Topic: Education and Child Policy

Better Than NCLB? That’s Not Saying Much

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the intended successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, is better than the law it would replace. That is what many analysts are saying as they hail the legislation as a good step in the right direction. But let’s be honest: you couldn’t set a bar much lower than NCLB. And there are some potential problems that could make the ESSA just as dangerous as the law it would supplant.

To be fair, the ESSA is, overall, probably better than NCLB, and it may well have been the best compromise possible given political reality. Most notably, it eliminates NCLB’s uber-intrusive requirement that numerous groups of students make “adequate yearly progress” on state tests lest schools be subject to a cascade of punishments. It also tries to keep the Secretary of Education from requiring the use of specific curriculum standards such as the Common Core, though it should be noted that the Core was pushed not by the letter of NCLB, but funding from the 2009 “stimulus” and Obama administration NCLB waivers that were almost certainly illegal.  

It is in responding to the power grabs of the current administration that the ESSA may fall, in practice, very short of actually eliminating executive – much less federal – control over the public schools. The bill would keep federal requirements that states have curriculum standards – indeed, “challenging” standards – and tests, and hold schools accountable for performance on them. Moreover, while the bill says the Secretary shall not “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over state standards, it also says that the Secretary must approve state accountability plans. In other words, as I’ve written before, it does not appear that the Secretary can state specifically what a plan must have, but the Ed Sec could potentially veto plans that he deems inadequate until – wink, wink – he gets what he wants.

Will Nevada’s Education Savings Account Benefit the Poor?

Perhaps the most interesting development in education policy this year has been Nevada’s adoption of the first education savings account program to offer nearly universal eligibility. Students who attended a charter or district school in the previous year are eligible to have a portion of the state funds that would have been spent on them instead deposited into an account that they can use to purchase a wide variety of educational goods and services. By empowering families with more alternatives to the generally low-performing district schools, the ESA program is also a pressure relief valve for Nevada’s severely overcrowded schools.

However, although low-income families have the most to gain from the ESAs, it appears that higher-income families have been the first to apply for the accounts. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports:

Overall, half of the nearly 3,100 applications submitted as of Oct. 28 list an address in a ZIP Code among the top 40 percent of median households in Nevada. That’s in contrast to just 10.7 percent of applications from households with median incomes in the bottom 40 percent.

It’s important to note that these are not the final ESA enrollment figures. As Matthew Ladner of the Foundation for Excellence in Education pointed out, these are merely the “earliest of the early adopters.” At the time of the Review-Journal report, Nevada families still had more than two months to apply for an ESA before the program commenced. Nevertheless, opponents of parental choice have seized on the development:

“It’s what we expected,” said Sylvia Lazos, policy director for the education reform group Educate Nevada Now [which is suing to end the ESA program].

The ESA program “was not tailored to low-income parents. It was not tailored to parents with children in (low-performing) schools,” she said. “With every program of this nature, it’s just the reality that affluent and high middle-income families are always in the best position to take advantage of government programs.”

Yet nowhere is this more true than in the government schools. Because the government assigns students to district schools based on the location of the home their parents can afford, wealthier families have access to district schools that are safer and higher quality than those to which low-income students are assigned. It’s not resources that account for the difference in performance – Washington, D.C. spends nearly $30,000 per pupil for one of the worst school districts in the nation. Culture certainly plays an important role, but so does the ability to exit.

AZ School Officials Oppose Higher Public School Spending

What might explain this unusual turn of events?

Allow the WSJ to explain: Arizona governor Doug Ducey has come up with a plan to spend $2 billion more on public schools over the next decade–without raising taxes. According to his plan, the money would go directly into the classroom, rather than though the public school bureacracy’s normal funding process.That’s a big deal in Arizona, which spends a smaller portion of its education budget in the classroom (54%) than is typical of other states (61%).

The [negative]reaction to Ducey’s plan seems to be spearheaded by Michael Cowan, the superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, Arizona’s largest district,who launched an email and robocall campaign to turn parents against the proposal.Why? Well, naturally: “for the children.” How preventing an increase in classroom spending might help children may not be obvious to everyone,so the WSJ helpfully offers an alternative explanation for district officials’ opposition: “Mr. Ducey’s plan disrupted the usual coalition of teachers unions and public school districts, leading some in the K-12 establishment—those administrators and union officials who have a way of soaking up dollars while doing little for students—to take the unfamiliar position of objecting to new education funding.” either that, or, somehow(?), “it’s for the children.”™

If only there were a system for organizing economic activity under which revenues are most easily raised by better-serving one’s customers or by attracting additional ones. And if only that system had been shown to work in education  just as in other fields.

Academic Freedom, Conformity of Opinion, and the Student Demands

Of the demands being made by protesters in the current wave of unrest on American campuses, some no doubt are well grounded and worth considering. Some of them, on the other hand, challenge academic freedom head on. Some would take control of curriculum and hiring out of the hands of faculty. Some would enforce conformity of thought. Some would attack the rights of dissenters. Some would merely gut the seriousness of the university.

