Topic: Education and Child Policy

Government Involvement Should Be Expelled

On Friday, I went to see Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the new Ben Stein movie about a perceived Darwinist conspiracy to crush Intelligent Design and its adherents. Of course, I went to the film because of public schooling’s tendency to amplify conflicts over hot-button issues such as ID, and no, the fact that going helped me to fulfill a life-long Ebert-wannabe dream of watching movies for “work” really had nothing to do with it. Honestly.

So what does Expelled have to say about the problem of public schooling—including public higher education—forcing all taxpayers to pay for schools which only those who can exert the most political power will ultimately control?

Not much, at least not directly. Stein and company seek to portray a Darwinist conspiracy throughout all of science, whether practiced in settings public or private, secular, or even religious. So, for instance, at the beginning of the film Stein meets with several presumptive victims of ruthless Darwinist orthodoxy, a group that got drummed out of institutions ranging from the very public Iowa State University, to private, Baptist, Baylor University, for their ID thoughts. The problem of government choosing which science to promote is touched on—one pro-ID interviewee mentions getting locked out of National Academy of Sciences grants—but barely.

Despite this inattention to the government-science nexus, there is a useful public policy lesson that can be teased out of the film. Expelled’s climax—the Luke-Darth Vader showdown, if you will—shows Stein grilling noted atheist and God Delusion author Richard Dawkins on whether he believes in a god and how he thinks life on Earth originated. The former exchange comes across as pure time-filler as Stein hectors Dawkins about whether he believes in a litany of deities and to each one Dawkins replies in the negative. The latter bit, however, shows Dawkins conceding that there is no firm conclusion about how life on earth—the very first cell—originated. It exemplifies a simple truth: There are still big, open questions in the study of human origins, just as there are mammoth open questions in all fields of science.

So what does this mean? It means that in our huge ignorance no supreme human power—no government—should ever declare one unproven answer completely unworthy and another officially correct. It means government should not demand that one unproven answer be taught in schools (though as I’ve written that is impossible as long as government runs schools), nor should it decide for all taxpayers what broad research will get funded and what won’t. Not only does that tend to put all our eggs in a single scientific basket that might turn out to have a gaping hole in the bottom, it too often makes political, not scientific, considerations supreme. Indeed, it has been politicization of science that has often allowed questionable scientific theories to survive.

But does this mean we should force all schools to teach about, and governments to fund, alternatives to evolution, like Intelligent Design, or for that matter such dubious fields as alchemy, or divining-rod theory? Of course not! Some scientific theories have much more merit—and supporting evidence—than others. But it must be scientists, along with voluntary, private backers, and parents and college students with free educational choice, who decide what science is good enough to learn and fund. In other words, it must be “natural” scientific selection—not selection driven by politics, or the slickest, most rabble-rousing documentary—that determines which theories live, and which die.

A Nation at Risk

Cato Unbound is right now hosting a discussion about the legacy of A Nation at Risk, the report that 25 years ago this month famously warned that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education was threatening “our very future as a Nation and a people.” The report also, by the way, was invaluable in setting the political stage for the subject of a Cato forum to be held tomorrow, “Markets vs. Standards: Debating the Future of American Education.”

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a former New York Times education columnist, penned the lead Cato Unbound essay, which is responded to by FLOW CEO Michael Strong, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess. I encourage you to read all the essays, and just thought I’d throw in my two cents.

I should begin by saying that I think Rothstein is right on a couple of points.

First, I agree that A Nation at Risk started a flood of ill-considered railing that the United States was heading to economic irrelevance as a result of our education system. As Rothstein notes, this simple correlation—mediocre education equals nation of burger-servers, great education equals everyone a CEO—ignores myriad variables outside of education that influence economic success. Unfortunately, Rothstein identifies mainly bits of economic kryptonite as the real keys to economic success, especially beefing up protections for labor unions, but his basic point that education is far from the only force shaping the economy is a fair one.

Rothstein is also right to declare that the extent to which American education was in decline in the years leading up to ANAR was somewhat exaggerated, based mainly on a drop in SAT scores that could at least in part be attributed to wider ranges of kids taking the test. In contrast to the impression Rothstein gives, however, slumping SAT scores was far from the only evidence ANAR offered to back its assertion not that American schools were stuck in reverse, but in hopelessly mediocre neutral. ANAR offered a long list of indicators of educational woe, including poor American standing in international comparisons, functional illiteracy among adults, and numerous indicators that 17-year-olds—the final products of American education—were in very poor educational shape, a condition that remains today.

Clearly, stubborn mediocrity and decline are two different things, with the former perhaps a bit more tolerable than the latter. But stagnation is bad, and especially hurts because, as Michael Strong points out, not only have we gone nowhere, we’ve stood pat while hugely increasing education funding:

Richard Rothstein cites evidence that public schools have improved math scores at age 9 and 13, but not age 17. Thus whatever gains are being made in elementary and middle school are being lost in high school. Since 1973, K-12 educational expenditures have more than doubled; on a per-dollar basis, “investing” in public education now shows a thirty-five year trend of steadily decreasing returns.

