858. Dividing that in to the District of Columbia’s $1.3 billion k-12 education budget yields a per pupil spending figure of about $28,000.

Want to Know Why the U.K. Tory Party Is Revamping its Development Policy?

If so, just pick up a copy of James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

The Tories have looked at the evidence amassed by James and his colleagues (see p. 36 of their new report) and concluded that the best way to advance education in developing countries is to encourage and support existing entrepreneurial schools that are already serving the poor. And if the polls are any guide, that will likely be official government policy in the U.K. before too long.

Congratulations to James, Pauline Dixon, and their wonderful team for bringing sanity to the development policy debate.

How California’s Schools Brought the State to its Financial Knees

As we watch California struggle with a budget deficit larger than the entire Iranian government’s budget, it’s worth exploring how the state got there. The biggest contributing factor: a staggering collapse in educational productivity.

In 1974-75, California spent $1,373 per pupil on k-12 public schooling. By 2006-07, it was spending $10,937. Adjusting the earlier figure for inflation (to $5,286 in 2007 dollars), that still represents a more than doubling in real spending per pupil.

Of course, if California public schools had doubled student achievement and eliminated dropouts, that might justify their staggering increase in cost. They haven’t.  On the most reliable available measure of state academic achievement trends, the NAEP, California public school students have seen their scores go up by about 0.2% per year at the 4th and 8th grades since state-level data became available in 1990.  In other words, the state’s scores have barely budged from the low position they have long occupied. As a 2005 RAND paper observes:

California placed 48th out of 50 states on the average NAEP score across all tests, just above Louisiana and Mississippi… California’s low scores cannot be accounted for by the high percentage of minority students. California’s scores for students from families with similar characteristics are the lowest in the nation: It ranks 47th out of 47 states when we compare scores for these students.

California is in budgetary hell because of a massive collapse in the productivity of its public schools. If the public schools had just maintained the productivity level they enjoyed in 1974-75, taxpayers would now be saving $36 billion annually. That’s $10 billion more than the deficit the state is currently facing.

It’s not hard to understand why: public schooling is a monopoly. There is no field within the free enterprise sector of the economy that has had a similarly horrendous productivity collapse over the past 35 years.

California can work its way back to fiscal sanity, and jump-start educational improvement, by encouraging entrepreneurship in education via k-12 education tax credits like this one.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a roundup of bloggers who are writing about Cato research, commentary and analysis. If you’re blogging about Cato, cmoody [at] cato [dot] org (let us know.)

  • Freedom Politics blogger Thomas J. Lucente Jr. cites foreign policy expert Christopher Preble in a post about the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
  • Writing about the political situation in Honduras, Patrick Murphy draws from Juan Carlos Hidalgo’s analysis on the president’s removal.
  • At the Americans for Tax Reform blog, Tim Andrews cites David Boaz’s post that lists the “taxes proposed or publicly floated by President Obama and his aides and allies.”
Topics:

Duncan Balls

It seems U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and British schools secretary Ed Balls disagree on the merits of national standards. While Duncan has said that homogenizing educational standards nationwide is his single most important goal while in office, Balls has just pulled the plug on the U.K.’s 10 year experiment with national reading and math strategies. He told the media:

I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies to something which is essentially being commissioned not from the centre but by schools themselves.

The problem with saying that every 5th grader in the nation should learn the same things at the same time is that all 5th graders are not created equal. Some are better at math than reading. Some the reverse. Some are quick learners across the board. Some are slower. To deny this is ridiculous, but to acknowledge it is to admit that homogenized standards in a system that groups students rigidly by age is educational malpractice.

Even if kids were all identical automatons, national standards wouldn’t drive excellence. It is the incentive structure of the free enterprise system that has driven progress in all the fields that have actually progressed – not externally-imposed standards.

What America needs for an educational renaissance is to release schools and families from the shackles of monopoly, and re-inject the freedom and incentives that kindle innovation and efficiency. Sitting 50 million Jills and Johnnies down on a conveyor belt that drags them all through their studies at the same pace makes no sense.

Public Schools Are the Future of Charter Schooling

For years we’ve been told that charter schools are the future of public schooling. The reverse is true.

The pattern in publicly funded education, both domestically and internationally, has always been one of increasing regulation over time, and of the triumph of producer interests over the interests of parents and children. Public schools in the late 1800s had considerably more autonomy than do most modern charter schools. Over time, public schools have come under the sway of centralized bureaucracies dominated by employee unions.

That same pattern is playing out in the charter school sector. As the Associated Press reports today, the American Federation of Teachers has just signed several more collective bargaining agreements for charter school teachers in New York City and Chicago. Meanwhile, federal education secretary Arne Duncan has been calling for more government “accountability” (read: “regulation”) for charters, singing from the union’s hymnal. From the AP:

AFT president Randi Weingarten said the administration’s push for more charter schools must come with stricter regulation.  “You can’t do one without the other,” Weingarten said.

Duncan struck the same tone Monday, saying that only high-quality charters should be allowed to operate.

If you want to know what charter schools will look like in a generation or so, just look at the public school status quo.