Last night I did a long series of tweets drawing on a website which sympathetically compiles demands from campus protests – – and noting some of the more troublesome instances:

  • From Dartmouth: “All professors will be required to be trained in not only cultural competency but also the importance of social justice in their day-to-day work.”
  • From Wesleyan: “An anonymous student reporting system for cases of bias, including microaggressions, perpetrated by faculty and staff.”
  • From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “White professors must be discouraged from leading and teaching departments about demographics and societies colonized, massacred, or enslaved under white supremacy.”
  • From Guilford College: “We suggest that every week a faculty member come forward and publicly admit their participation in racism inside the classroom via a letter to the editor” in the college paper.

My series drew and continues to draw a strong reaction. Now I’ve Storified the tweets as a single narrative, including some of the responses. Read it here (cross-posted from Overlawyered).

NCLB Compromise Looking Pretty Bad

Is pre-kindergarten part of elementary and secondary education? By definition, no. But according to preliminary reports about what is in a compromise to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act – really, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a preschool “competitive grant” program will be added to the law. And that’s just one of several troubling items that will reportedly be in the final legislation.

One hallmark of good lawmaking are laws that are easily understood by the people, and larding on lots of items not germane to the topic of a law is one way to move away from that democratic ideal. Adding pre-k to the ESEA lards on, though as I’ll discuss in a moment, apparently the preschool addition isn’t all that will heavily complicate the legislation.

The bigger problem with expanding federal funding and reach on preschool is that the evidence is preschool has few if any lasting benefits, at least that have been rigorously documented for any large, modern efforts. Infamously, that includes Head Start and Early Head Start, which the federal government’s own studies have found to be largely impotent, and in the case of Early Head Start, potentially detrimental to some groups. The compromise would apparently also keep the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which federal research has also shown to be impotent or even counterproductive, but at least it is k-12.

New Study on Higher Education Aid

The U.S. Department of Education spends tens of billions of dollars a year on subsidies for higher education. Federal Pell grants are more than $30 billion a year, federal student loans are about $100 billion a year, and grants to colleges and universities are $2.5 billion a year.

College aid is growing rapidly, which is imposing a rising burden on taxpayers. And the subsidies create numerous harmful effects, as Neal McCluskey and I discuss in our new study posted at Downsizing Government.

A key concern is that government money comes with government control. There is increasing pressure to top-down plan America’s higher education system from Washington. As we’ve seen with health care, K-12 schools, disaster aid, transportation, school lunches, and many other activities, federal subsidies invariable end up being the vehicle for central planning.  

This is a big threat to the future of higher education, as our study explains. When the subsidies start flowing, the do-gooders in Washington just can’t keep their hands off. Regulatory manipulation is just too tempting for the politicians and bureaucrats, who hide their big-government impulses behind conservative-sounding phrases such as “standards” and “accountability.”

Even with its problems, the American postsecondary education system is the best in the world. Driven by consumer choice and competition between independent institutions, it has an unmatched vibrancy. However, increasing federal control and subsidization from Washington is creating a serious threat.

Efforts by the current and prior administrations to micromanage accreditation and other aspects of higher education threaten to undermine the system’s diversity and flexibility. The waste and bureaucracy of top-down federal control is exemplified by the regulatory juggernaut of education’s Title IX, the gender discrimination rules.

As we conclude in our study, the best way to avert rising central planning is to cut, and ultimately end, federal subsidies for higher education.

Score One for For-Profit Colleges This Veterans Day

There is nothing easier or seemingly more popular in higher education than bashing openly for-profit colleges. (I use “openly,” by the way, for a reason.) If you burrow into the demographic and funding weeds, however, you’ll see that proprietary schools are likely no worse, as a whole, than any other sector of uber-subsidized higher ed. And now Gallup has produced a little more good news for these beleaguered schools, to the extent that any news from our bloated Ivory Tower is good: For-profits seem to do a better job of serving veterans – at least from the vets’ perspective – than public colleges and, depending on how you slice the data, nonprofit private colleges as well.

As the table below shows, when veterans rank how well they feel their schools understood their needs, the percentage giving a 4 or 5 – the top scores – to for-profit schools beats any other sector, and at just the 5 level only nonprofit private institutions surpass them. Comparing for-profit and public schools, for-profits get more 4s and 5s by a 15 percentage point margin.

It’s probably not a mystery why this is. For-profits are more nimble than public colleges, and their desire for profits may actually – get ready – make them more responsive to the needs of the students who buy their services. Yes, there are bad for-profit actors – though the extent to which that is the case is unclear – but maybe on the whole they work better for students than lumbering, impersonal public institutions that get big taxpayer subsidies upfront. At the very least, that’s what this evidence suggests. Not that evidence has mattered much in this debate so far.