So while Rothstein is probably right that ANAR—or, more accurately, many of the people reacting to it—somewhat overstated our educational decline, the report’s conclusion about immovable mediocrity is much harder to refute, and the dreadful return on investment undeniable.

One of the highest-profile movements focused on overcoming this seemingly permanent state of mediocrity is school choice, which at its most basic level would let parents choose where their children are educated and attach education money to the kids. Were this universally applied, our recalcitrant, regulation-strangled, special-interest-dominated public schooling system would be bypassed and schools would be forced to compete and innovate. In practice, however, choice has been implemented in very hamstrung forms: choice only among public schools, charter schools that must be approved by government and often remain shackled to rules and regulations, and voucher programs open only to relative handfuls of kids. As a result, choice has not come close to creating the real, innovation-driving, educational free market necessary to truly transform American schooling

In perhaps the most interesting wrinkle of the Cato Unbound debate, Hess offers what seems to be a not-so-veiled critique of co-respondent Sol Stern, whose recent City Journal piece pushing choice to the reform margins has caused a big stir in education policy circles. Hess appears to rebuke Stern for failing to consider all that is needed to get a real market up and running, a problem that bedevils school choice supporters and detractors alike:

[S]ome who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.

Hess is absolutely correct that for too long choice supporters have touted each and every little voucher or charter school proposal that’s come down the pike, and some have lost their choice enthusiasm when those little programs have produced little change. But the problem is not choice itself. The problem is that choice must be big to overcome well-nigh immovable American public schooling, and getting people to realize that is going to take a lot of time and, probably, a lot more failure.

It’s Hard to Compete with ‘Free’

The Fordham Foundation has just released a new report documenting the closure of 1,300 Catholic schools since 1990 — shifting some 300,000 kids into the public sector at a cost to taxpayers of about $20 billion. 

It’s hard to compete when the other guy (read: state-run schools)  spends about twice as much per pupil but gives his service away for “free.”

A proper education tax credit program would level the financial playing field between government and independent schools, dramatically increasing parental choice and saving taxpayers a bundle in the process.

And wouldn’t it be nice if we gave parents the means to escape schools like this?

Florida Teachers vs. Poor Parents

As I blogged a couple of weeks ago, Florida’s largest public school employee union, the Florida Education Association, is threatening a lawsuit to kill that state’s scholarship program for poor kids. Why would they choose to go down this road, mined as it obviously is with the potential for bad publicity? 

I explain that today in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed, giving the FEA a little of the bad publicity it so richly deserves in the process.

New at Cato Unbound: Can the Schools Be Fixed?

In April of 1983, the Ronald Regan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education released a landmark study, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” which diagnosed the ills of American education and set forth a list of prescriptions for fixing what seemed to be flailing educational system. It’s been twenty-five years now since the report. So how are we doing? And what, if anything, should we be doing differently? These are the questions we’ll be asking in this month’s edition of Cato Unbound, Can the Schools Be Fixed?

This month’s lead essay comes from Richard Rothstein, a former national educational columnist for the New York Times and research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, who offers a fresh, critical assessment of “A Nation at Risk” and the lessons we can draw from its fate. The public schools aren’t as bad as many think, Rothstein argues, and the report oversold the importance of the education system for America’s economic competitiveness and success.

Today, Michael Strong, co-founder of FLOW, education entrepreneur, and former charter school principal, chimes in with a stirring brief for the freedom to innovate in education.

Stay tuned for contributions from Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who recently made waves with his article “School Choice Isn’t Enough,” and from Frederick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

If that’s not enough for all you education reform junkies, be sure to tune in to next week’s Cato forum on “Markets vs. Standards: Debating the Future of American Education.” You’ll learn something.

Census Bureau Misleads Media

Bureau of the Census press release issued on April Fool’s day (!) bore the title: “Public Schools Spent $9,138 Per Student in 2006.” Lots of media folks fell for their gag, including the Washington Times and the Examiner.

Here’s the joke: the Census Bureau’s own Excel file reports total spending in public schools for 2006 as $526,648,505,000 (sheet “1”, cell G9). It also reports total enrollment as 48,380,507 (sheet “18”, cell E8). Are you seeing anything hinky yet? Divide the first number by the second and you get $10,886that is total per pupil spending for US public schools during the 2005-2006 school year.

What gives? The headline number used by the Bureau was NOT total spending per pupil, it was only “current operating spending” per pupil – that means it excluded capital spending on building upgrades and new construction as well as interest on debt (see Table 8 of their .pdf report). The word “current” in this sense refers not to the period in which the data were collected but to the categories of spending encompassed.

The case of DC is even more egregious. The Census reported, and the media picked up, the “current expenditure figure of $13,466, but presented it as though it encompassed all spending. In fact, if you divide the Census’s own total DC spending figure by its own total enrollment figure, you get a total per pupil spending figure of $18,098 for Washington, DC in 2005-06

But even this figure is a misleading understatement of per pupil spending in district schools, because it lumps district schools together with (thriftier) charter schools. Take that into account and you can begin to see how total spending in district schools has ballooned to the $24,606 I reported yesterday.

