Tag: teachers union

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.

Least Shocking Education News of the Year …

The Washington Post reports that Michelle Rhee is on her way out of the DC Public School system:

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will announce Wednesday that she is resigning at the end of this month, bringing an abrupt end to a tenure that drew national acclaim but that also became a central issue in an election that sent her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, to defeat. Rhee survived three contentious years that made her a superstar of the education reform movement and one of the longest-serving school leaders in the city in two decades. Student test scores rose, and the teachers union accepted a contract that gave the chancellor sweeping powers to fire the lowest-performing among them.

No man or woman, mayor, chancellor or superintendent can significantly and permanently reform the government education monopoly. It is unreformable. Rhee’s tenure and modest success underscores this fact. Entrenched interests regroup, respond, bide their time, and reformers move on or are shoved along.

We’re all still waiting for Superman in DC and across the nation, and it reminds me a whole lot of waiting for Godot. Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and all the rest of the celebrated reformers clearly aren’t Superman, and the whole reform conversation is far past absurd.

Only systemic reform that creates a market in education will bring sustained, continual improvement. Try looking a this for a sustainable bite out of the system.

President: “We Need More Teachers.” Reality: “Yoohoo! I’m Right Over Here! Hellooo!”

This week, President Obama called for the hiring of 10,000 new teachers to beef up math and science achievement. Meanwhile, in America, Earth, Sol-System, public school employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment for 40 years (see chart), while achievement at the end of high school has stagnated in math and declined in science (see other chart).

Either the president is badly misinformed about our education system or he thinks that promising to hire another 10,000 teachers union members is politically advantageous–in which case he would seem to be badly misinformed about the present political climate. Or he lives in an alternate universe in which Kirk and Spock have facial hair and government monopolies are efficient. It’s hard to say.

This Is Sparta!

…Sparta, New Jersey that is. Like their fellow citizens in 54 percent of school districts across the state, the people of Sparta rejected their local district’s proposed budget yesterday. That’s the highest rate of school budget rejections since 1976, according to the New Jersey Star Ledger. Why? Taxpayers are tired of the relentlessly increasing per-pupil cost of public schooling at a time when their own household budgets are under pressure. It helped that popular new governor Chris Christie recommended that voters reject their districts’ budgets unless the teachers unions agreed to a one year salary freeze. [HT: Instapundit]

If this keeps up, voters might just decide to dump the government monopoly approach to schooling in favor of an education system that offers families far more choices while dramatically reducing costs.

DC Vouchers, Democrats and Teachers Unions

The Washington Post ran an incisive op-ed yesterday by Kelly Amis and Joseph Robert on the DC voucher program. As they noted, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is calling on the Senate to restore funding for the program which was terminated on a nearly party-line vote by Congress last December.

A few Democrats (Dianne Feinstein and Robert Byrd) have joined with Lieberman, but the rest of the party has apparently decided that producing better educational outcomes for poor kids at one quarter the cost of public schooling is not politically advantageous.

As Amis and Robert point out, private schools are far less unionized than the public school sector, so giving families an easier choice between the two will likely eat into to union revenues. And teachers union revenues end up disproportionately in the political piggy banks of Democrats.

The only thing that will change this situation is if voters decide they’ve had enough of such craven, Machiavellian politics, and vote the bums out. And some Democrats do indeed already seem to have had enough.

Teachers Union Channels Teen Talk Barbie

“Math class is tough!”  –Teen Talk Barbie

Political scientist Jay Greene bravely decided to read the new NEA paper that is billed as showing that “Teachers Take ‘Pay Cut’ as Inflation Outpaces Salaries.  Average teachers’ salaries declined over the past decade.”

But a funny thing happened when he reviewed the study: it didn’t support the NEA’s own claim. Here’s Jay:

The only problem is that this is not what the data in the NEA report actually show.  In Table C-14 “Percentage Change in Average Salaries of Public School Teachers 1998-99 to 2008-09 (Constant $)” we see that salaries increased by 3.4% nationwide over the last decade after adjusting for inflation…. I can’t find a single table or figure in the report that would justify the headline and claims in the press release.  But when the Ministry of Truth speaks, who are you supposed to believe — them or your lying eyes?

Of course the real reason that public school labor costs have risen so much in the past 40 years is not that salaries have skyrocketed, but that employment has. We now have 70% more staff per student than we did in 1970, and students’ scores are not a whit better for it at the end of high school.

Would the NEA be happy if we gave every teacher a raise but returned to the staff/student ratio of 1970? I doubt it. It would drastically cut the union’s dues revenues.

In any event, the union’s impact through collective bargaining, as I wrote in the Cato Journal recently, appears to be negligible. Where they make a difference is in effective lobbying to preserve the existing government education monopoly. The monopoly is great for public school employee unions, but lousy for kids, parents, and taxpayers.

How the Washington Post Covers Education

Yesterday, the president proposed yet another big increase in federal education spending. The Washington Post quoted ”senior White House officials” as saying that the spending would boost “the nation’s long-term economic health.”

I sent the story’s authors a blog post laying out the evidence that higher government spending hasn’t raised student achievement, and that if you don’t boost achievement, you don’t accelerate economic growth.

Today, there is an updated version of the original WaPo story. It no longer mentions the stated goal of the spending increase. It doesn’t mention that boosting gov’t spending has failed to raise achievement, and so will fail to help the economy.

But it does cite a single non-government source for comment on the president’s plan: the Committee for Education Funding. The Committee is described by the Post as “prominent education advocates,” and as an organization that “represents dozens of education groups.”

Here’s how the CEF itself measures its accomplishments: “The… Committee [has] been very successful in championing the cause of increasing federal educational investment. Through strong advocacy… [it has] won bipartisan support for over $100 billion in increased federal education investment over the last five years.” Its members, if you haven’t guessed already, include virtually every public school employee organization you can name, including, of course, the national teachers unions.

That’s the source, the one source, the Washington Post asked to weigh in on a new federal education spending gambit.

I asked the author of the revised version of the story to comment for this blog post. At the time of this writing, I’ve received no response.