If the Bureau of the Census wants to discharge its responsibility to serve the public with accurate, meaningful statistics, it should stop misleading the media with ambiguous language hooked to ”current” spending figures and explicitly give both “current” and total spending figures. It should also offer estimates of total spending at the time of their press releases, extrapolating from historical trends, because their data are always outdated by two or more years, and hence always understate spending at the present time.

The Real Cost of Public Schools

In yesterday’s Washington Post I pointed out that DC public schools are spending about $24,600 per pupil this school year – roughly $10,000 more than the average for area private schools. There wasn’t room to explain those estimates in the Post, so I provide the details here.

DC public schools receive funding from several sources: the District’s local operating budget, special supplementary operating funds from the DC City Council, capital funding for building improvements and construction, and the federal government. To arrive at the real total per pupil funding figure for the district, all of these funding sources must be added up, excluding funding aimed at charter schools or higher education, and the resulting total must be divided by the number of students enrolled. Here are those numbers, with sources:

The latest available version of the 2007-08 local operating budget for DC (.xls file) can be found on the website of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. The relevant line items for our purposes are:

DC Public Schools:                            $806,251,000
Teachers’ Retirement System:        $6,000,000
“State” Education Office:                 $28,753,000
Department of Education:                 $2,367,000

Before summing these up to get the local operating subtotal, we have to subtract inapplicable funds from the “State” Education Office item. About $5 million of that funding is for higher education programs, and the agency’s k-12 services cover charter schools as well as district schools. To account for this, I first subtract the $5 million and then pro-rate the remaining balance based on district schools’ share of local public school enrollment (.707), for an adjusted SEO value of $16.8 million. That brings the total local operating budget for district schools to: $831.4 million. [Note that the SEO was recently reorganized and renamed “the Office of the State Superintendent of Education,” but while some responsibilities have shifted from the district level to the new OSSE, bringing their funding with them, this reorganization does not change the overall combined operating budget for the two entities.]

Additionally, public school chancellor Michelle Rhee requested, and the DC City Council granted, $81 million in supplementary operating funding, as reported by the Washington Post.

Capital funding for 2007-08 is $218 million, down from $223 million last year, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Federal funding for District of Columbia public schools (.xls), including charter schools, is $103 million according to the Department of Education’s website. Pro-rating this to exclude charter schools (a rough estimate that should understate federal funding received by district schools), we are left with $72.7 million. Under the Washington, DC school voucher program, however, DC public schools are granted an additional $13 million dollars annually (a “sweetener” added to the bill to ease its passage through the legislature), bringing the total up to: $85.7 million.

The grand total of DC public school funding for 2007-08 is thus $1.216 billion. Divide that by the OSSE’s official enrollment figure of 49,422 students, and you arrive at an estimated total per pupil spending figure of $24,606.

To estimate the total per pupil spending in DC area private schools, I began by entering the tuition data from the Washingtonian’s 2007-08 Guide to Private Schools into a spreadsheet, eliminating boarding-only and pre-school-only institutions. In schools that gave ranges of tuitions for ranges of grades from 1 through 12, I averaged the published tuitions to obtain a single figure for each school. For each school that published tuition ranges covering pre-K or K through the regular grades, I estimated a weighted average tuition that leaned more heavily on the high end of the tuition range. This was to avoid skewing the average tuition inadvertently downward by overweighting the kindergarten or pre-kindergarten tuition figures, which are sometimes (but not always) considerably lower than tuition for the regular grades.

Once I had average published tuition figures for all the schools, I adjusted them downwards to account for the fact that DC area schools offer tuition assistance that reduces the actual average tuition paid to about 89.4 percent of the average published tuition (according to a study by the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington). I then multiplied this real average tuition by 1.25 because in earlier research in Arizona I found that, on average, 20 percent of total private school funding comes from non-tuition sources (mainly parish subsidies and alumni donations). [This adjustment probably overstated total per pupil spending in DC private schools, because I had already eliminated from consideration all special subsidized tuition rates for members of the faith or members of the parish at religious schools, counting only the full tuitions charged to members of other religions.]

The resulting figures for private schools were:

Average tuition actually paid: $11,627
Median tuition actually paid: $10,043
Estimated average total per pupil spending: $14,534
Estimated median total per pupil spending: $12,534

So the average total per pupil spending in DC area private schools, some of the most elite private schools in the entire nation, is about $10,000 less than the comparable figure for DC public schools. The difference is about $12,000 when we consider the median total spending in private schools, because the average is skewed upward by a few grand institutions with lavish buildings set on forested acreage.

Despite their vastly higher spending, DC public schools are often in abysmal physical condition. If the bureaucracy cannot maintain its buildings with all these funds, and despite having caring and dedicated leadership, we should not be surprised that it fails at the more challenging task of offering a good education.

The real cost of this dysfunctional system is not measured in dollars and cents but in the hopes and futures it has destroyed. As I’ve said before, our inner-city school districts have become slaughterhouses of dreams. For America to live up to its meritocratic promises, all families must be afforded an escape from these schools, and offered the educational choice currently enjoyed only by the elites.